19 Mar 2013

Easterhouse: harsh reality behind benefits ‘revolution’

Social Affairs Editor and Presenter

When Iain Duncan Smith came to Easterhouse in Glasgow more than a decade ago, he pledged to change the system to help some of Britain’s poorest. But the change has not been what residents hoped for.

The boarded up tenements which are threaded through the Easterhouse estate are at once a reminder of how much has changed here and yet how much is still the same.

Tens of millions have been spent on this estate in the east end of Glasgow over the past decade.

The new houses, with their pretty brickwork and little front gardens, have without question transformed the look of much of Easterhouse.

But so much for where people live – what about how people are living?

Welfare ‘revolution’

The government wants to transform that too. This is where its welfare revolution began. When Iain Duncan Smith first came here more than a decade ago he was said to have been moved to tears, genuinely shocked by the levels of poverty and deprivation he witnessed.

He vowed to change that, to make a difference. And he won many allies here in what is traditionally hostile territory for the Tories.

The community workers who had devoted their lives to trying to help the families of Easterhouse welcomed his promise to transform the benefits system, to help people back to work, to bring to an end the sort of poverty which saw life expectancy in some parts of the east end stretch only to 53 or 54 years of age.

But the transformation his reforms are bringing is not what they had hoped for.

The simple truth is, she says, things are going backwards.

Rosemary Dixon, is the chief executive of Fare, a grassroots charity set in the heart of the Easterhouse estate, and the place where Iain Duncan Smith first came to learn more about the area.

Today, she shows me into the unused disabled toilet, a makeshift home for the “nappy bank” they are now operating. People who can’t afford to buy a pack of nappies can come here and buy a handful to get them to the end of the week.

There are plastic bags of emergency food supplies here too. It’s the best Fare can offer the increasing number of families who are coming to them, unable to afford the very basics. In the long term Fare are now looking at setting up a proper food bank.

It is deeply depressing for Rosemary. These are the sort of services they haven’t had to run for years. The simple truth is, she says, things are going backwards.

Have Iain Duncan Smith's welfare changes helped the residents of Easterhouse?

So it’s depressing, but it’s also disappointing for Rosemary too. She is clearly very supportive of Iain Duncan Smith, having met him in Easterhouse on numerous occasions. She says she believes he does understand what poverty has done to many of the people on the estate, he does realise how tough their lives are.

But when I ask whether she thinks his reforms reflect that understanding, Rosemary reluctantly shakes her head and says no. The speed and substance of his reforms, she argues, seem to have forgotten the impact they are having on real people.

People like James perhaps. James has learning disabilities and volunteers everyday at a nearby community centre.

He lives alone but is looked after by a close circle of neighbours, constantly popping in to make sure he is alright. He has an extra bedroom though and now faces the prospect of having to move away from that support because of the new under-occupancy rules – or bedroom tax.

Read more: How are benefits changing in 2013? 

Or people like Denise Kelly. She’s a single mother who must now look for work as her daughter is five. She wants to set up her own jewellery business but under the government’s new benefit sanction regime. She has had her benefit cut, as the Jobcentre decided she wasn’t looking hard enough for work. As she waited for the hardship payment to come in, she says she was left with nothing. No money for food, no money for the electricity meter, nothing.

Those couple of days were terrifying, she told me. The fear of not being able to provide for her daughter is something she never wants to feel again. She is desperate to come off benefits and find work. And that is the point of the government’s reforms: make life on benefits tougher, to encourage – or, some would say, force – people back to work.

Meet Paul Devlin. He’s 50 but could pass for very much older. The cynics would say, it is not hard work which has caused it. The last full-time work he can remember doing is the youth training scheme he was put on when he came out of school 35 years ago.

He now spends much of his time looking for work, and being seen to look for work. The new benefit regime means he has to show that he is applying for six jobs a fortnight.

Are tougher benefits the answer?

What’s wrong with that? Most would say nothing. Why shouldn’t he be forced to look for work in exchange for his benefits?

But is making life on benefits tougher going to make it more likely that he will actually find work? Or that, as promised, work will help transform his life?

There are some things that making benefits tougher can’t easily change. Paul went to a special needs school and left with nothing. Apart from a few weeks here and there spent doing security work, he has nothing to put on his CV. Does he think he will work again?

“Hopefully,” he says. But his face tells a different story. His face suggests hope ran out for Paul a long time ago.