This is a guest post from Councillor Marc Francis:
This week’s news that the energy price cap is likely to be lifted again to an eye-watering £3,600 by next year shows that the current cost of living crisis is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Nothing can come close to the suffering of the Ukrainian people over the past six months. But the trebling of energy bills over the space of two years and the way those costs feed through into the rocketing price of day-to-day essentials, will leave hundreds of thousands if not millions of our own nation’s poorest households struggling to put food on the table and heat their home this winter.
Here in Tower Hamlets, many of our neighbours were already suffering a cost of living crisis long before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That was the inevitable consequence of a decade of austerity, cuts to Social Security benefits and the erosion of workers’ rights. But tens of thousands more are now being drawn into this crisis too, and those already suffering will be left facing impossible choices how to spend incomes that won’t stretch anywhere far enough.
The former Chancellor, Rishi Sunak’s belated package of support in May includes a number of genuinely helpful measures, especially the one-off payments of £650 for those on means-tested benefits and smaller additional sums for pensioners and disabled people. However, as Money Saving Expert, Martin Lewis, has made clear they just respond to April price hike, not those to come in October and next year.
Our tradition here in the East End is that local government will do its best to step in and help when central government is failing our people. In that respect, Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s own package of measures agreed at his Cabinet meeting on 11th July is a good one. Labour councillors agree with his decision to use some of the Household Support Funding provided by the Government to give £100 back to families for each child on free school meals and for those on Pension Credit too.
But we also believe the intensity of this crisis demands that Tower Hamlets Council goes further and faster than this. As the recent Budget papers that went to Cabinet now make crystal clear, this authority is sitting on very healthy reserves and is projected to receive income that more than meets current expenditure. In other words, we have the capacity to help a wider group of residents suffering at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis. That is why Labour councillors last week put forward a motion at the Full Council meeting containing a significant package of extra support.
This included increasing the Standard Utilities Allowance from £5 a week to £15 a week for disabled people who are now paying for Homecare or Day Centre charges, saving them up to £500 a year. It also called for a £500,000 top up to the Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) pot to fill the hole left by Government funding cuts so we can continue to help renters struggling to pay their landlord as a result of the Benefit Cap, Bedroom Tax or caps on Local Housing Allowance. And it called for a £500,000 Council Tax Hardship Fund to help those struggling with these bills and £200,000 for the Resident Support Scheme. Perhaps most importantly of all, it allocated £100,000 to those local Foodbanks who are doing such incredible work to keep our poorest residents’ heads above water.
These measures are a serious proposition. Some of them were put forward by the Overview & Scrutiny Committee under the previous Labour administration. They are things the Mayor can do straight using his wide-ranging Executive powers if he wants to. In the weeks ahead, we will be putting forward more ideas. Some might say it was unrealistic for us to imagine the Mayor would agree to them in the heat of a Full Council meeting. And sure enough his Aspire Party councillors used their majority in the Council Chamber to vote them down. But if the Mayor and his team have better ideas, let’s hear them because much more needs to be done right now, not in six or 12 months’ time.
If you would like to find out more about our call for an emergency budget to protect Tower Hamlets’ poorest residents, please check it out at Tower Hamlets Labour (thlabour.org)
Councillor Marc Francis (Labour)
Bow East ward
London Borough of Tower Hamlets