Councils have defended their use of bailiffs after a charity said “heavy handed” debt collection practices were leaving families – and more specifically children – in fear.
The Children’s Society said North-East local authorities had engaged bailiffs an estimated 51,800 times last year to recover council tax debts.
Meanwhile, Durham County Council said it had referred 22,306 council tax warrants to bailiffs, although this was over the last three years rather than a 12 month period.
Bailiffs, typically employed by private companies, have the power to enforce non-payment of debts by seizing property from homeowners.
The Children’s Society said in just 14 days families could go from missing a council tax payment to facing court proceedings and action from bailiffs.
It described incidents in which children had answered the phone to a debt collector or been present when they had called in person, leaving them frightened and unable to sleep as a result.
One mother, who was among 4,500 parents surveyed for the charity’s research, said: “My children knew mummy was stressed and there were strange people at the door wanting things.
“Most of the furniture got taken at that point.”
It said three quarters of parents in this position had not been given help to find independent advice and local authorities were “rushing to penalise struggling families by demanding sudden, unrealistic” payments.
Matthew Reed, the charity’s chief executive, said:
“Far too many families are failed by their council when they fall behind with their council tax.”
Ian Fergusson, Durham County Council’s revenue and benefits manager, said:
“The use of bailiffs is always a last resort and the bailiffs that we use are highly trained to be respectful of council tax payers and their families at all times.
“We would encourage anyone who is experiencing financial difficulties to contact us to discuss the issues they are facing.”
“In every case the council will always try to come to an arrangement first.
“Our enforcement agents have a strict code of conduct that does not allow any of their staff to discuss a debt with a child.”
Source – Northern Echo, 26 Mar 2015
Hundreds of North East homeless teenagers are being left to fend for themselves, research shows.
A report, launched by The Children’s Society today, shows that across the region an estimated 300 teenagers aged 16 and 17 ask their local authority for emergency help with housing each year – but almost half are turned away and left to fend for themselves without even having their needs assessed.
The research based on Freedom of Information requests – sent to 353 local councils across England – also reveals that homeless 16-17-year-olds are rarely given the same support as children in care, such as access to an advocate or financial support.
Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said:
“It is a disgrace that hundreds of vulnerable teenagers, who may have escaped physical or sexual abuse at home, have gone to their council to get help in finding a safe home, only to be turned away.
“These teenagers are being hung out to dry. Few have the money or resources to find new accommodation and their options are limited. At best they might rely on the goodwill of friends or family, at worst they may be forced to return to an unsafe home or to live on the streets. They are facing huge dangers from predators who seek to abuse or exploit them. Councils need to do much more to protect these vulnerable teenagers. Every teenager deserves a safe place to live.”
Research finds that homeless teenagers may be sent back to homes where there is violence or left rootless with no permanent home, facing threats of sexual abuse or being driven into crime.
Councils across England place hundreds of teenagers in Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs) each year, going against government guidance which regards this type of accommodation as unsuitable.
It has been documented that B&Bs and hostels used to accommodate homeless people are targeted by sexual predators and drug dealers.
Even where teenagers are housed in supported accommodation, the reality is that it may not be suitable as it is not inspected and is unregulated.
The Children’s Society is calling for councils to join up their services and make sure that all teenagers who seek help for homelessness are assessed and given adequate support. They are also calling for B&B accommodation to be banned and hostels and supported accommodation to be regulated.
The charity is lobbying the government to make sure councils identify vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds seeking help for homelessness, and provide them with flexible support and the same protection as care leavers.
Across England, an estimated 12,000 homeless 16 and 17-year-olds ask councils for help with housing each year – but more than 5,000 are turned away.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 20 Mar 2015
This articlewas written by Patrick Butler, social policy editor, for The Guardian on Thursday 18th December 2014
Poverty charities and councils have warned that the government’s refusal to guarantee funding for local welfare schemes will force low income families in crisis to turn to food banks and loan sharks.
The government announced in January that it would no longer provide £180m central funding for local welfare assistance schemes operated by English local authorities after April 2015, triggering a cross-party revolt by Conservative MPs and council leaders, Labour councils and charities.
It is believed that the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, attempted to secure £70m for local welfare to announce in Thursday’s local government finance settlement, but was blocked by the chancellor, George Osborne.
The local government minister Kris Hopkins told the Commons on Thursday that there would be no additional funding for local welfare, although he encouraged councils to make further formal representations, raising faint hopes that the government may revisit the decision in February.
Local welfare provision offers emergency help for a range of vulnerable people who fall into unexpected crisis, including women fleeing domestic violence, homeless people, pregnant mothers, care leavers, pensioners and people suffering from chronic physical and mental health problems.
Some in Whitehall are understood to be concerned that cutting local welfare will provide additional fuel to critics who argue the government does not care about poverty. A cross-party report on food banks this month urged the government to protect local welfare assistance, saying food bank referrals would increase if it was not reinstated.
Hopkins said that although there would be no new funds for local welfare, ministers would outline a notional figure of £130m in the overall grant allocations to councils – a cut of £50m – although this would not be ring-fenced, meaning councils can spend it on other services.
Cllr Andy Hull, Labour-run Islington council’s executive member for finance, called the decision not to provide local welfare funding “an early Christmas present from the government for loan sharks and payday lenders.”
He added: “This safety net supports families to stay together, helps people sustain their tenancies and keeps kids out of care. It is a lifeline, not a luxury. Now, thanks to the government, it lies in shreds.”
The Local Government Association said almost three-quarters of local authorities will abandon or scale back local welfare schemes unless they receive government funding. Two county councils, Nottinghamshire and Oxfordshire, have already closed their schemes.
Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said:
“In the long-run tax payers will foot a higher bill if low-income families can’t stop a one-off, unforeseen expense from becoming a full-blown crisis – and the human cost will be high. For mothers leaving violent partners or youngsters moving on from homelessness or care, the schemes can make the difference between managing or not.”
Helen Middleton of the Furniture Reuse Network, whose member charities work closely with councils on helping low-income families, said the decision showed the government had “no real understanding of the levels of poverty in this country”.
Homelessness charity Centrepoint said young homeless people used local welfare schemes as a vital safety net:
“It’s completely unacceptable that young people who have fought to turn their lives around after facing homelessness are once again left to sleep on floors for lack of something as basic as a bed.
“Ministers must look carefully at responses from councils to this announcement and consider whether their proposal really reflects the level of poverty in many of our communities.”
Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said:
“The government’s decision to reduce annual funding from £172m to £130m will make it harder for councils to support vulnerable families facing a crisis. The requirement that town halls fund their schemes from within existing budgets may create a postcode lottery for many families in poverty.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 18 Dec 2014
Families in crisis will have nowhere to turn when a £10m emergency fund for the region is axed within months, campaigners warn today.
The Children’s Society raises the alarm over Government plans to scrap ‘local welfare assistance schemes’ – seen as a last lifeline to stop vulnerable people falling into debt and destitution.
The cash – administered by local authorities – is helping an estimated 80,000 people across the North-East and North Yorkshire in this financial year, the organisation said.
Some are women fleeing domestic violence, who desperately need money quickly to buy an oven for their new home.
Other grants are given to parents so they can visit their sick child in hospital, or to struggling families when they face an emergency cost such as a broken boiler.
But the funding will be withdrawn from next April, under proposals put forward by the department for work and pensions (DWP) expected to be confirmed in the New Year.
Ministers say local councils can fund the schemes themselves – but those councils must themselves find billions of pounds of savings, amid huge cuts to their Whitehall grants.
Matthew Reed, The Children’s Society chief executive, said:
“This is a cut too far.
“Without these schemes, families will have to choose between going without basic essentials to keep their family safe and healthy – such as food or heating – and turning to high cost credit or payday loans, plunging them into a debt trap.”
Durham County Council – which will lose £407,270, if the plans go ahead – said it had not yet drawn up proposals to plug the gap.
Roger Goodes, head of policy, said:
“We are looking at how we might be able to continue to support people, should funding be withdrawn.
“Once the funding situation is confirmed, we would expect to develop detailed proposals which would be put to members of the council’s Cabinet for consideration.”
> Why didn’t he just say “no idea” ?
But a DWP spokeswoman insisted it was not planning to end support, but giving councils greater freedom how to spend funds from Whitehall.
“This Government is giving councils more control because they understand best their local area’s needs. This is in contrast to the old centralised grant system that was poorly targeted.”
The estimate that almost 80,000 people in the region are currently receiving help is based on the average grant of £124.
Source – Northern Echo, 07 Nov 2014
Almost 20,000 Wearside families are struggling with the cost of sending their children to school, a new report has revealed.
Every year parents are forking out an average of £770 per child to meet the basic needs of their child’s schooling, according to a study published today by the Children’s Commission on Poverty.
Backed by the Children’s Society, the report found 78 per cent of parents in the North East are struggling to meet the costs of school clothing, sports kits, school meals, trips, books, materials for classes, stationery, computers for homework, travel to and from school and summer clubs or activities.
Collectively, Sunderland parents are spending £26,899,261 on meeting school costs and 19,303 families are struggling, according to the report.
Sharon Hodgson, MP for Wasington and Sunderland West, said:
“Schools have a growing responsibility to ensure that the significant disadvantages that their pupils face because of poverty are addressed, and they now have significant funding through the pupil premium to help them do that.
“Practical steps could be making sure that uniforms are generic so they can be bought cheaply in supermarkets, running breakfast clubs so that children who don’t get fed on a morning aren’t prevented from learning by hunger, or homework clubs so that children can use computers and other resources they might not have at home.
“Child poverty is a millstone around the neck of children throughout the rest of their lives, and it benefits us all to do everything we can to alleviate its symptoms as soon as possible.”
The Children’s Commission on Poverty, a panel of children aged 10-19 from across England, found the costs are not only affecting family finances, but also harming the wellbeing of the poorest children.
It discovered more than half of the poorest families are borrowing money to pay for essential school items, almost two-thirds of children living in the poorest families are embarrassed as a result of not being able to afford key aspects of school and more than 25 per cent said this had led them to being bullied.
Across County Durham, parents spent £47,073,023 on school costs, with 34,702 families classed as struggling.
The report also found that a third of children living in the poorest families had fallen behind at school because their family couldn’t afford the computer or internet facilities.
Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said:
“Children are being penalised and denied their right to an equal education simply because their parents cannot afford the basics. This is just not right.
“The Government needs to listen to this crucial report by young commissioners and act to make sure no child is stopped from getting an education equal to their peers. It must stop children from being made to suffer because they are living in poverty.”
Source – Sunderland Echo, 29 Oct 2014
Thousands of Sunderland children are living in families trapped by debt, a new report says.
The figures, released by The Children’s Society and debt charity StepChange, show a third of households in Wearside are forced to borrow money to pay for essential bills.
More than 5,200 families in the city – 15 per cent of the total – are failing to keep up with household bills and loan repayments.
It means an estimated 7,471 Sunderland children are living in families with problem debt, with each struggling family behind on payments by an average of £1,669.
Across the city, families owe a total of £8,716,944 in bills and loans.
In Durham City and Easington, the problem affects 2,957 families, with 4,970 children, and a total of £4,934,526 is owed in debts.
The charities’ report, The Debt Trap: Exposing the impact of problem debt on children, claims family debt causes youngsters to suffer from worry and anxiety, experience bullying and miss out on essentials.
The Children’s Society chief executive, Matthew Reed, said: “This research exposes the shocking reality of parents lying awake at night worrying and unhappy children going without.
“Many families are feeling the squeeze, and parents struggling on low wages are battling just to pay the bills.”
In Sunderland, Pallion Action Group has seen a surge in requests for debt advice since the welfare reform capped benefits at £26,000, and now helps between 100 and 175 people each month.
Money and debt advisor David Brass said the majority of those he deals with owe money to utility companies or have rent and council tax arrears.
He said: “We don’t see so many with credit cards, store cards and loans anymore. What we are seeing is people who cannot pay their gas or electricity bills.”
Most advice he gives involves identifying priority debts, like rent and council tax, over general credit debts, then working out a budget and sticking to it.
“Luxuries go out the window,” he said. “That means losing your Sky TV and non-essentials like home insurance. They have to try and maximise their income and minimise expenditure.
“As long as they keep a roof over their head and food on the table, that’s our job done. We give food parcels out as well. A loaf of bread can make a big difference to someone who is desperate.”
The centre gives out about 25 food parcels a week through its partnership with Sainsbury’s, Mr Brass said.
He said he would encourage parents to tell children, especially teenagers, about money problems, as muns and dads are often under pressure to buy expensive gadgets or designer clothing.
“Many parents get into debt because they do not want to see their children go without, so it is important that they understand the pressures,” he added.
“Most parents always make sure children are clothed and have school uniforms. There are one or two who really struggle who can’t afford the uniforms.”
The Children’s Society and StepChange are calling on the Government to consider a “breathing space” scheme to give struggling families an extended period of protection from additional charges, further interest and enforcement action.
Also, review whether the protection for children against the harm caused by debt collection is working; provide earlier and wider access to debt support and advice, and impose tighter restrictions on advertising loans to youngsters.
Source – Sunderland Echo, 12 Aug 2014
The North East has some of the highest levels of poverty in the country and is bucking the trend of falls elsewhere, new figures show.
Nearly a quarter of adults and a third of children in the region are classed as living in poverty, according to new Government statistics on household incomes. The region had also seen two successive falls in average household income in recent years, the figures show, though the number of pensioners in poverty has fallen and is now the lowest level in the UK.
The Government hailed national statistics which showed that the number of people in relative poverty has fallen by 100,000 over the past year to 9.7m.
But charities working to alleviate child poverty said the fact that 100,000 children in the region were living in poverty was “unacceptable”.
Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said: “The Government’s claim that it is protecting the most vulnerable families from falling behind is not borne out by these figures, which show that an unacceptable number of children are still living in poverty in the North East. We know that children who grow up in poverty are more likely to suffer poor health and struggle at school.
“It needs to do much more to help those who are struggling against the brutal effects of welfare cuts, stagnant wages and rising food and fuel prices if it is to stop the continuing crisis of child poverty.”
The Gingerbread campaign group said the statistics showed a steep rise in child poverty for single parent households where the parent works full-time, climbing from 17% of households where the single parent works full-time in poverty in 2011-12 to 22% in 2012-13.
Almost one in four children whose single mother or father works full-time is now growing up poor, while nearly one in three with a single parent working part-time is in poverty, said the group.
Gingerbread chief executive Fiona Weir said: “It is deeply concerning that while the economy is on the up, hundreds of thousands of families remain trapped into poverty. For far too many single parent families, work offers no real promise of escape from hardship, as today’s figures show a rise in working poverty where a single mum or dad is working full-time.”
Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman said: “Child poverty remains at its lowest level since the 1980s. It has fallen by 300,000 since 2009/10.
“Does the Government want to continue to do more in this area? Of course. Absolutely at the heart of improving prosperity across the country and for all is the importance of sticking to the long-term economic plan, because at the heart of dealing with poverty is work.”
The spokesman added: “In terms of wider poverty, the target established under the previous Government is one of relative income, and that stands at its lowest level since 1982.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 01 July 2014
By Jenny Howarth
Chancellor George Osborne has delivered his fourth budget. It was clear from his opening gambit – “If you’re a maker, a doer or a saver: this Budget is for you” – that this budget would help the few and not the many. If you were not a ‘hard-worker’, business owner or saver then there would be no point in listening any further.
For Osborne, the budget was an opportunity to say that their long-term economic plan is delivering security for the people of this country. The emphasis was on support for businesses who invest and export, on support for manufacturers, on support for savers or rather making sure “hardworking people keep more of what they earn – and more of what they save” – all aimed towards the central mission: economic security for the people of Britain.
By the end of his 55 minute speech it was very clear that the economic security he spoke of was for the few not the many. He tried to convince people that his budget was for the “makers, doers and savers”, yet it came across as “I’m hoping to gain the over-50 vote”. He promised a budget of “hard truths” which could be implied as “if you think I’m going to help the unemployed, disabled and vulnerable then think again”.
Osborne’s budget was more ‘out of touch with reality’ than ‘hard truths’. He spoke of economic growth, a Britain on the road to recovery, even mentioning the new resilient pound coin to match the resilient economy. However, for thousands of families waking up the morning after the Budget, life is still a struggle. For them the budget was meaningless, doing nothing to improve their desperate situation and here is why.
Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said:
“This is a Budget for the people who already have, not for the people who need to benefit most from the return to growth. It is a lost opportunity for the 13 million people in poverty who need active intervention to tackle the structural barriers that keep them in poverty”. Adding, “People on low incomes are unlikely to see the welcome benefits of growth unless there is targeted help with household and housing costs, with child care and with the nature of jobs and training. The expense and inefficiency of high levels of poverty continue to put a drag on growth”.
A view shared by other charities. William Higham, Save the Children’s director of UK poverty, said:
“The Budget was a missed opportunity to address the needs of families that are struggling to pay their food bill and children whose parents cannot afford to pay for uniforms and school trips”.
It is for these reasons, George Osborne’s fourth budget was a budget for the few. It failed to address the fact that living standards are falling – despite the 2010 Manifesto promising “An economy where…[people’s] standard of living…rises steadily and sustainably”. It failed to help the 350 000 reliant on food banks or the 400 000 disabled people paying bedroom tax. His “resilient pound for a resilient economy” ignores the fact that working people are £1600 worse off.
Osborne may believe that increasing personal tax to £10 500 will help improve living standards but whilst it lifts three million out of taxation, it does nothing for the many families who depend on housing benefit to top up the little wage they get. “The vast majority of this will be deducted from their benefits – giving with one hand while taking with the other”, says Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society.
Matthew Reed’s comment raises another important point – benefits. Osborne had nothing to say on this except to announce a cap on the welfare budget. This will see Tax credits and housing benefit limited to £119.5bn in a bid to cut the deficit. Critics say that this limit to benefit claims over the next four years will hit disabled people and the low paid without tackling the underlying causes of Britain’s growing social security bill.
Whilst it may appear to be political suicide by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls saying Labour will vote for the cap, it is not. According to Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), the cap was simply a “gesture” and served no purpose other than to kick the “problem of spending cuts into the next parliament”.
For Portes it was “meaningless” to put a number on the cap without having policies in place to deliver it or to state how the cuts would be achieved. Adding that the charter would commit MPs to renewing the cap each year. “As Parliament already votes on measures to change social security budgets, this charter will not make much difference”.
It would appear that Osborne’s welfare cap charter is not new but something that already exists. It could be argued that whilst Labour is voting for it, there is plenty scope to amend the limit and bring in policies that would help not hit. Moreover, the question that needs to be asked is would a successive conservative government do that or would they continue with their long-term economic plan that they insist is bringing security to the people of Britain.
For now it would appear they are committed to helping the few, committed to bringing security to the hard-workers, business owners and savers. Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, says:
“Today’s Budget tries to lock-in austerity for millions of low-paid families, poor children, carer’s and disabled people. Announcing a cap for social security spending without a plan to address the root causes of low pay, high rents and high childcare costs, simply forces the most vulnerable in society to pay the price for inaction”.
Source – Welfare News Service, 20 March 2014