The 1 in 4 on benefits facing some big changes
CRISIS meetings are being held amid dire predictions that the Government’s benefits reforms will plunge Neath Port Talbot back to the dark days of soup kitchens. Post reporter PAUL LEWIS takes a closer look at the problem.
THE Government's welfare reforms will bring massive changes to the one in four people in Neath Port Talbot claiming some kind of benefit.
And those changes are almost certainly going to be for the worse, leading to fears that the county, like many other parts of Wales, could be plunged into the dark days of soup kitchens.
Neath Port Talbot Council is now working with other agencies, including the Citizens Advice Bureau, to explore ways of helping people who will be worse off as a result of the changes.
And most people will be worse off. Social justice charity the Bevan Foundation, which the council commissioned to assess the likely impact of the reforms, has made that clear.
Foundation director Victoria Winckler says: "It's going to have a huge, incredibly disruptive impact on lots of people. I think that impact is going to be mostly negative.
"Some people will lose their benefits completely. That is the Government's aim.
"It's bringing huge changes to almost all social security benefits and those will have a big impact on the people of Neath Port Talbot, as elsewhere."
Dr Winckler said there would be tougher requirements for those receiving Jobseekers' Allowance, with sanctions applied to anyone who doesn't look for work.
As far as Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance were concerned, she said: "About half of the people being assessed are being found fit for work and being put on Jobseekers' Allowance or losing benefits altogether.
"Even those not fit for work right now are expected to stay in touch with the labour market.
"There are big changes with income support. Any lone parent with a child aged over five is put on Jobseekers' allowance and expected to comply with the requirements even though their child is only just the statutory school age.
"Disability living allowance is being reassessed and replaced with Pip (personal independence payment).
"People are being assessed for that. The Government expects about 20 per cent of people getting DLA will not get Pip. Even those who get on to Pip may find they are on a lower rate of benefit."
Housing benefit, she said, would see the most complicated and draconian changes of all.
One relates to under-occupancy. If only one person of working age lives in a three-bedroom house they will have their benefit reduced.
Working tax credits are also changing. "The number of hours you have to work before you can claim the benefit has gone up from 16 to 24," said Dr Winckler.
"Someone working 18 hours will no longer be eligible to receive it and it will affect their income."
As if all that isn't enough, there's the prospect of what Dr Winckler called the "big whammy" of Universal Credit.
Due to be rolled out for four years from next October, this will replace several benefits for working-age people and lead to a single payment of up to £500 a week for each household, depending on circumstances.
This payment will be made monthly, in arrears, and people will have no choice but to apply online for it.
One in four people in Neath Port Talbot receives at least one benefit, among the highest rates in the country. That means the changes will be particularly hard felt.
Dr Winckler said: " About two in 10 people getting disability living allowance will be found to be not disabled enough.
"People receiving incapacity benefit are being found fit for work and put on Jobseekers' allowance.
"Other people will see a big drop in income. People on housing benefits could be up to £25 a week worse off because of the under-occupancy regulation.
"Some people will lose up to 12 per cent of their income. It will be four per cent on average but for some it will be 12 per cent.
"That is a lot of money if you are on low income. It's a big hit. The people that will be the worst affected are families with children, especially lone parents and people already on the lowest incomes. This is a massive hit.
"People will be under intense pressure to find and accept any job because the sanctions are really punitive. There are then all kinds of issues about child protection and the vulnerability of children.
"Also, where do people go if they want a smaller house if you're in a three-bedroom house and want one bedroom? Most social landlords don't have lots of one-bedroom properties and not many of them are vacant."
Dr Winckler also fears disabled people would become less independent. "They will have less money to pay for taxis for carers and to maintain their independence. We might see an increase in household stresses and strains," she said.
"We don't know how people are going to manage. Lots of people are predicting an increase in crime and mental health problems and family breakdowns. We just don't know. But if you're losing 10 per cent of your income that may well be the consequence."