Martin Holcombe, Chief Executive of Birmingham Settlement, gives his personal take on welfare reform, housing, and the perfect storm currently facing many of the Settlement’s clients.
Welfare reform, the ‘bedroom tax’, tougher sanctions for those receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance, reductions in council tax benefits, reductions in benefits; all happening at once with reduced funding to administer and/or advise those affected – for many the nightmare has just begun; and we haven’t even hit universal credit yet.
What seems to have been overlooked is that many people on benefits already live hand-to-mouth and change at this level is enough to upset the balance and literally send families and individuals lives into chaos; so a whole raft of changes introduced at once with more to come has been nothing short of catastrophic for many.
I’m not saying things shouldn’t change but change on this scale needs to be properly thought through and resourced; implemented at a realistic pace and most importantly, it must be fair.
The number of new food banks opening up and the caps being placed on the number of food parcels people can have shows the reality of the situation – I was on the High Street at the weekend and without moving could see four shops advertising loans or offering cash for goods – to me it’s the payday loan companies benefitting most from these changes and not the taxpayer.
Some statistics from Birmingham Settlement to demonstrate the point: last year for our biggest single advice contract we had 1200 contacts; in April and May alone this year we’ve seen 660 – that’s more than 50% of last years’ total in just two months. At the same time our funding has reduced and we have had to cut our delivery team from 12 to 8.
There has also been a significant increase in the number of people being referred from other agencies who are also struggling to cope – in the last six weeks two advice agencies near us have closed due to lack of funding.
We are advising people that they may have to wait up to three hours, sometimes more, and the fact that most people are prepared to wait says it all; some days we have to simply close the doors because we cannot see any more people.
There is also a real danger to staff struggling to maintain the service. I was in the corridor outside our offices with an adviser last week and he was stopped by an existing client seeking advice, once outside the building he was stopped again by another client – the pressure being placed on small responsive agencies (and their staff) like the Settlement is immense, and is not sustainable.
It’s interesting that Birmingham City Council recently said they had seen a 91% increase in rent arrears since the inception of welfare reform; and a couple of Housing Associations in the North East reported a 300% increase in arrears – and they have empty properties because people aren’t prepared to move into family accommodation – clearly there is a problem.
At Birmingham Settlement we see hundreds of people and it seems to me we’re penalising those who are least able to deal with the situation – it’s out of their hands.
I propose that a much fairer solution would be to send the bill to the housing provider or local authority. If this was the case, pressure would be taken off the people who literally cannot pay; whilst you could be assured the provider would work quicker to find an alternative solution or accommodation – and perhaps even plan for future needs? Obviously, there could be problems as the tenant could, in theory, be offered something totally unsuitable (think of an elderly or disabled lady with mobility needs on the top floor of a tower block), so there would need to be some safeguards. However, at least the problem would be addressed by those who have a voice or ability to influence – and it’s good to see some providers are beginning to stand up and use their position. The reality is that unfortunately our clients don’t have a voice. Who is fighting for them?
Government has said there is flexibility in the system, but the reality doesn’t seem to reflect this – and welfare changes are being applied across the board with little apparent discretion. Even if there was discretion – what allowances would be made and how would they be implemented? That’s another reason why we need to shift responsibility to the provider.
We often talk about inequality and the need to close the gap between the haves and have nots. Indeed, an independent inquiry by MPs recently concluded that the poorest and most deprived parts of the country are the worst affected by public spending cuts. Here in Birmingham we can certainly agree on that.