Fears over impact of welfare reforms on Norwich families

Warnings have been issued that some of the most vulnerable people in Norwich will be hit hardest by proposed changes to the welfare and benefit system.

Dozens of charities and organisations came together for a seminar at Norwich City Council yesterday where the potential impact of the coalition government's Welfare Reform Bill - which will cut �18bn from the welfare budget over the next four years - came under the spotlight.

Concerns were raised that thousands of people in Norwich would end up worse off because of proposed changes to housing benefit, disability allowances, council tax benefit and child maintenance.

Among the proposals are bringing all benefits together as a Universal Credit, capping total benefits and cutting housing benefit for people who have 'spare' rooms. The seminar heard from Baroness Hollis, a former City Hall leader, who is attempting to get amendments made to the bill to lessen its impact.

The Labour peer said: 'We have been on the defensive about the welfare state, but we need to be on the offensive. We need to recognise that the architecture of the Universal Credit is superb, but the problem is that it is against the backdrop of a turf war between the Department of Work and Pensions and [communtiies secretary] Eric Pickles and the impact of that will be borne by some of the poorest people in the community.

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'The government has not got its bill yet and if we can put up our battle shield we will do what we can in the Lords.'

Baroness Hollis said people were more likely to complain about 'benefit scroungers' in their street than about the banking crisis and seemed to accept or even desire �18bn of cuts to what they see as the 'undeserving poor'.

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She said the notion of social security as something worth fighting for had been lost and blamed Margaret Thatcher for her comment in the 1980s that there was no such thing as society.

Baroness Hollis said: 'We have these cuts which are going to take tax credits from children and send them below the poverty line, but there is very little outrage. Nobody seems to fret and it has basically gone off the radar screen.'

But she said social security and the welfare state were worth fighting for. She said the myths about people on benefit needed to be shattered.

She said: 'Almost half of those who are on disability benefits have mental health problems. But if people cannot see the disability they thing it doesn't exist, so they have no empathy or sympathy for those people.

'Half of them have an 'invisible' disability, so people believe they are exploiting the system, when they are not.'

According to the charity Shelter, cuts to housing benefit this year have meant 1,740 people in Norwich receive less money.

Lesley Burdett, Shelter's service manager in Norwich, said: 'These welfare reforms are a big concern for Shelter. We see it is undermining housing need for lots of individuals, particularly in Norwich.

'The bill is not yet through, but we are concerned about the lack of detail and the secretary of state's opportunity to make changes outside of the House of Lords without scrutiny.'

Particular concerns included plans to cut housing benefit to people in social housing who live in homes which are 'too big' for them, with the government hoping that will free up social housing.

An estimated 2,820 council tenants could be affected by those proposals, where tenants with one spare room who decide not to move would lose up to 15pc of their housing benefit and those with two or more could lose 25pc from April 2013.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, was one of 18 Church of England Bishops who recently signed an open letter criticising the government's proposed reforms.

He called for the government to think again over the shake-up, which includes a planned �500-a-week benefits cap for families, warning that could leave families homeless by forcing them to choose between rent or food.

But the government says the changes will mean 2.7m households are better off, with more than a million households seeing an increase in their weekly income of �25 and nearly a million taken out of poverty.

They say it will make the system fairer and ensure unscrupulous individuals are not able to abuse the system. What do you think of the reforms? Write to Evening News Letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE, or email eveningnewsletters@archant.co.uk

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