Research by Portsmouth Labour has revealed the city council is consistently under-spending a fund set up to support people effected by government cuts to their income.
The fund, called Discretionary Housing Payments, was introduced in an attempt to offset the worst effects of cuts to welfare spending such as the Bedroom Tax and the benefits cap.
The funding is provided by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to local authorities who are then expected to allocate money to households in financial difficulty.
However, research by Portsmouth Labour’s housing team has revealed Portsmouth City Council has under-spent the budget in every year since it was first introduced. Any under-spend is then returned to the DWP, not retained by the council.
In total £476,858 has been under-spent by Portsmouth City Council and returned to the DWP. These findings have led to concerns that the council is not doing all it can to help low income households.
Maddie Wallace is a local resident whose family has been affected by the benefit cap. Commenting on the news that Portsmouth City Council has been consistently under-spending its Discretionary Housing Payments budget she said:
“I got a letter the day before New Year’s Eve 2016 telling me that the latest benefit cap had come into effect for me on Boxing Day. Aside from being a horrible thing to do to people at Christmas, it meant I lost over £70 a week from my benefits. That is the equivalent of all my family’s weekly food.
“I was never told I could apply for Discretionary Housing Payments and I had to get by borrowing money from friends and family. I’ve just started work and the council have suspended my claim while they work it all out, so I won’t be able to pay my rent in April.
“The stress this has caused me has been immeasurable. I owe money left, right and centre, and while I was really lucky to find a job so quickly I’m no better off because I have lost council tax benefit and have to pay so much towards child care costs.”
Cal Corkery is leading a Portsmouth Labour review into local housing policy. He said:
“Local people will be shocked by revelations that the council has sent back to central government over £475k which can and should have been used to help our city’s poorest households.
“The Tories claim to be doing all they can to help the most vulnerable but this research shows that simply isn’t the case. It’s all well and good having various funds and grants in place but unless people are made aware of what is available and supported to access them they are effectively useless.
“Going forward the council must do more to ensure Portsmouth’s lowest income households maximise their income and receive all the support available to them.”
Charles Dickens ward campaigner, Claire Udy, has been speaking to residents on the doorstep:
“Many of the people we talk to who are struggling to get by on low incomes, didn’t even know that the Discretionary Housing Payments existed at all.
“All those on benefits should know about this scheme, and it shoudn’t be coming just from myself and others on the doorstep; it should be common knowledge.
“I have written to the council requesting they review how awareness can be raised of Discretionary Housing Payments among local residents and that they ensure all frontline staff actively encourage any eligible households to apply.”
For more information about Discretionary Housing Payments including how to apply click here.