Neath Port Talbot Council raises spectre of return to soup kitchens
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.
The prospect was variously described as frightening, terrifying and horrifying when the full impact of the changes was spelt out to councillors.
They accused the Government of being cruel and vicious in targeting the most vulnerable in society, with families and single parents expected to be the hardest hit.
Neath Port Talbot has one of the highest claimant rates in Wales — one in four residents is receiving at least one form of benefit — and so will feel the full force of the impending changes.
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Deputy Neath Port Talbot Council leader Peter Rees said: "We are going back to the era of soup kitchens. This is what this Government is driving us to."
Social justice charity the Bevan Foundation, which the council commissioned to assess the likely impact, has warned that many people will see their benefits cut or even lost altogether.
"It's going to have a huge, incredibly disruptive impact on lots of people," said foundation director Victoria Winckler. "That impact is going to be mostly negative."
To give a few examples, those on Jobseekers' allowance will face tougher requirements, with sanctions being applied to those who do not look for work — at a time when jobs are increasingly scarce.
About half of people on Incapacity Benefit are being found fit for work and either being put on Jobseekers' allowance or losing their benefit altogether.
Meanwhile, around a fifth of people now on disability living allowance are expected not to qualify for a replacement benefit called Pip, or personal independence payment.
Those on housing benefit will also face huge disruption. For example, single people of working age living in three-bedroom homes will have their benefit cut because of new under-occupancy rules — some by as much as £25 a week.
But as Neath Port Talbot has a shortage of single-bed homes, finding smaller, more suitable accommodation may prove impossible. And there will be further disruption when the various benefits are merged into a single payment, called Universal Credit, to be rolled out over four years, starting next October.
The Bevan Foundation estimates that the reforms will result in an average benefit cut of four per cent, though this could be as high as 12 per cent for some.
"That's a lot of money if you are on low income," said Dr Winckler. "It's a big hit.
"The people that will be worst affected are families with children, especially lone parents, and people already on low incomes. This is a massive hit for them.
"We don't know how they 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.
Neath Port Talbot Council is now holding crisis management talks not only between its own departments likely to be affected, such as housing benefits, welfare rights and homelessness, but external agencies too.
They are looking at what can be done to mitigate the worst effects or, as Dr Winckler put it, take the edge off the harshness.
Measures could include easing the restrictions on school uniforms to save parents money, and providing people with advice on how to manage reduced budgets.
Mr Rees said: "This is evidence that what this uncaring, vicious Government is doing, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities.
"Where they think people are going to find work I just don't understand."
Policy and resources scrutiny committee chairman Des Davies said: "It's frightening to see the extent of the challenge before us."