Islington People’s Rights marks 50 years supporting community with exhibition

Employment Office, Barnsbury Road, 1980s. Picture: London Borough of Islington �Libraries

Employment Office, Barnsbury Road, 1980s. Picture: London Borough of Islington �Libraries - Credit: Archant

A charity offering welfare, benefits and debt advice has launched an exhibition at Islington Museum to celebrate turning 50.

Photographer unknown, circa 1978 © Islington People’s Rights. Picture: Islington People's Rights

Photographer unknown, circa 1978 © Islington Peoples Rights. Picture: Islington People's Rights - Credit: Archant

Islington People's Rights (IPR) was founded to support the community in 1969 and now helps more than 2,500 people each year.

A free exhibition showcasing the stories of people who have benefited from IPR's expertise will run at the St John Street museum from Saturday until January 21.

The exhibition explores how IPR deals with a growing demand for its services, which has increased markedly over recent years due to central government cuts and the introduction of Universal Credit.

Chief exec Gerard Omasta-Milsom, who took the helm in 2009, told the Gazette: "[IPR] has grown over the years from a small voluntary organisation to an independent advice agency, proving welfare, benefit advice, particularly supporting people with disabilities, mental health issues and other issues like unemployment.

"Welfare reforms have meant that the ability of people to access benefits has got increasingly challenging.

"I think the reality is welfare reforms over the past 50 years have impacted particularly on some of the most vulnerable residents in the borough. It has made it pretty difficult to access help.

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"Universal Credit is pretty much an online system, so people with low literacy and IT skills have difficulty doing application forms."

He has urged Universal Credit claimants who need some help to attend one of the nine free benefit drop in sessions at Islington Museum. Sessions run from 10.30am to 12.30pm on November 11, 16, 21, 29, on December 2, 6 and 14, plus January 9 and 18.

Mr Omasta-Milsom added: "Today, over a third of Islington's population live in poverty meaning that there remains a continued and growing need for IPR's services. The exhibition to celebrate our 50th anniversary will reflect on current challenges in meeting growing demands for IPR services, given the introduction of Universal Credit and years of austerity."

Universal Credit is an online-only system monthly payment that replaces six legacy benefits, including Job Seekers' Allowance.

It has been criticised for pushing people into rent arrears and towards food bank dependency due to the wait of up to six-weeks for the first payment.

There are numerous horror stories of administrative errors as the system has been introduced.

In December, the Gazette highlighted the case of Lawrence Curtis, who wasn't paid benefits for 10-weeks due to a mistake by the Department of Work and Pensions. He incurred £800 of rent arrears over this period.

About 70 per cent of the people IPR helps each year are disabled and many have mental health issues.

The charity has produced a series of testimonials on its website. These include the words of Anna, who was 55 at the time of interview and has multiple sclerosis.

She said: "By the time I saw the worker at IPR I felt I couldn't go on. Just living from day to day was too much of a struggle. My son helped me a lot - several hours a day. But he's in his 20s and I felt like I was ruining his life. My IPR caseworker sorted things out. She helped me get a Disability Living Allowance and I now have the care I need at home and get to the day centre where I have made some friends. I feel I can start living again and have a future."

Robert, 85, a full time carer, added: "After my wife developed dementia I struggled to cope with both caring for her and doing all the other things like cleaning the flat and shopping. The IPR adviser helped me to claim some extra help and it helped a lot.

"At the worst point you sit there and wonder how you can cope. Now I feel supported and able to manage each day."

As part of the IPR exhibition, there will be guided "people's struggles for people's rights walks" around Clerkenwell led by David Rosenberg on November 9 and December 7, both of which leave from Old Finsbury Town Hall in Roseberry Avenue at 10.30am.

Dan Norris, head of advice and rights at Child Poverty Action Group will give a talk on the impacts of Universal Credit at Islington Museum at 2.30pm on November 14 and IPR'S AGM, with guest speakers including Islington Council leader Richard Watts, will take place at City University at 6.30pm on November 19. Events are free but advanced reservation via is essential for the latter.