In March 2012, the Welfare Reform Act, which changed many social welfare benefits, was enacted.
It introduced universal credit, to replace a number of benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, council tax benefit, housing benefit and child benefit. It also placed a cap on the total benefits that a claimant could receive, reducing how much welfare they would be entitled to overall. The changes made to housing benefits include penalties for people deemed to have too much living space or too many bedrooms, known colloquially as the bedroom tax.
Since 2010, homelessness has risen by 34%. According to a report by the homelessness charity Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, welfare cuts, which contribute to a constraint on housing access and supply, are critical to the rising levels of homelessness. The bedroom tax limits the amount of affordable housing available, especially to homeless families who are also affected by the child benefit cap.
The report goes on to say that the bedroom tax is too constrictive, because it only takes size and number of bedrooms into account, and not factors such as health which would make it unreasonable to expect families to share rooms. It concludes that homelessness will continue to rise, even as the economy improves overall, because policy changes to welfare have a more direct bearing on levels of homelessness than the recession in and of itself.
Another change to benefits that will affect those who are homeless or vulnerably housed is the change from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment, another part of the Welfare Reform Act. The eligibility criteria for PIP is stricter than DLA, and people in sheltered housing or hostels probably won’t be eligible for a component of PIP, even though many have some form of disability. Those who are not eligible have to appeal against the decision that they are not entitled to receive it.
The UK’s poorest families are being pushed deeper into poverty, according to an Oxfam report, and as a result are turning to food banks. The welfare cuts have meant that those who are unemployed, single parents, carers, and those with disabilities are worse off.
A report, commissioned by the government, written by food policy experts at the university of Warwick, further confirms that benefit cuts are a factor in the increased demand for food banks, though there isn’t enough evidence for a direct causal link.
This contradicts statements made by Lord Freud, the Work and Pensions minister who helped to introduce the Welfare Reform act, who said that the demand for food banks might have nothing to do with benefit cuts, and that people go to food banks because they want free food, not because they need it. However most food banks require referrals by care professionals (Doctors, social workers or health visitors) specifically to prevent this kind of opportunism.
The Trussel Trust, a UK charity that runs food banks, has reported a 21% rise in people who use its services, and executive chairman Chris Mould commented, “The only people who seem unable to accept there is a social crisis driven by the cost of living is the Government.”
It’s clear that the welfare cuts have been damaging to those for whom social welfare is a lifeline, including our service users. Statements made to the effect that claimants are opportunistic, lazy or undeserving of welfare are misleading and unhelpful. Only once it’s been acknowledged that welfare reform is proving detrimental to the most vulnerable members of society can the situation be improved.