BENEFITS: Counting the cost of life's essentials

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More than a fifth of benefit payments may be swallowed up simply because of large differences in the price of the basic necessities of life, according to a new report.

If you live on Income Support, the most expensive place to live is Devon and Cornwall, says the Policy Studies Institute, which calculates that water, electricity and meals-on-wheels cost an additional pounds 9.35 in Cornwall than in the west of Scotland.

People with identical circumstances are paying different prices for basic items such as rent, council tax and domiciliary care, depending purely on which region they live in. The research, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found that weekly council rents can vary between pounds 19.46 and pounds 82.84 and private rents between pounds 60 and pounds 175.

"It is a lottery how far your pound will stretch if you areliving on a low income," said one of the report's authors, Elaine Kempson. "Ordinary bills swallow a much greater proportion of the weekly budget for low-income households and even small variations in living costs can make a tremendous difference in the quality of life. Social security benefits provide some protection, but it is limited and inadequate."

Local Living Costs, available from Grantham Books, telephone 01476 541 080