Income-support deductions have doubled in two years

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Indy Politics
Dramatic increases in the number of claimants facing deductions from their safety-net benefit to pay fuel bills, the poll tax and loans from the Social Fund are revealed by new figures from the Department of Social Security.

The number of deductions has more than doubled in two years - from 608,000 in 1990 to 1,278,000 in August this year.

Although some claimants will be facing more than one deduction, the figures show that between one in eight and one in four of the growing number of income support claimants are receiving less to live on each week than the basic benefit rate.

Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, yesterday said the figures were 'frightening', even given arguments that the Social Fund payments are for budgeting loans and some fuel deductions will be meeting current bills rather than debt.

'They show that growing numbers of people already living on a subsistence income that is anything but generous, are in fact being forced to live well below that. That has serious implications in terms of deprivation, but also I suspect in bitterness and despair.' Deductions can range up to 25 per cent of weekly benefit, or more where the claimant agrees to lose more to escape debt.

The figures show that more than 330,000 were paying poll tax debts in August. More than 10 per cent of claimants in England and almost 20 per cent in Scotland - a total of 636,000 people - have Social Fund debts, and more than 300,000 have deductions for fuel. Claimants can also face deductions for water charges, for court fines from October, and, from next April, for maintenance payments.

The Child Poverty Action Group said the figures reflected the experience of its claimant advisers - 'greater debt, more deductions and less for people to live on, with the extent and depth of poverty greater than we have seen for some time'.

The figures were provided by Alistair Burt, the junior social security minister, in a written answer to Alan Milburn, Labour MP for Darlington, who said yesterday the figures for the Social Fund, which replaced grants with loans, showed 'more and more people being dragged into a deep poverty trap. The Government is giving with one hand and taking away with the other'.

The figures follow a report a month ago from the National Children's Home which argued that 'the growing practice of debt recovery by automatic deductions from benefits should be stopped'. The deductions prevented families from choosing which debts should take priority and instead 'are likely to leave families with insufficient income to cover their basic needs, so encouraging families to get further into debt'.