Thursday, November 30, 2006

The State of Blair's Britain

Lucy Mangan
Thursday November 30, 2006


Evicted (BBC1) was a documentary forming part of the BBC's No Home initiative, looking at poverty and homelessness in Britain. It focused first on 13-year-old Charlotte and her family - three siblings, a mother suffering from depression and literally tearing her hair out, and a father who had had to stop work as a bus driver to look after his wife and children. They were evicted from their house by a landlord who wanted to sell the property. Then they lived in two B&Bs and a hostel. When the latter closed down they were truly roofless, and were taken in by a friend - nine people in a two-bedroom house. Charlotte did her homework on the bathroom floor and cried herself to sleep "most nights". Then the friend's housing association found out about the sharing and threatened to evict both families if they didn't leave within seven days. The greatest fear was that the children would get taken into care. Four-year-old Conor homed in, as four-year-olds will, on the practical aspects of the possibility. "What would they take us in, though?" he asked Charlotte and his big brother. "How do they get us there - do you know?" They laughed uneasily. He turned to the camera crew instead. "Do you know? Do you? Do you?"

There was a lot I didn't know. I didn't know, for example, that if one council department fails to pay a family's housing benefit on time, another department will apply to the court to have them evicted and that the court will then do so, without letting the family take nappies for the baby or a child's medication before they change the locks. I didn't know that it was the family's responsibility to try and counteract this mind-boggling lack of communication by running between god-knows-who, trying to explain the situation to everyone's satisfaction. Chloe's family didn't know that either. So they spent weeks living in a B&B after being found, in a moment of injustice striking even in a programme filled with such moments, intentionally homeless. Or, as the woman from the council put it, "The decision we are looking at is intentionality." Always a useful distancing device, jargon, when you have something devastating to say.

Still, at least the advent of Chloe and her brothers and sisters gave 14-year-old Sarah someone to play with at the B&B. She is an old hand there now. She knows that if you put a tin of beans on the radiator in the morning, they will be warm enough to eat for tea. I didn't know that, but that's maybe because I didn't know that you're not allowed to have a microwave - or any other cooking facilities - in temporary accommodation. These are Sarah's GCSE years and she would like to be at school, but it would mean four buses a day and her mum doesn't have the money.

Charlotte et al make the three-hour, 50-mile round trip every day to their school in Minehead from their emergency accommodation in Taunton, found for them by a local authority after the charity Shelter threatened to sue the authority. For the first few days, they don't know whether they will still have somewhere to stay by the time the afternoon bell goes. Meanwhile, Chloe's school won't send her any homework while she waits for a place at a new school near her temporary housing. It's the insults added so casually to injury that make you want to batter the screen.

Eventually, Chloe's family finds a private let that is willing to take DSS. Between the two parents and four grandparents they scrape together the £450 deposit required and move in. Several months later, the council admits that it should never have evicted them in the first place. This doesn't seem to be followed by any compensation or restoration of their far more affordable original house.

After two years and eight moves, Charlotte and her family are given a council house. They get their stuff out of storage and Charlotte looks forward to life without being called a tramp and a low-life by other girls at school. Sarah, seven months on, is still in temporary accommodation, has missed her GCSEs and still hasn't returned to school. It is more than likely that the cracks Sarah fell through have widened into a chasm from which she will be lucky ever to climb out.

This was a brilliant, understated film by Bafta-winning director Brian Woods, and it made you want to scream and scream and scream. Somebody should. The families themselves really don't have the energy any more.

Unless families like this are saved from being treated worse than stray dogs, the country will continue its rapid decline. The system fails but nobody is ever accountable. I have come across poor kids who go to school after being forced to look after disabled parents at home, without any help. Traumatised and depressed, they wander the corridors avoiding the misery of being bullied by other kids. They often smell as they are unable to maintain their own personal hygiene and this makes the bullying worse. Schools bracket them as SEN and provide some school facilities and attention, but sadly can do little to counteract the massive psychological damage they are already suffering in their private life. It is a criminal failure by the authorities in their duty of care towards the poor and their children. For all the hype and good intentions of the 'Every Child Matters' agenda, it will not be worth a jot if it cannot counteract this basic failing.


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