Feature: Barking and Dagenham third worst-affected in UK by welfare cuts
- Credit: Archant
Government welfare reforms have affected millions across the UK, but Barking and Dagenham residents could be among the hardest hit in the country over the next five years.
The borough will be the worst affected in London by 2020-21, according to new research from Sheffield Hallam University, with working-age adults set to be £530 a year worse off.
Only the Lancashire boroughs of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen will be harder hit as a direct result of welfare reforms made since last year’s election.
Chancellor George Osborne has announced widespread changes to the system including universal credit tapers, tax credit reductions and an end to automatic housing benefit for people aged between 18 and 21, alongside freezes and caps to a wide range of other benefits.
The number of people relying on emergency food parcels is already at an all-time high and Pastor Obi Michael Onyeabor, the director of Barking foodbank, believes the number will continue rising as a result of changes to welfare.
“We thought cuts would be temporary but they’re still going on – which is terrible,” he said.
“I’m really worried for the people of Barking and Dagenham.”
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Worryingly, of the 474 visits to the Gascoigne Road centre in the last two months, 86 have been from people with jobs.
“It just shows us that lowering unemployment levels isn’t working,” added Obi.
“People have work but it’s not taking care of their bills.”
Dad-of-three Raymond Church, 42, of Gallions Drive, Barking, lives on just £26 a week after rent, having slipped into bedroom tax arrears.
But it wasn’t until someone from Southern Housing visited him in December last year that he became aware of his £2,900 bill.
Relying on food from his father, who lives in East Ham, he is currently subject to an outright possession order on his four-bedroom home – which the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) plans to challenge – and faces eviction.
Although he used to work, depression, club foot and arthritis in his ankles means he now relies on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to survive.
“When I was younger I never imagined things could ever get this bad,” he admitted. “At the moment I’m just trying to not think about things too much because it really can get you down – I’ve been in some pretty dark places.”
And Adrian Brazier, senior housing adviser for the CAB in Barking, insists Raymond would not be in his current situation without welfare changes.
“Government welfare reforms have contributed to Raymond’s situation without a shadow of a doubt,” he said.
“Without the bedroom tax and changes to housing benefits he would have been able to afford his rent and keep his house.”
Tony Hughes, head of home management north for Southern Housing, said: “We’re always happy to review individual cases to see if further advice or support is necessary and have asked our local income team to investigate the concerns raised on this occasion.”
Many of the government’s recent welfare reforms were outlined by Mr Osborne in his summer budget and autumn statement last year.
Speaking about the ending of automatic housing benefit entitlement he told MPs in July: “It is not acceptable that in an economy moving towards full employment, some young people leave school and go straight on to a life on benefits.
“There will be exceptions made for vulnerable people and other hard cases, but young people in the benefit system should face the same choices as other young people who go out to work and cannot yet afford to leave home.”
Continuing his July Budget, the Tory MP also explained the changes to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
“The ESA was supposed to end some of the perverse incentives in the old Incapacity Benefit,” he added. “Instead it has introduced new ones.
“One of these is that those who are placed in the work-related activity group receive more money a week than those on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), but get nothing like the help to find suitable employment.”
But Cllr Dominic Twomey, deputy leader and cabinet member for finance, insists the capital’s boroughs face more problems than authorities elsewhere in the country.
“Thanks to London’s ludicrous housing market, many residents already struggling to make ends meet will be caught in a perfect storm of frozen benefits and relentlessly rising private sector rents,” he said.
“We are doing our bit by looking to help people back into work and we also have our own company, Reside, that is looking at innovative ways to increase affordable housing locally, but this is placing more and more pressure on already hard-pressed public services.”