MARK DRAKEFORD CALLS FOR CO-ORDINATED RESPONSE TO WELFARE CRISIS

A Cardiff Assembly Member has described the impact of the Government’s Welfare reforms as a crisis about to engulf our most disadvantaged people and communities. Cardiff West AM Mark Drakeford says that the worst of the cuts is still to come and he called for a new prominence to be given to the work going on by the Welsh Government to respond to the impact of welfare reform in Wales.

A new report published this week by Cuts Watch Cymru  says that the impact of benefit changes will hit hundreds of thousands of people in Wales and some of our most disadvantaged communities will take the brunt of the cuts. A new coalition of organisations in Wales has come together to trace and track the impact of changes in the benefit system in Wales.  Cuts Watch Cymru published its first report this week and has concluded that the impact of benefit changes is only just beginning  – almost 90% of the cuts are yet to come.  Over the next four years, the impact of the cuts will be felt by hundreds of thousands of people in Wales whether they are the one in five people of working ages receiving a Department for Work and Pensions benefit or one of a quarter of a million receiving Housing benefit.

Mark Drakeford says that the scale of the difficulty faced by people in Wales requires an urgent response from Government at all Welsh levels. He said: “Urgent action is needed to help protect the people who will be most directly affected by the crisis about to hit.  The Welsh Government has an excellent track record in responding to crisis situations by pulling all the organisations and agencies together to tackle a crisis head on.  This co-ordinated response is what is needed now.”

Mr Drakeford said that beneath the Coalition Government’s headlines about driving people off welfare and into work are some harsh realities.   He said that while the impact of cuts is almost always discussed in terms of separate benefits it has a cumulative impact on the same people who find their incomes reduced across the range of benefit cuts.  It is estimated, for example, that families are losing around £690 in cancelled pregnancy and maternity grants, with child benefit and working tax credits frozen as well as cuts in help towards child care costs, working longer hours to qualify for tax credits and cuts in housing benefits.

For young people the picture is particularly bleak.  As youth unemployment in the UK tops one million, the majority of people claiming Job Seekers Allowance are relatively young.  Almost 60% of claimants in Wales are under 34 with 32% under 25.  This group will be hit by tighter conditions on claiming benefit and, while almost all tenants will be worse off in terms of housing benefit, under-35 year old claimants will no longer be able to claim help towards the cost of their own accommodation and will be forced to share or move.  This will affect around 3,080 people in Wales with an average loss of £24 per week.

More than 1.2 million Welsh pensioners will experience reductions in their Winter Fuel Allowance – a benefit which has seen its real value fall from 63% of fuel bill in 2008 to only 50% in 2011 because of rising prices.  Meanwhile, lone parents will be obliged to seek work once their youngest child is five years old and required to do so within a 90-minute commute of their home.

“All this is taking place at a time when unemployment is rising and jobs are in ever-shorter supply,” Mr Drakeford said.  “In addition, demand for public housing to rent is at an all time high, repossessions of owner-occupied houses broke the 5000 barrier in 2011 and the number of people accepted as statutorily homeless was 13% last year.   Against this backcloth, the impact of benefit cuts will be crippling.”

The Cuts Watch report also finds that the cuts will have a destructive impact on particular places and communities where areas with the highest rate of claimants will be hardest hit.  Gareth Morgan, a leading analyst of the social security system, has concluded that £2 billion will be lost in benefit cuts over a four year period.  As a result of this, more than £37 milion will be sucked out of the local economy of Merthyr Tydfil and £46 million from Blaenau Gwent.

Mark Drakeford has called for the Welsh Government’s Task and Finish Group on Welfare Reform to be supported by the work of Cuts Watch, and others, to assess the impact of the  changes about to happen, drilling down to local level to establish key facts such as loss of income to the area and the number who might be forced to seek rehousing.

This should be followed by a report focusing on possible programmes of support for such communities.  As well as mobilising the different services available through the Welsh Government and local authorities, it would identify and draw upon the contribution of other organisations including those in the third sector.

Mr Drakeford said: “The Cuts Watch report demonstrates vividly how the impact of the cuts will be felt in services in Wales devolved to Wales.  The Coalition Government may be wielding the axe but the Welsh Government will be forced to pick up the pieces from shattered lives and communities”