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month, she will be hit not only by the bedroom tax, but will also face a £64 council tax bill as Council Tax Benefit is withdrawn.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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.