South of the River – in the land of “reform”

Compass-SouthNever mind the Budget this week, it’s the massive cuts already coming our way in the Welfare Reforms that will hurt South Leeds.

I went to the Inner South Area Committee meeting on Wednesday night. I haven’t written up a proper report because it was mostly rather dull. However, the debate on the so-called Welfare Reforms brought home to me the full horror of what’s coming.

I say “so-called” because I always associate reform with progress. For example, the 1832 Reform Act gave votes to more people. The massive Chartist demonstrations on Holbeck and Hunslet Moors called for reform. But this government’s welfare reform is not progressive, it’s a massive attack on the poor and on this city.

It starts with what the government are now calling the “spare room subsidy”. I think we all know it’s a Bedroom Tax. We’ve covered this before, but just to remind you this is a reduction in Housing Benefit for people who have “too many” bedrooms. This affects couples who have to sleep in separate rooms because of ill health and disability; people who have access to the their children at weekends and many others.

Council Tax Benefit is being cut by 10%, but the cut only falls on working age people. So for those affected it will actually be a 19% cut.

Then there’s the Benefit Cap. This limits the total amount of benefits any one family can get. This is mostly a propaganda measure, it certainly won’t save the government much money, but it will be very hard on those it hits.

The Bedroom Tax will cut £5.5m off the grant Leeds City Council get from government. The cut to Council Tax Benefit is another £5.5m. The Benefit Cut will take another £1m. So that’s £12m less for Leeds, but the government is giving Leeds £1m for a discretionary hardship to help everyone cope – so that’s alright then.

These changes come in to effect in April. The government have manoeuvred councils into the front line to make this attack on their behalf, presumably in the hope of deflecting the blame. My Other Half works for Wakefield Council and tells me that of their 60 call centre lines, 47 are dealing with welfare benefits enquiries. I’m sure it’s the same in Leeds. This is one of the ways the cuts affect us all.

In October the government follows up with the introduction of Universal Credit. Simplifying the benefits system is not a bad thing in itself, but there are some features that could have disastrous consequences.

Firstly you can only claim online. This sounds innocuous enough. You and I do lots of things online. But a lot of people still aren’t confident using a computer, let alone for something as important as this. If you don’t have a computer you’ll have to find a library that’s still open and join a queue there instead of the Job Centre. My experience of claiming benefits online was not good and led to several phone calls and a face to face interview. I don’t expect the technology or the language of the forms to have improved greatly, so there are bound to be problems.

Payment of all benefits will come in one payment. Once a month. In arrears. To whichever member of the household made the claim. These all have implications for claimants.

At the moment, for many, Housing Benefit is paid to the landlord to ensure the rent is paid. They’ve piloted paying Housing Benefit directly to tenants and guess what? The rent arrears have shot up, causing problems for tenants and landlords. I’ve talked before about the difficulty of budgeting on a low income and moving to monthly payments will make this tougher. If your fridge breaks down at the start of the month you might have the cash to fix or replace it, but how are going to buy any food to put in it at the end of the month?

One of the great things about Child Benefit is that it was paid, by default, to the mother. This meant she had a source of income even if her husband drank and gambled his wage or benefit. Not all men do this, but some do, especially if they’re under stress. It gave some protection to the children in the household.

Now imagine the scenario. There’s little money in the household. Perhaps the parents row over what it should be spent on, in some cases this will lead to domestic violence. Perhaps the father is frustrated that he can’t provide and tries to increase the pot by placing a few bets. Perhaps he is drawn to the big prize gambling machine at the bookies and spends the month’s benefits because surely the next bet must come right. How will they pay the bills? It’s OK they can get a short term loan to tide them over – they’re advertised on the telly. The interest rate is only 4000%, it’s quite legal.

I’m painting a bleak picture and it doesn’t apply to every family living on benefits. But if you think these changes won’t lead to an increase in domestic violence, debt and evictions, then you must be living on another planet.

I’ve talked before about the effects of moving children from school to school. Universal Credit and the Bedroom Tax are only going to make it worse. So standards in local schools will appear poor despite excellent teaching and Mr Gove and get on with privatising them.

To be fair, the Council aren’t standing back and doing nothing. They are “actively considering” re-designating properties (eg two bedroom to one bedroom) and not evicting tenants who get into arrears because of the Bedroom Tax. They are trying to increase the access to computers across the city and encouraging people not to use doorstep or pay day lenders. But this isn’t enough, we need to stop these changes. The Bedroom Tax seems to be turning into this government’s Poll Tax. We can all help to make sure it goes the same way as the Poll Tax by joining the demonstration in Leeds on 20th April.

Jeremy MortonIt’s a bleak view from this side of the river this week, I’m afraid, but I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.

One Reply to “South of the River – in the land of “reform””

  1. There are three things about this which make me particularly angry:

    (1) The reductions in public expenditure are being focussed particularly on local authorities rather than central government. In a letter to ‘The Guardian’ on Wednesday (20 March 2013) a number of Labour Council leaders state that ‘Local authorities have seen their budgets cut by 33% in comparison to 8% across Whitehall departments.’ The letter suggests pooling funding across public agencies which, it says could save £4bn. One of the great frustrations of my working life was trying to persuade one bit of the public sector to invest in something which would be more cost effective but finding endless reluctance because that bit of the public sector wouldn’t be the bit that received the financial saving.

    (2) All political parties do things which they perceive to be of narrow benefit to their supporters and follow unthought through dogma. The proposal to stop paying housing benefit direct to landlords is a classic example of this. When I had a mortgage the building society (remember them?!) insisted I paid by direct debit from my bank account. So what is the significant difference between the two practices?

    (3) To be honest, given what I see as an attempt to destroy public services and to hammer the poor I would find it difficult to agree that what is being done is ethical. But let’s suppose it was working and this was the only way a sustainable future could be achieved for the United Kingdom would I be willing to support it then? The trouble is, on the key indicators (economic growth and increase in public debt) it isn’t working…

    I would genuinely appreciate someone commenting why they think the government’s policy is right and what I am missing…

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