Yorkshire poverty and debt soaring as cuts bite

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SCORES of charities across Yorkshire are reporting soaring levels of poverty, debt and homelessness as the Government’s massive crackdown on welfare starts to hit home.

A survey of nearly 200 voluntary and community organisations across the region found that 95 per cent are experiencing rising anxiety among their clients over their level of income due to the Coalition’s ongoing programme of benefit cuts, the next tranche of which comes into force on April 1.

Eighty-seven per cent of Yorkshire charities which responded to the survey said they had seen an increase in people with debt problems over the past year, and 84 per cent said poverty was rising.

Most disturbingly for the Government, more than half the charities said they are already witnessing an increase in homelessness – even before the controversial “bedroom tax” comes into force next month.

The so-called tax – actually a cut in housing benefit for anyone who has a spare room – was defended by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg this week, but attacked by Labour MPs in a fiery Commons debate on Wednesday.

Labour claims the crackdown is particularly unfair on groups who often need a spare room, such as the disabled, or parents with a child in the Armed Forces.

The Government, however, says the changes are essential to deal with both the UK’s huge deficit and its ongoing housing shortage.

The new survey, to be published this morning, was carried out by Involve Yorkshire and Humber, which represents charities across the region.

Its chief executive Judy Robinson said she was deeply concerned the Coalition’s welfare reform programme is already having such a sizeable impact on people’s lives, even before the toughest measures come into force next month.

“It is truly frightening that charities are already seeing such increases in homelessness and poverty, when the most dramatic benefits changes are yet to come,” she said.

“Voluntary and community groups are at the front line of helping those who are struggling to cope, and we must listen carefully to what they are saying is happening.”

Sarah Sidwell, a project manager at the Hull food bank – which offers emergency supplies to people from its base at Jubilee Central in Hull city centre – said its referrals have trebled over the past year.

She said well over half the 1,800 people who have visited the charity for a food parcel during 2012/13 – all of them referred on by other agencies such as the Citizen’s Advice Bureau – were there because they faced cuts or delays in their benefit payments.

“There is no doubt the situation is getting worse,” Ms Sidwell said. “I’m very much a half-glass-full type person, and I would love for there not to be a problem, but we are bracing ourselves for what is coming after April.

“It will take a little time to filter through – I think the problems will come in May or June. But I think it’s going to be absolutely horrendous in Hull.”

The “bedroom tax” is designed to save the Government money while encouraging people in oversized socially-supported housing to find more appropriate homes.

But Ms Sidwell highlighted the lack of one-bedroom housing in Hull, which she said would mean many people will have their benefits cut by more than £10-a-week without having the option of down-sizing their home.

“We are going to be inundated,” she said.

The controversial changes to housing benefit are just one aspect of the Government’s massive welfare reform programme as Ministers battle to get spending back under control. Measures already in place include a £26,000-a-year benefit cap, along with sweeping cuts to child benefit, working tax credits and disability living allowance payments.

The Cardigan Centre in Leeds, which supports people aged 16 to 19, said the first tranche of welfare cuts has already had an impact on young people in the city.

Chief executive John McKenzie said: “One of the effects is that it’s getting harder to support young people doing courses and stop them from dropping out.

“When they have issues such as homelessness, domestic violence or financial problems to deal with, coming to college becomes secondary.”

He added: “It looks like the ‘bedroom tax’ in particular could lead to families being made homeless, but we will see this much more clearly in another couple of months.”

Labour has been putting pressure on the Government to make amendments to its housing benefit reforms. Wentworth and Dearne MP John Healey described the cuts as “heartless”.

But, speaking in the Commons on Wednesday, the Prime Minister accused his opponents of “rank opportunism and irresponsibility” for fighting measures to cut the deficit without saying where it would make alternative savings.

“Frankly, the Opposition have got to engage with the fact that housing benefit now accounts for £23bn of Government spending,” Mr Cameron said.

“That is a 50 per cent increase over the last decade. We also have to address the fact that we have 250,000 families in overcrowded accommodation, and we have 1.8m people waiting for a council house.

“Of course we need to build more social homes, and we are doing exactly that. But in the meantime, we should do everything we can to make sure those homes are used in the most efficient and fair way.

“That is what our changes will help to achieve.”