IN THE SHITNET- reprinted from Private Eye 26th Jan 2001
The neighbouring London boroughs of Hackney and Islington have finally decided what to do about their useless housing benefit (HB) contractor SHITNet – aka ITNet.
ITNet’s inefficiency has caused huge suffering and anxiety for the very poorest people it is supposed to help, while allowing fraudsters to carry on virtually unchecked. Hackney reiterated its decision, reached last autumn, to sack the company; but Islington has extended its £32 million, seven year contract.
Is Islington mad ? Lib Dem council leader Steve Hitchins portarys the decision as the tough renegotiation of an unrealistic original contract made with the former Labour regime. If the service doesn’t improve radically, he says, ITNet simply won’t be paid. Getting tough was the best, most cost-effective course.
Another way of putting it is that ITNet has the council over a barrel. Sacking ITNet would cost Islington £13 million and bringing HB back in house would cost millions more. What about finding another contractor ? Companies like Crapita in Lambeth and CSL in Croydon are every bit as bad as SHITNet. And in any case, after the financial and PR disasters of the past few years, such companies are no longer exactly queuing up to administer HB on councils’ behalf – which could yet prove a problem for Hackney.
One solution might have been to let Islington’s other neighbour Camden take over the running of the service. Camden, which resisted the 1990s fashion for “outsourcing” HB, runs the most efficient service of the inner London boroughs, and the cheapest, at £127 per claim. A deal was almost struck, but then Camden admitted it could be two years before a decent service was guaranteed, and that things would probably get worse before they got better. Islington chickened out and SHITNet stays.
And what about future HB strategy in Hackney, Britain’s worst council ? It can be summarised in four words: haven’t got a clue.
NIT-NET – reprinted from Private Eye 12th Jan 2001
While this article focuses on Islington’s experience of ITNet, we thought it might ring true for Hackney residents too…
Incompetent housing benefit contractor ITNet, due to lose its contract with Hackney this year, is now on shaky ground in neighbouring Islington.
A report by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) into the administration of Islington’s annual £120 million HB service concludes that ITNet provides a “totally inadequate service” and that the council’s in-house anti-fraud team is so useless that fraudsters claim HB in Islington safe in the knowledge that even if they are caught they won’t have to pay a penny back.
The BFI says ITNet “is not learning from its own mistakes” and that genuine claimants “face hardship as they are unable to meet recent commitments as a direct result of claims not being processed”. The report observes that “contracting out has not been a success” and lays much of the blame for this with the council, which is accused of a “failure to manage or enforce the contact”.
Investigators found that 88 of the 131 staff employed by ITNet are temps; that staff have ample opportunity to commit fraud due to lack of effective management; and that the data ITNet gives the council regarding its performance is wholly unreliable…
So, when the Lib Dems in Hackney try to make political capital out of the Labour-Tory coalition’s failures with ITNet , just remember one word. Islington.
The IWCA is backing the survey carried out by the National Housing Federation into the failings of the housing benefits system.
When 500 people missed their holidays through a problem at the Passport Office, the front pages of the national press covered the story for weeks. The problems with housing benefit – and not just in Hackney – have led to people losing their homes and has affected 100,000’s of people and has hardly rated a mention in the national press. This is because the middle class journalists and the super-rich owners of the national press are not on housing benefit and don’t even know anyone on housing benefit – but they want passports so that they can travel abroad, whether on “business or pleasure.”
The IWCA, through this website and through today’s edition of the Hackney Gazette is urging anyone who has fallen victim to the Council/ITNet scandal to take part in an important report being drawn up by the National Housing Federation, which aims to tell the true story of the current crisis in housing benefit.
They aim to highlight the plight of those affected, because whether or not the Council have sacked ITNet, people are still waiting for their council tax and housing benefits . They are looking to include as many real life stories as possible. But if you want to remain anonymous in their report you can do so.
All you have to do to take part is to fill in a short form. The IWCA will send you a copy of the form (which must be returned by 12th February) if you e-mail your postal address to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
The new Peabody development on Cremer Street seems purpose built to annoy council tenants. With its glaring yellow paintwork, the building seems to tell locals that it’s not for the likes of us (and the rents of about £150 a week don’t help either).
Positioned next to the run down blocks of Fellows Court, the Peabody development stands out as a reminder that the makeup of the population in the area is being socially engineered – working class people are being replaced by upwardly mobile city types. They didn’t even advertise the flats in Hackney, but instead put ads in an Islington local paper – and even then it was the upmarket Highbury and Islington Express, with a middle class readership rather than the more widely read Islington Gazette.
And what about the Peabody ethic of providing housing for London’s poor ? Well, conveniently they’ve just written that part of their history out of their constitution.
The IWCA has been campaigning against mobile phone companies putting up phone masts over council blocks without the consent, or even the knowledge, of tenants.
The issue is not just about health and the possible risks to young children, it’s also about control of our own areas. If these masts went up all over Kensington, we’d hear about it in the national press, but put them up in working class areas and they hope no one will care.
As if to show that the pro-gentrification forces can’t have it all their own way, a packed meeting on Monday 15th saw proposals to demolish 822 council properties voted down. Angry tenants had mobilised in large numbers from all affected blocks to present petitions which had been put together at only a few days notice, and to oppose the demolition of their homes.
The proposals on the table were:
1. The Pol Pot option – demolish Shoreditch and then rebuild it. Obvious problems there…
2. Demolish 822 council properties and reallocate the affected tenants to newly built homes.
3. Fully refurbish all blocks.
It was clear that the preferred option of the pro-gentrification board members was the first one, and the game was given away when a so-called “housing expert” began referring to people’s homes as “economic units” only to be met with a stony silence. So flustered by the response was this man that he finished his presentation early and sat down, suddenly feeling a bit out of sorts.
As tenants and sympathetic board members pointed out in the discussion (which amazingly came after the vote – so much for tenants’ representation!) while the idea of having your block knocked down to make way for a shiny new development may appeal to many of us who live in buildings which have been neglected for decades, the reality of what was proposed is very different.
Does anybody really believe that having knocked down council properties, tenants will find that they are given tenancy in a new development? Looking at what has been going on in the area, it should be clear that working class people are not wanted here and there is a bigger agenda at work, namely to “socially cleanse” the working class out of the area and start at Year Zero without the “riff raff” -in other words us!
In the end, thanks to the obvious anger of the tenants at the meeting and those board members who stand up for working class interests, the proposals were amended and a new one was tabled, which put forward full refurbishment with the option to have the block demolished should the tenants vote for it . Given the abilities of the gentrifiers to sell demolition to pissed off tenants in problem blocks, this was met with scepticism from some on the board who voted for full refurbishment (option 3) to make their position clear, but the final vote went against them and the new option passed.
An interesting spin off from the meeting was the resignation of Winnie Ames as chair of Wenlock Barn Tenants’ Association. Winnie – long time friend of the gentrifiers and rabid opponent of the IWCA – was put on the spot by some of her own tenants, who asked her why she wasn’t representing their interests. Faced down by those she claimed to represent, Winnie did the decent thing and resigned her position, although she remains on the New Deal Board, but for how long?
While we should be happy to see such a positive mobilisation of working class people putting the gentrifiers on the back foot (and not forgetting those board members such as Tony Goodchild, Clayeon Mackenzie and Eugene Francis who voted against all attempts to demolish council homes) we should be wary of the next step. Already, “housing expert” Anna Eager and her developer friends are sizing up the possibilities for getting rid of the working class in the area.
As we have said before, it is sometimes very tempting to think that you have no other alternative to your block being pulled down, especially if it’s been left to rot for years. But we should be under no illusions that once pulled down, working class tenants will get housed in the same area or even in any sort council accommodation. After all, if the developers had their way there wouldn’t be any council housing at all, just endless loft apartments and bistros for the beautiful people.
The gentrifiers have been held back this time, but the battle goes on.
In the elections for the Shoreditch New Deal Board a leading opponent of estate sell offs was beaten by 9 votes to 7 in the election for chair. Not the most shocking decision in the world, you might think, especially since several on the board are known to be very keen on handing over control of our estates to private companies, but there were other factors too.
An ex-member of the board who has resigned and moved to the West country (and is known to be pro-gentrification) was allowed to vote and the person who was elected to replace her (on a platform of opposing privatisation) was not allowed to. Sarah-Jane Prattent (or Lady Penelope as she has become known to some tenants’ representatives) cast her vote predicatably. As the vote was between Clayeon McKenzie, an implacable opponent of the sell-offs of our estates, and Carole Young who is sympathetic to housing associations, it is obvious who got her support. The final vote was 9-7 against Clayeon and this made all the difference.
There is obviously a huge difference between the interests of a board member who has recently sold her Georgian townhouse for nearly half a million to decamp to the West Country, and the working class people she has left behind. The question has to be asked, how many other members of the New Deal Board are truly representing the working class majority of Shoreditch ?
It seems as if Hackney Council has officially ended its contract with ITNet, the firm who have made life a misery for thousands on benefits around the borough. ITNet director Bridget Blow (salary and benefits for 1999 a paltry £289,000) stated that “the board intends to achieve a smooth handover, which it anticipates will occur within a short period” – for that read, cut and run. As of last Friday, the council are bringing the service back “in house”, but many outstanding questions remain.
- What will the council do for a computer system ? Will they be leasing it all back off the discredited private company ?
- How long will it take to clear up the mess and sort out outstanding claims ? The IWCA are still advising Hackney residents who have been waiting months for payments.
- How did the council ever sign up to a contract with a firm like this without getting some sort of guarantee of service, or at least the chance to claw back compensation if things went wrong ?
Let’s hope this is the last we see of this firm or any other half-witted privatisation scheme for essential services.
Despite the appointment of new broom managing director, Max Caller, who last year vowed to “Hackney’s house in order”, it is still business as usual in the benighted east london borough.
In the council where Paedophile social worker, Mark Trotter was allowed to carry on abusing children for years in the 1980s until he died of AIDS, a senior officer involved in the care of children and subject of a police investigation has been quietly allowed to resign.
Meanwhile Caller has been sitting for 4 months on a report by borough solicitor Chris Hinde into allegations of corruption in the Stamford Hill planning committee involving the Borough’s Tory Mayor Joe Lowenstein, first aired in Eye 981, July 1999. The report must be a thorough one. It took Hinde, who coincidentally used to be secretary of the former Dalston city partnership regeneration quango, of which Lobenstein was a director, more than a year to produce.
At least some Hackney officers are quicker off the mark. After NUT members at just one Hackney school, Stoke Newington comprehensive, voted in December not to cross picket lines duringa one-day strike by non-teaching unions against proposed budget cuts and redundancies, their general secretary, Doug McAvoy wrote to them pointing out that such a vote endorsed unlawful secondary action.
Officers in Hackney’s education department then copied McAvoy’s letter, with the recipient school’s name blanked out, and faxed it to every school in the borough, giving the impression that McAvoy was on the side of the local education authority in a dispute he in fact wanted to keep out of. That’s the kind of enterprise Hackney needs!
With uncertainty still surrounding Hackney Council’s position on ITNet, the incompetent firm “running” the benefits service, the Government Ombudsman has added his voice to the criticisms already made by the IWCA and many others.
After looking at the case of one claimant, he has described the failures of the benefits system as “truly astonishing” and even adds that the council admit that service delivery has been “completely unacceptable” since ITNet took over in November 1997 – 3 whole years ago !
One of the main problems, as the IWCA pointed out at the time, was that it took a councillor on benefits himself (Vernon Williams) to make the middle class councillors of Hackney realise that they were sitting on a massive problem.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the whole system is still in a mess and many people are still suffering because of it. Sadly not ITNet though, whose massive profits will undoubtedly grow this year as they have every other year. To see just how nicely they’re doing at our expense have a look at their attractive no-expense spared website and click on the annual report. We await the next one with interest.