South West families to lose cash in benefit cap
About 500 Devon and Cornwall households claim more than £26,000-a-year in benefits and will be hit by a controversial cap on state hand-outs, Government figures reveal.
The move to limit welfare payments, a flagship Government reform to be introduced next year, will see affected families stripped of up to £100-a-week in state help.
Ministers argue Britain's welfare bill has spiralled out-of-control and an overhaul is essential to make work more attractive than dependence on benefits.
The £26,000 cap, equivalent to £500-a-week, is symbolic as it represents the average national wage, although it is higher than typical pay in the Westcountry.
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Critics argue the reform will mean vulnerable families are thrown out of their homes. Department for Work and Pensions figures have revealed for the first time that of 67,000 families that will be hit by the cap, around 500 are in Devon and Cornwall.
George Eustice, Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, said the generous hand-outs were "completely wrong", but Adrian Sanders, Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay, contends children, rather than parents, are the victims of the reform.
Cornwall has 300 families claiming above £26,000. But because the figures are "rounded to the nearest 100", this could mean anything from 251 to 349. Both Plymouth and Torbay local authority areas have each recorded 100 families above the threshold – or between 51 and 149.
The highest household welfare bills are fuelled by housing benefit, and are likely to be drawn by families with a large number of children.
The cap will be felt most in London and the South East, where private sector rents are the highest in the country.
The figures for the Westcountry surprised MPs.
Mr Eustice said: "It is completely wrong that people can receive more in benefits than many families in Cornwall who are working can earn. To take home £26,000 in benefits is the equivalent of someone earning £35,000 a year.
"We need to reform the benefits system so there are incentives to work and, with an exemption for families looking after severely disabled children, the benefit cap is a key part of doing that."
But Mr Sanders said the problem was driven by families being forced to rent homes from private landlords – who he says are pocketing huge sums – because of a chronic shortage of council and social housing.
He said: "We should cap rents, not benefit. Whether you have one child or five, if you lose your job and have to claim welfare you should not be penalised because you have more children than someone else. And it's not the parents who are hurt, it's the children. If the cap forces a family out of the area, it's the children's schooling that is disrupted."
Councillor Nicky Williams, Labour's welfare spokeswoman at Plymouth City Council, said some families would be forced to move house and would struggle to find anywhere cheaper to live.
"It's families with a lot of children who are not working, who are going to be hit by this," Ms Williams said. "The question is whether there is any accommodation available at a lower cost. If you are in social housing it's unlikely that you will be affected."
Last year, three Church of England bishops in the Westcountry joined a rebellion against the welfare changes.
The Right Reverend Bishops Tim Thornton of Truro, Michael Langrish of Exeter, and Peter Price of Bath and Wells, signed an open letter to "speak for children" over the cap.
The controversial Welfare Reform Bill, limping through Parliament, will introduce a new, simplified universal credit to replace a complex range of payments.
Figures are not available for the six districts in Devon as data for areas with fewer than 100 households claiming above £26,000 are not disclosed.