The Bedroom Tax – Say No to Evictions

Housing Benefit EvictionWe’re now only a few short weeks away from the introduction of one of the more contentious elements of the UK Government’s Welfare Reform agenda.  Perhaps appropriately, All Fools Day sees the start of the Under Occupancy Charge or ‘Bedroom Tax’ – as it is increasingly known.

The Bedroom Tax is targeted on working age Social Sector tenants (those in Council and Housing Association properties) who are deemed to be under-occupying their accommodation by one or more bedrooms.  Those who are affected, and who are in receipt of Housing Benefit, will have that Benefit reduced by between £13 – £24 per week depending on their rent costs and the number of ‘extra’ bedrooms they have. Continue reading

Food for Thought

This morning’s report by Citizens Advice Scotland that increasing numbers of Scottish families are being forced to rely on charities to provide basic items of food is depressing but, sadly, comes as no great surprise to those of us who are working on a daily basis with individuals and families impacted by the economic recession and the Government’s Welfare Reform agenda. Continue reading

Back to the Future?

CHAI Project Executive, David Gardner, takes a look at the events of this week and can’t help feeling he’s been here before:

Wealth Redistribution

This week has brought us the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget Statement as well as the largest scale public sector strike in a generation, and it is hard to avoid feeling that there is an awful inevitability about where this is all heading.

The graph (above) illustrates the ‘Institute for Fiscal Studies’ assessment of where the pain in the Chancellor’s plans will be felt most, and – with depressing inevitably – those at the bottom of the income pile are, once again, at the sharp end.

The bottom (poorest) decile will feel no relief at all from George Osborne’s most recent economic tinkerings, and although the Autumn Statement may lessen the impact of previous budgetary announcements for some of us, the overall picture – as displayed all too sharply above – is that the better off are being looked after at the expense of the poorest people in our society.   Again.   Here comes that ‘déjà vu’ feeling.

It is estimated that the effective cuts to Tax Credits announced this week, added to the previously announced reforms to Local Housing Allowance, will plunge a further 100,000 children into poverty in 2012/13 – making a shambles of the Government’s 2020 targets on reducing child poverty.

Even that usually measured organisation, Citizens Advice, was moved to stinging criticism:

“The Chancellor has broken the promise he made in last year’s Budget to protect families on the lowest incomes from the impact of last year’s harsh cuts by increasing child tax credits above inflation, leaving them now with no protection at all. It’s astonishing that George Osborne could think it fair that the lowest paid families who can least afford it should pick up the bill for kick-starting the recovery at a time when they are battling with hikes in fuel bills, rising rent and food costs.

Make no mistake, this means children in the poorest homes are at risk of going cold and hungry to pay for the new schemes the Chancellor has announced today.”

Meanwhile, looming on the horizon are the greatest changes to the welfare benefits system in almost quarter of a century – with the introductions, from 2013, of Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment (replacing Disability Living Allowance).  Much of the focus of Universal Credit is about mirroring the work experience, with claimants receiving their benefit payments – including their full housing costs – monthly in arrears, and then being expected to budget through the month and assume responsibility for paying things like rent – just as if they were in work.  The aim may be laudable, but for those of us working at the sharp end of the system, there are real concerns about how many of the most vulnerable people – including those hit again by the announcements in the Autumn Statement – are going to manage.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), responsible for implementing the new system, has indicated that it is sensitive to those concerns, and a working group considering ‘Support and Exceptions’ is about to be formed.  Having already taken the opportunity to raise some of these concerns at a recent meeting with a representative of the DWP Universal Credit Policy Team I now find myself part of this new Working Group, and will do my best to ensure that the issues of concern, raised daily by the people CHAI works with, are fully articulated in that forum.

There is, however, a depressing familiarity to it all.  Twenty-Five years ago I found myself involved in the National Campaign Against Social Security Cuts, taking to the streets in protest against the welfare reforms then being proposed by Norman Fowler – the Secretary of State for Social Security.  Of course, those changes went through back then anyway – and almost a quarter of a century later I stand watching again, bemused, as the poorest and most marginalised in our society are squeezed to make life a little easier for the better off.  Again.  Déjà Vu.

During the 1980’s we were beset with industrial relations strife and policy attacks on the poor.  Now, despite finding ourselves in a new century, it’s a case of ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’.  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer is something of a cliché (while we’re dabbling with French), but sadly the direction of travel in our social and economic policy seems resolutely determined to take us straight back down that road.   Déjà vu all over again.

It’s a road I’ve travelled before – leading to a place I’d hoped I’d never see again.    This may get worse before it gets better again …

Making Welfare Work

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The BBC website carried a story the other day, reporting a UK charity’s concerns over the increasing number of benefit recipients who are approaching them for emergency food parcels as a consequence of benefit delays.

This echoes CHAI’s experience.  One of the lesser publicised aspects of our services is the emergency food store that we maintain in order to provide basic food relief to people who present to us in crisis.  In the 6 months from April to September 2011 we handed out 107 food parcels to individuals and families who either presented at our ‘Drop In’ service or who were referred by Housing, Health or Social Work professionals.

As with the story covered by the BBC, it is frequently the case that the need for food aid arises because a claimant has been caught in a change of circumstances which result in breaks or delays in their receipt of benefit.  This is often an unfortunate consequence of the current move to re-assess all existing Incapacity Benefit claims – moving them, often not quite seamlessly, either onto Employment & Support Allowance or Job Seekers Allowance.  This is a process which is now well underway, with all of those in receipt of Incapacity Benefit expected to be re-assessed and re-allocated by 2014.  A recent report by Sheffield Hallam University suggests that, in the case of Edinburgh, this process will see a reduction in incapacity claimants of 8,000 – with over half of these being removed from benefits altogether.  That is a lot of people who are likely to experience some disruption in their benefit status, and who may have to seek short-term relief from the very practical human difficulty of having no money and no food.

However, increasingly we are seeing that the need for this type of short-term support isn’t just about benefit delays:  it’s becoming just as common that the reason for presentation is simple, straightforward budgeting.  With the prices of staple food items and fuel costs continuing to rise it’s becoming more and  more difficult for many people to make that benefit payment stretch from one ‘pay day’ to the next.

It is with some alarm, therefore, that welfare support agencies are viewing the UK Government’s developing proposals around the introduction of Universal Credit from 2013.  Universal Credit (UC) aims to replace a range of existing in and out of work means-tested benefits with one single payment – which will also include the housing costs element of support that is currently paid via Housing Benefit.

While much of the detail of UC remains to be worked through, what is clear is the Government’s intention to make payment of the new benefit monthly in arrears.  The idea is to mimic the ‘work experience’, where people in employment are often paid monthly and have to account for all their own living costs.  This raises two real concerns.  Firstly, if the cost of living is already putting pressure on the management of fortnightly benefit payments, then stretching the period between payments to a full month is almost certainly going to further increase pressure on the sort of emergency food aid services that are out there.  Secondly, the inclusion of housing costs directly to the claimant – while on the face of it increasing the payments received – may present a degree of temptation to those not currently used to having to ring-fence their rent payments for onward transfer to their landlord.

The Department of Work and Pensions say they are aware of these concerns and intend – at some point in the future – to bring forward proposals for how to protect vulnerable people who will be placed in defined support groups.  Those of us who work with these vulnerable groups will await these proposals with interest.

Meantime – and before any of these changes come along – we will continue to respond to the increasing presentations from those who are already struggling to live from day to day … and from hand to mouth.

Note:  CHAI’s Food Store is maintained through the generous donations of food items by local schools, churches and private sector organisations.  We are grateful for this vital assistance.

Recognising Effective Practice in Tackling Poverty

EI RA Case Study Front Page

In December last year we blogged about some work that CHAI has been involved with around developing an Early Intervention approach to dealing with Rent Arrears problems in the South-West of Edinburgh.  See:(http://chaiedinburgh.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/evictions-and-how-to-prevent-them/)

We’re delighted that this work has now been recognised by the Scottish Government as demonstrating success and effective practice in tackling poverty.  The South-West Edinburgh Rent Arrears Early Intervention project has now been written up and published by the Scottish Government on its website as one of 12 ‘Good Practice’ Case Studies to be highlighted this year.

This has been a piece of genuine joint working and thanks are due to our partners in this activity:  Cyrenians HPS, City of Edinburgh Council South-West Neighbourhood Office and Prospect Community Housing Association.

The full Case Study can be seen here.

Celebrating Quality Advice

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On 17 March 2011, Councillor Paul Eadie, Convenor of the City of Edinburgh Council’s Housing, Health & Social Care Committee will host an Event at the City Chambers at which CHAI and Granton Information Centre (GIC) will be formally presented with National Standards Accreditation Certificates by Sheriff Principal Edward T Bowen QC – the Sheriff Principal of Lothian and Borders.

Of course, CHAI and GIC are – along with Four Square and Move On – partners in the Edinburgh Housing Advice Partnership, and the Event will also be an opportunity to highlight the positive contribution that EHAP has made to preventing homelessness in the City of Edinburgh.

The Scottish National Standards for Information and Advice Providers are a Quality Assurance Framework covering 6 key areas:

1.         General Management
2.         Planning of Services
3.         Accessibility and Customer Care
4.         Providing the Service
5.         Competences for Staff and Agencies
6.         Resources

The Standards define Advice in 3 ‘Types’:

Type I – refers to Information Provision

Type II – refers to Casework

Type III – refers to advocacy, representation or mediation at Tribunal or Court Action level

CHAI underwent an external audit, conducted on behalf of the Scottish Government by Michael Bell Associates, on how well we met the National Standards on the three assessable topics of Money Advice, Welfare Benefits Advice and Housing Advice and the outcome of this was that CHAI has been Accredited to Type III on all topics.  EHAP Partner, GIC were similarly Accredited to Type III on the Combined Advice topics, making CHAI and GIC the only two organisations in Edinburgh Accredited to this high level across the Combined topics.

The Auditors reported that “From the cases reviewed it is clear the service (CHAI) is providing a high quality advice service”.

quality

Commenting on the Accreditation, Alex Neill MSP, Scottish Government Minister for Housing and Communities, said that he was:

acutely aware of the valuable work carried out in Third/Voluntary Sector agencies across Scotland in providing housing and money/debt/welfare benefits advice and information to clients requiring such support.  The sterling service provided by organisations such as CHAI and GIC contributes enormously to the Scottish Government’s efforts to ensure a wealthier, fairer Scotland for all our citizens.”

CHAI provides advice, information and representation to thousands of Edinburgh residents each year – advocating on their behalf to Benefit Authorities, Housing Providers, Creditors and any other body that impacts on their lives.  We also represent at hundreds of Tribunals and Sheriff Court cases, achieving high levels of income and other positive outcomes for clients.

While never being complacent about it, we’ve always felt that the service we provide has been of a consistently high quality, and we are delighted that this has now been formally recognised through our Accreditation under the National Standards.

At a time when there is ever greater pressure on public resources, and increasing demand for advice and support from a public reeling under the impact of these pressures it is important that services like ours continue to be available, accessible and delivered to a high standard.

Check out our Facebook page after 17 March for some photos and chat from the Event at the City Chambers.

Anyone who needs to contact CHAI’s National Standards Accredited Advice Service can do so by phoning the Appointment Line on 0131 453 6410, or via the CHAI website.

Welfare Reform: In whose interest?

bed incapacity

Last Thursday saw the publication of the UK Coalition Government’s Welfare Reform Bill, which will now begin its passage through Parliament and onto the statute book probably some time later this year.

Most of the contents of the Bill (which can be seen here) are familiar enough, having been well publicised in the White Paper which preceded last week’s First Reading in the House of Commons.  The key ‘highlights’ are:

  • the introduction, from 2013, of a new Universal Credit to replace Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit, Income Support, Income based JSA and Income based ESA
  • increased focus on ‘work related requirements’ and a ‘claimant commitment’ (with extended benefit sanctions for non-compliance
  • the replacement, from 2013/14, of Disability Living Allowance by a new Personal Independence Payment
  • removal of Discretionary Social Fund (Community Care Grants, Budgeting Loans, Crisis Loans) and replacement by arrangements yet to be determined by the Scottish Government.

Fortunately, one of the White Paper proposals which didn’t make it into the published Bill was the suggestion that unemployed claimants should have their housing benefit cut by 10% after 12 months if they couldn’t find a job.   The argument that this measure would simply have led to increased homelessness was so compelling that it was sensibly dropped.

While cautiously welcoming the intent to unify and simplify the current over-complex benefit system through the new Universal Credit, CHAI has some concerns over the way in which the reforms may impact in practice – particularly given the extent of cuts to the benefit system already announced in last year’s Spending Review and Budget.

At the end of this month we will see the impact of the previous Government’s policies as those still in receipt of Incapacity Benefit (IB) start to be re-assessed under the tougher Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) rules (ESA replaced IB for new claimants in 2008).  This is predicted to increase the number of claimant appeals against adverse decisions, placing even more pressure on an Independent Appeal Tribunal system which is already creaking under the pressure.  The level of ESA related appeals is already putting considerable pressure on claimants, advice agencies and the appeals system – with it currently taking anything from 6 to 9 months for appeals to be heard.

CHAI currently has 190 appeals pending (submitted on behalf of claimants, but no date yet fixed for the hearing).  Our success rate at these Independent Appeal Tribunals is running at over 75%, so it is clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with the original decision making process.  This is a justice issue, with the length of time it takes for cases to come to appeal adding insult to the original injury.  An issue which was highlighted in the media this week, with ‘The Herald’ reporting on two cases where claimants have died while awaiting their appeals to be heard.  CHAI has also seen this happen recently in a case where, with the consent of the claimant’s family, we went on to represent at the delayed tribunal which took place after the claimant had sadly died.

The extra 2.5m people who may now be sucked into the appeals system following the rolling out of the new medical assessments of existing IB claimants will simply add to the these problems.looking for work form

The proposals around the replacement of DLA with Personal Independence Payment have caused concern among Disability organisations.  The Disability Alliance estimates that up to 750,000 disabled people may lose support under the new provisions, as the Government aims to remove £2.1Billion from the current DLA system.

CHAI is one of the organisations that will find itself at the coal face of the welfare reforms as they start to impact on individuals, families and communities.  Our Advice Service is already under significant pressure from demands for income, debt and housing advice.  Many of the clients of our Addictions and Housing Support Teams will be among the first to have their health and benefit positions re-assessed under the new ESA rules.  Work we have been doing to promote employability for those most marginal to the labour market has clearly demonstrated that there is no single straightforward path from benefit to employment that works for all people, and that we will have to ensure support is always available for those who can’t easily be catered for by mass programmes.

Ironically enough, on the day that the Welfare Bill was published at Westminster, I found myself in Glasgow at the Poverty Alliance’s ‘Scottish Assembly for Tackling Poverty’ listening to a range of academic speakers point out where we were failing to meet the Child Poverty targets that were established under the previous Government, and how things were heading in the wrong direction.  In fact, most child poverty now takes place within families who are in work, indicating that without a more progressive ‘joining up’ of the Tax/Benefit system the Welfare Reform Bill’s aim to move more people into employment will not, of itself, address the problems of poverty.

Even more depressingly ironic, the publication of the Welfare Reform Bill occurred at the end of the same week in which, with unfortunate timing, Barclays Bank reported paying Corporation Tax of a mere 1% on £Billion profits .  One of the academic findings reported at the ‘Scottish Assembly for Tackling Poverty’ was that the gap between those at the lowest end of the income scale, and those at the highest, has increased in recent years.

The poor get poorer; the rich get richer – and organisations like CHAI continue to be important in addressing and alleviating the symptoms of poverty in our communities.

CHAI can be contacted through our website at www.chaiedinburgh.org.uk.

Joining up Service Delivery

Well, we’ve had the UK Coalition Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review.  We’ve had the subsequent Scottish Budget handed down from Holyrood … now all we wait for is the local budget from the City of Edinburgh Council, and confirmation of where the pain will be felt.

We know there will be cuts – we’ve been softened up for it ever since the Conservative/Lib-Dem Coalition took up the reins of power at Westminster in May.  We know, in the Edinburgh context, that these cuts are going to be serious:  we’ve been hearing that message loud and clear from the Council administration and officers.

Some Local Authorities, in response to what is coming, have started talking about pooling resources; joining up the way they work in areas of common interest.  There has been some talk that those organisations in the Voluntary Sector who are reliant on public funding need to be thinking along similar lines.

It’s all about maximising value from reducing resources; joined up thinking leading to joined up working.

At CHAI we like to think we’ve been doing this for years.  We were designed specifically to take a broad and holistic view of social welfare; to build services around individuals and families.  The range of services CHAI provides: advice, information and representation; housing support; substance misuse support; youth and community development; early intervention family support; and furniture recycling – and the various office bases and outreach venues from which they are delivered – provide, literally and figuratively, a range of ‘entry points’ into the wider, holistic service.  A genuine ‘One Stop Shop’, which – when it works properly – delivers a range of appropriate social welfare interventions, even where the service user was initially unaware of the existence of those services or supports.

A new tenant may initially contact CHAI because they had heard that we can provide basic furniture items (Furniture Recycling Service), but that initial contact may open up those ‘doors’ into those other services about which the enquirer had no knowledge:  Housing Support, to help a sustainable transition into a new community and onto independent living;  Advice Services to provide specific interventions around maximising income or addressing debt issues;  Substance Misuse Support if there are any drug or alcohol issues that might inhibit integration to the community.

At a time when the public purse is being squeezed more tightly than ever before, it is even more important that value is provided from those resources.  Joining up service delivery is one way that CHAI achieves that value.