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Hardship fund to help Norfolk’s low-earners and unemployed facing benefit cuts

PUBLISHED: 06:30 18 September 2012 | UPDATED: 10:10 18 September 2012

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2008

Low-earners and unemployed people who suffer the biggest cash losses under impending benefit cuts could receive help from a Norfolk-wide hardship fund.

Government proposals to slash £500m off the council tax benefit bill are set to be enforced from April 2013, resulting in councils taking control of the system but being given an average of 10pc less funding.

Local authorities have been told they can either make up the shortfall, which might include council tax increases, or decide who loses money.

It is feared claimants of working age, which includes more than 37,000 people in Norfolk and Waveney, could lose up to 25pc of their payments to cover council tax bills.

Calls have been made for a Norfolk-wide political summit to discuss the issue, bringing together council officials and MPs.

But talks on creating a hardship fund are ongoing among Norfolk council leaders.

They say their aim is to help people cope with the imminent changes. Ideas include offering cash support in return for people receiving debt advice.

John Fuller, South Norfolk Council leader, said: “Where people are demonstrably worse off, it’s for that reason we are working with authorities for a Norfolk-wide hardship fund, for those people who need time to adjust their circumstances and can take into account new benefits.”

The council tax benefit changes will be followed in October 2013 by the universal credit benefit system. The government believes this will simplify the benefits system by creating a single payment, although there are concerns of the project’s cost.

Mr Fuller said: “There’s been two years of talking from the government, having been elected in 2010, and it’s only now the changes in the benefit system which the government has been promising to do are coming in.

“The Norfolk hardship fund is a work in progress but in principle that’s what councils are working towards.”

People of pensionable age will not be affected by the changes, according to government guidelines. Vulnerable people also have to be protected, but a decision on who this includes has been left to councils.

South Norfolk, which expects to receive nearly £8m in 2012/13 for council tax benefit, is aiming to offer extra support to single-parents with children under five years old and workers.

All district councils will be expected to enter into a hardship fund agreement - to prevent any authorities from withholding money they collect from Norfolk County Council and Norfolk Constabulary.

Norwich City Council faces a shortfall of £1.5m and has talked about using money collected through council tax to subsidise the scheme, which is currently passed on to Norfolk County Council.

Motions on council tax benefit are also set to be discussed at Norfolk County Council’s next full council meeting next Monday.

Labour has warned a “feeling of unfairness” will be created between Norfolk communities if councils create differing schemes to comply with government policy.

Following this motion, the Liberal Democrats called for a Norfolk-wide political summit on the matter.

James Joyce, Lib Dem county councillor and adult social services spokesman, said: “While it is their [government’s] job to find the money for it, it is our job locally to ensure that the money that is available goes to those who need it most.

“That’s why we are pushing for a collective action across Norfolk’s councils to ensure that the county’s vulnerable are protected, and that the system is altered locally so that any shortfall in funding is met by collaborative working amongst all councils, not individual councils targeting vulnerable groups.”

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