Sheffield helplines swamped after benefits cuts

Chris Walker, manager of Pitsmoor Citizens Advice Bureau
Chris Walker, manager of Pitsmoor Citizens Advice Bureau
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Worried Sheffield residents are swamping city helplines and citizens’ advice bureaux seeking help with benefits cuts and changes.

Sheffield Council is experiencing an explosion in calls to its contact centre - up almost 50 per cent in the last year from just under 26,000 in 2011/12 to 38,400 in 2012/13. Face-to-face inquiries have risen 13 per cent.

Chris Walker, manager of Pitsmoor Citizens Advice Bureau

Chris Walker, manager of Pitsmoor Citizens Advice Bureau

The boss of one Citizens’ Advice Bureau revealed his staff are having to ration the help they give, as demand outstrips the service they can provide.

Chris Walker, manager of Pitsmoor Citizens’ Advice Bureau said the number of people needing advice on unemployment and disability benefits alone rose from 150 to 550 in the last year - and meanwhile the bureau’s funding was slashed.

Mr Walker, whose team dealt with 2,717 benefit enquiries overall in the year ending last month, said: “We have had a four-fold increase in clients at the same time as our income has fallen heavily.

“This year our projected income is £170,000 - down from £588,000 in 2008/9 - so we have far fewer resources.

“We are having to ration what help we can provide, interviewing people when they come in to see how urgent their cases are - although we don’t turn people away.

“The current situation is a perfect storm - a combination of more sanctions on job seekers’ and employment and support allowances, the ‘bedroom tax’, and people having to pay council tax for the first time.”

Sheffield Council leader, Coun Julie Dore, agreed: “The huge increase in phone calls and face-to-face visits the council has received demonstrates the Government’s unfair cuts to welfare are hitting Sheffield people hard.”

Sanctions have been increased against jobless people who do not attend interviews or training courses, the ‘bedroom tax’ has kicked in for people on housing benefit who have spare bedrooms, and households which previously had 100 per cent relief from council tax now have to pay contributions.

One of those affected is single mum-of-two Ainna Muneef, of Hyde Park.

Ainna, who has a son aged nine and a daughter aged three, said she faces losing £75 a month due to council tax and reduced housing benefit. She currently receives just over £800 a month, from which she pays £400 a month in rent for her three-bedroom flat.

She said: “I have to pay the bedroom tax because my children are both deemed too young to need separate rooms, so I am deemed to be under-occupying.”

The council has created a £500,000 ‘hardship fund’ to help those worst affected.

But opposition Liberal Democrat leader, Coun Shaffaq Mohammed, attacked Labour for failing to bid for around £2 million of Government money to provide a safety net for those hardest hit.

The council refused because it would have had to set aside a larger sum than planned as well.

Coun Mohammed said: “We are left with no choice but to reduce spending on welfare thanks to the terrible financial legacy left by the previous Labour Government.

“People need support to adapt to these changes, so it is deeply frustrating the Labour council has turned down millions from the Government to help.”