Chiswick hosts frustrated at lack of action from Hounslow Council to support Ukrainian refugees

Image above: Chiswick House cafe

Picnic in the park for Ukrainian refugees

People in Chiswick who are hosting Ukrainian refugees have got together to form an informal support network.

There are 50 or so refugees living in Chiswick now, mainly single young women or women with children, and many more across the borough as a whole.

The Chiswick host families organised a picnic on Saturday at Chiswick House cafe as a bit of fun, but more importantly as a networking opportunity so their guests would be able to make friends and are not isolated. On Friday there will be a rare screening of a Disney film in Ukrainian.

Yet even something as simple as letting all the refugees know about these opportunities for socialising has apparently been beyond the capability of the Council.

One of the host families has sent a searing letter of complaint which they have shared with The Chiswick Calendar.

“We had a lovely picnic” they told us. “About 50 guests and hosts. Lots of networking and contacts made. They received phone data cards, advice on job seeking, kids’ activities, English language courses, official paperwork – and discovered the joy of Pimms.”

“Apart from the schooling (very welcoming and swift) there was a general agreement that the Council has done nothing and we have all been left to sink or swim. Several hosts had rung the council in fury when the £200 vouchers [supposed to be issued by the Council to each refugee to cover basic costs] were not issued, leaving the Ukrainians utterly destitute, sometimes for weeks.

The irritation came to a head when LB Hounslow refused to inform local refugees of a welcome picnic organised by Chiswick hosts, citing data protection concerns.

“One lady who happened to be passing and saw the Ukrainian flag at Chiswick House cafe said, ” if only we’d known, our guest is all alone here and it would have been lovely for her to meet others who speak her language”.”

No can do – ‘data protection’ – say ‘Community solutions’ team

Many times as a journalist I have tried to get in touch with someone I do not know, to be told that whoever it was who had their number could not pass it on. That is expected and the solution is perfectly simple – I always ask if they can contact them on my behalf. That is exactly what the organisers of the picnic did with Hounslow Council.

No sharing of data would have been involved if the Council had just undertaken to send out an email themselves saying there was a picnic taking place, when and where, but they refused. Instead LB Hounslow’s proposed solution was to promote the picnic through social media.

‘I have checked with our Information Governance specialist team and we are not able to use the personal data of sponsors and guests we have collected for the purpose of sending invitations to community events’ wrote Katarzyna Banek of the ‘Community Solutions’ team (apparently without irony).

‘So you are saying that you can’t send out useful information to people who need the information?’ the organiser of the picnic wrote back.

“This is a complete aberration of the use of the Data Protection law. It is designed to protect people from exploitation and PR, not to prevent them from receiving useful and welcome information from people who are, to be honest, filling in the gaps in what you, the government (local and central), should be doing.

Her complaint was escalated to someone more senior – Marianne Mandujano, a ‘Policy Analyst’, who replied that the data they had received from central government “was not intended for the purpose of promoting events.’

“Our approach to this event will be consistent with how we promote other community events through social media.”

The organiser of the picnic told us caustically:

“It’s doubtful how many newly arrived refugees follow Hounslow on Twitter.”

A letter to Hounslow Council – Hounslow is displaying ‘a general apathy and lack of action’

Finally in fury at their refusal to help she wrote this letter:

‘A few months ago we applied to host a Ukrainian refugee. The visa application process is generally opaque, with some people receiving a response within a fortnight, and some seemingly jammed in the Home Office U-bend with no information and no way to discover what’s happening. One Chiswick family finally got their guest’s permission through last week after an agonising wait of 51 days, during which time her family home in Kharkiv was bombed, and two rockets landed on her apartment complex in Kiev – one died, six injured, she escaped…

‘Sadly once they have arrived in London Ukrainian refugees are finding themselves ill-served by the London Borough of Hounslow. There seems to be a general apathy and lack of action from the council, which contrasts unfavourably with other boroughs. Hosts are finding themselves responsible for sorting out everything, helping their guests financially and with information on all aspects of their new lives.

‘Guests are supposed to receive an immediate emergency payment from the council of £200. However, many of us hosts had to ring and demand this, after our guests had been living with us for a few weeks. The money comes as a QR code, redeemable at selected shops, but is not available as cash. There is, for instance, no payment for transport, even though guests are told to report to the local Job Centre. a bus ride away, for emergency funding and assistance. Hosts are buying Oyster cards.

‘The Hounslow officer recommended going to the Job Centre for emergency support but when my guest went to the nearest one in Acton – as recommended by the Red Cross on her arrival – she was sent away, told to get a bank account first, and told to make an online appointment.

‘Ten days later, when she had her bank account and visited the Job Centre she was told she should have made an appointment for a different Job Centre (Ealing Broadway), so she made another appointment for a week later. When she attended this, she was told she should have gone to the other Ealing Broadway Job Centre. Thus passed the first month. By then she had luckily found a job so she happily gave up on the Job Centre. Hounslow should not be fobbing people off to the Job Centre for things that are not within their competence.

‘The information last week’s arrival received about English classes is equally lackadaisical, to the point of shoddiness. For instance, the English language course Hounslow recommended last week is apparently under a scheme called Ukraine Shames. Really??? Either this is an incredibly insensitive name, or perhaps the officer has made a very unfortunate typo.

‘(“Adult learners from the Ukraine Shames are eligible for the Learn English at Learn Hounslow service…. “). Whichever it is, the course she recommended doesn’t even start until September. Are they really expecting people to sit in poverty and incomprehension for over two months – when there are loads of free English classes offered by other bodies, that Hounslow can’t be bothered to find out about.

‘My guest has had no contact from Hounslow at all, apart from her £200 voucher, although she has been here for over two months. Luckily we could lend/give her some money, an Oyster card, and a bicycle, as well as food and clothing, otherwise she would have done very badly in her first months. Now she has a job she has proudly insisted on paying us back.

‘Meanwhile we are still awaiting our paperwork to be completed, despite chasing it several times. We have now heard that at least one Ukrainian has been given notice because her host cannot be bothered by the ongoing paperwork, and wants her out of his house within two weeks. This will not be the last such case.

‘Last week hosts organised a social gathering where Ukrainians could meet one another and exchange information. Hounslow refused to pass on the information, citing data protection legislation. Nevertheless there were some 50 people networking, finding out information and just enjoying speaking their own language. This Friday there is a children’s film in Ukrainian organised by a local school, but presumably the council is again unable to let people know. Pity.

‘I am sympathetic to the fact that central government is promising things, and the local councils are scampering behind the curve trying to catch up. But we are three months into the scheme, and they are wasting time and resources playing with traumatised people’s lives by refusing to engage with guests or hosts, giving out inaccurate information, and generally approaching the situation in what looks from where I sit to be a ramshackle and insensitive fashion.

‘There are cheap and easy solutions to some of this. eg.sharing information, eg. putting people in touch with one another, eg. letting them know about other council’s provisions such as English classes and legal advice. Why not organise a meeting where they could meet one another, maybe have someone from Citizen’s Advice…

‘There are fantastic resources out there, not least from a local charity, West London Welcome. Also from the hosts themselves, who have had to learn the hard way what is available. Instead of deploying this network and working with the community, we have Hounslow bleating about Information policy and the prime importance of not sharing any contact details, rather than solving the actual issue which is helping these people to integrate in and make the best of an awful situation. And if this is happening with the Ukrainian guests, then I suppose there are similar issues with other nationalities.

‘Hounslow is displaying a general apathy and lack of action. They are to receive £10,000 for each Ukrainian refugee from central government. So far they seem to have (reluctantly) shelled out £200 in vouchers for each person. Inspections and DBS checks are running way behind. So what are they doing with the rest of the money?’

Response from Cllr Shrivraj Grewal

Councillor Shrivraj Grewal, Cabinet Member for Communities and Equalities, said:

“The borough has a longstanding and historic commitment to refugees. Since the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme launched in March, we have worked hard to ensure Ukrainian refugees have the tools and resources to proudly call Hounslow their home.

“Due to data protection laws, we were unable to promote the picnic event through the government’s database. However, we are looking forward to working closely with sponsors and community groups to promote similar events.”

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Ukrainian girl settled in Chiswick expresses her thanks

See also: The west London families preparing to host Ukrainian refugees

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

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