Keith Dryburgh: Savings reforms push our most vulnerable citizens into poverty

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Three recent headlines have focused media attention on individuals affected by the UK government’s welfare reforms.

Few people could fail to have been moved last week by the case of Stephanie Bottrill, the grandmother from the West Midlands who walked in front of a lorry in her despair at the way the “bedroom tax” had left her facing poverty. Closer to home, an unnamed army veteran in Caithness was reported to have gone on hunger strike this week in protest at the way the welfare cuts have left him unable to live with dignity in the country he fought for. A few days ago a Conservative MP’s wife hit the headlines with her call for the government not to cut her niece’s disability allowance.

The impact of the welfare ref­orms has dominated the work of Scotland’s Citizens Advice Bureau service now for the last five years. Over that period, the number of new issues brought to local offices by clients has increased by 39 per cent – an additional 50,000 new issues advised on each year. Our advisers now deal with 730 new benefit issues on an average working day.

Of course, welfare and benefit issues have always formed a core of the work of the CAB service. Previously those issues usually related to delays and administrative problems, rather than to the amount of money that people received.

Those amounts have never been generous, but in the past at least they were stable, and based on formulas that were intended to meet people’s needs.

The main problem with the new welfare reforms is that they seem to be based on a desire to save money, and often don’t take into account the needs of those they are designed to help.

CAB advisers see every day how these cuts are impacting on the most vulnerable people in our society – sick and disabled people, pensioners, low income families are being pushed into poverty. At Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) we keep publishing reports detailing the impact of the individual changes like the bedroom tax, but the cumulative impact of the changes as a whole is even more shocking.

When the reforms began, we did not expect to see people fall through the benefits safety net and become unable to afford food. However, this is increasingly becoming a reality for
people in Scotland – as is shown by the extraordinary rise in food banks over the last few years.

Over the course of the reform process, disabled people and their families in Scotland stand to lose more than £1 billion in benefit payments. This includes over 100,000 claimants losing entitlement to sickness benefit, over 50,000 losing entitlement to disability payments, and 83,000 disabled households affected by the “bedroom tax”.

Meanwhile, it is estimated that there will be an increase of 600,000 children in the UK living in absolute poverty between 2010 and 2015 as a result of the government’s policies.

The benefit up-rating bill will cap the rise in most benefits at 1 per cent a year, breaking the link with inflation and cost of living. This is equivalent to a real terms cut of 4 per cent. Nearly ten million UK households – that’s 30 per cent of all households – will be affected. And it’s the poorest families who will lose the most. At the same time, living costs are spiralling. Since 2004 energy costs alone have doubled, while over the last five years food costs have risen by more than 30 per cent.

Furthermore, these cuts will not only affect individuals receiving the benefits, but will also impact on the Scottish economy as a whole: this change means £210 million less being spent in local shops and other businesses. This is on top of the £2.5bn being taken out of the Scottish economy due to other welfare reforms.

Opinion polls suggest that the public supports the welfare reforms. However, we believe this opinion is not based on a real knowledge of what they are doing to those families who are living through these policies. CAB advisers see these people every day, which is why we continue to provide an insight into their experiences. We wonder if the public would still support these policies if they saw what we see, or if they realised that they, too, could easily be the next people affected.

• Keith Dryburgh is policy manager at Citizens Advice Scotland