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The families forced to choose rent OR food

The families forced to choose rent OR food

Published by Emma Carton at 10:14am 21st October 2019. (Updated at 9:06am 22nd October 2019)

By Local Democracy Reporter, Richard Whitehouse

Changes to welfare and benefit payments have left some families in Cornwall having to choose between whether they pay for their rent or food.

The reality of welfare reforms which have affected all forms of benefits were laid bare at a briefing for Cornwall councillors on Friday morning.

Representatives from the council, Cornwall Citizens' Advice and Coastline Housing all explained how they have seen people affected by the sweeping changes to benefits made in recent years.

The changes have include the introduction of Universal Credit, caps on benefits and the bedroom tax.

foodbank 3


Jon Lloyd-Owen, director of the housing service at County Hall, said the changes had started in 2011 with the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) up to the rollout of Universal Credit (UC) in Cornwall in 2017.

He also explained that since 2016 benefits had been frozen which meant that those receiving benefits had seen a net loss.

The LHA had seen changes in the maximum housing benefit that tenants in private rented housing could claim which went from the lowest 50% of private rents in the area to the lowest 30%.

And Mr Lloyd-Owen explained that while rents had continued to rise the benefit payments had not. There are 13,500 households in Cornwall on LHA and for around two-thirds of those the average shortfall between their benefits and rent payments is £20 a week.

He said: "There is an increasing risk of homelessness. There is an increase in risk of losing their tenancy because they struggle to afford the rent".

foodbank 7


What do the figures show?

The overall benefit cap introduced in 2013 had led to the maximum that could be claimed by a household going from £26,000 to £20,000 – which affects those in private and social housing.

In Cornwall around 300 households were most affected with 179 in social rent and 110 private tenants. Larger families are most impacted.

For around a third of those affected the impact was a loss of £25 or less a week but for a fifth it was between £100 and £200 a week.

Social housing tenants had also been hit by the bedroom tax  with around 2,000 households in Cornwall affected with 60% losing between £10 and £15 a week.

Universal Credit (UC) started to be rolled out for new claimants in Cornwall in 2017 and, like other parts of the country, there had been an impact on the delays in first payments with some people having to wait up to six weeks or more.

In Cornwall 16,000 households are now on UC while another 20,000 are still on 'legacy benefits'. The Government has indicated that all should have migrated to UC by the end of 2023 but Mr Lloyd-Owen said there had been no indication when this migration might start in Cornwall.

He said that around half of all households on UC would be net losers and receive a reduction in benefits. A quarter would see no change and a quarter might benefit.

Mr Lloyd-Owen said: "It is really relevant to note that welfare reform has an impact on over 50,000 households in Cornwall, that is one in five".

He explained that the council has provided help to those on benefits and spends £1.8 million a year on discretionary housing payments, crisis payments and council tax relief.

And the council has also led a £26m European Social Fund project to help people access training and get back into work.

foodbank appeal


Gill Pipkin, from Citizens' Advice Cornwall, said that there were a lot of people in Cornwall for whom UC "really isn't working".

Last year the service saw 1,793 people in Cornwall for UC related issues and said that the number was continuing to rise.

Citizens' Advice said there was an issue with UC being paid to people monthly while they are being paid from their jobs four-weekly or their rent is collected four-weekly. 

Due to this system some people will appear to have two wage packets in a calendar month which will then impact on their UC payments.

There were also issues with people claiming UC as it is all done online. Gill said that 17% of people in Cornwall have never accessed the internet and so completing an online form “is not possible”.

She said that many people on UC also struggle due to the delays in their initial payments and end up having to borrow money.

Gill said: "Many people are forced to borrow money before their first payments, that could be from a loan shark or unauthorised money lenders that can have huge interest rates".

foodbank 1


Becky Moore, from Citizens' Advice, said that as well as people having to use food banks there had also been a rise in the number of people in Cornwall facing fuel poverty.

She added: "The financial problems that people come to see us about are no longer the credit cards or loans, it is council tax and rent arrears - it is everyday living expenses".

Christian Blackbeard, from Coastline Housing, said that the charity had been working with partners such as the council and Citizens' Advice in order to help tenants who had been affected by problems with UC and other benefit reform.

He said: "We see a lot of people relying on food banks. You shouldn't have to choose between food and rent. A family shouldn't have to choose whether to eat or pay their rent".

Andrew Mitchell, Cabinet member for housing, said: "Universal Credit has prevented more than £10 billion being paid to the poorest people who are on benefits. 

"I want to know what Cornwall's percentage is of that.

"It has resulted in a much bigger use of food banks and in the sixth richest country in the world that is disgraceful".

Councillor Andrew Mitchell

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