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The hidden risks of the benefit cap

Posted: Monday 7th November 2016

If you've ever watched “Can't pay? We'll take It away!” on Channel 5 you'll have seen what can happen to people in debt who can't settle their bills. Whilst the documentary series has featured some rogues who never intended to repay a loan, it has also highlighted the desperation and tears of decent folk who open the door to find bailiffs waiting with a writ. In some cases, possessions will end up being confiscated. In others the house or flat will be repossessed by order of the court ... and the occupants locked outside.

Charities such as Citizens Advice are very concerned that benefit changes which took effect on Monday (7 November) could lead to more families facing eviction because they have been unable to pay the rent. You may be wondering at this point why that should concern your Police and Crime Commissioner. Well, I'll give you a clue: I was attending a meeting of the Wiltshire Domestic Abuse Forum where a presentation about the benefits shake-up was given by Sarah Cardy of Wiltshire Citizens Advice and the Chair of Wiltshire Money.

The benefit cap sets a limit on the total amount of certain benefits working-age people can claim, if in receipt of housing benefit or universal credit. As of this week, the maximum that a couple or a single parent can receive in benefits is £384 a week or £20,000 a year outside London. The current cap is £500 a week for single parents and couples, or £26,000 a year outside London.

Sarah explained that, if a household's total benefits exceed the new cap, it will be the housing benefit entitlement that will be cut. And that could put people straight into arrears with their rent - and on a slippery slope to eviction.

The concern is that the impact of the cap will be felt most dramatically by those already most at risk of becoming homeless. According to the pressure group, Gingerbread, more than 43,000 single parents nationally with a child under five could be hit by the cap.

You might be saying to yourself: “Where does the domestic abuse come in?” Well, by rolling a number of benefits together and introducing Universal Credit, the Department for Work and Pensions is moving away from benefits being paid to particular members of the family. If in future benefits are paid to a partner who controls the relationship through coercion, then there is the risk of clashes over how that reduced income is spent.

If the family breaks up, we could envisage cases where children are living in unsatisfactory temporary accommodation and adults could find themselves living rough. That could lead to drug or alcohol problems which in turn can lead to crime. I have first-hand knowledge of this dismal chain of events through my voluntary work with the Filling Station, which provides soup and support to homeless people in Swindon. In addition we could even see some women seeking to make up for the shortfall by becoming sex workers.

I am not saying that capping benefits is necessarily wrong. What concerns me is that the consequences of this massive change do not seem to have been fully anticipated and planned for by some of the agencies which support families and individuals. And that could have an impact on our local communities, and on public services, not least our police.


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