Meeting warns ‘perfect storm’ of benefit reforms will hit Norfolk’s vulnerable people the hardest

Welfare reforms in the next three years risk creating 'a perfect storm' with the poorest and most vulnerable in Norfolk hit hardest, a conference in Norwich heard yesterday.

Welfare reforms in the next three years risk creating 'a perfect storm' with the poorest and most vulnerable in Norfolk hit hardest, a conference in Norwich heard yesterday.

Support services are already struggling to cope with an increased demand as a result of the changes, delegates at a Norfolk Community Advice Network (NCAN) conference were told, with the warning that the worst is yet to come.

More than 100 delegates, representing bodies including Norfolk County Council, the county's district councils, housing charities, money advice agencies and disability groups, attended the event at the King's Centre in Norwich.

A report compiled by Dr Chris Edwards, a researcher at the University of East Anglia, showed the areas of greatest need were parts of Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn and West Norfolk.

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For the 70,000 households in Norfolk living in poverty, cuts in benefits could mean loss of up to eight per cent of weekly income by April 2015, compared to four years previous.

Dr Edwards explained that �182m had been earmarked to be cut from Norfolk's budget by 2014/15, which totalled �2.7bn in 2010/11.

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Adam Clark, project coordinator for NCAN, said the conference was the first step to coordinating a response to changes to benefits and legal aid, helping agencies to work together to target support where it was most needed.

'There is a lot of uncertainty and a need for advice for people, but what we are seeing is an increase in demand and a decrease in supply,' he said.

Citing a 'hardening' in public opinion about people in receipt of benefits, Mr Clark stressed the changes would also hit those in part-time work and low-paid jobs, particularly young people seeking work.

Money saved in benefits could end up being spent, and more, in other ways, if crucial welfare services are taken away, he said.

'For example, there is a clear correlation between debt and mental and physical health issues,' he said.

Further cuts to benefits are due in April, and Mr Clark said it was vital agencies were ready.

Harold Bodmer, director of community services at Norfolk County Council, explained how it planned to run parts of the Social Fund scheme it takes over from central government next year, including crisis loans and winter fuel payments.

A report to go before cabinet on Monday will set out a plan to gather more information to target money in the right areas.

Diana Fawcett, director of operations at housing charity Shelter, pictured below, said squeezed household incomes would see families forced out of their homes.

'It's something that's already happening across the country,' she added afterwards. 'The number of children living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is up 200pc in the past two years, and homelessness is up by 23pc.'

People in the increasingly expensive private rented sector whose housing benefit does not cover their rent are expected to be among those most affected by April's changes.

Mark Harrison, chief executive of the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, said the reforms unfairly hit disabled people and warned of 'turning the clock back to Victorian times'.

'The government is targeting disabled people in the sharpest way, by raising the threshold of access to benefits,' he said.

The reforms risk undoing decades of work in affording disabled people the same opportunities as everyone else in society, he added.

'During the Paralympics, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson said we had created the foundation for that level of performance because of the disability living allowance and the de-institutional-isation that disabled people have fought for – getting into the community and being members of society,' he said. 'The cost of being disabled already means we are 20pc poorer than the rest of the population.'

Mr Harrison warned cuts would lead to disabled people being 'imprisoned' in their homes, resulting in isolation, depression and even suicide.

The Norwich Evening News has reported on the huge surge in use of the Norwich Foodbank, which this year will feed 5,000 adults and children left unable to feed themselves by benefit delays, illness or sudden unemployment.

This month, Norwich City Council studied a report which showed that in some parts of the city more than four children in 10 were growing up in poverty.

The city also fared considerably worse than the rest of the country on deprivation, long-term unemployment, physically active children and adults, hospital stays for self-harm and drug abuse.

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