The article below was originally published in the Guardian on 1 April 2013.
The article refers to the impact of the benefit cap that is being piloted in Tottenham before being rolled out nationwide and refers to David Lammy's public meeting on the benefit cap last month.
In a packed and stuffy meeting room at a council leisure centre, the Tottenham MP David Lammy rouses his specially invited audience with a question: "I'm getting a feeling some of you might be a bit worried. Are you worried?"
The response from some of his constituency's most vulnerable residents, all of whom stand to lose up to £100 a week from benefit cuts coming into effect this month, is a loud and unanimous "Yes!"
From 15 April, about 900 families in Lammy's north London constituency – one of the most deprived in the country – will be hit by the household benefit cap, which limits the total weekly amount each unemployed household can receive in benefits to £500. Haringey, the local authority, is one of four councils testing the cap, which will be rolled out across the rest of the country over the next six months.
Lammy had written to all 900 and nearly 200 turn up on this chilly March morning, many of them mothers with young children in tow. There is palpable anxiety, and an undercurrent of anger. The first some of them knew of the imminent cut to their income, says Lammy, was when they opened his letter.
More than half such families will lose between £50 and £100 a week in housing benefit as a result of the benefit cap, he estimates. Those who face smaller losses may be able to scrape together the shortfall and keep their tenancy, but at the cost of buying food or heating their home. Others will be unable to pay their rent, and will end up in arrears, then homeless or forced to move out of London to low-rent areas of the country.
Some of those present are technically homeless, and have been living in council-provided temporary accommodation, often for years. Lammy is asked if Haringey will evict people who can't afford to pay the rent: "The answer is yes … Let's be brutally honest. If in a year's time people have huge arrears, Haringey will be put in a very difficult position."
Families can sidestep the cap if they find a job that offers 16 hours a week for single parents, or 24 hours for couples. But jobs are scarce in Tottenham, and as one mother points out, even if work is found, childcare is expensive. There is widespread alarm. "In each face here I can see fear, worry and anxiety," says Maurice, 57, an unemployed courier.
After the meeting Lammy says the welfare changes have generated a "real fear" about homelessness among his poorest constituents: "The local authority will have to think very hard about its responsibilities. We cannot evict people on to the streets with no alternative: this is not America."
The household benefit cap is just one of nine changes coming in this month, laying bare the sheer enormity and complexity of the coalition's welfare reforms. Others include the bedroom tax (typical weekly loss per household, £14), the abolition in many areas of the country of council tax benefit (£3 a week), and the 1% cap on benefit increases (£3 a week). Six of these changes will take £2.3bn from the pockets of the poorest households in 2013-14, according to the charity Child Poverty Action group (CPAG).
That figure does not include the replacement of disability living allowance with personal independence payments, to be phased in over three years from April. By 2016, an estimated 500,000 will lose this benefit, squeezing an estimated £1bn a year out of the incomes of disabled people. Disabled people will be disproportionately affected by the wider changes, with tens of thousands being hit simultaneously by up to six different welfare cuts.
The CPAG figure does not include two other changes: the localisation of the social fund, which has been replaced by 150 council-operated local welfare schemes; and the biggest reform of all, the introduction in October of universal credit, the ambitious attempt by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to merge a string of unemployment benefits and tax credits into a single payment for working-age people.
Duncan Smith argues universal credit will simplify the system, making it easier for people on benefits to make the leap into work. According to the government, a third of the 8 million households it covers will be better off. But about 450,000 disabled people will lose financially, according to Disability Rights UK, while 400,000 of the poorest households – such as single parent households with children – will be worse off by 2015, according to the Chartered Institute of Housing.
This latest phase of benefits reform will bring to 42 the bewildering number of social security cuts introduced by the coalition since May 2010. Collectively, these cuts mean households will cumulatively receive £16bn less than in 2010-11, says the CPAG. By 2015, ministers are aiming to save £18bn a year from the welfare budget, and they have signalled a further £10bn cut from 2016. The spending review in June is expected to set out further measures to contain the growing welfare bill.
Social analysts are concerned that deprivation levels are going back to those of 30 years ago, with the poorest families worse off than they were under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.Debt and food poverty are growing, homelessness is increasing, and demand on food banks is soaring – a sign of more people falling through the welfare net. The social impact of this impoverishment of Britain's poorest families – with more than 60% of such households in work – will unravel recent achievements in tackling poverty, say campaigners. According to Alison Garnham, chief executive of the CPAG, the coalition "is on course to leave behind the worst child poverty record of any government for a generation".
Others see the welfare agenda as presaging a profound shift in the relationship between the state and its most vulnerable citizens. "Last year I warned that we risk a decade of destitution. Some thought I was being over-dramatic," says Julia Unwin, head of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. "I am more convinced than ever that we have a perfect storm brewing; the reforms to welfare, the economic slowdown and spiralling costs, together with an increasingly spiteful tone in how we describe people in poverty, risks the UK becoming a nation where people face destitution."