Households in Wales are struggling to cope with the devastating impact of the UK government’s welfare reforms and are being pushed into severe stress and hardship, a damning report by Citizens Advice Wales has found.
The report – One day at a time – investigated the cumulative impact of welfare reforms in Wales and found that many households were ‘struggling to maintain a minimum standard of living’, as a direct result of a reduction in their household income.
Households were ‘frequently going without basic essentials including food, adequate heating in their home and clothes’ in order to pay their rent or other bills. Parents were ‘sacrificing’ feeding themselves so that their children would not go hungry and to ‘maintain a sense of normality’ for their families.
Citizens Advice Wales say that the majority of households who took part in a survey for the report were also affected by the controversial bedroom tax, or under-occupation penalty, and were fearful of losing their homes.
“Our heating is put on for only a few hours a day, even through the winter. We have cut back as much as possible but we are not like other families, our son (with severe autism) doesn’t understand things so we have tried to maintain his lifestyle by allowing ours to get worse”, one respondent said.
The cumulative impact of welfare reforms inflicted upon Welsh households by the UK government, together with a ‘tougher sanctions regime’ and other benefit delays, has resulted in some households being left with no income at all, forcing them into debt and rent arrears.
“My money simply stopped. It was impossible to meet the cost of essentials with no money coming in. I have always been good at living on a tight budget but this is the worse it has ever been. I was trying to feed my two teenage children on child tax credits and child benefit. Things didn’t get paid on time and I was worried about facing homelessness again as I quickly got into arrears on my rent account”, another respondent to the survey said.
Citizens Advice Wales say they are concerned about the impact of welfare reforms on people’s mental and physical health. The majority of people who took part in the charity’s survey said their mental health had worsened since being affected by benefit changes, regardless of whether they had previously experienced mental health issues or not. Others said they ‘feel ashamed and depressed by their situation but powerless to do anything about it’. The report found that these feelings have been compounded by the negative portrayal of benefit claimants in the media.
A case study included in the report tells the story of a lady known as Susan, who has been affected by the bedroom tax and disability benefit changes. Susan has two children, both with autism, and lives in a property which has been extended (adapted) to include an extra bedroom and downstairs toilet for her disabled daughter. This resulted in Susan having a spare bedroom upstairs. Susan took in a lodger, who also acted as a carer, after being advised by her local authority that this could help her to avoid the under-occupation penalty (bedroom tax). On informing the DWP that she had taken in a lodger her benefits were stopped, because the DWP claimed that Susan was ‘co-habiting’.
“I had my disabled daughter in a wheelchair, my friend for support and they kept asking us the same questions as the form. I left there and a few weeks later I had a letter through saying my benefits had stopped because I was co habiting! I found a lawyer who helped me out pro bono and persuaded me to lodge an appeal. The appeal was very lengthy and I had to go through it all again. This appeal lasted over four weeks until a decision was made. Basically they tell you to take a lodger, you do and then the accuse you of co-habiting!”, Susan said.
She continued: “This affected my mental health significantly and added to my physical illness. I pretty much live in fear every day that they are going to come knocking. My mental health has degenerated significantly. Last week I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, I have been suicidal on three occasions and I am on medication for depression. All this has come about since this nonsense started.”
Susan says that her children’s welfare has also been affected: “Both my children suffered as well. They couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, they barely existed. How can you tell a disabled, autistic child no when it is part of their structure and their coping mechanism.”
People ‘want to find a job or work longer hours’, the report says, but are hindered by the high cost of childcare or not having internet access at home to search and apply for job vacancies (many companies only accept online applications), and other barriers to employment.
Sick and disabled people in Wales (and across the UK) have been affected particularly hard by benefit changes and are repeatedly subjected to demeaning and demoralising face-to-face disability assessments.
“I am 50 years old not five, yet I need help with dressing and showering. I have no money now because of PIP and because of that my friends have to help me; they shouldn’t have to do that. So you ask me what has changed? I have lost my dignity and pride.”
The report also found that there was a lack of empathy and compassion among JobCentre and DWP call-centre staff when communicating with benefit claimants. Sick and disabled claimants told Citizens Advice Wales that they believed ‘more could be done to ensure frontline staff have a better understanding of some of the issues people are facing’.
“There seems to be no understanding of mental health issues and how these confusing things can make people feel. I have found the attitude of DWP staff to be awful; they don’t deal with issues sensitively. When I have been at my lowest I was absolutely terrified of what was happening and tried to explain this to the member of staff who had phoned me about my money stopping due to failing the medical. I asked him what I was supposed to do next and he replied ‘Not my problem.’ I can’t even tell you how that made me feel.”
Commenting on the report Fran Targett, Director Citizens Advice Cymru said:
“The research highlights that the reduction in income caused by the benefit changes is hitting people that are already on a low income very hard.
“The impact it is having on peoples mental and physical health is particularly worrying. Unless people receive the support they need early on to help them manage these benefit changes, it will likely lead to more costly interventions down the line, putting additional pressures on health and social care services which are already under considerable strain.
“A tougher sanctions regime and delays in decision making processes mean some people have no income at all for long periods of time which has only added to the hardship they are facing.
“We know many people who come into bureaux and who we spoke to as part of this research are struggling to maintain a decent standard of living, frequently going without basic essentials including food, adequate heating in their homes and clothes so that they can keep up with rent payments and afford essential household bills. More and more people are being forced to rely on foodbanks.”
Fran added: “We recognise that both Welsh Government and Local Government finances are under considerable pressure and that this is likely to continue for many years to come. We also acknowledge the work that has been done to date by Welsh Government and others in helping the tens of thousands of people in Wales who have been affected by the welfare changes.
“However with even bigger reforms around the corner the need for a multi-agency approach has never been greater in order to ensure claimants feel able to confidently manage changes in the future and to prevent further poverty and hardship”.
Jeff Cuthbert AM, Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty said:
“The Welsh Government has repeatedly called for the UK Government to rethink its planned roll-out of Universal Credit. We are not against the idea of welfare reform but have made clear our concerns about the scale and planned speed of change. The slow down in the UK Government’s plans suggest we were right to be concerned.
“We believe that responsible reform should be delivered alongside the right help for those that need it and protection for those at greatest risk.”