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Peckham Citizens Advice bureau: At the sharp end, where desperate people go for help

The centre is struggling to meet demand with benefits problems up 41 per cent on last year. Emily Dugan meets some of those visiting it

The queue outside the shop front of 97 Peckham High Street makes it look like the most popular store in south London. But this is no shop; this is London’s busiest Citizens Advice Bureau, where thousands of people at the sharp end of Britain’s latest round of welfare reform come for urgent help.

“It has got so bad the shops next door complain”, says Chris Green, chief executive of the bureau. “When we open each morning there’s a queue of about 30 people out the door and along the street.”

The centre is in a narrow Victorian terrace and on Wednesday morning around 50 people are squeezed into a sweltering waiting area the size of a living room. The number of people descending on this tiny bureau is up 8 per cent annually, with 7,561 people seeking help over the last year. For Southwark’s two CABs, of which Peckham is one and Bermondsey the other, there were 9,013 new benefits issues in the last financial year, up more than 41 per cent on the previous year. 

Benefit changes brought in two months ago have only made them busier. First the so-called “bedroom tax”, with housing benefit reduced for anyone deemed to have “extra” bedrooms, despite a chronic shortage of single-bed properties. Then the “council tax reduction” scheme began, which, contrary to its reassuring title, means many welfare recipients now pay council tax on top of everything else.

British Eritrean Metkel Tesfay, 24, is waiting patiently with his mother, Genet Berhane, 58. He is studying mechanical engineering at Portsmouth University and came back for the summer holidays to discover his mum was being charged for his bedroom.

“She’s having to pay £40 for my room but I’m only at uni during term time. My father isn’t around and nobody has an income in the house: my brothers are all students. My mother is a housewife and she has mental health problems and arthritis, so she can’t work. She says the new charge will lead to starvation because we don’t get what we need to eat.”

The onslaught of welfare changes has left many in the borough feeling desolate. “There’s a sense of hopelessness,” says Sally Causer, development manager for the bureau. “People say ‘What can we do? What’s going to happen?’ When someone on £70 a week is asked to pay £2 in council tax, that’s £2 they don’t have. It’s impossible.”

Ernestina Frimpong, 50, a single mother, lost her job in February as a passenger assistant taking children to school. She has been applying for work since then, surviving only on parenting benefits to keep her and her nine-year-old daughter above water. In her hand is a heavily overdrawn bank statement which shows the gravity of her situation in neat columns. In the “money in” column only the £56.04 and £20.30 of her child tax credit and child benefit appear. All the “money out” is essentials: a water bill, a phone bill and groceries. The only thing missing is rent. “I haven’t been able to pay it, the rent is really piling up now. I don’t know what to do.”

Ernestina hopes that the bureau will have an answer for her and it is possible they will. Southwark’s two CABs secured £4.6m for their clients last year, by helping them claw back money with advice on everything from backdated benefit payments to writing off loans.

The people of Peckham have good reason to feel they are guinea pigs in the Government’s welfare changes. Since last July, Southwark has been one of six areas used to test out a proposed direct payment system, where housing benefit recipients are given money to pay their rent themselves, rather than it going directly to the landlord.

The results so far make alarming reading. Rent arrears for Southwark tenants using the new payments are 9 per cent higher than those whose payments go straight to the landlord and, as of March, 15 per cent of those on the scheme have been switched back to landlord payment because of arrears.

The system will be used nationwide from the autumn, as part of the new universal credit, but despite the poor results, there are few signs that the Government is changing its plans. The trial has now been extended and one CAB staffer commented: “They didn’t call it a pilot, they called it a “demonstration project”, because they’d already made up their minds”

William Benskin, 41, was put onto the new direct payment scheme. He was in a hit-and-run accident in 2001 and has been out of work ever since. Sitting stiffly in one of the waiting room’s chairs, he says: “I was supposed to start making automatic housing payments in April but I cancelled the direct debit before it even went out. I don’t have enough money in my account to make direct debits work, because one bill can send me overdrawn. I live off £125 a fortnight and that goes on electric, gas, food, bills and everything else. I’ve got other debts and try to live off a budget and there’s nothing left.”

For the last two months he has had to pay council tax with his employment support allowance (ESA), but now his meagre budget is likely to shrink further. “They’re trying to take me off ESA now, but I’m appealing it. I’m still in medical care all the time. I’ve had problems with my neck, back and knee ever since the accident.”

Number 59 in line is “Tricia”, 42, who has been in and out of hospital for a decade after several bouts of leukemia left her with major organ failure and the need for constant blood transfusions. To add insult to near-fatal illness, her husband walked out a few years back, leaving her with £90,000 of mortgage debt after their house was repossessed.

She has tried to return to work several times over the last 10 years, but her illness has kept her from being able to sustain a job for more than a few months at once. Now she’s frightened her benefits are about to be cut. “A month ago I got this letter saying I’ve got to fill out this form, and that if you’re on disability living allowance you should move to ESA. I took it to my doctor two weeks ago to sign and he said, ‘Let me warn you, they’re going to stop your benefits.’”

“Jenny”, 55, has type-two diabetes with heart and lung complications, but says she has had no ESA for a month after her medical certificates were lost. “Just look”, she says, gesturing around the room, which is still packed two hours after the drop-in session should have ended, “This Government is penalising everybody, especially the vulnerable and the sick”.