This is the latest in a series of interviews I’m collecting from low earners in Tory Hammersmith and Fulham’s Big Society:
About a month ago, Notting Hill Trust tenant Johnny O’Hagan, 53, found a fat letter from Hammersmith and Fulham council in his morning post.
Hammersmith and Fulham council rarely writes to its poorer burghers to talk love and/or mercy. O’Hagan assumed the crash position as he peeled back the envelope’s fold.
He was right to worry. Opened, the envelope coughed out a pile of accusatory correspondence about a rubbish bag that O’Hagan had put out for collection a day before he was supposed to. His collection day is Wednesday. He put his single rubbish bag out on Tuesday. There were letters, closeups and wide-angled photographs of the offending bag sitting by itself outside O’Hagan’s home on Hammersmith and Fulham’s Leamore Street, and a threatening notice – complete with paragraphs in red ink – demanding payment of a fine.
Little wonder that Hammersmith and Fulham’s less well-off residents live in fear of their council. One strike, says O’Hagan, and you’re gone. He’s an exemplary tenant and touches often on this clean sheet: ‘I’ve been a [Notting Hill Trust] tenant for 15 years and I’ve never been in trouble.’
O’Hagan’s offense is poverty and ill-health, rather than attitude or a longterm love of life on the state. He was a manual worker for most of his working life – he started on the production lines in East Acton light-industry factories in the 1970s and 1980s, then spent ten years on the night shift at Sainsbury’s, unpacking West London’s frozens. He liked the routine and the regular work: he’s on the autism spectrum and prefers the beaten track.
He’d probably still be at Sainsbury’s, except that he had a heart attack on the job and went off sick, which led to the sack. Angioplasty followed, along with serious depression and a stint in Charing Cross Hospital’s psychiatric unit. Now, he collects an income support payment of about £90 a week and housing benefit for his £80 a week one-bedroom flat. He says he’s bored out of his mind. ‘I applied for dog walking, but they never got back to me. I’d like to work in a charity shop, or something silly like that.’
But enough of the laughs – back to the rubbish. Two days before he made his fatal collection-day mistake, O’Hagan woke up with feet and legs so painful that he could hardly walk. He went straight to his GP – he worries about arthritis and other permanent injuries, because he spent so much of his working life on his feet. O’Hagan’s doctor prescribed strong painkillers. They went to his head, so he decided to head off to bed. Before he went, he put his rubbish out. ‘I was out of it a bit. I got my day wrong.’
A couple of days later, the letter turned up. O’Hagan was shocked. These fines are heavy. The immediate demand for the single bag was £100, with a chance to get that down to £60 if O’Hagan paid within ten days. Both amounts were beyond him.
As for the £1000 fine that he faces if the council decides to prosecute for non-payment – well, forget that. Hopefully, the council will forget that: the costs (for councils) of taking people to court are exorbitant. Certainly, it seems that pursuing these fines is less about saving money than it is about terrorising citizens into handing over whatever they’ve got.
Eric Pickles is considering scrapping these fines and rewarding people who recycle (opponents of that plan say rewarding people for recycling encourages them to consume more). Hammersmith could choose to run such a scheme already, of course: unfortunately for O’Hagan, Hammersmith and Fulham prefers to prioritise in favour of revenue generation. It fleeces lower earners to keep council tax down. Vulnerable and disabled tenants have taken the council to court to fight the council’s various charges.
O’Hagan didn’t have £100, so his only option was to head down to the council offices on King’s street and ask staff to drop the fine. He left his contact details three times before he was able to talk to someone. He was told that he might be excused if he could give the council a doctor’s certificate. He went to the doctor, got his certificate and dropped it off at the council.
He hasn’t heard a word since, so he’s hoping that the whole thing is over. He says he’ll give it a couple of weeks and then relax. Been a tense few days so far, though. The last council officer he spoke to said he’d keep the doctor’s note just in case. ‘Do you know how much power do they have to take the money off us?’ O’Hagan asks. ‘Can they come into the flat?’