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2018.03 “What’s new in Benefits Advice?”

I had wondered how interested Rotary members might be in the subject of this talk by fellow Rotarian, Robert Gee. “Very interested” was the conclusion, based on my own interest, the questions asked and from the fact there was not a spare seat at lunch – even though it clashed with the technology tournament. Robert, a long-time volunteer for Otley Citizens Advice Bureau, (shortly to be closed), had been fully trained in all area of the work. Finance queries now tend to be directed to the debt team funded by the banks. He will still be at Leeds CAB, now Leeds Citizens Advice.

The talk started with information about the Citizens Advice Bureau. It was founded within a week of the start of WW2. Leeds City Council funds the Leeds C.A. Nationwide there are 316 independent C.A’s feeding back concerns etc. into a London hub which is often quoted in the media. Leeds C.A. can be accessed via the Leeds office (an old building, they hope to move to a modern one better suited to new technology), community hubs, telephone, on-line, web-chat and skype.

Leeds CA is huge – in 2016/17, 28,112 different people with 67,859 problems were dealt with by the 58 staff and 86 volunteers in 19,000 phone calls and 21,000 face-to-face interviews! People are either given information, advice, are re-directed or referred (redirection arranged by CA). This number is double that of 2012/13.  Volunteers are proud of the professionalism of their free, independent, confidential and impartial advice – people being informed of their responsibilities as well as their rights. Every person is now dealt with on the same day – an amazing achievement compared with just a few years ago.

The title of the talk provided by far the most work and Robert spoke on the new Universal Credit system which is scheduled to be introduced in Leeds in autumn of this year – already put back from June. If and when it starts, Headingley Rotary will have an insight into the problems that might hit the press! It was the same when a new system of assessing disability was put in place – many genuine problems emerged.

On paper Universal Credit is great improvement on the old system – one source of funds, rather than three. One recipient not two – though trials have altered this and a proportion can now be paid direct to the landlord as in trials they had experienced difficulty in collecting their rents and so refused to home those on Universal Credit – leading to evictions and a real housing crisis. U.C. is based on a household, not an individual… many poor households are very fluid. It is calculated monthly in arrears on actual earnings, not annually – overpayments will not be made, so no end-of-year invoice for a high amount, which people without reserves cannot pay and it can deal with monthly fluctuations in income, very common today with zero-hours contracts etc. There is a £20,000 cap…sensible, but if a household has ten children, the amount allocated to the children means the limit is reached.  As the housing allowance part of the calculation is the first to disappear, rent arrears accumulate and they face becoming homeless. Also, before you can claim it you must fill in a 30 page form and then have to prove the information – gainful employment equates to 30 hours at the minimum rate.

This can only give you a glimpse into this information-packed talk which had a much wider interest than I imagined – most of us have experienced the CAB, directly or indirectly, at some time, some will own property they rent, many have a voluntary role with poorer members of society (one is on the board of a housing association). Robert is an excellent communicator and it was such a treat to get an inside view into an area most of us have infrequent contact with.


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