A SPECIALIST welfare support team has been set up to help struggling South Tyneside households as the borough faces up to losing an estimated £55m in benefit payments this year.
Under-pressure advice services are bracing themselves for a massive increase in their workload from April as a result of the Welfare Reform Act.
Welfare Rights, the Citizen’s Advice Bureaux, two Neighbourhood Advice Centres and Age UK have already seen a 25 per cent rise in demand for their services in the last two years due to the ongoing economic downturn.
Now the organisations are anticipating a further 25 to 30 per cent hike as a consequence of key welfare reforms, which come into force within three months. The controversial changes include Universal Credit, the Personal Independence Payment and the so-called ‘bedroom tax’.
The bedroom tax alone will impact on 2,346 borough council tenants who will be forced to ‘downsize’ into properties with fewer bedrooms – or face significant reductions in their housing benefit.
Demand on advice services also comes at a time when funding is being cut, particularly as a result of the removal of legal aid for benefits and debt work. As a result South Tyneside Council and its partners are restructuring services in a bid to get through the coming months.
And South Tyneside Homes has appointed five new welfare reform officers on a one-year-temporary basis and a welfare reform manager on a fixed-term basis.
This new Welfare Reform Team will be able to provide advice and support to tenants affected by the changes, particularly the bedroom tax. A new report from Helen Watson, the council’s corporate director for children, adults and families, is to be presented to members of the council’s Riverside Community Area Forum next week.
It says: “Given the demographics and social make-up of South Tyneside the changes will have a particularly stark impact on the residents of the borough.
“The overall impact of welfare reform is expected to be an annual reduction of £55m in household income in South Tyneside.
“There is a significant risk of negative outcomes for residents from the welfare reforms, including homelessness, increased family stress, increased mental health problems, poorer health and more debt problems.
“The council and its partners recognise the potential impact of welfare reform as one of the major challenges the borough will face over the coming years and a range of support is being made available to those affected.”