Citizens Advice Bureau

Spital Hill office manager Chris Walker looks at inequality in north Sheffield

Chris My name’s Chris Walker. I’m the office manager of this outlet, which belongs to Sheffield Citizens Advice.

According to the Fairness Commission report, the Burngreave ward is one of the most deprived in the city. Does this correlate with your experience of working in the area?

Chris I think it would be fair to say most of the stuff that comes in the door is income related, by one way or another. Unemployment isn’t as high as some places. Income is about the worst, and so people have got rubbish jobs, basically.

Other than employment and income related problems, what other issues do people bring into this office?

Chris This is the most diverse area in the city. There’s a huge congregation of quite a range of different ethnicities here, so necessarily they bring that stuff here. There’s an awful lot of trying to get family members together, bringing families back together again. There’s a fair amount of naturalisation – people wanting to become British, and people just rather gobsmacked because they’ve landed up in a completely different country as asylum seekers and they want to see how on earth they can fit in.

Do you think this area is misrepresented within the city?

Chris There’s a general feeling, and I’ve heard it from a lot of people, that they wouldn’t go around here after dark. They feel it’s a violent place and it’s a place which is so different from Sheffield, it’s a little microcosm of the city.

I think people fail to recognise, probably because they haven’t really come here, that it’s lively and dead friendly. There is tension and there is gang identity among young people. But if you walk around here and you talk to people, they’re great - really, really friendly.

Life expectancy differs by almost ten years for women and seven and a half years for men between Ecclesall and Burngreave. What’s your reaction to this statistic?

Chris When you see it, and you remind yourself of how big it is – ten years for women, like you say – it is quite staggering. I think it’s one of the most telling statistics that anyone who’s interested in British society should be aware of. No-one should be satisfied with a country where people die ten years before other people.

There have been concerns that the inequalities in the report could be divisive or upsetting for people in the more deprived areas. Do you think there’s truth in that and how do you think those statistics would be received by people in those communities?

Chris We’ve got a discourse about benefits going off in this country. A lot of Channel 4, Channel 5 programmes looking at what people on benefits are like. I think there’s an awful lot of – promoted by the government, I would say – setting people up for huge welfare reforms that are going to make a lot of people poorer, and so if you can eliminate the backlash then you will up the publicity that says that people on benefits more or less deserve it, and sometimes they don’t even deserve the benefits.

Having a counter argument which shows up statistics, like women die ten years earlier because of their income bracket... I think that needs to be got out, and if it upsets a few people, I hope it’s the people who are rather complacent about it, rather than the people who are having to put up with it.

The Council has to cut its budget by over £50m by next year, taking the total cuts to £238 million. How has austerity affected the services you can provide and how has it affected the kinds of requests you are getting from clients?

Chris Inevitably there will be some redundancies from our organisation sometime in the near future, and that means we necessarily can do less. It really does. The legal aid cuts that visited us just over a year ago – that meant we had to sack people. Specialist benefit workers and debt workers, exactly the people we need. That hurt a great deal. The government ended the social fund, or a large proportion of the social fund, which was invented for and existed to provide relief for the most vulnerable people. Those services necessarily are reduced. All the ideas of pressure on social work, youth work and stuff like that – all that has an effect on how a community is able to bond and progress.

Whose responsibility is it to address these inequalities?

Chris The major player’s got to be the government. But seeing it in isolation of pointing your finger at one agency or one collection of people isn’t going to be very accurate, because there are lots of different players in social inequality.

What is fairness?

Chris Without having to subscribe to a utopian vision, people recognise that societies work better when the disparity between the poor and the rich is as narrow as it functionally can be, under the type of economic system that we’ve got. As it is, we’re going the other way, and we’ve been going the other way for a very long time. That’s what really is dividing society, and I think constipating an awful lot of what should be done in order to address the ills of society. You can make the start of your life as equal as possible, but if you still end up with huge disparities of income you’re going to end up with a sick society.

No-one should be satisfied with a country where people die ten years before other people.

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