Refugee Action's Frontline Immigration Advice Project is helping the London Borough of Newham improve public health.
'I'm a natural joiner-upper. I like to find the big issues of the day and try to solve them,' says Phil Veasey, a public health consultant, working with Newham Borough Council in east London.
Newham, like many inner London boroughs, has a large immigrant population, with high levels of deprivation and poor health. It is known as a centre for TB infection; 17,000 of its children are eligible for free school meals.
'You can go to any neighbourhood, any ward, any street, any block of flats, and find severe poverty.' - Phil
The pandemic has made existing problems immeasurably worse, with migrant communities among those most affected. According to Phil, the pandemic has also taught Newham that 'big issues can't be dealt with in silos'.
Around 10,000 Newham residents are denied access to the welfare safety net, under the government's 'no recourse to public funds' (NRPF) policy. The knock-on effect of residents' facing immigration-related issues is huge: families are left too poor to afford everyday essentials, like enough nappies for their babies; schools are missing out on vital funding, which could benefit all their students. Phil cites cases of babies being taken to hospital with nappy rash so bad it is like a severe burn; a colleague of his has calculated that Newham schools are foregoing £4.5m in pupil premiums.
‘The impact of the immigration system is the big punch on the nose for the borough. The question is, how are we going to put ice on it, and make things better?' - Phil
One of Newham's prescribed cures is its Migrant Community Action Plan, of which Refugee Action's Frontline Immigration Advice Project is a key part.
'Refugee Action is playing a vital role in our overall community action plan. We aim to create as much immigration legal knowledge and capacity on the streets of, say, Manor Park and Plaistow, as we can.' - Phil
Although still at the earliest stage, FIAP will mean voluntary organisations which are already well-known and trusted by migrant communities, such as foodbanks and homeless shelters, will be able to offer expert legal advice alongside their other essential services.
Phil says: 'Residents live incredibly local lives. They are not able to traipse across London for legal advice. The intervention of Refugee Action will make a major difference to Newham's immigration advice capacity and make life better for residents'.
One of the organisations signed up for FIAP is Bonny Downs Community Association, which hopes to offer OISC level 1 and level 2 advice, alongside its food bank and other services for local people. The foodbank is run by Susan Masters, who is also a Newham councillor. Susan says: 'We realised as a local authority, it is costing us more money not to have a strategy in place. We can't afford not to do this.'
The numbers of residents needing Bonny Downs' services have 'gone through the roof' since the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, 20 people coming through the doors to collect food for 50 people would have been a 'very, very busy week' at Bonny Downs. In February 2021, they were having 100 people a week looking to feed 300 - putting the service under intense strain. Of these, 75-80% were migrants with NRPF who had lost their jobs due to lockdown. Susan says: 'It was a completely different cohort of people from those we usually see. They had never dealt with our charity before, so they were never on anyone's radar.'
'We began encountering people who need food, but also immigration advice. Very few are aware what their immigration status is.' - Susan
On-site legal expertise through FIAP will mean migrants are informed about their rights to essential services, and will enable some who may have been living in legal limbo for years to secure their lawful immigration status. Susan says: 'People often think they don't have a right to a GP, which is wrong; we know of some who have been challenged over whether they can have the Covid-19 vaccine, which is clearly a public health matter.'
An impressive 28 community organisations initially signed up to find out about FIAP, before being whittled down to six who are being signed on to the scheme. Phil was heartened by the level of interest and delighted at the range and geographical spread across the borough of those taking part. 'We have a really good cross-section of partners. Not just big ones but smaller organisations - ranging from a charity for people who are HIV-positive, to the Somali Association. They are really rooted in their communities, and give us penetration into social networks we could never get close to as a council.'
Phil says Newham's vision is to provide 'the ultimate wraparound' service, and 'end the referral nightmare', which leads too many to give up trying to get help. Residents will be able to get legal advice from the places they already know and trust - their food bank, shelter, or befriending service.
'These services will now have another string to their bow, thanks to FIAP.' - Phil
While the problems facing Newham are familiar to many local authorities, its collaborative and driven approach to resolving them through the action plan may be less typical. Phil says: 'It is a really unusual borough to work in.' He credits Newham's elected mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, with 'amazing leadership' on the issue, and says the baton has been enthusiastically picked up its 'brilliant' voluntary sector and GPs, and 'awesome' head teachers. 'The drive from staff on the frontline is infectious. In the pandemic the public health team has taken centre stage, which enables us to deal with issues far better than we could in the past.'
With the action plan, including support from Refugee Action, Newham's ultimate aim, he adds, is 'to empty the food banks. We don't want to be a borough of food banks. We want to be a borough of solutions'.