Westminster Befriend a Family

Cristina’s Story


Cristina’s Story

Cristina is a lone mother with 3 children who has lived in Westminster for the past 6 years. Her oldest child, who is 10 years old, suffers from severe learning difficulties and behavioural problems.

Due to a delay in diagnosis, Cristina spent many years feeling guilty for her oldest child’s condition and felt judged by society for what she perceived to be a result of poor parenting. Suffering from this guilt led her to develop depression and other forms of mental distress.

She was referred to Westminster Befriend a Family by her GP and she was subsequently paired with a family befriender, Jane. Jane and Cristina developed a trusting relationship over time and Jane was able to provide support to the family. Cristina and her family valued the chance to share their feelings with Jane.

Cristina also participated in one of the parent support groups that Westminster Befriend a Family facilitates. This gave her a chance to discuss her situation with others who listened and cared and assured her that she should not feel guilty. She participated in a one off self-defence lessons organised by the group, as well attending a talk on learning disabilities that was again organised by the support group. Cristina has made the most of activities offered by Westminster Befriend a Family; she has even recently taken a cycling lesson for the first time. This has helped her develop as a mother, build relationships with other parents and to cope with her own mental health difficulties.

Her children were also able to access other services provided by the charity like swimming and martial arts lessons. Through these opportunities her family has been able to develop skills which otherwise they may not have been able to. Cristina now feels like she can be a more supportive parent.

Please note: we have used stock photography and changed the names to protect the identities of our families.

#UncoverWestminster – Housing

Buck Palace housing

It is a well-known fact that London is an expensive city to live in, but what is lesser known is that the rents in the capital are increasing faster than anywhere else in the country. In London, the average age of a first time buyer is now 38 years old, which is higher than the national average.

In Westminster there is a chronic housing problem, caused by a lack of affordable housing. This has led to 30% of housing in Westminster being overcrowded, as defined by the government. This is the third highest rate of overcrowding in the country and is significantly higher than the London and England averages of 17% and 7% respectively.

In 2011 the average cost of renting a 3-bedroom property in Westminster was £700 per week, while the Housing Benefit for a 3 Bedroom property was capped at £340, meaning those without alternative sources of income or financial aid cannot sustain regular affordable rent payments.

The number of families accepted as “homeless” by Westminster council has increased by 86% between 2010/11 and 2012/13. Even so, only half of applications made were accepted in 2012/13. This is put down partially to applications that do not provide enough supporting evidence, demonstrating that applicants need help with applying.

Our befrienders offer services to alleviate stress that a family may be experiencing in terms of housing, alongside offering support with filling in housing benefit applications which is especially useful for those whose first language is not English.

Although the London housing crisis is not unknown, the severity of it is often underplayed so we need to #UncoverWestminster to raise awareness of the struggles that poverty presents in terms of housing and continue to build affordable homes throughout London so that every adult, child and family has somewhere that they can call ‘home’.

#UncoverWestminster – Education

Big Ben education


Only 27% of 16-year-olds on free school meals achieve A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with 54% of their peers. This suggests that the over one million children who are eligible for free school meals because their family income is £16,040 or less, are more likely to do worse at school. These children are also less likely to go into further education; in 2007, only 6% went on to do A-levels, and out of 80,000 15-year-olds who claimed free school meals in 2002, only 45 made it to Oxbridge.

Westminster is particularly affected by child poverty, so it is no surprise that 34% of 19-year-olds in the borough lack level three academic qualifications, for example a-levels. In Westminster 40% of secondary school pupils receive free school meals. That is over twice the England average of 15% of pupils in all state secondary schools in 2011.

There is a cycle in which poverty as a child leads to lower educational achievement and lower educational achievement then leads to poverty as an adult. However, children who receive positive early education are less likely to experience the negative impacts of having parents out of work. Problematically though, children in low-income families are less likely to receive an early education. It has been found that families are the most important factor in determining a child’s educational achievement, which suggests that it is crucial for families to have access to the support needed to help them improve their children’s education. This support will improve children’s’ educational attainment, and then go on to improve future employment opportunities and quality of life. This is why at Westminster Befriend a Family we offer practical help with schoolwork and problems at school, as well as supporting parents; to try and break this cycle so that no more children, or adults, have to live in poverty.

In Westminster 71% of primary school pupils first language is not English, this is over four times the average in England. There is a clear agreement among education and linguistic experts that teaching in the language that children have used from birth, their mother tongue or first language, offers the best chance of educational success. This is why at Westminster Befriend a Family we offer children, and their parents, the chance to socialise in English through a range of weekly community-based sports, arts and educational projects. Evidence has been produced to indicate that where school language is not used in children’s daily lives, it can tip the balance towards total exclusion from learning; so we are aiming to help include English in their everyday lives so that every child can effectively make use of their right to an education and to end the poverty cycle.

This begins to show the importance of breaking the poverty cycle and the shocking impact that education can have on children from disadvantaged families. We need to #UncoverWestminster to raise awareness of these issues and to make sure every person, adult and child alike, has the chance to reach their full potential during their education through receiving a positive education experience and being provided with the support they need to achieve their goals. Poverty is not just about a lack of money but also about a lack of opportunity.

#UncoverWestminster – Health

Traf Sq Health 2


England is known for its National Health Service. It is the largest and the oldest single-payer healthcare system in the world and with one fifth of its budget being spent on providing health care in London alone it would be expected that every person living in London is in equal good health since the service is available to every UK citizen and legal immigrant.

But in Westminster this is not the case. Although the average for those who feel they were in bad or very bad health in Westminster 2011 was 6%, only 1% higher than the London average, there is huge variation within the borough that affects this average, for example in the Church Street ward this number rises to 11%, which is significantly higher than the London and Westminster averages. In 2013, Church Street ranked 537 out of 625 London wards on the GLA Well-being index which looks at a number of measures including health. This gives the Westminster ward one of the worst 25% of wellbeing scores in London. This huge inequality in health is also reflected in life expectancy in Westminster. The gap in life expectancy between the most and least deprived 10% of the Westminster population is 16.6 years for men (the largest gap in England) and 9.9 years for women (the fourth largest gap in England).

There are strong links between poverty and health, as children in poor families are more likely to suffer from both physical and mental health problems which can be long-term and affect them throughout their lifetime. These children are also more likely to be injured or killed in an accident.

Further, Westminster is the worst borough in the country for childhood obesity. The percentage of pupils, 5-16 years old, participating in physical activity in Westminster is 74.76, while the average for England is 83.36. At Westminster Befriend a Family we offer weekly community-based sports programmes, such as swimming and martial arts classes, to help to improve health. 64% of parents of children in our swimming classes ‘strongly agreed’ that they had noticed an improvement in the physical health of their child since they started the lessons. These classes not only have this amazing positive impact on the health of children but they also have many other benefits that have been outlined in previous posts in this series.

Research also suggests there is a significant link between poverty and its contributing factors, and mental health. People in the lowest quintile of household income are nine times more likely to suffer from a psychotic disorder than those in the highest quintile. Suicide rates are much higher among those who are unemployed. There are key areas in which Westminster struggles with regards to health. Mental health appears to be an on-going problem. Inpatient admissions for severe and enduring illnesses are 59% higher than the national average.

At Westminster Befriend a Family we offer coffee mornings for parents using our services, which have many benefits and emotional support, and counselling was outlined by more than 50% of coffee morning users as one of these. The coffee morning is “like a therapy”, one respondent informed us, a space where clients can go and share their experiences.

I meet so many people coming from different groups. Every time that I have problem in any different subject I go there

We need to #UncoverWestminster to raise awareness of the inequality of health throughout London and particularly the borough of Westminster, as no one deserves to suffer in silence.