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Opinion: On the front line of welfare reform

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Opinion: On the front line of welfare reform

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing

Opinion: On the front line of welfare reform Opinion: On the front line of welfare reform

Peabody chief executive Stephen Howlett says his staff are doing their best to mitigate the impact of the government's welfare reforms but the 'bedroom tax' alone has led to an increase in rent arrears of £250,000 in a year.

As social landlords, we are on the front line of welfare reform. We see the impact every day as we strive to support residents in managing the impact of the reforms on their lives. We do this because it is our founding and enduring mission to do so.

Peabody’s welfare team have visited all of our affected residents to see what help is needed. We provide budgeting advice, help with appropriate financial products and services, and bespoke employment training and guidance. Our employment support services helped over 300 people in Peabody communities find a job last year.

We know our communities well, and have a responsibility to speak up for them when a policy is not working. We support the principle of the government’s reforms – it is right that people are helped into work and, where possible, reliance on benefits is reduced. But it is clear that some of the reforms are hitting the most vulnerable hardest and are not working effectively.

The under-occupation deductions from housing benefit, or the ‘bedroom tax’, are a prime example of this. Rent arrears amongst those Peabody residents affected by the policy have increased by around £250,000 since April last year. At the same time, despite our efforts, only 17 affected households have registered to transfer or downsize their home.

We have had some success in applying for discretionary housing payments for our residents. The problem is that awards are typically made for a short period of three or six months. Each local authority sets their own criteria, and applications can take eight weeks or more to process - with no guarantee of success – so arrears inevitably build up.

Some of our affected residents have managed to get into work or increase their hours. But many others are unable to do so; whether it is because they suffer with illness or disability or because they provide vital care for other members of the household. They may also have little training, or lack the qualifications needed to get a job which pays enough for them to make ends meet.

The policy needs to change and I would like to suggest four ways to improve it:
• A transition period of at least six months when a family is first affected by the policy
• Strengthened guidance for local authorities to standardise award criteria and end the ‘postcode lottery’ of discretionary housing payments
• Exemptions for disabled people, who face greater barriers in making changes to their circumstances
• Measures to improve incentives to work, for example exemptions for people working more than 16 hours per week, and changes to the way the deduction is calculated – so any reduction would be based on the amount of housing benefit received, rather than eligible rent.

These changes would help the vulnerable, make work pay and improve the system now.

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