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Warning over impact of welfare reforms in Sutherland

By Alison Cameron

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Deirdre Mackay is worried about the effect of welfare reforms on families in Sutherland.
Deirdre Mackay is worried about the effect of welfare reforms on families in Sutherland.

A WARNING that people in Sutherland are likely to be among the hardest hit in widespread welfare reforms planned by the government has come from the Highland Council’s local area leader Deirdre Mackay.

The councillor, who sits on the local authority’s welfare reform working group and is a former social worker, says many Sutherland families will be seriously disadvantaged because of the area’s unusual employment patterns, where many main providers have to hold down two or even more low-paid jobs to make ends meet.

She claims proposed changes to working hours thresholds for tax credit entitlement in such jobs will cut incomes and that the government’s intention to push more benefits claimants into work is "a nonsense" in an area where job opportunities are in short supply.

Mrs Mackay said: "In Sutherland we have many fewer well-paid job opportunities than the rest of Scotland and to achieve a reasonably comfortable life many work very hard holding down a number of jobs with low pay, augmented by tax credit entitlement.

"Changes to the working hours threshold for these payments are bound to hit many such employees.

"Few employers in Sutherland will be willing or able to provide extra hours in order to maintain tax credit entitlement for families which rely upon the money they receive as a vital source of assistance."

Among other aspects of the proposals which came under attack from Mrs Mackay at a recent meeting of the council’s finance, housing and resources committee were:

The introduction of monthly, rather than weekly, benefit payments.

The removal of direct payments to landlords.

Payments to one named person in a family.

The introduction of a "bedroom tax" where benefits would be cut for those living in rented properties with more bedrooms than immediately required.

She said: "This legislation is turning back the clock. The Draconian measures being introduced were swept away many years ago precisely because they did not work.

"The bedroom tax is also going to adversely affect people in an area where we do not have a surplus of housing.

"Little consideration has been given to those who, for instance, require a room for an overnight carer or a child staying with a parent who is not a primary carer.

"The focus of this legislation is to get people off benefits and into work. However, for the first time since records began, working households in poverty outnumber jobless households in poverty.

"Here in Sutherland the highest number of our population work in the accommodation and food industry, which is seasonal, and so many people depend on more than one job.

The councillor also condemned the proposal for monthly, rather than weekly, payments being made to only one family member.

She said: "I know from my own personal experience as a social worker that everyone working in the field was delighted when payments were changed from monthly to weekly.

"The fact is that weekly payments are much easier for those living on the minimum to manage and are much more likely to avoid getting into arrears.

Mrs Mackay also criticised Highland Lib Dem members of the Westminster coalition, John Thurso, Danny Alexander and Charles Kennedy, who have put off meeting the north welfare reform working group until 25th January.

She said: "The coalition is attacking hard-working families in a way that will place even more on the breadline while dishing out tens of thousands of pounds in tax breaks to millionaires."

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