HOMELESSNESS could increase in Swindon when a raft of Government benefits changes come into force in April, council officers have warned.

The coalition Government’s Welfare reform Bill aims to reduce expenditure on welfare and incentivise work by ensuring that families in work are better off that those on benefits – but the council recognises it could increase hardship for those already in dire straits.

Swindon Council will have £2m less to hand out as help towards paying council tax.

This means the maximum support anyone can receive – except for pensioner claimants and claimants in households with disabilities – is 80 per cent; leaving the householders to pick up the remaining 20 per cent.

There will also be cuts in housing benefit for social housing tenants deemed to have spare room, so those with one ‘spare’ bedroom will lose 14 per cent of their housing benefit (approximately £12 per week) and those with two or more spare bedrooms will lose 25 per cent (on average £22 per week).

In the summer, about 100 families will be hit by a £26,000 annual cap on total benefits income, and in October, the universal credits scheme is expected to be introduced, meaning benefits will be paid monthly instead of weekly, and will always go directly to claimants rather than to landlords, for example.

The council’s homeless officers estimate that people seeking help from them could rise by 25 per cent from the current 250 people per month, and the numbers of cases requiring statutory assistance could double from the current 26 per quarter.

Speaking at the council’s equalities advisory forum yesterday, Andy Stevens, head of revenue and benefits, said: “It could lead to rent difficulties, and the difficulties of individuals meeting their rent obligations could cause homelessness issues if someone is evicted for not paying their rent.

“We haven’t seen a huge impact on homelessness services and changes so far, but there are fears the benefits caps, under-occupancy changes and direct payments to claimants under universal credits will lead to an increase in enquiries for assistance for homeless services.”

But Mr Stevens said Govern-ment funding for discretionary housing payments would increase from £88,000 in 2012/13 to 281,000 in 2013/14.

Swindon Council could then offer more short-term assistance for those on housing benefits who are unable to pay their some of their rent.

A report presented to the forum also warns that benefits changes will reduce income and lead to rent and council tax arrears owed by families – potentially placing more children at risk and impacting the council’s finances.

Cabinet member Coun Russell Holland, (Con, St Margaret) said the council could not do much about the changes.

He said that a key problem is there is a shortage of homes for people to downsize into to avoid the ‘bedroom tax’.

He said: “We will consider each case on its own merits and we will take as sympathetic a view as possible on rent arrears, but in the first place, they should apply for discretionary housing payment.”

The council is working to keep residents informed about the changes.