I am the patron of Harrow Law Centre. Gary Younge’s article in The Guardian last week brings up to date what I wrote about it last year.
The stories he tells are only too familiar. I heard similar stories when I visited Hackney Law Centre last week. And South West London Law Centres, which won this year’s Solicitors’ Journal award for the best legal aid unit in the country, is trying to help similar clients on a more or less daily basis. All this in prosperous London.
Why, oh why, are services like this so badly funded? And how may the result of Thursday’s General Election improve things?
Fartun Osman is in a tight spot. She, her husband and their four children, aged seven, five, three and one, live in a private one-bedroom flat in Harrow. Her eldest daughter suffers from asthma and eczema.
“She has a lot of allergies,” says Osman. “Sometimes she can’t sleep. Sometimes she can’t do anything.”
They want to move. But her husband works on zero-hours contracts when he can and he hasn’t been employed since Christmas. Lettings agencies won’t register them; the council has downgraded them to a lower priority. So while her daughter wheezes, they wait and worry.
“My religion teaches me to believe that one day things will be better,”
says Osman, 34, a Muslim refugee from Somalia who is now a British citizen. She has a degree in accounting; her husband has a master’s in business studies. They never imagined a life like this.
“I don’t want my children to live their life like I lived my childhood, because it wasn’t safe in Somalia. But if it was safe I would go home. But so long as we are here and so long as I am healthy, I have to say Alhamdulillah [all praise be to Allah] and never give up.”
Pamela Fitzpatrick, who runs the law centre where Osman has come for help, says such cases are all too common.
“I have friends who went to see I, Daniel Blake and cried,” says Fitzpatrick, referring to the Ken Loach film about a widower in his late 50s who is failed by the benefits system. “I thought it was a very powerful film. But when you work in this sector you don’t cry because you see it every day.”
Spend a day in the Harrow Law Centre speaking to clients, or a morning at the local Citizens Advice getting a sense of the kinds of cases coming through the door, and you can see how the confluence of austerity, scarce housing and low pay has created a general sense of anxiety and large pockets of desperation. The Tories, and Theresa May in particular, are associated here with a lack of fairness that may stand them in good stead when contemplating Brexit negotiations but not when dealing with vulnerable people.
Most voters, including those in our focus group, raise housing as the main issue in Harrow, and relate it to the issue of pay. But the nature of the housing issue depends very much on whom you talk to. At one end of the spectrum are the extremely vulnerable: people living in cars and gardens – or Steven Friel, 48, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder. He lives in a private flat that has no heating or electricity and a leaking ceiling and he cannot get the landlord to fix anything.
On the other end are the people who worry about where their children will be able to live. At the law centre, Fitzpatrick, a Labour councillor whom we have met in previous despatches, says she has seen an increase in the number of professionals coming in seeking help.
“We’ve seen teachers and nurses struggle with housing problems in a way that we would never have done in the past,” she says. “They just can’t survive in London on those salaries. It all comes down to a lack of security and stability.”