A report released this month calls on more help for people living in the City of Westminster to deal with the changes thrown up by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 as well as cuts to legal and advice services.

Pie chart showing overall demond for advice.
The report found that a large proportion of welfare benefits advice was related to just two issues: Housing Benefit (HB) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). For debt advice, the single most common issue (almost a quarter of all issues related to debt) was rent arrears.

The report published by Reform Advice Westminster (RAW) brings together research and data from advice services and agencies across the borough in an attempt to identify sources of demand and to improve the lives of residents seeking advice, particularly those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged.

The report calls for improved engagement between stakeholders to effect change by supporting Westminster residents to navigate changes arising from “welfare reform”, and to reduce preventable demand for advice and support from advice agencies.

Dal Warburton of AdviceUK, says “It is really important that all stakeholders, including advice agencies, Westminster City Council and DWP work together to identify inefficiencies in systems that could be addressed to the benefit of all involved.”

Demand for advice met by RAW partners is focused very clearly on 3 high-volume areas: welfare benefits, debt, and housing.

Housing dominated the report which found that a large proportion of welfare benefits advice was related to just two issues: Housing Benefit (HB) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

For debt advice, the single most common issue (almost a quarter of all issues related to debt) was rent arrears. For housing advice, access to and provision of accommodation was the most common issue on which people sought help.

Barb Jacobson who runs the Older Fitzrovia project at Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association said the report highlights the problems that the Welfare Reform Act has created.

“It’s a scandal that the government has made all social support systems, most of which people have paid into over their working lives, more complicated to access while also cutting the money advice agencies need to support people’s access to them, especially people with limited English or literacy, which are most of our clients.”

Jacobson says that much of the advice work at the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre is taken up by carrying out appeals against incorrect decisions by government departments.

“We have seen errors skyrocket, particularly with ESA (sickness and disability benefit) which supports the most vulnerable in society.

“Our 80 percent success rate with appeals against decisions on just this benefit alone shows that there are huge systemic flaws which no one wants to acknowledge, much less fix. We need a simpler system altogether,” she said.

The report reveals that advice centres are inundated with enquires and struggle to deliver a service to meet demand. Many advice centres have had grants cut and have had to cut staff or reduce hours.

“All interviewees commented on the financial pressures faced by both advice providers and those involved in benefits administration, with advice services reporting demand for advice and support that was significantly greater than their ability to supply.”

Earlier this month the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association celebrated 40 years of community work but announced said it faces severe challenges to fund its services.

A bleak outlook is forecast by the report’s authors who say that government policy will likely make things much worse.

“Given the Conservative focus on deficit reduction and the various manifesto commitments regarding spending and tax, it does seem inevitable that local authority and central government departments such as the DWP will face even greater pressure to find efficiency savings.

“Both locally and nationally, it remains to be seen whether common interests in simplifying benefits administration and cutting waste for publicly-funded services and benefit claimants can be identified and acted on.”

Reform Advice Westminster (RAW) has been funded by the Big Lottery Fund and Cabinet Office through the Advice Services Transition Fund programme. The project has been led by the Migrants Resource Centre, in partnership with Westminster Citizens Advice Bureau, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust and Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association. Report: Improving Advice Journeys (pdf).