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Council feels the heat as Camden residents protest against benefit changes

12:24 21 February 2013

Residents fill the council chamber at Camden Town Hall for last Thursday

Residents fill the council chamber at Camden Town Hall for last Thursday's meeting.

Archant

In March, the Welfare Reform Act 2012 received royal assent and was enshrined in British law.

It was the final step in a lengthy parliamentary process to legislate for what the Department for Work and Pensions calls “the biggest change to the welfare system for over 60 years”.

From April, the implementation of these changes will begin – affecting more than 50 different benefits and payments.

But opponents fear the drastic effect the reforms will have on the community and are urging Camden Council to do more to fight the government’s plans.

Last Thursday, almost 250 residents packed into the town hall for an impassioned community meeting to discuss the changes and protest against the council’s approach to the plans.

Eileen Short, of Camden Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations, said: “We don’t believe that anybody should be forced out of their home due to the benefits cuts. Camden Council needs to give assurances that they will not evict people who get into arrears due to the benefits cuts.”

Among the headline changes is the introduction of the Universal Credit (UC) system. This will streamline six individual benefits into one single payment paid into a bank account on a monthly basis. Claimants will have to manage their allowance to ensure they have enough to cover all their living costs. The UC system will include housing benefit, jobseekers allowance and child tax credit.

The idea behind the new system is to get rid of the “benefits trap” – of people in work ending up worse off than if they were on benefits.

The government will also be introducing tough sanctions for people who refuse a job. Those who refuse work on one occasion in 12 months will have their benefits withdrawn for three months – stretching to three years for those who refuse work three times in three years.

Ms Short said: “UC and the sanctions regime is stepping up a whole string of penalties on people which shifts away from the idea of benefits in a civil society.”

Two other key strands of the reforms are the overhaul of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and significant changes to housing benefit, including the so-called “bedroom tax”.

From June, DLA will be replaced with Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for those aged 16 to 64, where claimants will be expected to undergo eligibility tests.

Petra Dando, of Camden United for Benefit Justice, criticised the “blanket approach” to assessing different and complex disability needs under the new system.

She said: “It’s not a fair system, especially when you know the government has certain targets to reduce benefits.”

The government will also introduce a cap on the total amount of benefits received – £350 a week for a single person and £500 a week for families with children.

Camden Council believes this £500 cap will affect 761 families (2,817 people) not living in social housing who may struggle to afford to live in the borough.

If alternative accommodation cannot be found in Camden or in London, as a last resort, the council has admitted it may be forced to look for housing in places like Birmingham, Leicester and Bradford.

Camden Council’s leader Cllr Sarah Hayward, said the authority was “proud of its success in preventing homelessness”.

She said: “Sadly, however, the scale of the cuts, high private rental costs and lack of available housing in Camden will mean that more people will soon have to consider moving from the borough and, in some cases, London entirely.”

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