Speech on changes to Housing Benefit and Welfare Reform (Policy and Resources Committee, Dundee City Council, 12th. March 2012)

Laurie Bidwell

Convener, I welcome this report but loath what it tells us about the shocking reduction in benefits which will be paid out in our city.

 

It is indeed crucial that we address the issues affecting our citizens from the combined effects of the Westminster Government's cuts in social security benefits in Dundee.

The paper from the Finance Directorate calculates that the combined annual reduction in cash benefits in the city will total £27.5 million.

This will significantly reduce household incomes that are already being squeezed by price increases in the shops, hikes in electricity and gas bills, increases in fares and at the petrol pumps. 

Every one of those families and households in receipt of less money reduces the cash in purses and wallets.

That level of cash reduction not being rung up on the tills will inevitably have an effect in our city shops and businesses.

As a result, I am sure that the council will find it a more challenging times in which to recover rent and council tax arrears.

The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government at Westminster is the source of these changes and are to blame for heaping so many combined cuts on households.  

It makes David Cameron's claim that "we are all in this together" sound rather hollow.

But there several matters that receives rather less attention in this report. Fundamentally we need to ensure that our Council is using its existing powers to the full to protect our citizens from the financial tsunami that is advancing.

Firstly, the paper has little to say about the evidence of growing demand for welfare rights advice in our city.

Switching more benefit administration to the Department of Work and Pensions will mean many more folk interacting with a faceless service via a call centre or on a computer screen.

Given the scale and complexity of the changes and the difficulties each household will have understanding and coping with the changes, demand for face to face welfare rights advice will inevitably grow. 

This will put a further strain on the existing providers of welfare rights advice in the city including the council. 

So we need to know whether we have enough welfare rights advisers in Dundee and are these available in the right places?

Where, for example, is the Broughty Ferry access point for at least a weekly surgery for Advice and Information on Welfare Benefits?

Secondly, many of the existing network of advice agencies lurch from year to year on insecure funding.

There should be scope for the Council to ensure that those agencies that provide front line advice and advocacy and meet quality standards have their funding guaranteed for up to three years.

Thirdly, in April 2013 there will be an important transfer of powers from the UK to Scotland when the responsibility for the payment of crisis loans and grants from the Department of Work and Pensions transfers to the Scottish Government.

It’s not yet clear whether this will be administered by local councils or the Scottish Government.

In the Council's submission to the Scottish Government consultation, the council indicated that their preferred option was for a national scheme with national guidance that is administered by local councils.

We concur with that position and hope that the Scottish Government will, as a matter of urgency, clarify its position.

The Council will need good notice of its additional responsibilities if it is to be ready to exercise these in a fair and efficient way to some of our most vulnerable citizens confused and disadvantaged as they migrate from one or more benefits to another.

We need therefore as a committee to know how we are preparing to take on our responsibilities for this additional duty.

Laurie Bidwell's amendment, on behalf of the Labour Group, was approved.

 

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