(Pictured: chancellor George Osborne, Rex Features)
The chancellor’s announcement last week of a benefits cap could see children’s services in some areas swamped with new cases, experts are warning.
George Osborne is proposing a limit on the total benefits a family can claim set at the level “the average family gets for going out to work”. This would leave them with a maximum of about £26,000, no matter how many children they had.
The restriction of housing benefit in particular will see vulnerable families leaving expensive urban areas in search of lower rents. It could mean some councils facing a triple whammy effect with an influx of children in need coming on top of the existing rise in referrals and cuts in resources.
The effects are likely to be first felt in London, according to the National Housing Federation. Chief executive David Orr described the changes as “extremely worrying and morally wrong”. He said 160,000 vulnerable families could find themselves competing for just 46,000 homes. “The situation could easily lead to housing benefit claimants being pushed out of huge swathes of the capital,” he said.
The leader of Haringey Council, Claire Kobel, has also raised concerns that children’s services departments in less affluent boroughs could face a surge in service demand. There will be a rise in child protection plans as vulnerable families move there in search of affordable homes.
Although some feel it is too early connect the proposed benefits cap with a rise in the number of protection plans, they point out that it is problematic to automatically assume poorer families will present child protection issues. “With so many vulnerable families involved, councils could well see a rise in child protection orders,” a spokesperson for London Councils said.
Nick Brenton, secretary of the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services, said: “It hasn’t started to bite yet, but we can see this issue coming down the road towards us alongside a range of other pressures.”
The London Safeguarding Children Board recently appointed a team of regional advisers to provide extra capacity for boroughs facing additional frontline pressure. “Support will be available for any councils in cheaper rental areas who see an increased demand for their services,” a spokesperson said.
Some believe the greatest pressure will fall on councils just outside London. Chris Welling, UK policy adviser at Save the Children, said that high London rents could lead to families on benefits moving out of the capital.
Not only would this be disruptive for the children, it would pose problems for councils “already struggling to meet service demands and balance their budgets,” he said.
Claudia Wood, a senior researcher at the think-tank Demos, thinks it is more likely that families will move into unsuitable accommodation than out of the boroughs where they have local connections and create pockets of disadvantage.
“Families will be forced to take council properties which may be too small, or will start renting from unscrupulous private landlords who are prepared to let out unsafe and unregulated properties,” Wood says. “This could have severe consequences for child welfare, with children sharing beds or sleeping on sofas, including the potential for increased safeguarding issues.”
Wood says that this may hit immigrant or ethnic minority families the hardest, who may have a larger number of children and several generations living under the same roof.
Families with disabled children claiming benefits could also be at risk, she suggests, because accessible, adapted houses may become too pricey.
However, most commentators are hoping that the coalition promise to exempt the benefits cap from families with a disabled child will be kept.
A solution may lie in a proposal mooted by prime minister David Cameron to reform council home tenure. Laurie Thraves, policy manager at the Local Government Information Unit, said the reform would remove council tenants’ right to live in the property for life and should therefore increase the availability of stock.
“Obviously this is an emotive issue,” Thraves said. “But some councils, such as Westminster, are already looking into this so that they can prioritise families in need and ensure they are not forced out of their local areas. Responsible action by councils could mitigate future concerns.”
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