Vicky Watson director of Brighton and Hove Citizen’s Advice Bureau, answers readers' questions in this week's Your Interview. The charity offers general help and advice on any subject and specialist advice in debt and welfare benefits from its offices in Tisbury Avenue, Hove

QUESTION: How many people in Brighton do you think will be affected by the benefit changes? Have you had many more inquiries since the changes came in?

Vicky Watson (VW): It is hard to achieve a precise overall figure for the number of people in Brighton and Hove who will be affected by all the benefits changes. Looking at some of the key changes provides more indication of the impact of the reforms locally.

From October Universal Credit will replace all means tested benefits and tax credits. All existing working age benefits (such as Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support and Working Tax Credit) will be subsumed within one monthly household payment of Universal Credit. It will be paid to people both in and out of work.

The Office for National Statistics shows that there were 25,610 people of working age in Brighton and Hove last month who were in receipt of benefits and all will be affected by the introduction of Universal Credit.

The number of people affected will be higher if you also include the number of people in receipt of working tax credit.

Brighton and Hove City Council estimates that 17,000 people will be affected by the Council Tax Reduction Scheme that has replaced Council Tax Benefit from April 1. 10,000 people who have not had to pay council tax before will now be liable to pay up to £3 per week.

A number of changes to Housing Benefit are being introduced which the council estimates will affect 6,500 households.

The changes include the way that the rates are set for social housing tenants of working age who have an extra bedroom, ‘the Bedroom Tax’.

From April 1 social housing tenants who under-occupy their homes will have their housing benefit reduced by 14% if they have one spare bedroom in the household, or 25% if there are two or more spare bedrooms. This means fewer properties will be available to rent within the rates available.

Local estimates are that 1500 council and housing association tenants will be affected.

Families in receipt of benefits are to be capped at £500 per week and an individual's benefits are to be capped at £350 per week from April 1, This is likely to have a big impact for 250-300 families in Brighton and Hove who are affected by this.

At the CAB we see many people with benefits inquiries but so far we have not seen that many additional inquiries since the changes have come in.

We expect to see more as the year goes on and the changes start to have more of an impact.

In the last month the benefits we have received the most inquiries about are Housing Benefit and Employment Support Allowance.

QUESTION: Do you think people who are affected by the benefit changes were aware of them before they were left out of pocket?

VW: From April 1 some of the most far-reaching reforms to the welfare system in 60 years have started to be implemented.

There has been a lot of media coverage about the reforms however individuals may not necessarily have understood how the changes may affect them.

The Citizens Advice Bureau is able to advise people about the changes and how they will affect them as well as providing support with budgeting.

We already see many people with rent and council tax arrears and expect debt inquiries to further increase as welfare reform rolls out.

QUESTION: How will the change in legal aid affect people?

VW: From April 2013 legal aid advice has been abolished for the majority of welfare benefit matters, employment issues and all debt and housing cases except those where a person’s home is at “immediate risk” or where housing disrepair poses a serious threat to health – leaving people with nowhere to turn for high quality face to face advice for these problems.

The CAB service in England and Wales is expecting an 86% cut in legal aid advice funding - from £22 million in 2012/13 to £3 million in 2013/14.

In the South East 9,000 people will not be able to get legal aid advice from their local CAB due to funding cuts of £1,700,000. There are also a lot of redundancies as advice services are closed.

From April 1 Brighton and Hove CAB has lost its established legal aid specialist welfare benefits advice and debt advice service which helped in excess of 500 clients in 2012/13. These highly trained advisers helped people with complex debt and welfare problems including appealing against benefit decisions.

The loss of the specialist advice is frightening given the current shake up of the benefit system means more and more people need our help.

You can still get general advice on a range of issues from your local Citizens Advice Bureau and at Brighton and Hove we will still be able to offer specialist debt and welfare benefits advice which is not delivered under legal aid.

The CAB service is gravely concerned there will be a justice gap between those who can afford to pay for legal advice and those who can’t, with the poor unable to challenge refusal of benefits, dismissal at work or sort out unmanageable debt.

There are also concerns about the creation of ‘advice deserts’ in areas of England and Wales where services are already scarce and they are now disproportionately affected by cuts.

It appeared specific groups of clients including those in rural areas, children, those with disabilities and those who are otherwise vulnerable or disadvantaged are most likely to be adversely affected. Where these clients are able to access advice, they are likely to increase pressure on remaining, predominantly general advice services.

The Government’s decision to remove funding for some areas of legal aid advice has unfortunately led to the loss of other specialist advice services in Brighton and Hove as well so the impact will be significant locally.

QUESTION: What is the biggest issue which people come to you with?

VW: Debt and welfare benefits are always our top two inquiry areas. Debt inquiries are often about unsecured personal loans and credit card debts though we are seeing a rise in people with fuel and water debts.

We also have a lot of enquiries about Housing Benefit and Employment Support Allowance – in particular eligibility for housing benefit and ESA appeals.

Our other main inquiry areas are employment, housing and relationships.

QUESTION: How have the queries people bring to you changed over the years?

VW: The biggest change in recent years has been access to advice and information on the internet. Previously people would come to the CAB for advice for their problem at an early stage but now they often approach us after they have used online information and resources and have gone beyond the initial stage.

There are many websites and online resources available for people seeking advice such as the Citizens Advice website,

QUESTION: Are people’s problems in Brighton different to elsewhere in the country? If yes, how?

VW: Nationally the highest number of problems seek advice about from the CAB are welfare benefits and debt and this is the same in Brighton and Hove.

Brighton and Hove differs from other areas nationally by having more people with housing and employment problems.

At the CAB we see a lot of private rented sector tenants with housing problems as well as a lot of people with employment issues about pay and dismissal.

This reflects the fact that in the city we have a large private rented sector housing and that the major area of employment is the service industry.

As well as providing advice for the problems people face the CAB also looks to improve the policies and practices that affect people’s lives.

We do this by using information from the problems that people come to us with to identify trends or poor policies and then take action to try and improve these.

We are able to do this at a local and national level. For example Brighton and Hove CAB fed evidence from our advice work into the national Citizens Advice campaign ‘Give us a break’ which highlighted the issue of workers who are deprived of holiday pay.

This is a big issue locally due to the high numbers of casual and agency workers.

QUESTION: How are you funded?

VW: All Citizen’s Advice Bureaux are individual charities and members of the national organisation, Citizen’s Advice. Bureaux receive a variety of different public and private sector funding though central and local government are usually the biggest funders.

We would not be able to deliver our services without our large team of dedicated volunteers who give their time and the value of volunteering at Brighton and Hove CAB last year was £136,000.

This year Brighton and Hove CAB is in receipt of funding from Brighton and Hove City Council, The Money Advice Service, NHS, Scottish and Southern Energy, Lloyds TSB, Nationwide Foundation and the American Express fund.

We also have other fundraising activities for example we had two people running in the Brighton Marathon for us this year and the staff and volunteers take part in the annual Legal Walk in the city in June.

If anyone would like to raise funds for or donate to Brighton and Hove CAB please contact me at the bureau on 01273 733390.

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