Mixed reaction to benefits shake-up

There was a mixed reaction to the shake-up of the benefits system in the region today with charities saying that many questions remain unanswered.

Prime minister David Cameron said the Welfare Reform Bill will replace the complex array of benefits with a single universal credit, create a work programme to help the long-term unemployed into jobs, and introduce incentives and sanctions to ensure that work always pays.

Figures show that currently in Norfolk 56,700 people (10.6pc) receive key out-of-work benefits. In Suffolk the figure is 39,300 (9pc).

It comes as the latest unemployment figures show the number of people claiming job seeker's allowance has increased by 1,414 to 17,666 in Norfolk.

Nationally youth unemployment for 16 to 24-year-olds stands at more than 20pc, the highest figure since records began in 1992.

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Vaughan Thomas, from Norwich and West Norfolk Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) said it would welcome greater simplicity and fairness of the welfare system.

But he added: 'The devil is in the detail. There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered.'

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Mr Thomas said that current demand for the charity's services is 'absolutely horrendous' and added that there is much anxiety among people claiming incapacity benefit that they may lose it.

Kathy Saunders, chairman of the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, echoed the CAB's view about the detail of the bill and said there is 'huge anxiety' among people with disabilities about whether they will be left out of pocket.

YMCA Norfolk chief executive Tim Sweeting said: 'There are so many things coming together to impact young people at the moment in terms of funding cuts, not just to youth services locally, but across the board.

'We are very concerned about the potential impact on young people on their aspirations for the future.

'One of our biggest aims and current big challenges is to try to encourage young people to grow those aspirations so they feel they have got hope for the future. That job is even more difficult when there has been funding cuts of various kinds recently.

He added: 'I think regarding the bill we will have to see more detail about how it is going to work, but we would support any initiative that gives young people a better chance to get back into work.

'Certainly we know youth unemployment is at its highest rate for years. Something does need to be done to help young people into work, because that help is not necessarily there at present.'

The Welfare Reform Bill has come under attack from unions who have accused the government of punishing the unemployed and impoverished for their own misfortunes.

Sasha Pearce, eastern regional manager for Unison, echoed a view expressed by the TUC and said: 'Long-term unemployment has doubled not because of a sudden increase in work-shy scroungers, but as an inevitable result of economic policies based on cuts that destroy growth.'

She added: 'We would also be concerned this will affect the work of staff in local authorities who currently process housing benefit and council tax benefit.'

Waveney MP Peter Aldous said that work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith had put an 'awful lot of work and research over many years' into the policies.

'There are a lot of people who are very keen, desperate to get back into work,' he said.

'The government has got to do all it can to remove the barriers in the way of doing that and encouraging them back into work. That is one of the main aspects of the bill.

'The other is that we do need to ensure that no one can say they are better off on benefits than they are going to work.'

Anne Roberts, chief executive of Crossroads Care, which runs Norfolk Carers Helpline, and Carole Cochrane, chief executive of The Princess Royal Trust for Carers, said that carers were breathing a sigh of relief after learning that the government is not scrapping the Carer's Allowance.

'Not only does the benefit provide many carers who are forced to give up work to care with an independent income, it also recognises their essential role in society,' they said.

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