“A Visit to CHAI – An Invaluable Local Service”

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Sarah Boyack MSP

This month we were delighted that Edinburgh MSP, Sarah Boyack, took time out of her busy schedule to pay us a visit and hear more about what we do.  During her visit we shared some of our concerns around the UK Government’s Welfare Reform agenda, and she heard directly from one of our service users of the difficulties that often flow from ill health issues.

You can see what Sarah made of her visit on her own blog:

 http://www.sarahboyack.com/?p=1730

More Welfare Reform … and some ‘kite flying’

Parliamentary Report

The Coalition Government’s Welfare Reform agenda has never been very far from our thoughts over recent months (see previous blog posts on this subject).

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 finally passed into law in February after a short rear-guard action by members of the House of Lords, who sought to mitigate some of it’s more controversial elements.  We’ll start to see more of the detail involved in the ‘flagship’ policy areas of Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment over coming months as the regulations which put the meat on the bones of the primary legislation start to roll out.

In the meantime the steady stream of less dramatic tinkering with the welfare system goes on.

At the start of this year the Single Shared Accommodation Rate of Local Housing Allowance was extended to people under the age of 35 (from 25:  see our EHAP service website for details).  The effect of this for most of the 150 – 180 tenants affected in Edinburgh is that they will need to move from their current accommodation into a shared flat – or run up unsustainable rent arrears, and face eviction.

The start of the new financial year – 6 April – saw another financial blow to thousands of working families with a change in the Working Tax Credit rules, requiring working couples to now work a minimum of 24 hours per week between them (up from 16 hours).  This change will force couples to either find an additional 8 hours of work, or risk losing a significant chunk of their household income.   The timing of this particular change is unfortunate – and baffling.  On the one hand, of course, it could hardly be a worse time, economically, for hard-pressed couples to be trying to find those crucial extra 8 hours.  On the other hand, the proposed Universal Credit – which will replace Working Tax Credit from October next year – will quite deliberately not have these same restrictions in terms of hours worked.  It seems politically odd, therefore, to bring this change in at this point, when all it may achieve is to apply 18 months of financial pain to those adversely affected.

While those changes are now with us, another one that is perhaps yet to come was flagged up by the Policy Unit at Number 10 just before Easter:  the withdrawal of Housing Benefit from Under-25’s (see Guardian article).

Hopefully this will prove to have been only a piece of ‘kite flying’ to test reaction – however, nothing surprises anymore when it comes to this Government’s Welfare Reform plans.  The LHA changes referred to above have effectively meant that, up until the age of 35, the State’s expectation is that if you are a single person you should flat-share.  This new suggestion would imply that the Government feels that ‘young people’ should remain in the parental home until they are 25 years old (when, presumably, they can then join together and share a flat until they are 35).  Most concerning, though, would be the impact of this on those already living independently – and particularly on those for whom ‘going home’ is simply not a realistic option.

The underlying narrative of the Government’s Welfare Reform agenda is that people who can work, should work – and that unemployment is not to be rewarded.    Fair enough – assuming that the jobs, and support to get them, is out there.  However, these most recent changes – and this most recent ‘kite flying’ exercise over Housing Benefit for under-25’s – impact equally on those who are in-work, but who still require income and housing cost support because – for all too many – work simply doesn’t pay enough.  Eroding and, in some cases, completely removing these supports is counter-productive and lacks coherence and will only lead to increased hardship for those affected.

No doubt this is a theme we will return to in the months ahead …

~ ~ ~ If you think you are affected by any of these issues you can get advice from CHAI’s Advice Service (0131 453 6410) or Edinburgh Housing Advice Partnership (0845 302 4607)

Building Social Capital

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CHAI is currently engaged on a piece of project work aimed at tackling health inequalities and building social capital in Wester Hailes.  One specific aspect of this project involves working in partnership with two local Children & Families Centres, targeting Fathers who have varied levels of engagement in the care and support of their children, and who are subject to some degree of Social Work intervention.

But what exactly is ‘social capital’?  Well, one definition we can look to is:

The resources people develop and draw on to increase their confidence and self-esteem, their sense of connectedness, belonging, and ability to bring about change in their lives and communities.”1

Its about building the links and social bonds between individuals that enable them to develop strong networks, establish good levels of support and promote positive relationships.

The ‘Fathers Group’ is a vehicle through which we aim to build social capital among a group who can often feel marginalised on a number of levels.  Their engagement with the Children & Families Centres is often peripheral because they will not generally be the principal child carer and the contact arrangements with their children will often be erratic.

The focus of the Group has been to increase the confidence of the fathers to interact effectively with their children; to promote positive relationships within the wider family units; to develop a peer support network; and to provide a forum for the sharing of information and discussion of issues of common interest.

A groupwork approach has been developed in which the participants take a lead role in identifying the issues and activities they wish to focus on.  Some of the sessions revolve around facilitated discussions and information exchange between the men, others are much more interactive and activity focused:  all involve challenges of one sort or another – physical, mental and emotional.

Occasionally lightening the mood is always important in these programmes and a recent session saw the men decide to go on a group visit to the ‘SkyRide’ at Edinburgh International Climbing Arena.

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It’s still early days with the Father’s Group but the feedback from the men and from the staff at the Children & Families Centres has been very upbeat.

The fathers report increased confidence in their relationships with their children; the C&F Centre report increased engagement by the men with their staff and a general reduction in social work input around the families.

Ultimately the aim is to enable the men to have strong and supportive friendships and contacts to draw upon and that they have better community connections.  We also hope that the participants, who may have experienced inequality, will be better able to influence decisions that affect their lives and that of their community.

It’s all about building that social capital, and putting it in the bank.

You can see some more photos of the Father Group’s visit to the SkyRide on CHAI’s Facebook Page:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Community-Help-Advice-Initiative-CHAI/105152659549253

Note: 1 Social Capital, Health and Wellbeing: A planning and evaluation toolkit (Edinburgh Health Inequalities Standing Group)