Wales politics

Benefit changes devastating - Welsh minister Huw Lewis

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Media captionHuw Lewis tells BBC Wales' Political Editor Betsan Powys that he believes people will lose their homes because of the reforms

Changes to welfare and benefits will have a "destabilising, damaging and devastating impact on communities", a Welsh government minister has claimed.

In a strong attack, Communities and Tackling Poverty Minister Huw Lewis accuses the UK government of "coming for ordinary Welsh people".

He also claimed the coalition was setting out to "make the poor pay the most" for the banking crisis.

But the UK government says the changes are needed and are fair.

The Welfare Reform Bill is set to mark the biggest overhaul of the benefits system since the 1940s as it comes into force this month.

The changes include capping rises on working-age benefits at 1%, which will affect hundreds of thousands of households across the UK.

Housing association and council tenants of working age will see benefits cut if they are deemed to have spare bedrooms.

The government has also confirmed plans to implement a £50 immediate fine for "errors that could have reasonably been prevented" on benefit claims.

It also wants to impose tougher penalties for more serious benefit fraud.

But Mr Lewis claimed the UK government was "coming for ordinary Welsh people" and of setting out to "make the poor pay the most" for the banking crisis.

He said: "My concerns run very deep. The UK government's programme of welfare reform as they call it to my mind isn't about welfare reform at all.

'Recasting the relationship'

"To my mind it's about the remaking of social security in its entirety.

"They are recasting the relationship between the UK government and citizens, just when people need protection most of all in this economic downturn, they are stepping away from their responsibility to the most vulnerable in our society."

One of the most controversial changes is what opponents have called the "bedroom tax," where housing association and council tenants of working age will see benefits cut if they are deemed to have spare bedrooms.

It means a 14% cut for one spare room and 25% for two.

Mr Lewis added: "It's a straightforward cut in the living standards of people in social housing, who tend to be people on lower incomes and here again, you see the pattern very clearly.

"Who will pay for the economic downturn? The poorest."

All of the changes were due to come into force today, but some of the welfare plans have been scaled back.

Criticism of the changes have also come from Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, and the Church of Scotland after the four joined forces.

They say welfare payment cuts are unjust and target society's most vulnerable. They also want to see a change to "a false picture" of the poor as "lazy".

'Financial and practical help'

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has defended the changes.

"From the outset I stressed my commitment to create a welfare system that is fit for the 21st Century," he said.

"One that has incentives for people to get into work and increase their hours, that is fair to the people who use it, and fair for the taxpayer who pays for it.

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Media captionGuto Bebb, Conservative MP for Aberconwy, spoke out after Huw Lewis' attack, telling BBC Radio Wales' Felicity Evans that the reforms were necessary

"We are ensuring there is support for the most vulnerable in our society, and our reforms mean that we will be giving more help - financial and practical - to those people who need it."

Guto Bebb, Conservative MP for Aberconwy, said Mr Lewis' comments were "completely unacceptable".

"These welfare changes are happening because the previous Labour government was responsible for creating the biggest bust in Britain's economic history," he told BBC Radio Wales.

"This government has a responsibility to try to control public spending. The cuts which have been described by Huw as 'atrocious' are actually a welfare budget which continues to increase."

Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps told BBC News the existing system had been "rather a cruel one" because "it costs you more, sometimes, to go to work".

"You ought to be able to go out to work and know you're better off without having to spend an hour-and-a-half in front of a Jobcentre Plus computer trying to do calculations as to whether you'll lose this benefit or that benefit.

"That's what we'll get with Universal Credit and and it means that money that is there can be focused on people who most need it."

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