Guest Blog by Councillor Sanchia Alasia, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham
The current cost of living crisis and the severe austerity measures have been felt quite strongly among our residents. Unemployment remains high in the borough where I live in Barking and Dagenham, and welfare reforms as well as the ‘bedroom tax’ means that households that were already struggling are finding it more difficult to manage their finances day to day.
The council’s Health and Adult Services Select Committee which I chair has recently concluded a six month in depth review, looking into the impact of the welfare reforms on mental health. The committee found that increased financial pressures have led to more people suffering from stress, anxiety and depression. Our resident’s mental wellbeing has been affected by continuing to live in hardship and uncertainty and we have seen increased numbers of people presenting to GPs and other health colleagues with stress-related symptoms.
The Committee has had a particular focus on what crucial support is available to our residents during these troubled times. Where do people suffering from emotional distress go to for help? How do our local services cope with increased demand when our council is being forced to make cuts to so many of our services? Because our review found that the recession has had a negative impact on our residents, it is imperative that we ensure that they receive the support they need at an early stage, so that they are able to cope. Early intervention is important and to that end our council is proactive one. We have done a significant amount of assertive outreach work to engage those already identified to experience cuts to their benefits and work, to establish early solutions such as gaining employment or downsizing their home. There are already in place a number of services that offer information guidance and advocacy to help inform residents of their options and provide guidance around financial hardship and benefits advice including practical support in the shape of our local credit union, which offers saving plans and a much cheaper way to borrow money. We are also delivering over the next few months a number of ‘mental health first aid’ training course, which provides increased awareness to professionals and residents across our borough, delivered by Mental Health First Aid England.
Our Committee’s review comes at a time where the government’s welfare reforms and the introduction of the spare room subsidy are having a severe impact on household incomes, both on those who are working and those who are unable to work for legitimate reasons. The Committee felt that it was important to understand the snowball effect of all the benefit changes coming into force in close proximity: the bedroom tax, housing benefit cap, universal credit and loss of disability allowance, so that we and our stakeholders could help residents deal with the changes in a holistic way.
We will continue to measure the needs of our population and the impact of the welfare reforms and the actions we have taken as well as continued monitoring of key local services to ensure that they remain fit for purpose including our specialist advocacy, local emergency support services and credit union.