Welfare Reform briefing for Highland MPs (22/02/13)

The Highland’s three MPs - Danny Alexander (Inverness Nairn Badenoch and Strathspey), Charles Kennedy, (Ross Skye and Lochaber) and John Thurso (Caithness Sutherland and East Ross) - attended a meeting of The Highland Council’s  Welfare Reform Working Group today (Friday) to hear the Council’s concerns about welfare reform and ideas for action that may reduce the impact of change.

Councillor Alasdair Christie, Chairman of The Highland Council’s Welfare Reform Working Group welcomed the opportunity of a face-to-face briefing with the MPs.

He said: “While I understand the need to reform the Welfare System, the Government’s proposals, in their current form,  unfairly discriminate against the most vulnerable individuals in society. The Working Group was pleased to hear that the MPs will take every opportunity to speak further with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, about the adverse impacts for rural councils such as Highland, and consider the suggestions for improvement that we have made.”

A briefing paper presented to the MPs said the “Bedroom Tax”, the introduction of Universal Credit and direct payments would result in rent arrears, greater pressure on housing lists, and may lead to increased homelessness.

Councillor Christie said the “Bedroom Tax” was the single biggest immediate concern relating to Council house and housing association tenants. It was estimated that this would affect around 3,000 council house tenants in Highland (23% of tenants). This measure alone would result in a reduction of around £2 million per year in housing benefit entitlement. An additional factor was that Housing Benefit is currently received directly by the Council in payment of rent but under the new Universal Credit, which starts to be phased in in Scotland from October 2013, one person in each household would receive monthly payments towards their housing costs and be responsible for budgeting to make these rent payments to the Council.

The Council has made changes to its allocations policy to make it easier for people to move to a smaller house, but it did not have enough smaller houses for everyone who needed them. For example, it only had 450 one-bedroomed properties available for let in the last year.

The Council, he said, had agreed to increase resources to its Income Maximisation Team, CABs and Housing Team to deal with the increased demand for services which is already evident.

He added: “In Alness, for example, the Council had 13 one-bedroom houses available in the last year, against an existing housing list of 170 applicants who had listed Alness as their 1st preference area. The Council estimates that there are 136 tenants in Alness affected by the bedroom tax who would be assessed as requiring a one-bedroom house. The Council cannot meet existing demand for 1 bedroom houses, and will not be able to transfer all tenants affected by the “bedroom tax” to the right size of house.”

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