07/08/2013 12:36 PM
LET’S TALK: Panel members
DISGRUNTLED CROYDON residents were urged by a panel of community representatives to support local leaders and get involved in rebuilding their community at a recent BME Forum Question Time at Croydon Town Hall.
The event, the first in a series of planned forums, was organised by Nero Ughwujabo, chief executive of Croydon BME Forum, in association with The Voice.
It gave residents the opportunity to raise their concerns to a panel of community representatives, chaired by the newspaper’s managing director, George Ruddock, and included Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell, Croydon Council leader Mike Fisher, Chief Superintendent Dave Musker and the leader of Croydon opposition, Labour councillor Tony Newman.
Attendees, who felt they were bearing the brunt of austerity-driven reforms, voiced their discontent.
With fiery passion they challenged their leaders on a range of issues around housing, welfare, policing and crime, education, health, regeneration and the distribution of services between the north and south of the borough.
As the debate raged, stop and search, which is now under review in a consultation ordered by the Home Office, emerged as one of the most contentious matters.
Residents told stories of heavy-handed and unfair police action.
Activist Kwadwo Kyerewaa described the policy as “ineffective”, “open to abuse” and “self-defeating”. He pointed to research which shows black people are seven times more likely to be subjected to stop and search, and evidence that only a tenth of these actions result in arrest.
“What is that if not a racial bias?” he asked.
Panellist Javel Nelson, a member of Croydon Youth Parliament, said the community has lost faith in the force and called on the police to “strengthen bridges”.
Musker admitted that stop and search is a longstanding problem that the country has “failed to address over the last 40 years.”
But he defended his force, insisting that his officers are young, tolerant and multicultural men and women who understand that racism will not be tolerated.
He said: “There is no place in the Metropolitan Police for somebody who uses the enormous power we are invested with, in a way that is disproportionate or discriminatory.”
He also justified the need for the policy, describing it as a powerful preventative tool in the fight against crime. Musker urged the community to consider the “motivation” for his officers who sometimes have to “knock on a door and tell a mum, her son did not make it.”
As youth and gang crime continued to come under the spotlight, Barwell stressed that it is not just about policing, but more about joined-up services that will address root issues such as domestic violence and the destructive environment to which some children are subjected.
He also highlighted the importance of ensuring that those who end up in the criminal justice system are not just punished, but are given tailored support for “the underlying issues in their lives… to help them get back on the right track.”
QUESTIONS: Nero Ughwujabo, chief executive of Croydon BME Forum
Panellist Karen Ruby, manager of Job Centre Plus (JCP), described the organisation’s role in working with a number of community groups to provide an “exit strategy” from gangs and criminal activities and provide access to education, employment and training.
Ughwujabo urged the community to take ownership of the problem.
He said: “The BME community in Croydon is about 47 per cent and is growing. By any measure we are significant stakeholders in this borough.” He encouraged residents to be “part of the solution”.
Councillor Newman pointed out that many of the issues on the table were related and urged the panel not to “take the questions in isolation”.
“If people have got a job and a decent house and… they have a stake, a part, an ownership… then there’s a much greater chance that there will be a real pride in the community and a resistance to anybody or anything damaging that community,” he said.
With damning figures which show homelessness at an eight-year high, and black families in Croydon as twice as likely to be affected, the focus turned to the impact of the benefits cap.
Croydon was one of four boroughs piloting the scheme and Barwell justified his government’s policy. He said: “It is wrong to ask people in work to give people out of work a better standard of living than the average worker.”
Fisher explained that the cap addressed abuses and gave the example of a man with a £900 per week claim, who said that work will affect his social life.
But Newman accused the government of sidestepping the issue of rent control and the “overwhelming sums of money” that are paid to landlords on behalf of benefit recipients.
COMMENTS: Croydon Central MP, Garvin Barwell
However, Barwell and Fisher insisted that the cap has already proven a success, putting a hundred claimants in Croydon back into work and causing “lots of people” to withdraw their claims.
Barwell admitted that small numbers have been affected adversely, but said they were being supported by a £1.7 million discretionary housing payments initiative.
Other issues raised included concerns about exclusion rates, and the perceived inequalities between the north and south of Croydon.
Members of the public described the north as being disproportionately deprived, and Ughwujabo talked about anger from parts of the community who feel they are being “completely neglected”.
According to panelist, GP Commissioner Dr Angelo Fernandes, the population in the north is younger and more diverse and therefore has unique needs particularly in terms of health.
He said: “There are pockets in the south which are deprived, but there are major differences in the north of the borough and we need to address that.”
But Fisher stressed: “There is no differentiation in terms of the amount of investment in any part of the borough.”
He highlighted recent improvements and investments in the north such as new schools and the tackling of antisocial behaviour.
Barwell spoke about the importance of investing in the whole of the borough as he answered questions about the failings of the riots compensation scheme, which has left some residents still awaiting awards two years on.
However, the panel recognised the progress that the borough had made since the devastation of the 2011 riots. They admitted that there are no easy solutions to the range of issues that were presented at the forum, but agreed that “behaving as a community” and drawing on the strengths of the voluntary sector is an important first step.
Ughwujabo stressed the significance of the event and urged the community to work toward influencing decision-making in Croydon and creating positive change.