The Bishop of Rochester has urged the government to think again on its plans for benefit caps.
The comments from James Langstaff, Chair of Housing Justice, came ahead of the launch of a short guide to enable clergy (vicars, pastors and priests) and other church pastoral workers to offer practical help to people who find that their benefit payments no longer cover their rent.
The Government has recently been accused of repeatedly misleading the Commons about the impact of their £26,000 cap on welfare payments.
David Cameron claimed that the cap would not lead to greater homelessness. But a leaked letter from the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles (written by his private secretary Nico Heslop) warned that welfare cuts could make an additional 20,000 families homeless. This is on top of 20,000 already anticipated because of other changes to housing benefit.
Bishop James said: “The reports and estimates of impact emerging from government sources only confirm what churches and projects working with Housing Justice are hearing on the ground: families are living in fear because they know they will not be able to make ends meet when their Housing Benefit is cut, let alone when the benefit cap is introduced. Landlords are already refusing to take new tenants under the age of 35 because of the impending changes to the Shared Room Rate. This cannot be about fairness to tax payers because many of these people are themselves tax payers.
“The situation is made worse by the misguided localism of removing ring fences from funds sent to local authorities to provide services for poor and homeless people and the apparent reluctance expressed by some housing providers to proceed with new ‘affordable’ schemes because they are uncertain that, with the Housing Benefit caps, they will find tenants able to pay at the new 80 per cent of market rent level. There is still time for the government to respond to this outcry and draw back from a step which will surely increase family homelessness. This is the outcome for which we, alongside many households across the country, are praying.”
The bishop developed a particular interest in urban regeneration and began a continuing involvement in social housing during his time in Birmingham where he was a parish priest and then Chaplain to the Bishop of Birmingham.
The new guide – Blueprint for action – is sponsored by the London Churches Group for Social Action and Housing Justice, and will be launched at Trinity House in London on Monday.
The Rev Ruth Lampard, Associate Vicar of St Mary The Boltons, in the Earl’s Court/Chelsea area of London, one of the most affected areas, said: “People turn to churches in times of trouble and as soon as I discovered the scale of the problem, I realised that equipping church workers to help would make a huge difference. The Blueprint is full of practical advice about the help Local Authorities can offer, how to lobby landlords to reduce rents and steps like providing food parcels to make up for smaller reductions in benefit payments.”
Alison Gelder, Director of Housing Justice said: “Housing benefit caps were first announced in the emergency budget soon after the Coalition Government came to power last year and they began to be introduced in April 2011. No one, including officials at the Department for Work and Pensions, knows exactly what the impact will be, but predictions are dire with Mayor Boris Johnson talking of the potential for huge numbers of poor Londoners being forced to move, the Evening Standard reporting that thousands of school children will be displaced and now this letter from Eric Pickles’ aide. Worst of all this will bring about a huge change to the diverse social character of London life, part of what makes it a great city.”
London Churches Group for Social Action is an ecumenical Christian body established in 1983 to work on behalf of the Church leadership in London on civic and social policy issues.
Membership comprises senior social responsibility and justice and peace officers from the Baptist Union, Black-majority, Church of England, Evangelical Alliance, Methodist, Catholic, Orthodox, Salvation Army and United Reformed Churches and related organisations.