A REPORT, ‘One Day at a Time’ launched today by Citizens Advice Cymru highlights that many of the most vulnerable in Wales are being forced into hardship due to the biggest changes to the welfare system in over sixty years.
The report is based on evidence from across the Citizens Advice Bureaux network in Wales as well as bespoke qualitative research commissioned by Citizens Advice Cymru to explore the ‘lived experience’ of the recent benefit changes.
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 houshold bills. More and more people are being forced to rely on foodbanks.”
Many who took part in the research spoke of feeling humiliated and ashamed to find themselves in their current situation and this has been made worse by the negative media portrayals of people on benefits.
To counteract the negative coverage participants thought that the media should do more to show the truth of what it is like for people living on benefits. They want an honest portrayal which shows the efforts they are making to look for work, the struggles of living on such a low income and the reality of people who are disabled, or have a long term health condition and are unable to work.
The Department of Work and Pensions came in for significant criticism for the way they communicated with claimants, especially people with long term health conditions. It was reported that there was a lack of empathy, that they didn’t deal with peoples issues sensitively and in general offered a lack of support.
Effectively managing and co-ordinating how different agencies in Wales and key UK agencies, including DWP and Jobcentre Plus can work better together to help people affected by welfare reform will be fundamental if people’s future support needs are going to be met.
Mitigating the impact of welfare reform is already a key component of the Tackling Poverty Action Plan however the Welsh Government has an important role to play in providing further strategic direction to key players in Wales who come into daily contact with benefit claimants and potential benefit claimants. This includes local authorities, housing associations, and all health and social care services.
Another finding emphasised the importance of providing holistic support to claimants, linking information on benefit changes with advice to address financial capability needs and budgeting support; debt advice; income maximisation; housing advice and mental and physical health support.
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.”
Fran Targett, director Citizens Advice Cymru said: “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.”