Shelter’s plans to axe around a quarter of its frontline advice services and sack 105 staff could not come at a worse time, as the government’s cuts and changes to the housing benefit system will cause misery to millions.
Unite, the country’s biggest union, is concerned that the decision to close 10* face-to-face housing advice services across England is being rushed through too quickly at a time when the government’s welfare changes, which kick in from April, push ever greater numbers to seek housing advice.
Housing is the number one concern for millions of people – the government’s inability to get to grips with soaring rents, benefit cuts and a severe shortage of affordable housing is making life absolutely awful for people already in need.
The union recognises that the housing charity was placed in this position when the government slashed legal aid and council funding – Shelter alone has lost £3 million in legal aid funding – but says more must be done to save frontline services and staff.
Unite is calling on Shelter’s chief executive Campbell Robb and the board of trustees to put the closures ‘on hold’ so that alternative funding proposals can be considered, including diverting funds from additional spending earmarked for campaigns, helpline and digital advice expansion. Unite is also asking that any excess from Shelter reserves, which Unite believes to be about £7.9 million, be used to support face-to-face services during the period of the new legal service contracts (LSC).
Sally Kosky, Unite national officer, said: “When this government slashed legal aid and council funding it knew full well the consequences. You cannot starve organisations of funding, slash benefits and expect business as usual. The government has an obligation to provide help for those made desperate by its austerity obsession, and we’ll keep the pressure on to remind them of it.
“For the past 45 years Shelter has been the voice of some of society’s most vulnerable citizens. Pulling the plug on frontline services now, when the government’s brutal benefit cuts are about to hit, is a bitter blow for the staff and the thousands that rely on their advice.”
Danny Freeman, Unite officer, said: “From 1 April 2013, if you are threatened with homelessness or eviction in Cumbria, there will be nowhere to go – no one to speak to - to get the advice that may mean the difference between keeping your home or not. This is a desperate indictment of this government’s policies, but one that Shelter must find a way of resisting to ensure the invaluable face to face service continues.
“How many of the most vulnerable in our society, those that may have problems with literacy or whose first language is not English, will be able to sit down and access help via a computer or phone? According to Shelter’s own research, millions of families are struggling like never before to cope with soaring rents, benefit cuts and a severe shortage of affordable housing.
“Shelter’s chief executive Campbell Robb himself acknowledges: ‘That there is no substitute for the more detailed response face-to-face advice enables.’ We are urging Shelter to sit down with the union to discuss ways of saving frontline services and the staff who provide them for the many thousands of service users we help day in and day out.”
Unite says that Shelter risks becoming a ‘virtual charity’ as it abandons face- to- face advice services in more rural areas in favour of creating ‘super hubs’ in major city centres and online and telephone advice services.
Note to editors:
*On 31 March 2013 Shelter will close LSC funded services in Buckinghamshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Kent (Ashford, Chatham and Dover offices), Rotherham and Somerset and the Liverpool city council funded Liverpool Offender Support Service.
For further information contact Chantal Chegrinec, Unite communications officer, on 07774 146 777
- Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with 1.5 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.