Mark Batten interview
Mark Batten has been providing the people of West Norwood with free legal advice at Centre 70 since 1984. Today, the centre offers expert advice on housing, welfare benefits and debt, alongside a specialist counselling service. Here, Mark reveals the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the clients he and his colleagues support and considers the longer-term effects on the community he serves.
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What impact has the pandemic had on the people coming to your door?
Well, that’s the biggest change – they’re not coming to our physical door, and that’s been a huge challenge. How can people access advice services in a pandemic? We’ve had to adapt very, very fast.
We were a centre that had an open door five days a week, where people could come in any time they wanted and see our workers in reception, who could provide information on a whole range of issues there and then. We had to change from that very quickly and implement a remote system of working.
But this still presented challenges in offering services to our digitally excluded clients, those without smartphones, email or internet connections.
So the way people can access support has changed. What’s changed in terms of the circumstances that are bringing people to you?
What I would say is that things generally seem far worse, far bleaker, when people are getting to us, with a far more complex mesh of problems. Before the pandemic, people would come in and might present one discrete issue that we would help them with, but that really isn’t happening now. We’re getting referrals from people who are suicidal, in debt and losing their homes.
There are lots of referrals for food vouchers as well, because I think people can’t access other services in the way they once could. So people are often getting to us at quite a desperate point, where they’re finding it difficult to feed themselves and their families. So that has definitely changed.
Has the pandemic changed who is coming to you?
I think the demographic is very broad. I might be inclined to say there are more young people, people of working age who have lost employment. But it is very broad.
And what about the volume of people?
The demand is simply quite overwhelming now. There are referrals coming through all day, every day – so many that we’re only able to pick up a relatively small proportion of them. This is only going to get worse when the hold on enforcement action lifts and debts are pursued. We’re trying to refer people on to other agencies and we’re constantly updating our signposting lists, but an overwhelming number of enquiries are coming through.
Can you give any examples of the sort of problems people are coming to you with?
It’s very varied. Certainly, lots of people are coming where there’s illness, perhaps a parent with dementia, or where a relative has died and there’s an issue of succession in the property, and where they’re being evicted.
I had one case recently where someone had two children that are disabled in special needs education, living in accommodation he couldn’t afford, mounting up arrears of £27,000. He was evicted, presented to the Local Authority which then accused him of making himself intentionally homeless. Eventually he was offered temporary accommodation, but he was then having difficulties making benefit claims to pay the rent, and was threatened with eviction again. As a result, he was having issues with his mental health.
There’s an awful lot of depression and isolation. I have a young person who recently lost a close relative who was like a surrogate father. He’d been living with the relative, but after they died he was being evicted. He became very depressed and isolated.
So we’re seeing a lot of mental health issues as a result of people not being able to access counselling services, not being able to get support from friends or family and from the difficulty of finding work – and then maintaining it when they’re suffering from these mental health issues.
What do you think the longer-term effects will be?
I think they’re going to be massive and long lasting because the underlying issues aren’t going to go away. I think there will be a generation of people who will suffer the consequences for many, many years.
I feel very pessimistic for a lot of young people whose lives have been disrupted hugely in the important years when they’re trying to establish themselves. There needs to be a lot of support out there for them, but at the moment I just don’t think there is, and that urgently needs to be built up over the next few years. That includes advice support, because we just don’t have the capacity to meet the demand.
What do you think are some of the hidden impacts?
What comes to mind first is the impact on families, where in some cases I think there’s just a loss of hope. There are people losing jobs and it feels like their whole family unit is unwinding. There’s uncertainty and fear about the future for their children, and there’s fear around the ability for parents to provide even the basics.
I think it’s about the long-term economic future for families and their children, it’s about educational issues and it’s about food. People are desperate – they do not have enough money to feed their families. People are going without, prioritising feeding their children over themselves and allowing rent arrears to build up because feeding their family is more important.
What’s driving this? Is it primarily down to so many job losses?
I think a lot of it is to do with job losses. I think pre-pandemic people found ways of making ends meet by doing a few additional hours here and there on top of their jobs, a bit of self-employment on the side. I think all of that is just gone.
The downturn in the economy means the loss of a lot of jobs, and it may be some time before some people find employment again. Competition is going to be very high. Added to which, so many small businesses have gone to the wall, and I suspect it will be a long time before the local economy picks up again.
What risk is there to the advice sector in all of this?
I think one risk to the advice sector generally is burnout, because people have been working so hard. We’ve moved to remote systems of working and what I’ve noticed is that people are putting in a lot more hours, often working late into the evening. I think there’s such a need out there that people working in this sector feel they need to do additional hours. It’s vital that we monitor staff wellbeing at a time like this.
There are also threats in terms of funding – there isn’t enough to support the level of staffing needed to meet demand, for a start. There are threats to some specific forms of funding, in particular around legal aid. We’re seeing increasing levels of rent arrears, but the stay on possession and eviction proceedings means we’ve not had so many of those sorts of cases, and we can’t grant legal aid to defend cases of rent arrears. So our housing advisers have being doing a lot of work that isn’t Legal Aid-able.
Some of the work that we do in prisons has stopped because we haven’t been able to go into prisons, so there’s a threat to our funding there as well. So yes, there are some funding risks, but the big thing I see is that the demand is so great that people are just exhausted.
What would you say to someone experiencing issues with housing, debt or benefits right now? What should they do?
The first thing I would say is that we are still here – we are still offering services. We can be accessed, just in different ways, so please do. Go to our website to find out how to reach us. And my advice would always be to access help as early as possible, and not to let problems build up.
Interview by James Hopkirk