April will be the cruelest month

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A raft of attacks on benefits are set to come into force this April. These will affect millions of the poorest people in Britain and will have a major impact on people's ability to put food on the table, pay domestic bills or meet their rent, argues Mark Dunk.

The "bedroom tax"
Changes to housing benefit rules will see thousands of households forced to pay an extra £60-80 a month just to stay in their homes. The scheme punishes people of working age in council or housing association properties for having "extra" bedrooms. This is despite the likelihood of a tenant having a spare room being due more to the limited housing stock available in any particular area than to any choice they make.

Those deemed to be "under-occupying" by one bedroom will lose £14 per week from their housing benefit. Those with two or more extra bedrooms will lose £25 a week. It is estimated these changes will affect 660,000 tenants - nearly one in three of all current housing benefit claimants of working age in council or housing association properties.

Under the rules parents could be forced to put children together into cramped rooms, while the death of a family member could leave people suddenly facing extra costs for a vacant room. Families with disabled children will be affected and there is no concession for couples who use a spare bedroom while one partner is recovering from an illness or operation.

Council tax benefit cuts
Around two million low paid workers who are currently exempt from the council tax are to face average payments of £247 a year from April.

The overall amount paid in council tax benefit is being cut by ten percent. But exactly how this is cut, and from who, will vary from area to area as responsibility for the scheme is passed from central government to local councils. They won't be able to cut the amount of benefit received by pensioners, so the benefit reductions will be higher for those of working age. But how exactly this will be distributed is up to each council.

The councils themselves estimate that up to half of those who suddenly find themselves having to pay council tax will either be unable to do so or will refuse to pay. Now wonder Conservative peer Lord Jenkin has described the proposals as "the poll tax mark 2". He should know - he conceived the poll tax that sunk Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The government is clearly very nervous about its plans. In October, two years after it first announced its intentions, the government said an extra £100 million would be made available to cushion the blow. But this is just a fifth of the overall amount to be "saved" (read: cut) and will only apply for one year.

The benefit cap
From April a limit on the total amount paid in benefits is being imposed. For those with children this will be set at £500 per week and for single people it will be £350 a week.
It will apply to income support, jobseeker's allowance, employment and support allowance and to housing benefit. It won't apply to working tax credits.

Only a relatively small number of people are likely to be affected, with the government estimating that 50,000 people will be caught by the cap. But it will hit those people hard with an average loss of £93 a week.

The vast majority of these will be those with three or more children (80 percent of those likely to be effected). The biggest impact will be on large families living in high rental areas (large parts of London in particular), reflecting the spiralling cost of private rents.

Many of those families affected are likely to struggle to pay their rent. They may end up homeless and housed in expensive temporary accommodation, eroding much of the supposed "savings" to be made by the cap.

In April, Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) will replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA), a payment that covers the extra costs of living disabled people face whether in or out of work. Qualification for PIP payments will be based on a constant barrage of tests similar to the discredited Work Capability Assessments carried out by private company ATOS. These will apply even to those with impairments that won't change. Around 500,000 people who currently receive DLA will receive nothing under PIP.

Universal Credit
People in Tameside, Oldham, Wigan and Warrington will be the first to face the introduction of the new Universal Credit scheme when it is trialed from April. This combines benefits - including jobseekers allowance, tax credits, housing benefit and others - into a single centrally administrated payment.

While the government claims no one will lose out an impact assessment has revealed 2.8 million people will receive less than under current arrangements after Universal Credit is rolled out nationally in October. Some 300,000 will lose as much as £300 a month.

Can we fight back?
Key to defeating the continued onslaught on benefits will be winning an argument inside the unions to get serious strike action back on. Uniting all those who face deepening poverty - whether in work or not - in solidarity with every strike can help boost the confidence of a trade union movement that has the power to break the government. With the Tories making indiscriminate attacks on benefits that bridge the gap between unemployed workers, disabled people and workers suffering from poverty wages this is a real possibility in the year ahead.

Mark Dunk is an activist for the Right to Work campaign www.righttowork.org.uk