Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Southwark News column - For hardworking families in Southwark benefits are a lifeline not a lifestyle choice

When I hear government ministers talking about welfare reform and benefits they often talk as if there are two different sorts of people  – those who are dependent, don’t work and claim benefits and those who work, are independent and don't claim. But the reality of the people I meet is very much more complicated than that.

Most people want to be fully independent. But if they are low paid and their rent is high then they have to claim housing benefit - not because they want to but because otherwise they would get into arrears.  And if someone is working and then finds the place where they work is closed down and they lose their job, they will need to claim to keep going while they find another job.  

Most people want to stand on their own feet and don't want to claim but if a problem hits them then they have to. That doesn't mean they are "a problem family". It means they have been hit by a problem and that is what the system is for - everyday people who find that they need extra help. Perhaps for a long period of time if, for example, they are disabled or perhaps just for a short time, if they are ill.

All sorts of different people in all different circumstances can find themselves having to claim benefits. Here are just two examples of people who’ve asked for my help when they find themselves struggling to make ends meet.

A nurse who lives in Camberwell with her 16 year old son got into rent arrears in her private flat when she was unable to work for a few months because she was ill. She did not receive her usual salary during this time because she works as an agency nurse and is not paid for the days she doesn’t work. She was receiving housing benefit but it wasn’t enough to cover the rent. When she recovered, she returned to work and managed to pay off the arrears but the landlord still evicted her. The Council found her temporary accommodation but later ruled that she had made herself intentionally homeless because she had failed to pay her rent. She now has to find new private rented accommodation but with an income of £1300 a month and the average monthly rent of a two bedroom flat in Southwark costing £1500, she and her son will have to move out of the area where they have lived and leave their friends and neighbours.  

Mr D lives in a two bedroom flat and shares custody of his 7 month old daughter who stays with him regularly. He was unemployed and receiving £1000 a month housing benefit to help him pay the rent which was £1,100 per month. Although this left him with a £100 shortfall every month, he had never missed a rent payment. But when he was hit by the Bedroom Tax, his housing benefit was reduced by £300 a month.  He soon fell into rent arrears and when they built up to £3000 his landlord gave him notice to quit.  He contacted me before the eviction took place and the Council awarded him a discretionary payment of £3000 to stop the eviction.

Too many people in Southwark are struggling to keep their heads above water, finding themselves in debt and rent arrears for the first time. Instead of helping people who get into difficulties, this Government is making things worse for people on low incomes by cutting benefits and 3,497 households in Southwark have been hit by the  Bedroom Tax costing them each, on average £1,058 per year. The Government should scrap the Bedroom Tax, freeze fuel bills, and invest more in childcare. Labour will do that if we get into government next year. That would give some help with the Cost of Living Crisis that so many people are facing.

*The print version of this article is shorter and does not include all of the above examples

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