Tagged: Citizens Advice

Government Must Learn From Welfare Reform Mistakes, Say Auditors

The Government must use the “hard lessons” it learnt from welfare reforms which caused “significant financial and human costs”, says the National Audit Office (NAO).

In a new report published today, the NAO criticised the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) “important and high profile failings” in implementing an unprecedented number of welfare reforms and employment programmes.

The report says the Government “relied too heavily on uncertain and insufficiently challenged operating assumptions, and did not have a sufficient understanding of its portfolio of programmes or overall capacity.”

It adds that the DWP has a “high-level vision but needs to think more strategically when considering how reforms will work in practice.”

“The Department has thought too late about the management information and the leading indicators it needs to understand progress and performance”, says the NAO. “This meant the Department took several weeks to identify backlogs in Personal Independence Payment claims.”

Auditors credited the Government for responding well “to uncertainty”, but added that it “should be able to set out plans with specific timetables, costs and impacts and reflect where flexibility is needed.”

“They should also have clear processes for revising plans against changing circumstances or expectations”, says the NAO.

The NAO criticised the DWP’s initial handling of the Universal Credit. The NAO says the department “held too rigidly to fixed deadlines and now has adopted a more flexible approach. It will need to reconcile this approach with the requirement to monitor progress against milestones.”

In implementing a significant welfare reform programme, the DWP “relied too heavily on reacting to problems and has not been able to anticipate possible failings or establish the principal ways in which performance and progress can be measured”.

The NAO called on the Government to “plan more openly for the possibility of failure, and build an integrated view of portfolio risks and capacity”.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said:

 “Any large portfolio of reforms will run into problems. The Department has shown a resolute approach to dealing with them. However, we think it has relied too much on dealing with difficulties as they emerge rather than anticipating what might go wrong.

“As a result it has had to learn some hard lessons with significant financial and human costs. It is important that the Department use these hard lessons to improve how it manages change and anticipates risk.”

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said the Government must learn from the mistakes of previous changes to welfare.

Citizens Advice has found that delays and problems with the delivery of reforms such as Employment and Support Allowance increased hardship and anxiety for many people.  Last year we helped people with almost two million benefit issues, more than any other type of problem.

“As Ministers look to make further savings from the welfare budget it is important they fully understand the impact proposed reforms have on people’s lives.

The Government must be certain that further cuts won’t just shift costs away from the welfare budget and into other areas such as health and social care.

Changes to benefits can have a far-ranging impact on people’s lives, so any reforms need to delivered at a safe and steady pace.”

Source – Welfare Weekly, 29 May 2015

http://www.welfareweekly.com/government-must-learn-from-welfare-reform-mistakes-say-auditors/

First food Banks – Now Fuel Banks ?

Energy firm Npower is planning to open fuel banks offering vouchers for free gas and electricity to the poor.

They would operate alongside existing food banks which give three days’ worth of donated food to those in need.

The proliferation of food banks has been controversial and it has been at the centre of the Labour Party’s attack on the Coalition. The arrival of fuel banks is likely to intensify the political furore.

The step may also be interpreted as an attempt by one energy giant to stem criticism of its pricing from consumer groups and the threat of a price cap from Labour.

Npower, one of the Big Six energy companies which dominate the market, aims to open fuel banks in a series of pilot programmes across the country which are likely to be up and running over the summer.

The company is understood to be in the process of signing agreements with partners to operate the scheme.

Those people judged to be in need of help would be given a voucher to put towards energy costs. It is expected to pay for energy lasting the average household ‘about two weeks’, said a source close to the company. Npower declined to comment.

The source said: ‘They could do this three times a year and it would be available not just for our customers but anybody, no matter who their supplier is.

‘The idea is that we run this for six months over the summer so we can be sure we administer this properly before we hit winter when demand is likely to increase.’

The energy company believes that those most likely to claim from its fuel banks are already on pre-payment energy meters. Comparison website uSwitch has said there are 5.9 million people who are on this type of meter.

A report from the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK published last December noted that the average price of gas, electricity and other fuels had increased by 153.6 per cent in Britain from 2004-2013 compared with 76 per cent in Germany and 59 per cent in France.

Vouchers which allow the less well off to obtain supplies from food banks can be obtained from social services, the service, doctors’ surgeries and schools. It is likely that fuel banks will be organised using similar arrangements.

The arrival of fuel banks is likely to ratchet up the pressure on the Coalition. In the TV debates David Cameron failed to answer questions from interviewer Jeremy Paxman on how many food banks there are and how rapidly they have grown.

According to Paxman, there were 66 when the Coalition came to power and there are now 421. However, there are no official figures and some estimate that the number of food banks is much higher.

Food banks fed almost a million people in 2014, according to figures from the Trussell Trust, the charity which operates many of them, though the figure has been disputed.

Many began offering ‘kettle boxes’ to those who cannot afford to switch on their cooker to boil foods like rice or pasta. The meals in the boxes can be prepared by adding boiling water. ‘Cold boxes’ of provisions including tinned food are also available and do not require any heating.

 Source – Mailonline, 18 Apr 2015

Darlington CAB calls for ‘rip off’ letting agents fees to be scrapped

Darlington Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) is warning that ‘rip-off’ letting agent’s fees are causing renters financial problems in the borough.

New evidence uncovered by the charity reveals tenants are frequently charged fees often hidden by letting agents – to the tune of £337 on average nationally.

These charges come on top of advertised rent prices and deposits and in some cases can force people into debt, the charity says.

Nationally in the last year, Citizens Advice has seen around 14,500 cases of client problems with private rented rents and other charges

Most agents charge for checking references, but costs nationally range from as little as £6 to £300, according to the study.

Renters can also be hit by charges ranging from between £15 to £300 for simply renewing their tenancies.

Some agents charged £300 for credit checks that are widely available for £25.

The Still Let Down report advises that letting agents’ fees should be banned to protect tenants in the private rental sector.

Neeraj Sharma, CEO of Darlington Citizens Advice said:

“Some renters in Darlington area are being let down by agencies.

“People are being hit with fees for inventories, credit checks, and tenancy renewals.

“Adding expensive agency fees on top of rents can stretch people’s finances to breaking point.

“If you’re struggling because of letting agent’s fees, then come to Citizens Advice for help as soon as you know there’s a problem.”

Despite an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) requirement being introduced in 2013 that agents should give clear information about fees, this study found that only a third provided full written details.

The requirement will become law later this year which will mean agents have to publish fees on their websites and in their offices.

But Darlington CAB is concerned this will have little impact.

The charity says it does not call for a fees ban in England ‘lightly’, but said alternative measures have not worked.

It adds that if charges are to be made, they should fall on landlords as they are in a better position to shop around and pick the best agency.

A fees ban was introduced in Scotland in 2012 and there is no clear evidence to suggest it has led to an increase in rental prices, the report adds.

Darlington CAB is running a Settled and safe: a renter’s right campaign, calling for better protections for private renters and anybody needing advice can visit the office at Bennett House on Horsemarket.

Source – Northern Echo, 06 Apr 2015

Hartlepool : Benefit claimants struggling to survive while they wait over appeals

A Citizens  Advice leader in Hartlepool say benefits claimants are struggling to survive while they await the outcome of appeals.

Hartlepool Citizens Advice Bureau says more and more sick and disabled people are getting into debt while they wait for an answer from officials for their Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claims.

Research found some claimants are left without money as they wait between six and 14 weeks for the outcome to a second opinion from benefits chiefs.

And the advice service says switching claimants to Jobseeker’s Allowance while they wait for a decisions is costing taxpayers almost £30 million a year.

 The Hartlepool bureau is joining a national campaign calling for the appeals system to be reformed.

Joe Michna, manager of Hartlepool CAB, said:

“We see very many people coming to us with problems about Employment and Support Allowance.

“The mandatory reconsideration process (review process) is leaving people desperately battling living costs.

“The system is confusing and many people do not wish to claim Jobseekers Allowance pending the outcome of their review request as they do not consider they are fit for work.

“To claim Jobseekers Allowance a person must be fit for work.

“People we advise cannot see the logic of claiming Jobseekers Allowance when they are challenging a decision on their medical fitness for work.

“We’ve seen increases in personal debt as people fight to get by.”

Changes to the rules on getting a second opinion came into force last June in an attempt to improve the process by making decisions quicker and better communicated.

But a Citizens Advice survey of 200 of its advisors found an increase in claimants contesting fit for work decisions, difficulties in claimants being able to contact the Department of Work and Pensions and problems due to delays.

Mr Michna added:

“We need to see as p urgent financial help now for people caught in the appeals process.

“We are joining the national Citizens Advice campaign to have the current system reformed.

“People should be able to continue to claim ESA until the outcome of their review and subsequent appeal if the decision is not changed after the first stage review.

“Employment and Support Allowance still has a long way to go to prove it is actually fit for purpose.”

Source – Hartlepool Mail, 06 Mar 2015

Council Tax Debt Problems Soar 20% In A Year

Council tax debt has overtaken credit cards as the most common form of debt requiring advice and support, says a leading charity.

The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) says it expects to help more than 191,000 people struggling to pay Council Tax in 2014/15 – up 20% on the previous year.

And according to a report from the CAB, rising rents could result in up to 122,800 people requiring help with rental debts by the end of March 2015.

The Government abolished Council Tax Benefit at the end of March 2013, meaning that some of the poorest people are having to pay for the very first time.

The move has resulted in a postcode lottery, with benefit claimants and low-income households paying more in some areas than others, depending upon each local authority’s Council Tax Reduction scheme.

A growing proportion of people are approaching the CAB for help and advice on paying rent, council tax, water and fuel debts. Meanwhile, financial issues related to credit cards, mortgages and unsecured personal loans have declined.

While more households are struggling with Council Tax and housing costs, debts resulting from credit cards are expected to fall by 12% in 2014/15 – exposing the ‘changing face of household debt’.

The mainstream credit problems of the post-2008 period have turned into problems with priority debts, says the CAB.

Despite a recent fall in fuel and petrol prices, the CAB also highlights how households have had to endure a 210% rise in energy costs over the last 10 years.

The CAB highlights how the Office for Budget Responsibility expects household debt to soar to a record high of £2.43 trillion by 2019.

There has also been a significant rise in the amount of debt held by self-employed people – up 41% to £20,000. They now represent the highest percentage of people helped by the CAB at 29%.

Citizens Advice is carrying out a separate study about the challenges that self-employed people face.

Behind the self-employed come unemployed people, who have an average debt of £17,500. Pensioners come in a close third, with an average total debt of £17,200.

13% of CAB clients had ten debts or more.

Source – Welfare Weekly,  16 Feb 2015

http://www.welfareweekly.com/council-tax-debt-problems-soar-20-year/

Employment Tribunal fees deter four out of five employees pursuing claims

Order Of Truth

etribSince the introduction of employment tribunal fees in July 2013, Citizens Advice report that four out of five employees who would otherwise have taken their employer to a tribunal are put off by the cost.

An employee wishing to take action against unfair treatment in the workplace or unfair dismissal faces fees of between £160 to £250 to issue a claim, and between £230 and £950 for a tribunal, which can bring the cost of making a claim to as high as £1200.

Citizens Advice found that of the people experiencing employment problems they surveyed, only 30% were aware that there was financial support available, leading the charity to call for better promotion of the support available, including a web based tool where people could check their eligibility.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive, Citizens Advice said “The employment tribunal system is imbalanced against claimants. Fees are pricing people out of basic…

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North East foodbank workers having to drive hundreds of miles to meet demand for parcels

Foodbanks in the North are so desperate for supplies they are having to travel hundreds of miles South to collect parcels.

One bank in the region needs a staggering four tonnes of food every week just to meet the massive demand in the run up to Christmas.

While another is even handing out hot water bottles and thick coats in a bid to keep children warm this winter.

The Sunday Sun newspaper has joined forces with foodbank charity The Trussell Trust to help boost stocks and make sure everyone can enjoy the festive season.

Matthew King, assistant manager at Newcastle’s West End Food Bank, the busiest in the UK, said:

“We’re at the stage now where we are having to drive to places like Surrey and Sussex just to pick up parcels to help meet the demand.

“We have a shortage up here at the minute so we’ve been driving down South to stock up and bring the food back up.

“Last week we gave out 300 parcels of food and this is increasing as we get deeper into winter.

“All contributions would be gratefully received.”

Mr King said they are currently only able to meet the demand by looking outside the North East.

He added:

“We estimate we will have fed 55,000 mouths by the time this year ends.

“We are the busiest foodbank in the country, mainly because of the large areas of poverty we have here in the parts of the West End of Newcastle.”

Now, we are urging people right across the North to pack a food parcel and hand it in to their local foodbank in the coming weeks.

Nigel Perrott is from Middlesbrough Foodbank.

He said:

“We often find it’s that period right after Christmas when there’s a real shortage.

“In the run up to the festive season people can be very generous and helpful but, once that Christmas spirit has gone, it becomes harder to meet the demand.”

Jill Coyle, from Billingham and Stockton Foodbank, said they were also taking in items like hot water bottles and children’s winter coats.

She added:

“We’ve seen children coming in with flimsy clothing on and, of course, it’s getting much colder now.

“People have been so generous in the run up to Christmas, but there is always that demand for more.”

Figures released by the Trussell Trust, which runs foodbanks across the North, show that between April and September 2014, over 25,000 people were helped by the charity’s Gateshead, Newcastle East and Newcastle West End food banks alone.

That breaks down to 4,289 a month – more than treble the 1,316 people per month in Newcastle and Gateshead who accessed a foodbank in the nine month period between April 2013 and December 2013.

Meanwhile a further 912 were catered for at Middlesbrough’s foodbank during the six-month period.

Critics of the Government’s welfare reforms claim organisations like the Trussell Trust are becoming an unacknowledged and unpaid part of the welfare system.

Changes to benefits since 2012 include raising the minimum job seekers’ sanction from one to four weeks and the start of the so-called “bedroom tax”.

Mr King said there were no signs of the demand for foodbanks slowing.

He added:

“Everyone who comes here has been assessed, it’s not just like people are walking in off the street.

“They have perhaps received vouchers from health workers, school liaison officers, Citizens Advice staff or social workers.”

Naomi Stevens, from Durham Foodbank, said they have 26 distribution points right across the county.

She added:“There is always the need for more and we welcome any contribution people can make.”

Mandy Martin, of Chester-le-Street, County Durham, has had parcels to help get her and her two children through the winter.

Mandy, who has a three-year-old and a five-year-old, said:

“The hardest thing was to accept that I needed help.

“The changes to the benefit system have really affected how much money we had coming in so I felt coming to a foodbank might help get us back on our feet.”

Christopher Gallin,  who lives in Throckley said:

“The foodbank stops people from going hungry. They do so much for families who are struggling and provide hot meals to keep us going in the winter.”

The region’s foodbanks desperately need:

  • Tinned vegetables
  • Tinned meat
  • Dry pasta
  • Rice
  • Tinned fish
  • Dried milk
  • Tinned soups
  • Jam
  • Cereals
  • Tea bags
  • Biscuit and snack bars

How to give to foodbanks:

To find out about where to drop your food parcels off at go to newcastlewestend.foodbank.org.uk or middlesbrough.foodbank.org.uk or Billingham.foodbank.org.uk or durham.foodbank.org.uk

> But don’t forget, these aren’t the only foodbanks in the North East. There may be one nearer to wherever you live, and they need donations just as much.

Source –  Sunday Sun,  07 Dec 2014

Six North-East areas are in country’s top 20 debt hotspots, report reveals

Six of the country’s biggest “debt hotspots” are in the North-East, a report has revealed.

South Tyneside, Darlington, North Tyneside, Gateshead, Middlesbrough and Northumberland have some of the biggest clusters of people seeking help from Citizens Advice in England and Wales.

The charity dealt with 405 clients in Denbigshire between July and September – or 0.54 per cent of the adult population – making this area of North Wales the top debt hotspot.

South Tyneside was fourth with 607 clients seen (0.5 per cent); Darlington joint fifth with 410 clients (0.49 per cent); North Tyneside joint seventh with 776 (0.48 per cent); Gateshead 748 (0.46 per cent) and Middlesbrough 499 (0.46 per cent) in joint 11th and Northumberland in joint 15th place with 1,166 clients seen or 0.45 per cent of its adult population.

The charity, which has helped almost half a million people with debt over the last year, made the findings after analysing the cries for debt help it received over the three month period.

Citizens Advice said since the economic crisis, problems with consumer debt such as credit cards and personal loans have fallen significantly. By contrast, problems with “priority debts” such as rent arrears and council tax debts are growing.

 It is seeing increasing numbers of people tipped into problem debt by everyday living costs rather than some particular life event such as the loss of a job or divorce.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“Times have changed, and so have people’s debt problems.

“Consumer debts like credit cards and personal loans have traditionally been the most common debt problems. But now priority debts such as council tax arrears are gradually building up as people struggle to cover everyday costs.

“In the past, people were more likely to get help for debt problems triggered by life events such as illness, redundancy or separation.

“But in recent years more people are being pushed into debt as they struggle to stretch their income to cover everyday living costs.”

Here are the biggest debt hotspots across England and Wales, according to Citizens Advice, with the number of people it helped between July and September, and also expressed as a percentage of the local adult population:

1. Denbighshire, 405, 0.54%;
2. Merthyr Tydfil, 248, 0.53%;
3. Stoke-on-Trent, 1,031, 0.52%;
4. South Tyneside, 607, 0.50%;
=5. Darlington, 410, 0.49%;
=5. Salford, 908, 0.49%;
=7. Copeland, 276, 0.48%;
=7. North Tyneside, 776, 0.48%;
=9. Mendip, 411, 0.47%;
=9. Liverpool, 1,793, 0.47%;
=11. Stevenage, 303, 0.46%;
=11. Gateshead, 748, 0.46%;
=11. Middlesbrough, 499, 0.46%;
=11. Torfaen, 330, 0.46%;
=15. Northumberland, 1,166, 0.45%;
=15. Lincoln, 348, 0.45%;
=17. Cannock Chase, 336, 0.43%;
=17. Barrow-in-Furness, 240, 0.43%;
=17. Hastings, 310, 0.43%;
=17. Sandwell, 1,015, 0.43%

Source –  Northern Echo,  06 Dec 2014

Cuts To Emergency Support Will Leave Families Starving And At Risk Of Eviction

Government funding cuts to local authority welfare provision will leave struggling families starving and at risk of eviction, councils leaders will warn today.

Government funding for local welfare assistance schemes is to be scrapped by the Communities Minister Eric Pickles, removing £347 million in emergency aid for the very poorest in our society.

The funding is used by local authorities to help aid struggling families in their hour of need to purchase food, fuel, rent, clothing, or replacing crucial home appliances such as a freezer or cooker – among other uses. Some of those who will be affected by the change are benefit claimants, who may have been hit by draconian sanctions or delayed payments.

The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling on the government to rethink their position, warning that councils will not be in a financial position to fill the funding gap.

LGA research has found that three-quarters of local councils would be forced to cut local welfare support, or scale back the provision. 15% said they would have to end it completely.

Local welfare assistance schemes replaced crisis loans in 2013. But only a year into the new scheme the government now wishes to scrap central funding; piling unimaginable financial pressure upon local authorities, who have already seen general funding slashed as part of the government’s austerity drive.

Cllr Claire Kober, chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, told the Daily Mirror:

This fund has been used by councils to provide crucial support to people facing personal crises in their lives, from help paying the rent to putting food on the table.

“We think the Government has made the wrong decision to remove the funding for this safety net and it was misjudged to have done so.

“Thousands of people have been helped through local welfare schemes, which have been far more effective at getting support to those most in need than the Government crisis loans scheme which it replaced.

“If government pulls the plug on funding from April, many local authorities will be unable to afford to make up the difference at a time when we are tackling the biggest cuts to council funding in living memory.”

Citizens Advice Chief Executive, Gillian Guy, said:

“People in crisis would be left stranded by loss of Government support. Even with these important schemes, far too many people are unable to get basics like food, fuel or clothes. Citizens Advice has dealt with more than 25,000 enquiries about local financial assistance in the past year.

“Emergency financial help schemes are a vital part of our state safety net. Acting fast to prevent people in dire financial straits from facing homelessness or health problems is not only the right thing to do for the individuals themselves, but will save councils and Whitehall money further down the line.

“Many councils are good at quickly delivering help to people who have nowhere else to turn. Government should continue to back these lifelines by putting in place long-term programmes which are properly funded and based on the first-hand insight of councils and local charities.”

A government spokesperson said:  “This Government has given councils more control because they understand their residents’ welfare needs best. We are now consulting on how funding should be provided for 2015/16.”

Source –  Welfare News Service,  06 Oct 2014

http://welfarenewsservice.com/cuts-emergency-support-will-leave-families-starving-risk-eviction/

Almost A MILLION Working Families Skipping Meals To Pay The Rent

Almost a MILLION working parents are being forced to skip meals so that they can afford to pay the rent or mortgage, shocking new figures reveal.

A survey by YouGov, on behalf of the housing charity Shelter, has revealed that more than one in ten working families are going hungry to pay housing costs, while over a third admit they have cut back on buying food.

Shelter surveyed 10,000 parents and found that 10.5% had been forced to skip meals, which is equivalent to 880,000 if they had asked every single working family in the UK.

36.7% said they had cut back on how much they spend on food and 12.9% had put off buying shoes for their children. 9.7% said they had delayed purchasing school uniforms.

Government figures show that households spend, on average, 28% of their total income on housing costs. This rises to 40% in the private rental sector.

Shelter highlights the story of Katherine and her husband who both have full-time jobs but still struggle to pay their mortgage. “My husband and I don’t have breakfast because we can’t afford it, and we miss evening meals two or three times a month to help with the mortgage”, Katherine said.

She added: “We’ve really had to cut back on the basics, and I even had to send our daughter to school in an old uniform that I knew was too small; it made me feel horrible. We are already at breaking point, so I honestly don’t know what we’d do if our financial situation got worse; it really frightens me.”

Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, said:

“No parent should be forced to choose between putting food on the table and paying for the roof over their children’s heads. These shocking figures show that millions of us are having to make these kind of agonising choices every day.

“Sky-high housing costs and cuts to support are leaving many families trapped on a financial knife-edge.”

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves said: “This report provides shocking new evidence of how the Tories’ cost of living crisis is hitting hard-working families.

“While David Cameron says the economy is fixed, people who put in the hours to provide for their children are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet.”

The number of calls Shelter receives related to rent arrears has more than doubled in the last three years, and the majority of people regarded as living in poverty in the UK are in work.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy said:

Housing costs have left some families standing on a financial cliff edge. Working households that have already cut back on spending to get by could find themselves in the red if interest rates go up.

“Citizens Advice research shows 3 in 5 households are worried about the impact of rising bills this year, with over half forced to cut spending to balance the books.

“The competing pressures of sky-high childcare bills, rising energy costs and wages which are consistently below inflation, mean many people are struggling to pay for the roof over their head.

“Citizens Advice dealt with nearly 87,000 social housing rent arrears problems last year, up 10 per cent from 2012.

“It is welcome news that more people are in work, putting more households in a position to get on top of their bills. However, with record numbers of people becoming self-employed and increased numbers of jobs with uncertain hours, families face increasing instability in their income.

“An interest rate rise would put some in a more precarious position, so any rise needs to be slow and steady in order for families to manage the extra cost.”

According to the latest figures, there has been a 19% rise in cases of malnutrition in the UK over the past twelve months. Food prices have risen by 12% in seven years, while average wages have only increased by 7.6% over the same period.

Tory Housing Minister Brandon Lewis said: “Contrary to Shelter’s claims, repossessions are actually at their lowest since 2007 and down almost a third since last year.

“Our efforts to tackle the record deficit we inherited have helped keep interest rates at a record low, meaning home ownership is at its most affordable since 2007 while private rent levels are falling in real terms.”

Source – Welfare News Service,  28 Aug 2014

http://welfarenewsservice.com/almost-million-working-families-skipping-meals-pay-rent/