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
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
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
Low pay and rising prices are pushing thousands of North East families into poverty, a charity chief has told MPs.
Sara Bryson, policy and development officer at Children North East, said that the majority of children in poverty in the region came from working families and that rising employment had not translated into living standards for many.
Giving evidence to Parliament, she called for central and local Government bodies in the region to introduce the Living Wage so that families could cover the basic costs of living.
Ms Bryson said that more than 60% of all children living in poverty in the North East have working parents and that it was years of stagnant pay and high prices that has pushed many low-income families to breaking point.
“It’s about making sure when people do work they can afford to feed their children and send them to school,” said Ms Bryson. “In order to do that they need to earn a living wage.
“National Government is very much focussed on getting people jobs in the private sector but the recession has hit hard and industry still hasn’t fully recovered up here. The region’s public sector, which has always been our most dominant employer, has also been hit hard.
“One in four children and young people in the North East live below the official poverty line. It is not fair or right that they don’t get the same chances and breaks as their peers.”
During the Parliamentary discussion, Ms Bryson shared her views, opinions and knowledge around poverty in schools and child poverty issues.
The Children’s Commission on Poverty and The Children’s Society will meet in August and September to review the findings from the sessions and produce an independent report which will be published in October.
“Education is so important to lift children out of poverty but they need to have a positive experience at school,” added Ms Bryson. “Some children will never have been on a school trip, they will have gone without meals, warm clothes and perhaps felt embarrassed or scared to bring their friends home.
“I was brought up in Blakelaw, in Newcastle’s west end, and it was my first school trip that inspired me to go on to university and study.
“As well as adopting the Living Wage we need to work closely with schools to maintain a bursary for pupils after the National Education Maintenance Allowance was abolished and ensure schools are effectively using the Pupil Premium funding from the Government to support disadvantaged children.
“We also doing terrific work as a charity at helping teachers and school staff better understand the individual needs of children in poverty. This goes a long way to abolishing the stigma and prejudices felt between children at school.”
The latest figures show that 24.5% of children in the North East are in poverty, compared to a UK average of 20.6%.
That figure rises to 29% in Newcastle and the proportion of children living in poverty in some parts of the city is far higher. In both Walker and Byker, in the city’s east end, the figure rises above 50%.
Source – Newcastle Journal, 31 July 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
Campaign launched to give voice to people supported by benefits
The vast majority of people believe benefits are an important safety net for people in need, a new campaign has revealed today.
But one in four people who claim benefits have hidden the fact because they worry what people will think.
More than seventy charities and community groups have joined forces to launch Who Benefits? – a campaign to give a voice to the millions of people supported by benefits at some point in their lives.
Polling carried out for Who Benefits? – brought together by The Children’s Society, Crisis, Gingerbread, Macmillan Cancer Support and Mind – reveals overwhelming public support for the principle that benefits should be there for those who need them. 81% agree that ‘benefits are an important safety net to support people when they need help’, while two-thirds (64%) agree that ‘we all benefit as a society when support from benefits is available for those that need it’.
But despite widespread public support, more than a quarter (27%) of those who currently claim benefits say they have hidden this because of what people will think. This rises to half (47%) of 16-24 year olds who have been supported by benefits. And more than half (51%) of all those who had never been supported by benefits said they would feel embarrassed to claim.
The poll findings come on the back of the recent British Social Attitudes survey which showed a softening of public attitudes towards benefits and unemployment.
Who Benefits? argues that the overwhelming majority of those on benefits really need the support, yet too often their voices are ignored, misrepresented or at worst they are blamed for their situation.
The campaign, which launches today, is asking people to share their stories. Hundreds of people who have been supported by benefits have already shared their stories through the website and through social media with the hashtag #WeAllBenefit.
Laura is one of the hundreds who shared their story. She said: “I’ve needed support from benefits because, as a mother of four, daily life can be a real struggle. Before we received support I was forced to borrow from family and friends. I’m a full-time mum, and my husband has been working as a full-time mechanic for six years.”
“Receiving support from Child Tax Credits is not a lifestyle choice for me – it’s a necessity. It helps me to put food on the table for my family, buy clothes and school uniforms for my children and prevent the gas and electricity from being cut off. Without this support I don’t know how we would survive.”
Who Benefits? asks politicians of all parties to do more to understand the lives of people who have been supported by benefits, as well as focus on the real reasons that people are struggling, like low wages, the high cost of living and the housing crisis.
Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: “Life is full of ups and downs, it can be unpredictable. But no one should go hungry because they lose their job or go into debt because they are on such a low wage. And it is reassuring to see that the public support this view.
“At a time when families up and down the country are feeling the squeeze, it is important – now more than ever – that society supports those in need. The overwhelming majority of people who get benefits really need them; whether they are working, looking for work or unable to work.”
Leslie Morphy, Chief Executive of Crisis, said: “At Crisis we see every day how support from benefits lifts people out of homelessness, or prevents them from ending up on the streets in the first place. With this support we see people moving into work and on to a better life. Yet all too often the realities of people’s lives and situations are just ignored. That’s why we want people to get involved with Who Benefits? – to ensure real voices are heard.”
Fiona Weir, Chief Executive of Gingerbread, said: “None of us know what is around the corner for our family, which is why it can come as a huge blow to someone who’s already having a tough time to be labelled or stereotyped. It is great to see that the vast majority of the British public are behind giving support to those who need it, and we hope that our campaign will encourage more people to come forward to share their stories of how benefits have supported them.”
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, said: “Support from benefits makes a huge difference to the lives of many people with mental health problems, allowing people to stay well and retain their independence; or help with the additional costs that come from having a disability.
“Lots of individuals with mental health problems face stigma and discrimination, as their condition is less visible than a physical disability. These new statistics suggest those who claim benefits experience double the stigma.”