How the other 40,000 live

Rebecca Evans AM shares her week living on benefits at a time when costs are rising

Statistics show Wales has been hit harder by the removal of the spare room subsidy or ‘bedroom tax’ than any other part of the UK. Brought in as part of the Welfare Reform Act, the policy cuts housing benefit for any bedroom deemed to be unoccupied and has affected nearly 40,000 tenants across Wales, including 3,500 disabled people.

This figure represents 46% of working age social housing tenants in Wales, the highest proportion in all of the UK.

The significant shortage of smaller homes means increased demand cannot be met. During the first six months of the policy, 78% of landlords saw rental arrears rocket to £1.1m.

A motion for the UK Government to abolish the policy was proposed and passed at the Assembly in May, following support from the Labour Party. Although this has highlighted a concern for the disproportionate impact of the policy on Wales, the ‘bedroom tax’ is an issue that has not been devolved, and so unfortunately is a policy we do not have control over.  We can, however, prepare tenants for the changes.

With 97% of tenants still needing to find smaller houses, Community Housing Cymru’s ‘Your Benefits Are Changing’ (YBAC) campaign is playing an essential role in helping tenants prepare for further change, offering free and independent advice to those affected.

In support of the campaign, I wanted to raise awareness of the challenges facing welfare claimants and gain a better understanding of how much understanding there is around changes to the welfare system.

Living off £72.40 for just one week, I did not expect to fully experience the very real challenges faced by people who depend on and need welfare support, but I wanted to find out more about the difficult decisions facing many thousands of people every day.

As part of the exercise, it was arranged for me to speak with job seekers, food bank volunteers, YBAC money advisors, and housing association staff and tenants during the week. During our discussions, the message was the same: people are struggling and many have had their lives irrevocably damaged by welfare policies.

Just last week it was reported that my constituents Paul and Sue Rutherford, grandparents and carers to a severely disabled child, have lost their appeal against the ‘bedroom tax’, despite needing a bedroom to house their grandson’s medication and for his additional carers to sleep in. Downsizing just isn’t an option as their home has been specially adapted to meet their grandson’s severe needs. After fighting a high profile media campaign, the Rutherfords won Discretionary Housing Payments, but they have now brought the case forward for all the other families in their position who just do not have that kind of fight in them. I am backing the Rutherfords in their appeal.

Campaigners against the ‘bedroom tax’ argue that now is the right time for a sector-wide approach to help tenants appeal the policy. ‘Appeal and Pay’ is an initiative created to help people appeal through information sharing, support and advice and has gained support from housing providers, tenant groups and other third sector organisations.

During the week, I discovered the ‘bedroom tax’ charge creates a significant dent in a small budget. The average weekly expenditure for someone living off job seekers allowance in my home area of Carmarthenshire leaves just £13.58 for food and essentials once utilities, the TV license, phone bills and the ‘bedroom tax charge’ have been paid – that is less than £2.00 a day for food as I explain below:

With plans to roll out Universal Credit – which will involve replacing six existing benefits with a single monthly payment for one household, paid into one bank account – by 2016/17, housing associations are right to be concerned that this policy may have a serious effect on poverty levels.

Oxfam’s worrying ‘Below the Breadline’ report released this week shows food bank use in Wales is already ‘disproportionately high’, and highlights low pay and welfare cuts as major factors driving people to emergency food supplies.

During my visit to a food bank in Llanelli, I felt proud that our communities pull together to support people in tough times – but we have to question why we have food banks in the 21st century. As the sixth richest economy in the world, how can we justify 900,000 people relying on emergency food supplies?

The effect of rising poverty levels on children is a particular concern. The Welsh Government has estimated benefit reforms could increase child poverty in Wales by 6,000 and it is concerning even before the policy has been rolled out, families are struggling with the basic cost of living. A YBAC money advisor told me that around a quarter of people seeking advice are actually in work, and that the majority of children in poverty live in a household where one adult works. A mother I met told me her husband is on a zero hour contract, meaning the family can’t plan financially with any certainty – this shows that welfare reform isn’t just affecting the unemployed, it is hitting working families already unable to scrape a decent existence.

When the average person is expected to lose 4.1 per cent of income due to change, additional support is vital. Worryingly many people are unprepared for welfare reform. One tenant I met told me policy changes happen so quickly, that there is little chance to prepare for the impact they will have.

To date, the YBAC money advice team has given advice to over 7,500 people and for every one pound spent on advice provision and awareness raising, £6.50 has been saved for tenants. They have restructured budgets to manage £1.7m of non-priority debt, identified £1.3m of water related debt and unclaimed benefits.

Without cross-sector collaboration, community-run projects and the third sector, our most vulnerable communities will be hit harder by welfare reform. We may not be able to prevent the introduction of policies, but we can work together to reduce the impact and help those affected to adjust to change.

Rebecca Evans is an Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales.

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