Friday, September 27, 2013

#Lab13 Welfare Reform: Coping with Change?

Lunchtime conference fringe on welfare reform, chaired by Helen Simpson from Circle Housing Group. First up was East Ham MP and Shadow Minister for Employment, Stephen Timms speaking about the Labour plan to tackle welfare by job guarantees for the long term unemployed. He sees housing associations as playing a key role in this as a gateway for unemployed tenants into work.

A future Labour Government will get rid of the bedroom tax. Which is a punishment for people over something they can do nothing about. When he goes canvassing in East Ham he meets people in fear of the Bedroom tax. Which will mean more people leaving social housing for the private sector and costing even more in housing benefit than they did in the social sector. There is a complete debacle over the introduction of universal credit. While the principle ok the implementation needs to be rescued.  We need a contributory element to benefits to rebuild trust in social security.

Sian Williams from London East End Toynbee Hall (Clement Attlee and William Beveridge) pointed out that it was not just beneficiaries who will be struggling to cope with the change - so will local authorities, Government and the 3rd sector. The cuts and caps will mean less money and more administration. There are some good points, such as it may result in a better relationship with providers, if beneficiaries are seen as customers. But massive costs to society such as forcing children to move schools. 

Christopher Smith also from Circle, told us that they had 3500 households impacted by bedroom tax and 200 by total benefit cap. Big fear that direct payment of housing benefit will result in greater arrears.  36% of households have a member who is disabled (this in in their general needs properties - not care projects). Some residents will be losing £300-350per week in London (Old Ford and Circle 33 properties). The new benefit universal credit is supposed to be "digital by default" yet 45% of residents report that they have no internet access.

Since April this year to date 24% of households affected had paid a part of their bedroom tax, 25% have paid nothing.  This is quote "a major challenge". Finally, Universal credit may bring about a risk based approach to new tenants. If arrears continues then it will have an impact on their ability to build new homes.

Last speaker was journalist Sunny Hundal who gave a more philosophical prospective about welfare reform. 1. People don't pay attention to detail 2. They don't care about facts and prefer emotional stories 3. Views on welfare are very difficult to shift.

People still think Tories are hard while Labour soft on welfare. They support only what affects them eg pensions, child care but not unemployment benefit. Labour should be more honest and not pretend to be tougher than Tories since people will just not believe them. There is a future for universal services such as Surestart but not handouts.

My question to panel started off as a statement (doesn't everyone?) that Labour should be more honest about welfare and explain that a decent social security safety net for all does cost more money that that all of us need to pay more taxes not just the very rich.

I also asked where was the voice of tenants in this debate? You have the voice here of the Labour Party, the unions, housing associations and the housing great and the good? If tenants had a voice would the Tories had been able to get away with Bedroom tax? (as usual with my questions, I didn't get an answer but time was short as we all had to rush off to hear Ed's speech).
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