Benefit Changes in West Norfolk

BENEFIT CHANGES CAUSE SUFFERING IN KING’S LYNN AND WEST NORFOLK

1. 80 people losing unemployment pay each month by being sanctioned.

2. Many disabled people losing benefits.

3. 1000 people losing £10-25 a week of housing benefit because of ‘bedroom tax’ with many unable to move into a smaller house.

4. 41 people have had their benefits capped.

5. An estimated 3750 people on low incomes are now having to pay some of their Council tax.

This leaflet aims to show how the Government’s many recent changes to the welfare system – by increasing levels of debt and therefore poverty – are affecting people in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk.

Foodbank
The King’s Lynn Foodbank, one of several hundred in the U.K., opened in October 2011 in the Purfleet Trust’s premises. Food for three days is provided on presentation of a voucher which states the number of people in need and the reason for giving it. The sixty voucher distributors in the area include the Job Centre Plus, the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Purfleet Trust. Recipients are
allowed a maximum of three food parcels each six months. The statistics show how demand has risen, and continues to rise:

  2012 2013 2014 (1st quarter)
Adults 1180 2156 650
Children 422 907 224

The main reasons for giving vouchers are benefit delays (sanctions) and benefit changes – 68%. Low income and/or debt account for 18%. Homelessness, delayed wages, domestic violence, unemployment and sickness account for the remaining 14% of vouchers.

Sanctions

The new more vigorous sanctions regime for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) began in October 2012. JSA is the Government’s benefit to unemployed adults or those working fewer than 24 hours a week, and actively looking for work. Sanctions, which mean a complete loss of unemployment pay, are imposed for a minimum of four weeks up to a maximum of three years if someone fails to demonstrate they are available for, and actively seeking work. Reasons include not attending an interview, not participating in a training scheme, or not actively seeking employment.

Between October 22, 2012 and June 30, 2013 in West Norfolk 690 people were sanctioned. This means some 80 people a month losing their income. An additional 340 sanctions were cancelled on appeal.

A revised sanction regime for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was introduced in December 2012, replacing Incapacity Benefit. ESA is the benefit for those unable to work through illness or disability, or are only capable of a limited amount or range of work. There are no statistics for the number of people sanctioned by the King’s Lynn Job Centre, but between December 3, 2012 and June 30, 2013 East Anglia (Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge) had 690 sanctions.

Until recently an ESA claimant was sent to ATOS (Vancouver House, King’s Lynn) for an assessment of its validity. You can appeal if refused your ESA, with help from the charity, West Norfolk Disability Information Service, who deal with around 30 appeals per month, 90% being successful. ATOS have now terminated their contract for this work with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

Bedroom Tax

The official name is the Social Rented Sector Under Occupancy Deduction, but is more widely known as the ‘bedroom tax’. The new housing benefit rules for social tenants of working age (not pensioners), introduced on April 1 2013, meant that having one more bedroom than you are judged to need, cut housing benefit – given by the Government towards your rent if you have insufficient income – by 14% and for two (or more) bedrooms by 25%. A couple is allowed one bedroom, one for a person over 16, one for two children under 16 of the same sex and one bedroom for two children under 10 of different sexes. A household with a disabled child who cannot share a room with another child due to the disability will still qualify for an extra room. There is no similar provision for disabled adults.

The King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council’s statistics on the number of tenants affected at March 31, 2014 show total claims subject to the tax: 1035, with 882 subject to deduction of 14% and 153 to 25%. The number of pensioners who were assessed as having an excess of bedrooms but who are exempt from the tax was 1496. The total number of people on the Council’s housing benefit case load is 9912.

The Council also provided figures of the weekly reduction in benefit and the numbers of those affected:

Amount in £ Claimants affected
5 to 9.99 5
10 to 14.99 837
15 to 19.99 40
20 to 24.99 129
25 and above 24

Freebridge Community Housing, West Norfolk’s largest social housing provider (around 7000 houses) in West Norfolk, have an incentive scheme for tenants wishing to move into smaller accommodation for any reason. By February 2014, 84 had downsized with 112 on the waiting list, but unable to find a suitable property. The Lynn News reported in October 2013 that approximately £50,000 of rent arrears was then owed to Freebridge.

One safety net, the Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP), is available for people who are subject to the bedroom tax, and is available from the Borough Council. In 2013/14, 699 people applied for DHP: 492 were successful being awarded a total of £223,318. This includes 358 people affected by the bedroom tax. In the previous year 161 people were awarded a total of £43,734.

Benefit Cap

Another welfare change introduced by the Government from 2013 was a cap on the weekly amount of benefit that people of working age could receive. The cap is £350 per week for a single person and £500 per week for single parents and for couples with or without children. During 2013/14, 41 people were subject to the Benefit Cap, with 23 current claims still being capped.

Council Tax Support

Until April 1st this year, people of working age on low incomes received help towards their Council Tax bill. With Government financial support reduced, the Borough Council decided that some people will now have to pay 25% of their Council Tax out of income. Certain groups are protected including people with a disability, households with a child under 5 and those entitled to a Carer’s Allowance. People of pension age are also excluded. Working people are now able to keep an extra £10 a week before it affects their Council Tax Support. The Council estimated that 3750 people would be affected to the extent of up to £15 per week. A Hardship Fund is available to help those in greatest need.

Case Studies

Three of the charities in King’s Lynn (Shelter, Citizens Advice Bureau and the Purfleet Trust) that provide advice and help to people in difficulties have given me 12 case studies. There is insufficient room here to include these case studies but all show the reality of poverty that have resulted from the cuts to people’s benefits.

Morality of Welfare cuts

Since October 2012 when the Government’s welfare changes began, the effects on some of our neighbours in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk (with its population of 148,600) has been devastating. I fear that we will hear in the coming months of many people of West Norfolk being forced into increasing debt and destitution. Religious leaders wrote a letter in February 2014 to a national paper expressing the deep concern felt by churches over the Government’s ‘brutal’ welfare cuts which have left many people facing hunger and hardship. The Prime Minister replied saying that the Government had a Moral Mission for welfare reforms so that people aren’t trapped in a cycle of dependency. A further letter in April by hundreds of church leaders called on the Government to tackle food poverty which was a ‘national crisis’.

There have been individual cases (reported in the right-wing press) where benefits have been abused, still are and probably always will be. But should thousands of people including the hundreds in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk I have documented above, be thrust into debt and lack of food and heat because of them?

Acknowledgements

I thank the many local charities and local individuals who have helped and inspired me.

Prepared by Chris Lindley (christopher.lindley1@btinternet.com)

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