Examination of Witness (Questions 210
WEDNESDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2001
210. Ladies and gentlemen, can I reconvene the
public evidence session this morning and welcome Bob Holman who
is a distinguished writer of many years' standing from the community
scheme at Easterhouse in Glasgow. Bob, we have some questions
we would like to pursue with you as we are really interested in
your experience with the project based approach to dealing with
some of these problems and your own work in Easterhouse is in
that direction. It might help if you would explain a little bit
about the background and history to the project, how it is going
and how it could be developed in the future.
(Dr Holman) Thank you. I do not want
to repeat the kind of heavy academic stuff that Gary Craig and
others have done. I am not into that. To give an example, I was
at our youth club last nightI must be the oldest youth
club leader in the landand a woman came in. She came in
because her teenage girl was at the youth club so she felt quite
easy about coming into our premises. It turned out that she is,
in catalogues alone, paying back £60 a week plus some other
debts and she is absolutely at the end of her tether with worry
and what she is going to do and so on. This really sums up what
our project is about: for people who are in enormous debt, including
Social Fund debts, in that we as a community project want to help
people who are in enormous debt but we want to do it in a positive
way and in a way which emphasises mutuality. For instance, in
the case of this woman, whom we know very well and in fact is
very good with youngsters, we will probably offer her some sessional
work as a youth club worker, making sure of course that it does
not take her above the amount that she can earn. This will help
her in a small way to pay off some of her debts but it will also
mean that she is not being treated in a charitable way because
she has been putting something back into the community. That is
the nub of our work. Our project is called FARE, Family Action
in Rogerfield (our district) and Easterhouse, it started 12 years
ago and, significantly, it started just by residents coming together
worried about play facilities, worried about drugs and so on.
They formed this project which started with a half time worker,
that was me, working from our flat, and now we work from six hard-to-let
flats which we got because there were some drug deaths in them,
and we now have five full time workers, one half time worker and
three sessional workers. The main thrust of our project, like
any community project, is services which people want: a breakfast
club for kids, a cafe, holidays150 kids taken away every
year (that is where my hair went white). Basically you are dealing
with collective services but you cannot avoid meeting individual
need, people who are completely poverty stricken. In 1999 we had
a visit from the Charities Advisory Trust, in particular Hilary
Bloom, one of the Lottery Commissioners, who resigned by the way,
and they were so appalled by the poverty and the debt in the area
that they offered us what they called a hardship fund. Our committee
had a very long debate about whether they should take this on
board because it has got the obvious implications that it is changing
the relationships between you and people. You are giving out money
to individuals, it is a charitable role which we had not taken
on before, not an involvement role. In the end we did take it
on. Within a few months the £2,000 they gave us was gone.
In another few months the next £2,000 was gone. We have just
come to the end of the third £2,000, so we have gone through
£6,000 in a very short time. What we are doing is dealing
confidentially, as far as it can be confidential, with people
who are in desperate need. If I could just run through the kind
of need, I think they will ring a few bells with you. Of the 52
families we have helped there are firstly emergencies which require
immediate help. In some ways this corresponds with a crisis loan.
If I give one example, a lone mother had her purse nicked at the
shopping centre. She reported it to the police. They could not
do anything about it; somebody just grabbed the handle of her
bag, but all her money had been in it. She had no money for four
days until her Giro came. We could immediately tide her over for
the weekend. Fourteen grants were made for unanticipated situations.
I mention in my paper a lone mother whose teenage son unfortunately
was murdered, stabbed to death last year in a gang fight, which
is bad enough, but then you receive a funeral bill for £1,840.
She did receive a Social Fund grant under the funeral section
of £1,200, but she still had to find £640. Her weekly
income is £65. You cannot do it. She was absolutely up the
wall but we were able to help her, not for all the outstanding
amount but for half of it. The third type of case coming to us
is for basic domestic items, Social Fund Budgeting Loans, you
might say. Of the 52 families whom we have helped, it is worth
noting that 72 per cent of them were in receipt of Social Fund
loans. In other words, getting a Social Fund loan does not solve
your problem. Indeed, as Gary Craig and others have bored you
to tears with, I would think, because you are paying back you
therefore have an income which is below the minimum which the
Government says should be a minimum. I come across people who
are paying back £3 a week, £5 a week, £12 a week.
It may not sound a lot but then if you put that against the cash
in hand they are getting every week after that has been deducted
then you have got people who are getting £79 a week, £85,
£110 and so on. What is amazing is that some people who are
paying back these Social Fund loans do cope for a while. They
buy food, they buy clothes, they buy washing up liquid. The crunch
always comes when a larger item appears. You have to buy new trainers
for your kids, the school outing, you need a new fridge, or sometimes
it is even our project. We run very cheap holidays, £25 to
£35 for a week away, but if you are going to a woman with
a Social Fund loan who has got three kids and you are asking for
£75 plus pocket money, she cannot do it. It is a kind of
crisis for that woman. People in that position, as was so well
said this morning, then seek other forms of credit. That is of
course going on to the private market and 54 per cent of the people
we have dealt with had both a Social Fund loan and were in serious
debt to private lenders. I will just remind you what they are,
the people I have met anyway. There are those we call the cheque
firms, Shopacheck and the Provvy which you heard about this morning.
As I live in the area I meet some of these sales people. They
first of all put a pamphlet through the door, "Would you
like to spend £500 at the local shops?" Then they call,
and it is very much a face to face interview. They come over as
very friendly people. They will then offer people a cheque or
a voucher which can be spent or cashed, usually in a prescribed
shop. You just go along and you buy your £300 worth of goods.
But then of course you have to start paying back at 100 per cent
interest, and I have known up to 180 per cent interest. You have
a little book which the chap ticks off each week as he calls and
expects you to pay. That is one form. The second are catalogues,
and again, in our area anyway (it may be different in other areas),
it is done on a personal basis. Somebody brings you a catalogue
and says, "These trainers will be good for your kids"
and so on. The third source is shops. We are privileged in Easterhouse
to have Crazy George's. I meant to bring a leaflet but I mislaid
it on the way, which just says, "No credit checks",
"Unemployed people welcome", "Instant credit",
and indeed there is instant credit. You can walk into Crazy George's.
You will not be asked if you are unemployed or if you have other
debts. You can walk out with or they will deliver a large television
set or a washing machine, on the day. You do not have to put down
a deposit, but the final cost of paying back is over double the
initial advertised price of that item. That is an APR of 29 per
cent, plusand this is the catchthe service charge.
The fact of not having an enquiry into your creditworthiness is
conditional upon you agreeing to pay the service charge, so you
are paying back double for your fridge or whatever. These are
the kinds of people we are seeing day in and day out. There is
a woman who lives right opposite our project. I got her to tot
up her income and expenditure. She has got a Social Fund loan
and she has got other debts. If you tot up her income and her
expenditure, her income is 68p above her expenditure in a good
week. If any extra item comes up she has had it. She has reached
the stage now where some of her goods are being re-possessed.
Given all that, what can our project do? What can a community
project do? It cannot get people out of poverty. I do not pretend
that. We are about alleviating poverty. It is up to you, I hope,
to bring up the recommendations for dealing with poverty in the
Social Fund. I do want you to consider if you will that local
projects, which are basically run by local people, can help with
their hardship funds. They have got these advantages. One is that
our projects are run by people who know what life is like at the
hard end. We know the loan sharks. We know the drug dealers. We
know that there are parents in our area who are supporting teenagers
who are receiving no benefits or very low benefits because they
have dropped out of the system. There is a big problem here which
is not recognised, that there are teenagers who are now not officially
in any system. Who is supporting them? Their Mum and Dad who are
drawing Income Support. It obviously leads to further family tensions.
The second advantage is that we can act quickly. I mentioned in
my written evidence about a drug user whom I have known for several
years. She used to come to our club when she was a young girl.
She has now got some children of her own. She got in debt to a
dealer and he said to her, "Here you are, love. First shot
free". Next week, "Have some more". But then he
turns round and says, "Oh, only the first shot was free.
You owe me £600" with accumulating interest. Then the
drug dealer says to her, "You cannot pay me back. To put
it bluntly, why don't you prostitute to make the repayments?"
It was at this point that this young mother came to us and what
we had to do was pay for her to leave the area and go and live
with her mother in another part of Scotland. We could act quickly.
We could do that within a day or two. The third advantage is that
the system does not necessarily depend upon poor people approaching
us. Because we are in the area we see what is happening. For instance,
recently two people who are in work, a low paid couple, have taken
on to look after, the baby of their son who has been sent to prison.
The mother has abandoned the child. They are having difficulties
in getting a guardian's allowance through, so we suggested to
that couple that our hardship fund should make a grant for a cot
and a pram to help them in the initial stages of looking after
this baby. The last advantage I want to bring to you is simply
this. Often being in debt to the Social Fund and to other debtors
is not just a matter of money. It is about people who are completely
demoralised because they are in debt, who are reaching the end
of their tether and whose families may break up. Right next to
us in a flat a couple were moved into a hard-to-let, which Archie
will know about in Scotland, basically because they are £1,200
in rent arrears. Do not ask me how they accumulated that. Then
they had this chip pan fire which destroyed the cooker and some
of the other furniture. She had a Social Fund loan. The couple
were absolutely devastated by it. What happened then was, (a)
our volunteers cleaned up the kitchen, all the smoke and the debris
that was there, (b) from the hardship fund we then purchased her
a new cooker and our project leader went with the couple to select
it, and (c) because of this we were able to draw her children
into the clubs. They were new to the area and they had not been
before. The woman said, "At last I am seeing some light at
the end of the tunnel". We are now going to work with her
towards paying off the rent arrears as our project leader is an
expert in debt counselling. To conclude, what I want to say is
would you as a Committee say that local community projects can
help people in debt to the Social Fund and other debts, but help
them in a positive way, not a charitable way, involving people.
But here is the big thing: our projects are also poor. Our particular
project does not get any money from the Government, it does not
get any money from Glasgow City Council, which is almost bankrupt,
so we are always struggling for grants. If we had more money,
if we had proper funding, I have this dream that we could buy
at cost cookers and washing machines so that if people had a Social
Fund loan we could sell it to them much more cheaply. We have
a cafe. It is not open all day. We sell cheap fruit and vegetables.
That could be extended. This is the most important thing: we could
employ more local people. These very people who are in debt, these
very people who have Social Fund loans, we could employ them to
run the food co-op, the baby co-op, at a modest but proper wage.
They would come off benefit and their wages would be put back
into our economy. They would not be taken out and spent in the
west end of Glasgow, as happens with so many people who work in
Easterhouse. That is what I want to bring to you today.
211. I have listened to your eloquence before
and that has actually more or less wiped out most of the questions
we had to ask you. Your written evidence is very helpful as well;
it is a very powerful statement. Let me ask you this: you say
that you get no official Government or local authority funding.
On what does the structure sit? You must get some support. Is
it charitable money that you have been able to capture because
of the uniqueness of the project?
(Dr Holman) Yes.
212. Supposing we say that this is a way forward,
a model. Can it be translated to other areas? Is there a uniqueness
to the community at Easterhouse that you have been living with
for so long? Are people like you who have an academic perspective
as well as a practical social work background essential to the
project? Is it sui generis to you? Could you take this
to Liverpool or Manchester and be confident that it would succeed
in the way that it has at Easterhouse?
(Dr Holman) People say that it depends upon me, but
it does not. I am now semi-retired and I look after my grandson
two or three days a week and so I do much less, but the project
carries on completely. Four years ago I completely ran out of
money myself and had to work in Manchester for a year. The project
still carried on.
213. But you are talking about moving into five
or six hard-to-let premises and working and offering part-time
jobs to people so that they can work out of poverty and that fits
in with part of the Government's agenda as well, but you cannot
do that on fresh air. Where does this core funding come from?
What is the project budget?
(Dr Holman) The budget is about £130,000 a year,
less than the Prime Minister gets, employing six and a half people.
Where does the money come from? It comes from various sources.
I think I have exaggerated in saying Glasgow City Council is almost
214. Some of it comes from project money from
the Government's regeneration funds.
(Dr Holman) No. The Glasgow City Council do let us
have the six flats at half rent. We are arguing for it to be free.
The main source of income is from charitable bodies like Gulbenkian,
Llankelly, Cadbury, and I think it is quite interesting that a
couple of them have, quite unusually, entered into a long term
relationship with us.
215. That is very unusual, is it not?
(Dr Holman) Yes, not into a three year relationship
which is the usual thing.
216. That would be an essential part of the
success of any parallel project elsewhere. You need to get core
funding from somewhere.
(Dr Holman) Long term funding.
217. Do you think it is important that this
should not be institutionalised government funds or local authority
funds? Is it important to have freedom, if you like, from bureaucracy?
(Dr Holman) Can I just take you up on the number of
community projects? The Community Development Foundation estimates
that two and a half million people are involved in local projects.
The database at Community Links has only got 1,500 but that is
just the well known ones. There are thousands of community projects,
most of which work modestly away and do not have me writing about
them in the newspaper. The capacity is there; of that there is
no doubt. I would like to see it institutionalised in the sense
that I would like to see not all the money but certain amounts
of money coming from government to local projects, but here you
have to have a bit of a precedent because if a local project like
ours ever approaches government they say, "You have got to
go to your local authority". You go to your local authority
and they say, "We do have a voluntary budget but now we give
90 per cent of it to Dr Barnado's or the National Children's Home
because we are contracted with them to run some of our duties",
so community groups are getting less now from local authorities
than they did before.
218. Are you not involved at all with the new
Neighbourhood Renewal Fund investment?
(Dr Holman) Yes.
219. You are talking about millions of pounds
there. In Blackpool, which is a lot smaller than Glasgow, we are
getting £6.5 million over the next three years. The Government
announced only fairly recently a doubling of the amount of money
that was going into the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. We are going
to get back to the Social Fundsorry, Chair, we are going
off at a tangent but it is an important point. The Government
is in the process of setting up the new local strategic partnerships
where yes, the council is the leader of that strategic partnership
and it is working with people who already have partnership working
arrangements with them but the whole point is to allow the local
community groups such as yours to have a voice and get into the
system and access this new money. What I do not know is whether
north of the border there is a slightly different arrangement.
Have you been involved in these new initiatives?
(Dr Holman) Indeed. There is a slightly different
arrangement. It is called the Social Inclusion Network in Scotland,
SIN for short. I have also read what you said about partnerships
in the House. I would be critical in the sense that I think that
large partnerships consult community representatives. They do
not necessarily give long term funding to local community groups.
Also, there is money available through the regeneration project
but you have got to bid for it, so it is tied to an agenda which
you do not necessarily want to follow. What I am arguing for is
that local groups, community projects, should be given amounts
of money but they decide the agenda, they are in control of it.
I would also add that if there is anything wrong with the urban
regeneration programme I take some blame as I used to be Hilary
Mrs Humble: Have you recently read a speech
by Bev Hughes, the Minister who has been leading on these new
local strategic partnerships? From what I read in that the new
money allocated is going a long way down the line of what you
are advocating. That is new and all I say is, keep an eye out