Sunday, 29 May 2016

The True Cost of Austerity (Part 2)

This post is part of a series :

The True Cost of Austerity - Part 1 (Advice Nottingham Report)
The True Cost of Austerity - Part 2 (Effect on Children)
The True Cost of Austerity - Part 3 - Accountability

Back in 2014, Advice Nottingham published a report titled "Children in an Age of Austerity" which looked at the effect that changes in welfare rules have had on families.

The findings of the report include that :

* Families deemed to be ‘under occupying’ their accommodation are experiencing financial hardship and face either increased costs or potentially moving home and losing social support networks.
* Children may have to change schools or travel further to get to school if their families are forced to move as a result of under-occupancy.
* Non-resident parents/carers face financial penalties for under-occupancy or losing the room their children use, potentially reducing parent-child contact.
* Parents subject to benefit sanctions are relying almost entirely on food banks to feed their children.

And recommendations include that :

* Non-resident parents who have a room designated for their children should not be subject to under-occupancy rules.
* Families rehoused as a result of domestic violence should not be penalised if they have ‘surplus’ rooms.
* Benefit sanctions should be applied more fairly.
* Help should be offered to all parents whose benefits have been sanctioned.
* DWP staff should aim to accommodate requests to expedite decisions for clients with dependent children.
* All families with children should be able to access hardship funds.

Foodpacks at Tasty Tuesdays

The report reports on feedback received from some of Nottinghams Foodbanks. The Bestwood and Bulwell food bank feeds on average, 300 people a month, with approximately a third of these being due to benefits sanctions. Grace Church reports providing some 450 food parcels between September 2012 and October 2013, including 77 referrals due to benefit sanctions, also commenting that almost as many referrals are due to benefit delays as benefit sanctions.

The report comments that "Increasingly food banks are at risk of becoming an arm of the welfare state, meeting the most basic needs that many families are now unable to meet themselves."

Case Studies
Some of the Nottingham case studies reported are harrowing and one can only imaging the stress they will have caused to families already struggling to keep their heads above water. For example :

Frank is a 54 year old man living in a three bedroom property. He lives alone but his granddaughter spends 1-2 weeks a month with him as her mother is often unwell due to mental health problems.Frank’s role as a carer is not taken into account when assessing his housing needs, despite his support helping to keep the family together. Frank has to pay the ‘bedroom tax’ every month and his rent arrears are increasing every month.
(Advice Nottingham helped Frank to negotiate repayments of his arrears. Frank says he is ‘managing to keep his head above water’.)

Arthur was living alone in a two bedroom Nottingham City Homes property. His rent was £70 per week. He moved to private rented accommodation to avoid the bedroom tax and is now receiving £88.85 per week housing benefit and still has a spare bedroom.
(Advice Nottingham comment that "...many tenants in social housing who move to the private rental sector to avoid paying ‘bedroom tax’ are likely to receive more housing benefit rather than less.... It is difficult to see what the policy will achieve other than to cause hardship, increased indebtedness and stress for many tenants.")

Caroline is a 28 year old woman and a lone parent. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) compliance department was investigating her as having an ‘undisclosed partner’ living at the same address. She had sent documentary evidence by recorded delivery to prove that this was not the case, but HMRC had lost the documents. This was the second time she had sent the documents and the second time that HMRC had lost them. Caroline had no income. She had to ask family to help her as much as they could and had to rely on a local food bank to feed her children. She didn't even have the bus fare to travel to CAB for advice. She was worried about her inability to properly care for her children and the fact that HMRC showed no concern about how she was managing financially.
(Advice Nottingham contacted HMRC regarding the loss of tax credits and arranged for food parcels from a local food bank. Caroline was also offered help to manage her debts, accumulated due to her reduced income. Once her tax credits recommenced she felt able to manage without any further support)

Suzanne is a single parent of two year old twins. She fled an abusive partner who would often beat her in front of her children. Her partner had previously controlled all claims – including child benefit and working tax credit. Suzanne submitted a claim for income support, which the DWP would not pay until the child benefit was transferred to her name. DWP informed Suzanne that new claims were currently taking 12 weeks to process. Despite her explaining her situation with regards to domestic violence, the DWP were not willing to speed up the process. In the meantime, Suzanne was struggling to support her two children and often had to leave them home alone for short periods when she worked.
(Advice Nottingham comment that they contacted DWP on Suzanne’s behalf and are awaiting a decision as to whether income support can be paid early before child benefit is transferred to her name)

Winston is a 24 year old single father who had a retrospective sanction imposed for four weeks after failing to attend a Work Programme meeting. Advice Nottingham understand that this was because Winston's two year old daughter was taken ill. He telephoned before the due appointment, but was told this would still have to be noted as 'did not attend'. Winston has diabetes and the four week sanction caused severe hardship for him. He was not told about hardship payments, how to appeal the sanction decision, or food banks, and during the time of the sanction suffered hunger, hardship and stress. He felt this may also have caused a worsening of his diabetes over this period.
(Advice Nottingham comments that Winston was referred to a local food bank for food parcels and helped to apply for charitable help with his housing arrears to avoid homelessness. He was referred for specialist housing advice. They add that "It is difficult to see how Winston could have avoided this situation. Schools, nurseries and child minders are reluctant to take sick children due to health and safety concerns for others. This leaves parents unable to go to work or, as in Winston’s case, unable to meet job seeking requirements. However, the inflexibility of the rules for job seekers does not allow for such situations.")

External Links
An Anthology of Modern Poverty
Austerity in Europe - A Cautionary Tale
ONS perspectives on home ownership in the UK
NTU Research into Nottingham's economy.
Foodbanks in Nottingham

Related Content
The Himmah Foodbank
Extracts from the Commons Fooodbank Debate
The Opportunity Costs of Bad Government

Image Sources
BFTF own and via Himmah