09 July, 2014

Hackney Labour - on the side of struggling renters

This article first appeared on the London Labour Party website on 9th July 2014.

The private rental sector in Hackney has been in the news recently, with the Mirror rightly highlighting the damaging impact rent rises are having on private tenants on a Hoxton estate. But these tenants are not alone and without better regulation, Hackney’s and London’s social diversity and economy will be at risk.

Renting privately is something I know well, as for the last 11 years I’ve been in Hackney I’ve lived in rented flats. I’ve paid the endless fees, dealt with sharp letting agents and fought to limit the annual attempts to increase my rent by 10% or more. Now I’ve been lucky, I’ve broadly had good landlords, had the time and skills to argue my corner and not had to fight to get repairs done. But others I know have not been so lucky facing intimidation, high rents, poor quality housing, exploitation and evictions.

In Hackney, private rents last year according to the GLA went up by 10%, with three and four bedroom properties seeing the highest rises of 15% and 17% respectively. This unregulated rise makes more of the borough unaffordable, increases the housing benefit bill and because of Tories’ Orwellian ‘Affordable Rent’ programme now has an impact on rents in some new social housing. As a Labour Party in Hackney, I am proud that we have worked with Digs a Hackney private renters’ campaign group to improve the information we provide on private renting and the service we offer tenants who need to complain about rogue landlords.

We found that housing was the number one issue in the local elections and in our 2014 manifesto we set how we would respond to some of these challenges: by setting up a Council backed social lettings agency; exploring how we can introduce a borough wide landlord licensing scheme; and by doing all we can to drive rogue landlords and letting agents out of the borough. But to really have an impact on high rents, the uncertainty created by short tenancies and end rip-off fees we need to campaign for a Labour Government and a Labour Mayor of London.

Recently Ed Miliband and Emma Reynolds showed that Labour is listening. For the first time, we now have a Leader and Shadow Housing Minister focusing on the problems faced by private tenants. Their promise to introduce longer tenancies, end letting agent rip off fees and stabilise rent rises is something worth fighting for and we need to campaign with Londoners to ensure we win.

We know where the Tories stand and that is with the landlords and speculators, alongside the Lib Dems they have frustrated attempts to regulate the private rental sector. Recently we saw London MPs taking the fight to the Government in Parliament, but as a London Labour Party we need to get out there and speak up for generation rent, a generation that before now has struggled to find a political voice. Labour are the only party offering hope to private tenants when we say we will tackle high rents, high fees, introduce real regulation and increase the supply of all types housing, but we can only clean up this failing market if we fight to win next May.

30 June, 2014

Improving police training and tackling the fear of HIV

This post first appeared on the NAT blog on 6th June 2014

'When asked about the most dangerous aspects of their jobs, neither constable misses a beat. "You can be searching somebody who has HIV/Aids, or hepatitis," says Hawke. "You'll empty a rucksack and it'll be full of uncapped needles. That, for me, is the biggest fear: a fear of infection.”'

Guardian article, 26 March 2013 'The police are constantly under attack from the government'.

Of all the risks the police face in their day-to-day jobs - attacks from armed criminals, stress, injuries from the physical nature of their jobs – all too often HIV transmission is cited in the media.

Why is this when 95% of all HIV transmission is sexual, and the likelihood of getting HIV from an uncapped needle in someone’s bag is so small it’s only theoretically possible?

As well as these fears they hold themselves. NAT heard through our networks people living with HIV have been treated badly by the police, often based on an unfounded view of the risk of HIV transmission.

In June 2012 we investigated this issue and found police training and policies on HIV were often based on outdated, inaccurate and included stigmatising information.

This is a problem for two reasons.  First, it often resulted in police undergoing an HIV test when in fact there was no risk – which is not only a waste of time and resources, but it also causes unnecessary alarm and spreads myths about how HIV is passed on.  Secondly, this can increase HIV-related stigma as people with HIV may be handled inappropriately in custody due to unfounded fears around the virus being passed on.

We reviewed materials in 15 of the 50 police constabularies in the UK, across a wide geographical area and including those with both high and low HIV prevalence.

Some of the guidance claimed HIV could be transmitted between people who share toothbrushes and razors, that the virus can be present in saliva and urine and could be passed on through kissing, scratching, and the "handling or lifting of persons".

One police force even recommended the use of "spit hoods" to protect officers from people with HIV. Others recommended providing disposable cups and cutlery for people living with HIV, keeping HIV positive detainees separate from others and even conducting interviews through the cell door inspection hatch.

Since we conducted our original research we have been working hard to ensure police forces across the country update their training and guidance. NAT created a resource for police forces to use called: 'HIV: A guide for Police Forces' in 2013. The guidance is endorsed by BHIVA (the British HIV Association) and includes information about how HIV is and isn’t transmitted, what to do if you are exposed to HIV, how to respond to someone with HIV, and information about criminal prosecution for HIV transmission.

We have had a good response to the guidelines so far and we hope we will now to start to see better practice from the Police across the Country.