Thousands of Tyneside’s most vulnerable families will go hungry when a voucher support scheme is scrapped because of austerity cuts, leaders have warned.
A scheme which sees supermarket vouchers given to 2000 families in Newcastle to help feed their children over the school holidays has been axed as the Government slash £40m from the city council’s annual budget.
Under Newcastle City Council’s Crisis Support Scheme, families with children aged five and six, who have had their housing benefit reduced by the bedroom tax and are paying council tax for the first time, received Asda vouchers to help feed their youngsters during the Easter, Christmas and Summer school holidays.
But the council say they are forced to slash the service as the Government roll out their next round of cuts.
Leaders warned that cutting the benefit would lead to an increase in the number of people turning to foodbanks for emergency food parcels.
The announcement comes shortly after a teacher made claims some of his pupils returned to school after holidays “visibly thinner”.
Simon Kennedy, from teacher’s union NASUWT, said:
“It’s easy to point the finger at Newcastle City Council and say it’s their fault but this is the coalition government’s fault.
“This Government are hitting the most vulnerable and least well off families. I don’t think we can blame the council. The reality is when you get millions cut from your budget you have to cut it from somewhere.
“On May 7 people will be given the chance to vote and these are the sort of things people will take into consideration.
“We know people are going hungry and it’s not just over the holidays, it’s week in week out. We know that parents are missing meals to feed their kids.”
In April 2013 the Government abolished the Social Fund and asked local authorities to set up replacement schemes for Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants and the council set up the Crisis Support Scheme.
The funding falls under three areas and supports people in crisis, disaster or emergency, provides council tax assistance and did provide meals vouchers to schoolchildren in the holidays before it was cut.
In 2013/14 the council spent £214,000 to spend on the crisis support fund, and a further £173,000 in 2014/15. It will spend £116,000 in 2015/16, which includes a £50,000 overspend from the previous year.
In order to manage the reductions the council said they had no choice but to slash the voucher scheme.
This week letters went out to the affected families as they received their final set of vouchers over the Easter holidays.
Deputy leader of the council Joyce McCarty said:
“We are really disappointed this has been left to the local authority to fund.
“The Government have dumped the austerity cuts with local authorities who can’t afford to pick up the pieces and it’s the least well off in the community that are suffering.”
In Easter 2014 families with one child were awarded a £10 voucher, while families with more than one child were given £20.
A further £40 was handed to families with one child in the summer and an extra £60 to families with more than one child.
And at Christmas 2014 the vouchers were increased to £40 with families with one child and £60 for families with more than one child.
Ms McCarty added:
“It will add to the growing problem. It’s the same families who are struggling, it’s those families having to pay the bedroom tax and it’s things like this that tips people over the edge.”
The Department for Communities and Local Government said they would be unable to offer comment in the run up to the general election.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 12 Apr 2015
A special “tax” on fast food takeaways to help fund obesity programmes and deal with litter left by customers has been called for in Newcastle.
The suggestion follows the city being the first in the country to introduce a late night levy on bars and clubs to help police deal with drink-fulled crime and disorder.
It was proposed by Lib Dem councillor Greg Stone and follows a recent controversial planning application by McDonald’s for a site near Kenton School, the city’s largest secondary school with around 2,000 pupils.
The application is to go before the council’s planning committee later this month and has provoked a storm of protest from residents, local councillors and the head of Kenton School, David Pearmain.
In a motion put to a full Newcastle City Council meeting, Coun Stone asked for it to investigate the feasibility of asking businesses with negative socio-economic effects to help offset these by paying an annual “sustainable retail levy” to support initiatives such as local high street improvements, anti obesity schemes or financial inclusion projects.
It also asked for the council to consider greater controls on changes of use to things like hot food takeaways in identified local retail centres and streets.
The Lib Dem Opposition group’s motion highlights the findings of the council’s own Retail Health Check Analysis, which was instigated by the Lib Dem administration in 2010.
He asked for a report to be carried out to assess how the council is progressing with implementing its recommendations.
Coun Stone said the issue of local retail vitality and the “healthiness” of high streets is a concern, and the number of takeaways in the city is continuing to proliferate.
He said: “Local communities should have more say. I don’t want to ban takeaways but they do affect the local way of life and can lead to later problems.”
He said takeaways contributed to “toxic High Streets”, which also included the effect on them of pawn shops, money lenders and bookmakers.
Labour Coun Joyce McCarty rejected the levy idea, saying: “We don’t want to see another tax on small businesses. If we’re going to try and work with the businesses we need to look at issues case by case and deal with it as the need arises.”
There were also criticisms of the easing of planning laws by the Coalition Government which makes it easier for retail outlets to change to fast food takeaways.
In the amendment to the Lib Dem motion, which was accepted, the council agreed to continue to support local retail diversity and vitality as well as the introduction of “localist” retail planning policies to improve the health and vitality of local retail centres.
Source – Newcastle Journal, 03 July 2014
A Commons inquiry has backed warnings from Newcastle City Council that cuts to housing benefit are causing hardship for families with children and disabled people – while failing to free up housing stock.
MPs are warning that cuts in benefits paid to social housing tenants who are considered to have a spare bedroom has caused “severe financial hardship and distress to vulnerable groups”.
The policy, known by critics as the “bedroom tax”, was designed to free up larger properties for families who need them most by encouraging council or housing association tenants with spare rooms to downsize.
But the Commons Work and Pensions Committee – which has Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem members – highlighted warnings from Newcastle City Council that there simply aren’t enough smaller properties for people to move into.
The Committee published its findings after hearing evidence from a range of witnesses including Coun Joyce McCarty, Newcastle Council’s deputy leader.
The Government has published figures showing that the cost of paying housing benefit in the North East had fallen by £25m as a result of the reforms.
Housing benefit rules introduced last year allow tenants to have one bedroom for a single adult or couple, for any two children under 15 of the same gender and for any two children under nine of either gender.
Housing benefit is cut by 14% of the property’s assessed rent if they have one room deemed to be a spare bedroom and 25% if they have two.
In the North East, 50,000 households had their benefit cut, or 440 households for every 10,000 in the region – a higher proportion than any other part of the country.
MPs highlighted evidence from Newcastle, which told the inquiry that 3,233 of its tenants were on the waiting list for a one-bedroom property but only around 800 one-bedroom properties were becoming available each year, including bedsits.
Referring to the policy as the social sector size criteria (SSSC), the MPs said: “Newcastle City Council questioned whether the SSSC policy was likely to succeed in encouraging better use of social housing stock. It pointed out that in Newcastle overcrowding was not a significant issue”
“Coun McCarty made the point that the SSSC had actually led to very few overcrowded families being rehoused.”
They warned: “We understand the Government’s wish to use social housing stock more efficiently and to reduce overcrowding. However, the SSSC so far seems to be a blunt instrument for achieving this. In many areas there is insufficient smaller social housing stock to which affected tenants can move, meaning that they remain in housing deemed to be too large and pay the SSSC.”
But ministers said housing benefit reforms and the welfare cap – which means no household can receive more than £26,000 in benefits – were needed to manage soaring welfare spending, which grew by 50% in Britain in just 10 years and saw the housing benefit bill exceed £1bn in the North East alone.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith said: “It was absolutely necessary that we fixed the broken system which just a year ago allowed the taxpayer to cover the £1m daily cost of spare rooms in social housing.
“We have taken action to help the hundreds of thousands of people living in cramped, overcrowded accommodation and to control the spiralling housing benefit bill, as part of the Government’s long-term economic plan.”
> “And all the stress, debt, homelessness and suicide resulting from this policy is actually good for them, they thrive on it. I’ve got figures to prove it”, he might have added…
Source – Newcastle Journal, 02 April 2014
Newcastle City Council is considering “re-designating” whole tower blocks of two-bedroom flats as one-bedroom properties – because tenants can’t afford to pay the bedroom tax.
Two thirds of council housing tenants are currently behind on their rent, double the number before the bedroom tax was introduced.
The impact of the bedroom tax on families across the city was revealed by Coun Joyce McCarty, deputy leader of Newcastle City Council, when she spoke to MPs. Coun McCarty was giving evidence to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, which is holding an inquiry into how changes to the welfare system have affected housing.
New rules introduced by the Government mean housing benefit is cut for claimants in social housing who are considered to have a spare room. The policy has been dubbed a ‘bedroom tax’ by critics, while ministers say they are ending a ‘spare-room subsidy’.
Coun McCarty said 5,500 households in the city were hit by the policy. And others who weren’t currently affected were desperate to avoid it, even if that meant turning down the offer of a two-bedroom property.
She told MPs: “Because previously people wanted space, we actually pulled down one bedroom flats not that long ago. We are thinking of re-designating complete tower blocks of two bedroom flats as one bedroom flats, because people can’t afford them.”
This would allow tenants to avoid having their housing benefit cut, but it would also mean the council lost money, she said.
“The impact of doing that is huge because that’s a loss of rental income as well.”
“We’ve got lots [of properties] that people don’t want to move in to . . . couples and individuals don’t want to move in to there because they know they’d have to pay additional costs.”
Newcastle had been particularly affected by the change to housing benefit because 23% of residents live in social housing, compared to a national average of just10%, she said.
Your Homes Newcastle, who manage council homes on behalf of the council, visited tenants to make sure they were claiming everything they were entitled to.
“At the moment 66% of our tenants are in arrears, which is double what it would have been before April, so that can be allocated to be the bedroom tax,” Coun McCarty added. “There are about 139 currently pending facing eviction since the bedroom tax was introduced.”
But the council was working with all the tenants involved to try to keep them in their homes, she said. In theory, tenants could move into smaller properties. However, those properties were not available.
“We have 3,500 people wanting to have one bedroom properties now, but each year we probably have 800 free so it will take us several years to reallocate those people.”
Your Homes Newcastle said it was considering re-designating a further 1,200 properties, but could not specify which blocks. Neil Scott, director of tenancy services said: “Newcastle has an unusually large proportion of accommodation in high rise properties. We currently manage 44 blocks over six storeys. The vast majority of properties in these blocks are two bedroom. We have 2,594 two bedroom flats in high rise properties, and 80 of those are available for let.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 06 Jan 2014