The really frightening thing about today's cuts is that no one knows their combined impact

The sums just don't add up.

"How will I cope with the bedroom tax? I already have more outgoings than ingoings. I don't have my heating on, I don't have my fridge on. I buy reduced food, 10p loaves of bread. I go to the swimming pool to shower so I save gas. I can't make any more savings."

This is Debbie, 45, from Newcastle.

Until a few months ago, she claimed no benefits and was paying her own rent. Then she suffered a serious illness and lost her job as a support worker. She is thankful her £71 rent is currently being covered by housing benefit, but is struggling to survive on just £71 a week Employment Support Allowance. As of this month, she will be hit not only by the bedroom tax, but will also face a £64 council tax bill as Council Tax Benefit is withdrawn.

Crisis is working with Debbie to help her rebuild her life, but our fear is that these measures could leave her, and thousands of others like her, in serious trouble.

Debbie faces losing her home, and with a severe lack of one-bedroom properties in the area, she is justifiably scared about the future. She is one of millions struggling with a bewildering array of cuts that come in April 2013. The one thing they have in common is that they all hit those with least to lose - those already closest to homelessness.

The really frightening thing about today's cuts is that no one knows their combined impact. Indeed, the influential Public Accounts Committee has expressed concern that:

"The Department is introducing these significant changes without comprehensive modelling of the likely outcome on individuals"

The scale is enormous: 660,000 households will be hit by the bedroom tax; 2.4 million households by the Council Tax Benefit cut; 56,000 households by the overall benefit cap; 9.6 million households by 2015/16 by benefits uprating; 1.36 million households by Local Housing Allowance cuts; 500,000 disabled people will lose out when DLA becomes PIP. Last year 1.7 million grants and crisis loans were made to people on the brink of destitution or rebuilding their lives following homelessness - these are to be abolished, cut and localised. Even Legal Aid for housing and benefit disputes is to be stopped, so people who believe they have been treated unfairly will have no power to challenge.

The result for households budgeting for these multiple cuts will be a cold, bleak April of misery, debt, food banks, unheated rooms, unpaid rent and homelessness. Leaving aside the moral repugnance of forcing the poorest in our society to bear such a burden, this is going to cost us all dearly.

The price to the public purse of keeping someone in their home pales into insignificance next to the cost once they lose it. The price of B&Bs, hostel rooms, A&E departments, mental ill-health and rough sleeping services is enormous. These cuts are not only cruel - they are counter-productive for us all.

And they come at the worst possible time. Homelessness is already rising as the economic downturn and previous cuts take their toll. Over the past two years rough sleeping has risen by 31 per cent, and the number of households accepted as homeless by local authorities has gone up by 26 per cent. Unemployment and underemployment remain stubbornly high.

In the words of Debbie: "It will be impossible to cope - the sums just don't add up." I couldn't put it better myself. The sums don't add up for Debbie, and they don't add up for society either.

Photograph: Getty Images

Leslie Morphy is the outgoing Chief Executive of Crisis, the national charity for single homelessness people.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.