Community Links

Community Links blog

The Benefit Cap: An Unequivocal Success?

December 16th, 2014

 photo CliffEdgeconsolidatedgraphic_zps78283dbf.jpg DWP published its evaluation of the cap on household benefits (Benefit Cap) yesterday, arguing that it has succeeded in its aim of incentivising people into work. Some of the commentary by the media has been laudatory; for example The Telegraph argued that the new figures ‘give strongest evidence so far that the benefits cap is encouraging people to move off welfare and into jobs’. It highlighted that of those affected by the cap 19% had found jobs 12 months later, and that more than 30% of claimants who lost £200 or more per week had found jobs in the same period.

An unequivocal success?

This initially appears like compelling evidence for the cap, and Community Links as an employment support provider welcomes the focus on getting people into work. However, as we have argued before, audiences should be wary of seemingly simple statistics masquerading as the whole story.

The first problem with the evaluation is that it sees moving into work as being synonymous with “a household having an open Working Tax Credit claim”. Let’s assume for a moment that this is a suitable way to measure success. At best it means that the Benefit Cap has actually incentivised some people to move into work. However, how many of these jobs are of a high enough quality to improve a household’s situation? Research from Australia has shown “unambiguously that the psychosocial quality of bad jobs is worse than unemployment”.

Put simply, unemployed people who move into poor quality work suffer a significant worsening of their mental health as compared to those who remain unemployed. As the author of the above article points out, this doesn’t undermine the need to support people to find work, but it does undermine the idea that we should force people to find any job at all. Community Links has previously explored one possible solution to this, beyond the structural changes needed to improve labour market conditions, which is to ensure that jobseekers are properly assessed by employment support services.

Causing and Compensating for Problems Elsewhere

The other problem with using open Working Tax Credit (WTC) claims as a measure for the success of the Benefit Cap is that it means that people are just being cycled onto a new benefit. Not only that, but a benefit that is inherently tied to being on a low income. In some cases they are a useful way to help those who need to work part-time supplement their earnings. However, in most cases WTCs are merely compensating for low wages, the precarious nature of employment and/or underemployment. Therefore WTCs may currently be vital for numerous people’s livelihoods, but are largely a subsidy to employers who insist on paying low wages. Unfortunately this role – compensating for failures elsewhere – is a fundamental part of our social security system as it currently exists. In our most recent report, the Early Action Task Force sets out some new underlying principles and changes to current spending rules that challenge this role.

Furthermore, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, “there is still much we do not know” about “the large majority of affected claimants” who have “responded neither by moving into work nor by moving house”. Indeed, there are a variety of other responses to the Benefit Cap that the quantitative data does not explore, including cutting back on spending, building up debts and/or getting help from family and friends. All of these responses are likely to have both social and financial costs. For example, a recent report by StepChange highlights how ‘problem debt’ has a social cost of £8.3 billion that includes additional welfare claims, moving and eviction costs, lost productivity and demand for care, support and other state services.

It is therefore important that we don’t forget those who are not captured in these statistics, particularly when we consider the fact that at least 73% of the individuals affected by the cap are children and that the estimated cost of child poverty in 2013 was £29 billion. As such, the Benefit Cap actually causes costs elsewhere – both financial costs to other already cut back services and social costs to the lives of those affected.

Ten Year Tests

The Early Action Task Force has long been arguing that we should build a society that prevents problems from occurring rather than merely coping with the often more costly consequences. One specific recommendation we have made recently is to apply Ten Year Tests to new policies in order to ascertain the effect of a decision across the whole public sector budget in a decade’s time. The Benefit Cap, amongst other policy changes, should be subject to such a test to gauge it’s (potential) success as although the projected savings from the Benefit Cap were approximately £500 million between 2013 and 2015, it is likely to have caused far more costs than it has saved.

We must therefore think beyond headline statistics highlighting the ‘success’ of policy reforms that only yield short term benefits and instead seek to understand their long term impact. The social security system, and in particular the Benefit Cap, is currently not doing this.

In isolation the announcement by DWP yesterday does seem like a success, but the evaluation largely misses the point. Until we start looking at the broader picture – including thinking about the long-term future – such mistakes are destined to continue.

‘Twas the week before, the week before Christmas…

December 12th, 2014

Sally Muylders explains how she spent her day on the 9th of December
as Sustainable Neighbourhoods Manager at Community Links

SallyWhile many people in the UK are winding down at work and getting ready for the Christmas break, things go up about five gears at Community Links and especially in the Early Action Team.  We have our 38th annual Christmas Appeal trying to gather toys and donations so children across Newham can wake up on Christmas Day with a present that they would not have received otherwise.  Our Enterprise team are preparing to open the Established pop-up shop at Westfield Shopping Centre for a week-long trading experience for the young entrepreneurs we have worked with all year.  And in the Neighbourhood Hubs, its parties galore.  We have a Community-led Superhero party taking place, children’s Christmas parties hosted by our corporate supporters and under-fives events at all of our hubs.  This is in additional to pantomimes at each hub, in between all the normal community activities that take place every week.

After leaving home at 7am, to get an early start at work on the 9th, I finally arrived at 10am due to a sad fatality on the M25 which caused immense tailbacks.  Undeterred I launched straight into a meeting with the Hub facilitators.  These are the people that keep our centres open each week, support community members to use them and ensure that they are safe, welcoming and well-resourced.  We have two new Hub Facilitators that are now working at our Chandos East Centre and Play Sow and Grow (our environmental and growing centre); I want them to meet regularly with the wider team to learn, support and develop each other.  This meeting was the first of this plan.  I left there after the meeting, but not before unloading my car of some carpet remnants that I had that will serve the flock of hens well over the winter as I gave Rizwana some advice on how to line the Hen House with it.

I returned to Community Links head office to meet Kirsty from The Good Gym who I had invited to our team meeting.  The Good gym are an innovative and unique organisation that help people to connect to the area in which they live through exercise and helping voluntary groups and individuals who need help with something.  Last week the group of runners helped us by delivering leaflets door to door.  (Read their report here) In the coming year we will hope to do more work with the Goodgym.

Following the team meeting I caught up with Tracy one of our Community Engagement managers about an event that took place last weekend; children from our Play and Special Educational Needs projects took centre stage at the Westfield Shopping Centre performing in front of thousands of Christmas shoppers.

I left the building to attend another meeting in Stratford and parked my car outside our Rokeby Hub, so that I could walk round to West Ham Lane.  I popped in to tell Jackie the Hub Facilitator and say hello to the Active Minds group that meet there every Tuesday since moving from Chandos East.  They were admiring the 10ft Christmas tree that they had helped erect and decorate on Monday.

Also there was a community member we know well called Vivian.  Recently Vivian who is elderly has been unwell and had been having issues in her flat with the gas and electric which had been turned off.  Jackie had the previous week worked really hard with agencies and providers to get the utilities reinstated and had rectified the electric, but the Gas was still not on and Vivian was living without heat after being in hospital only the previous week.  The council had been round to help as there was a fault with her boiler and they were now waiting for a replacement part but had not brought a promised electric heater. Jackie and I attempted to stir-up the full force of the council as I had some connections there and this is a resident physically shaking with the cold and spending all day in the centre to keep warm. By the end of the day, Jackie had managed to get the heater delivered and a guaranteed appointment for the next day for the engineers to repair the boiler.

If it wasn’t for staff such as Jackie, quietly working away in our Community Hubs supporting the people who use them and intervening on occasions, when needed, I don’t know what would happen to people such as Vivian who go unnoticed by official agencies. Our staff work so hard, not only to provide fun and community building activities, but also acute interventions at times and use the skills developed over many years to help people in dire need. They do this almost invisibly.

I made it to my meeting and left there to head straight to Chandos East, our most northerly Community Hub where I met with Nabila our other new Hub facilitator and Ysr, a really active community member who is involved in many things with us at Chandos East.  We are planning an event in the New Year and worked out some actions for before Christmas for us to all beaver away at, set a date and time and will now work hard to get other local people involved in planning and delivering it in January.

My last activity of the day was really special; I headed over to a small green surrounded by the houses of Bisson Road where Candy from Play Sow and Grow had organised, in partnership with St Johns Church, Stratford, community carol-singing. I was actually moved as I stood singing with community members that I had known for years, having previously worked in that area myself.  Singing Christmas carols together on a crisp night, with the Vicar playing a keyboard and the candles flickering in lanterns was a unique and special experience – one that I will remember for a long time.

It was on this day exactly one year ago that I started a new job at another organisation, I left Community Links to go and work somewhere else. Being away for a number of months confirmed for me what I already knew (but I wrongly felt I needed to change) that Community Links is an amazing organisation to work with, nowhere else will I be able to work with such a special team people that create endless opportunities for our community members and endlessly work to advocate, support and make sure that everyone is ok.

Our lack of resource is very real whilst the need that we see every day continues to grow, but still people remain motivated, creative and come in to work every day to help change the world in small and silent ways. The team I work with constantly inspire me and for that I’m grateful. On August the 9th this year I returned to work at Community Links having been successful in applying for the post of Sustainable Neighbourhoods Manager. I am grateful for the opportunity to come back to Community Links where I was welcomed with open arms, Ill work harder than ever.

If you’d like to support Community Links, read about our Christmas funding appeal.

Poverty and hunger: from food banks to social security

December 9th, 2014

 photo feedbritain_zpse2b48495.jpg

“Why is it that in countries that have welfare states offering a minimum income has hunger reappeared?” asks ‘Feeding Britain’, the final report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty published yesterday.

Amongst its recommendations were better education about nutrition, attempts to improve wages and reduce living costs, and a new national network of food assistance schemes – such as food banks – called ‘Feeding Britain’.

You’d be hard pressed to find many people arguing that food banks are not a vital service to the public at this moment in time, nor would many argue against cross-sector collaboration. However, you also wouldn’t find many who argue that they are a long term solution. Professor Graham Riches, for example, pointed out yesterday that Canada has a system of nationally institutionalised food banks, but there is no evidence that food charity is an effective response to reducing food poverty, particularly in the long term.

Celebrating food banks?

Elsewhere it has been suggested that food banks are “one of the greatest success stories of the voluntary sector in the past few years” and that, actually, “the poorest people in any decade have always gone hungry, regardless of which party was in power”.

This misses the point for two reasons. Firstly, whilst meeting emergency need should be lauded it is absurd to suggest that the proliferation of such crisis support is cause for celebration. As Community Links has argued, it would be better if charities that focus on alleviating crisis didn’t need to exist. A measure of success for food banks should not just be the amelioration of hunger, but its abolition. Yesterday’s report should therefore be lauded for suggesting that we need to end hunger and for correctly identifying some of the underlying causes – stagnating wages, the rising cost of living, and welfare reform. However, it focusses far too much on food assistance programmes rather than hunger prevention strategies.

Secondly, to suggest that the poorest have always gone hungry and therefore always will is a self-defeating argument. Not only does it condemn an increasingly large part of the population to hunger, but once again it suggests that it is a problem that we must react to rather than proactively prevent.

Preventing crisis

Hunger is largely a result of poverty. Recent research argued that people are often forced to rely on food banks following crises that were out of their control; for example bereavement, the loss of employment, or benefit payment delays and reductions. Some of these crises are unavoidable – we will all experience bereavement at some point in our lives – but others could be prevented.

However, it is hard to prevent crisis when people feel financially insecure and personally undermined. Last week Community Links and the Early Action Task Force published two reports. The first – Just About Surviving – is the most recent report from our longitudinal research project looking at the cumulative impact of welfare reform on residents of Newham, East London. It highlights increasing levels of insecurity amongst individuals and families affected by welfare reform, one result of which is hunger.

Take Diana, for example, who cannot work because of her multiple health problems. The cumulative impact of three reforms – the Bedroom Tax, Council Tax Localisation, and ESA re-assessment – have drastically reduced her income:

“I’m diabetic so I am supposed to eat three times a day which I can’t afford to do. I was supposed to take my medication with meals but I couldn’t do that… So my son was coming at about 9 o’clock with chicken and chips from up the road – just £2 for those – and I ended up in hospital… it was total hell.”

We did not explicitly ask recipients about food banks, but Diana’s story highlights the endemic levels of hunger seen across the country for those in poverty.

We therefore need to shift the discussion beyond the narrow parameters of whether or not we need food banks towards a debate about poverty; its root causes, effects and, ultimately, long term solutions. And as Julia Unwin of JRF pointed out last year, poverty is far from inevitable.

Secure and Ready: Acting Earlier for Social Security

So how could we promote security and reduce poverty? What kind of system would need to be in place to ensure that individuals, families, and communities feel secure and ready to seize opportunities and thrive?

In our second report, Secure and Ready, we aimed at answering these questions. We argue that the social security system should have two primary functions: firstly, it should enable us to be ready to deal with setbacks. This would be premised on new and revitalised underlying principles including a presumption of willingness, recognition of the value of relationships, and valuing other forms of contribution. Secondly the social security system should enable us to seize opportunities. Seeing social security spend as investment in individuals and communities is fundamental to this – whether in housing, education, or public health.

Standing in the way of these changes are spending rule barriers such as the welfare cap, siloed working practices, and short-term planning horizons. Let’s take the welfare cap as a quick example: in its current form it operates on a short-term, annual basis, and as such discourages upfront investment to improve outcomes outside of the remit of DWP and therefore also reduce costs. Instead it encourages cuts to individual entitlements, exacerbating problems such as hunger and the need for food banks whilst also pushing up expenditure. If the cap is to continue it should be reformed, allowing investment that would improve social outcomes and reduce expenditure.

Such shifts in how the social security system works would facilitate a reduction in demand for crisis oriented services such as food banks. Whilst hunger still exists they are a necessity, but it would be a great success to no longer need them in ten years’ time.

Migrant tax credit cuts are part of a wider attack on social security

November 25th, 2014

The proposal to ban EU migrants who are in work from receiving tax credits is the latest in a long series of changes which cut entitlement to social security. The suggestion, which was made today in a report from Eurosceptic think tank Open Europe and a version of which has already been aired by Labour’s Rachel Reeves, would mean low-paid workers from EU countries lose an average of £55 per week.

Road sign surviving thrivingThe story is being framed in terms of immigration. But the proposals are at least as important to another debate happening right now: that of the future of our social security system. These proposals are emblematic of a social security system in which eligibility continues to be further and further restricted, and conditionality further and further increased. They are symptomatic of an ongoing failure of our social security system to act early to prevent crises from occurring, rather than dealing with the consequences. In this case, the root cause of the ‘problem’ of increasing tax credit spend – namely, the fact that real wages have been in decline for over six years – is ignored and instead the consequences are being tackled in an incredibly short-termist way.

The news of these recommendations made me think back to Kazia, a trained psychologist who had worked as a scientist in Poland and was one of the first people I met when I started working at Community Links. Kazia came to our advice service for help because, while claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance, she had been told to drop out of an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) course which was taking more than 16 hours per week: hours that she should have been spending applying for jobs in coffee shops. Kazia wanted to improve her English so she could continue as a professional scientist in the UK. When she refused to drop out of the course, she was sanctioned.

Kazia’s story reveals the nonsensical failures of a short-termist social security system. If the system had supported her to use her skills in Britain she may by now be flourishing and contributing more to society and the economy. Instead it aims for short-term wins: a job in a coffee shop whose low wages would have had to be topped up by tax credits, or even a sanction that could have helped to improve DWP’s statistics of the numbers of people leaving unemployment benefits.

Since I met Kazia in February, she will have been subject to many further attacks on her benefits. If she was claiming Housing Benefit while she searched for coffee shop jobs, that will now have gone. Her children will now be expected to be able to do without child benefit for their first three months in the UK. Now the proposal is to restrict her eligibility for Working Tax Credits even when she does get a job. These various attacks come despite huge net benefits that immigrants bring to the UK economy.

This trend of increasing conditionality and restricted eligibility is not restricted to migrants. In the last few months we’ve seen a doubling of the number of days that jobseekers have to wait for eligibility for JSA; we’ve seen parents with children as young as one forced to look for work in return for their benefits; and we’ve seen plans for a two-year freeze on in- and out-of-work benefits for 10 million working families. What’s more, there is every sign that this trend could get worse. Osborne’s forecasts of continued austerity in the next parliament, a media and public discourse which continues to harden public opinion against claimants, and an ongoing failure to fix underlying causes of social security spend – by building houses and creating well-paying jobs – all mean that our social security system is heading in the direction of much more short-termism.

The argument that we need to make our welfare state less generous leads us to an end-point of a system which provides no security, which pays far too little to live on, which traps people in poverty, and which allows costly problems to spiral out of control. We can already see this beginning to happen. Last week, the IFS declared that the Coalition’s welfare reforms, despite making life incredibly tough for millions of households, have saved just £2.5bn of an expected £19bn.

Our research, to be published in Westminster next Tuesday, shows how the cumulative impact of the welfare reforms has been to push people into survival mode, squeezing them to focus on short-term, day-to-day getting by and preventing them from being able to make long-term positive changes to their lives. The knock-on effects of this end up costing money in other public sectors: in NHS treatment for stress and depression, in services to deal with reduced community cohesion and in tax credits for jobs that don’t pay enough to live on.

Instead of further attacks on benefits, we need a social security system that acts earlier, preventing problems before they arise, and works to make sure people are both secure and ready to seize opportunities. For Kazia this would mean helping her to use her skills and contribute more to the UK economy, and if she does end up in a coffee shop, it would mean paying her tax credits to allow her to focus on longer-term goals, rather than day-to-day survival. More broadly, it means we need to see social security as an investment in people that will pay off many times over in the long-term. It means we need to rethink the principles underlying our social security system, and how it can become an enabling system than encourages people to thrive and the economy to flourish.

  • A version of this post first appeared on  www.politics.co.uk
  • The new research mentioned in this blog will be launched on Tuesday 2nd Dec at 4.30pm, alongside
    Community Links’s current thinking on principles for an early action social security system.

    If you’d like to attend follow this link or sign-up using the form below.

Early Action: Delivering value-for-money, avoiding more serious consequences.

November 24th, 2014

Two reports from the National Audit Office last week confirmed our worst fears.

National Audit OfficeFirst the NAO investigation into the Impact of Funding Reductions on Local Authorities warned  that one in six councils are at risk of financial failure within the next five years and that core services like education and social care are endangered, particularly in the local authorities that are most dependant on government grants. Those authorities are also, of course, the ones that serve the most deprived communities.

As many English authorities are now, once again,  budgeting for severe cuts for the fourth year in succession,  the findings of the NAO were virtually inevitable. The next three years are unlikely to be better.

Our report “The Deciding Time”  was published  two years ago and painted “an urgent picture of escalating  needs and diminishing resources”. Even then our findings were hardly a revelation.  Most organisations of any size can identify some waste, some duplication, some level of management that might be eliminated with minimal damage to the front line but all that was lanced in years one and two. Now the leanest councils are cutting into the meat of the service and the cuts are getting deeper.

We pointed out then that “as funds have been cut over the last year acute services have been prioritised at the expense of earlier action. More problems have become more difficult when they might have been prevented entirely.”   “These trajectories” we suggested “are unsustainable but they are not inevitable”. We argued that effective early action is a “need reduction strategy” reducing future liabilities, promoting growth and above all improving lives.

Future Generations Bill

Of course the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago – but the second best time is now and even in the very difficult position in which many authorities find themselves its not too late to start acting earlier:
In Wales last week I met with government officials who are working on the Future Generations Bill. The idea of imposing a duty on public agencies to think about the longer term was a twinkle in our eyes  at the start of the Early Action Task Force three years ago but is likely to receive Royal assent in Wales next April. Later on in the day I met Jenny O’Hara Jakeway whose work with the Glyncoch Community Regeneration project shows just what this approach might mean on the ground:  Their co-designed ‘safer communities strategy’ saw crime go from the highest in the area to zero and has remained the lowest in the area ever since. They have  co-designed a three-year education and the alleviation of poverty strategy, and a co-produced a healthy communities strategy all focused on a thorough understanding of the needs and assets in their community and on acting early.

It can be done. More than ever now, it must be done, without or without a statutory duty.

Legal Aid Funding

The second NAO report “Implementing reforms to civil legal aid” was not unrelated. Regular readers of this blog will know that the abolition of legal aid for most social law has had a devastating impact on Community Links advice services and on similar provision in other areas. We argued at the time that the “reforms” would fail on their own terms. Quite apart from running a coach and horses through the hallowed principle of equal access to the law they would be very likely to, in the longer term, increase the burden on the public purse not reduce it.

Last weeks report found that the Ministry of Justice  “did not estimate the scale of the wider costs of the reforms – even those that it would have to bear – because it did not have a good understanding of how people would respond to the changes or what costs may arise.”

In consequence, for instance, “In the year following the changes, there has been a 30% increase in the number of family court cases in which neither party has legal representation. This is likely to create extra costs for the Ministry and wider government, with the NAO estimating additional cost to HM Courts & Tribunals Service of at least £3 million a year, together with direct costs to the Ministry of approximately £400,000. There may also be costs to the wider public sector if people whose problems could have been resolved by legal aid-funded advice suffer adverse consequences to their health and wellbeing as a result of no longer having access to legal aid”

The head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, concluded that the “Ministry’s implementation of the reforms to civil legal aid cannot be said to have delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer.” The kind of work that Legal Aid paid for at Community Links wasn’t expensive barrister fees or long running trails. Most often it was about avoiding the court system not paying for it, about preventing evictions, resolving debts, untangling disputes before the crisis not afterwards. It was about early action and ultimately it saved money

When the legal aid legislation was debated in parliament the minister Lord McNally said “…we will not devote limited public funds to less important cases on the basis that they could lead to more serious consequences” Now we can look at the impact on communities like ours in east London, we can read about the impossibly difficult choices facing local authorities across the land, we can glimpse the potential  of an alternative, early action approach in communities like Glyncoch and we can see that this wasn’t only an absurd thing to say, it was a staggering dereliction of duty.

Unemployment statistics: digging deeper

November 12th, 2014

Digging in the Dark

New labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the unemployment rate is down to 6%, with 592,000 fewer people out of work than at this time last year.

Surely this is call for celebration; Employment Minister Esther McVey certainly welcomed the news, arguing that “record numbers of people in work means more people with the security of a regular wage who are better able to support themselves and their families”. Indeed, from the Department of Work and Pension’s perspective, it is great news that “the number of people claiming the main unemployment benefit – Jobseeker’s Allowance [JSA] – has… been falling every month for the last 2 years and is now over a half a million lower than May 2010”.

However, these seemingly simple messages hide some uncomfortable truths.

Firstly, whilst the employment rate (73%) is back to pre-recession levels, of those jobs created since the recession started only 1 in 40 are full-time work. Part-time work can offer the flexibility to deal with other life commitments, and so is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the number of people in part-time work who want to work full-time (1.3m) is almost twice as many as when the recession started in 2008. Furthermore, as our forthcoming report (to be published next month) on the impact of welfare reform shows, being in work is not necessarily a route out of poverty – particularly when work is based on zero-hour contracts and low pay. This can also leave people feeling insecure and uncertain about their future.

Secondly, research from Oxford University shows that at least 500,000 JSA claimants have disappeared from official unemployment statistics. This is important as it not only shows why we should not take official statistics at face value, but raises further questions on what the impact has been on those 500,000 people who appear not to be in work or receiving benefits. As our research into the cumulative impact of welfare reform has shown, sanctions can prevent people from having enough money to buy food, pay for their heating and, in some cases, even actively prevent them from finding work.

A fall in unemployment is a welcome thing, but only when it means that people are moving into fairly paid and sustainable work. This is exactly why we should never take such messages at face value, and always dig deeper into official statistics.

Launching the Community Links, Newham Recorder Christmas Appeal

November 5th, 2014

A guest post by Community Links Ambassador, Colin Grainger

The last 12 months have seen many changes on the landscape in Newham as the pace of development increases. But despite this enrichment of the community, the levels of poverty are still very much a significant part of life in East London.

The recent stunning report from The Campaign to End Child Poverty showed that Newham remains among the top areas for child poverty in the UK, despite being so close to so much wealth … and it can be devastating. YOU can help ease some of that poverty by helping a special appeal that is at the very heart of all that is good in Newham.

For almost all of my 42-year working life I have penned a plea to the community in East London to help with this special appeal. This year I will pen that appeal not from the columns of the newspaper that was part of my life for 40 years but from my own website, and this one, using the unique power of social media.

I ask everyone to help change the lives of some young ones who are at risk through no fault of their own. The Community Links and Newham Recorder Christmas Appeal is a special appeal at the heart of all that is good in the community in East London. Poverty can hit anyone at anytime – the loss of employment, the loss of a parent, a long term illness can push a family onto the downward poverty spiral through no fault of their own. I urge everyone who can – individuals, businesses, schools, clubs, churches, organisations to give a toy because together we can fill those empty sacks and ensure that Christmas Day is a real Christmas Day this year for every child in Newham.

This week, the Recorder and Community Links are combining again for the special appeal to reach out to thousands of vulnerable children, families and adults. Christmas can be a time of stress and isolation as we still have over half our children living in poverty. But Community Links looks to strengthen communities and raise aspirations at this time, making Christmas special and futures brighter. Community Links is a truly remarkable organisation which does so much to enhance life in East London.

So I ask that you to include some very special people in your Christmas shopping budget and see it in your heart to add some special youngsters to your Christmas shopping list.  When you buy gifts for loved ones and friends, please add another – for a child in Newham. If you give a special person some money for their own gift, perhaps you could put aside some money for a needy child. All toys need to be new and unwrapped and can be for any age up to 16. In particular, the appeal is always short of toys for teenagers. Many youngsters who benefited from campaigns years ago are now workers or volunteers at Community Links. It is a philosophy that has stood the test of time: helping and enabling people to help themselves.

A sponsored swim for the Christmas Appeal from the 1980s

It has been my privilege to be part of this special appeal for many years. I shall be doing my usual 50 lengths sponsored swim so if you want to sponsor me please feel free to do so.

You can also contribute to any of the events Links and the Recorder will be mentioning. There’s a great quiz night at Links HQ in Canning Town on December 4. Or there’s the annual Christmas lunch at Links on December 12.

More details on Links’ website or in the paper.

If you want to send us a cheque, please make it payable to Community Links.

Community Links Chief Executive Geraldine Blake revealed two weeks ago that Newham residents in the main work very hard, often on more than one job, but for very low rates of pay. More than half the workforce here earns below the London Living wage and over 20% are illegally employed on less than the minimum wage.

Last year we raised a record 15,000 toys. The appeal needs to equal that this year. The appeal involves the whole community. It provides gifts for over almost 4,000 children to open on Christmas morning.

Over 1,000 children had a once in-a-lifetime Christmas party, and 1,500 children had the opportunity of experiencing a pantomime. And another 70 families at risk and 50 senior citizens living alone had a seasonal food hamper to help them through Christmas.This year Links have some great ideas on how you can help. See the website and follow the updates on Faceboook and Twitter for more details.

The appeal aims to provide a bag of gifts to open on Christmas morning for children who are referred by a combination of East London’s caring agencies and family support groups, ensuring that the Appeal helps those most in need at Christmas. Newham Council back the campaign by making a number of buildings available as drop-off points. Others will be listed on Community Links’ website and in the Recorder.

The need is greater than ever this year. Please do all you can to help.