Big society: Hammersmith then and Tories now

From April 2007, we covered Tory Hammersmith and Fulham council as it started to dismantle Hammersmith’s voluntary sector.

Hammersmith’s voluntary sector funding cuts were barbarous.

Hammersmith & Fulman funding cuts demo

Hammersmith funding cuts demo

The council began with an in-year cut from £2.3m in the first half of the year to £1.9m in the second. A 26% cut was planned for 2008 to 2009. Organisations that served people who were unlikely to vote Tory, and/or presented a threat to Conservatism were at the top of the council’s blacklist. This was long before the recession and deficit ‘justified’ nuclear-grade cuts. Hammersmith’s was an ideological raid.


Over the next little while, yours truly and a couple of other journalists will be using real-life histories like the one below to compare Tory pre-deficit public services rhetoric with their current public services rhetoric. Our aim is to show you exactly what Big Society means to millennium-era Tories. The deficit has nothing to do with it.

Here’s a piece to be going on with (Big Society rating of f-all at the end):

April 2007: It was purely by chance that the Hammersmith Law Centre discovered that Hammersmith and Fulham council was about to cut the centre’s funding by 60%.

Centre lawyer Tony Pullen happened upon the report that recommended the cut when he was thumbing absentmindedly through a council agenda that had arrived in the centre’s mail. The report was called ‘Voluntary Sector Funding, 2007 to 2009’ and proposed that the law centre’s annual £261,000 grant be reduced to £159,000.

‘We hadn’t had any warning. We hadn’t heard anything from the council,’ Pullen says. ‘I don’t know how we would have found out if I hadn’t seen that report.’

It wouldn’t have been long before the cheques started to bounce. The report recommended giving voluntary groups that were due to lose funding just six months to organise ‘strategies’ and ‘contingencies’ before cutting them loose.

Pullen believes the council tried to keep the cuts proposals quiet to make formal opposition difficult. The

Voluntary services users at 2007 funding cuts protest

deadline for organising a formal deputation to speak at the Cabinet meeting was Monday 9 April which meant that the Law Centre had to try and find the ten local registered voters required to sign up for a formal deputation over the Easter break.

Pullen says that smaller voluntary groups that hadn’t heard about the cuts, or about the deadline for deputation requests, simply missed the window. Others had their deputation requests refused, on the grounds that their (necessarily rushed) written requests didn’t meet formal criteria.

‘It’s hard to accept that this is the way that the council is handling these groups,’ Pullen says. ‘Some of them have been working in their communities for more than 20 years.’

The law centre is one of those organisations – it has been providing free legal advice to the voluntary sector, local charities, tenants’ associations, local union branches and immigrants and/or people on low incomes since 1979.

The centre is staffed by 12 lawyers and has always punched above its weight. It has never been afraid to take on politically unpopular cases. The most notorious was that of the nine Afghan men who hijacked a plane in 2000 and held crew and passengers hostage in an airport standoff. The men argued that they took this extreme action to escape the Taliban.

An immigration appeal tribunal ruled that the men should be granted leave to stay in the UK on human rights grounds, but successive home secretaries put a great deal of effort into challenging that ruling. The Hammersmith law centre represented the men when then-home secretary John Reid tried to change their leave-to-stay status. Good human rights lawyers often clash with conservative administrations.

So do people who support black immigrants. Helena Ismail is the co-ordinator of longstanding Somali and immigrant support group Horn of Africa. The council proposes to cut all funding to her group (the group gets £55,000 a year to providing immigrants with welfare, benefits and housing support and advice).

Helena Ismail outside the Hammersmith Town Hall, April 2007

After serving her community for 15 years, she’ll be out of a job in six months.

She won’t even have a chance to speak to the cabinet meeting about it – her group is among those that had its application to bring a deputation turned down. Two of the ten signatories weren’t borough residents. Ismail says she found the process confusing and that the council could let her speak if it wanted to. She feels that she and her clients should have a chance to be heard before the cabinet closes their organisation down.

‘The work we do is helping immigrants integrate. They are people who have little English. They come from other countries, from war-torn countries, and they’re suffering and they find it very hard to work around the benefits and housing systems. We tell them who to talk to and we give them that support while they’re going through the systems.’

Horn of Africa’s work is not just about getting people onto welfare – it’s about getting them off welfare when they’ve settled. ‘A lot of the people we’ve helped in the borough now have jobs. They’re taxpayers and they’re homeowners.’

She doesn’t know where her client group will go when the service closes. ‘I suppose they will be told to go to the Shepherd’s Bush Advice Centre, or to Citizens’ Advice.’

Ismail says the problem is that the Shepherd’s Bush Advice Centre doesn’t have the capacity and has been threatened with staff and funding cuts itself in recent times.

Pullen says that while Citizens’ Advice is excellent, it doesn’t offer the ongoing representation service that organisations like the Horn of Africa or the law centre. In fact, the CAB often advises people who need legal representation to contact the law centre. Centre lawyers don’t just advise clients – they take on cases and represent people at court, tribunal and appeal.

Ismail is convinced she knows why her organisation is being disbanded. ‘[My clients] are immigrants. They’re Somalis. They don’t count. But they live in terrible situations. I had one woman in who was living in temporary accommodation, in a bed and breakfast. She was sick and her child was sick, because of the conditions they were living in. She kept bringing her child in and saying Look, look look. There were scabs all over the child’s body. It took me weeks to get them out of that place.’

Big Society rating: bugger all, really.

  • no consultation with groups or users – most heard they were losing their funding on the grapevine.
  • no option for local people to suggest priorities for community funding. Sector funding was reviewed by council officers and recommendations proposed by officers.
  • voluntary groups were not invited to speak to the council and people who did not understand how to submit a deputation request were not allowed to appear.
  • funding was removed entirely – local commissioning was not possible as a result.
  • In this together? No fear. The cabinet ran from the room when a packed April 16 public meeting got rowdy. Helena Ismail appealed to the cabinet to let her speak even though her deputation had been ruled out. The cabinet refused to let her talk and left the room when the crowd shouted in her support.

More soon.

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