Citizens Advice Barnet: Any benefit to benefits?

Claims of saving billions with cuts to the Welfare Budget are seductive but it becomes too easy to forget the real people for whom every pound matters says Violet Mermelstein of Citizens Advice Barnet

Two members of staff for Barnet charity Citizens Advice Barnet, sitting at desks working on computers
Citzens Advice Barnet staff hard at work (Credit – Citizens Advice Barnet)

There are few issues more contentious across UK politics than the benefits system. One person argues we are doing too much, whilst others shout that we could be doing much more. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that they are unhappy with the way things are.

The risk of getting lost in these political shouting matches is that there is one group of voices who are noticeably absent.

At the beginning of Autumn 2023, 38,474 people in Barnet were registered as receiving Universal Credit. This does not take into account people receiving other benefits such as disability benefits.

Where is their voice in this?

The reality is that those on benefits are having their voices crushed under the weight of an ever increasing financial burden, as the cost of living has rapidly outpaced the amount of money that can be claimed through benefits. 

As discussed in the previous article in this series, if you are receiving Universal Credit and renting in the private sector, the average shortfall between what you earn and what you spend is nearly £150 per month. That is a debt of £1800 in one year. This will be higher in places like Barnet, where the price of renting is at an all time high.

“The problem at the moment,” says Susan (Benefits Specialist at Citizens Advice Barnet), “is people simply don’t have enough money to survive. You can apply for all the benefits you’re eligible for and work as hard as you can and there is still a high risk of finding yourself in debt.”

This does not take into account mistakes in benefit calculation. Of the 22,224 benefit issues Citizens Advice Barnet have dealt with so far this year, more than 10% of them were to do with appealing or otherwise challenging errors made by the government.

Whilst the right to appeal is fundamental, these decisions can take over six months to process leaving the claimant without income, through no fault of their own.

“It is unlikely we’ll ever see a benefits system that works for absolutely everyone.” says Susan, “The risk of this tough new approach is that in discouraging some people to live off benefits, you are unfairly trapping a much larger group in a cycle of poverty and debt, which it is impossible to overcome.”

Everyday at Citizens Advice Barnet brings another person unable to successfully navigate the system: Simon, a cancer patient whose Universal Credit was taken away, Nora, whose immigration status prevented her from claiming benefits despite being the sole carer for a disabled young son, Jeremy, who couldn’t work after a random attack caused long-term health issues, Jessica, who is working and claiming benefits, and is still going without food to keep herself afloat.

Whilst the long-term solutions lie in the hands of policy makers, it is up to community organisations like Citizens Advice Barnet to advise and support those who are slipping through the cracks in the meantime.

Violet Mermelstein is Communications and Marketing Coordinator for Citizens Advice Barnet, a local charity which helps people in Barnet with expert advice and support. This is the final part of a three part series exploring the effects of the cost of living crisis through the charity’s work.

If you would like to support the work that we do at Citizens Advice Barnet please visit Winter Appeal – Citizens Advice Barnet. Help us care for the community this Christmas. Thank you!

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