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Story Publication logo April 16, 2013

Britain: Reforms Dig Into Ex-Pit Town's Benefits

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Britain's government is engaged in the steepest deficit reduction of modern times. A team of...

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Rob Mason stacks shelves in his local store. Image by Charlie Bibby. UK, 2013.

Rob Mason started his career as a miner at the Deep Navigation Colliery near Merthyr Tydfil. Two decades after its closure, the 68 year-old still works most days stacking shelves at a local convenience store.

"I don't drink since the smoking ban," says Mr Mason, dressed in baseball cap and reflective orange donkey jacket. "But I still find I'm short at the end of the week."

The government's welfare reforms could make life even tougher for Mr Mason and others in Merthyr Tydfil, where one in four of the population receives some form of benefit.

The town will lose £263 ($403) per working-age adult from changes to incapacity benefit – more than anywhere else in the country – according to research commissioned by the FT.

Local councillors say they fear the new regime will push families deeper into poverty and exacerbate health problems – ultimately adding to welfare costs rather than making savings.

"Keir Hardie would be turning in his grave" says Brendan Toomey, a part time fireman and Merthyr's council leader, referring to the founder of the modern Labour party, whose striking bust greets visitors to the civic offices close to the River Taff.

But the former MP for Merthyr, first elected in 1900, would probably be equally shocked at the steep decline of this once vibrant mining and steel-making centre. Today, it has the second highest number of disability living allowance claimants in the UK, topped only by nearby Blaenau Gwent.

"There were no people on the sick before the mines closed," says Ian Benbow, head of the council's adult social regeneration unit, making clear where he lays the blame.

Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation a left-leaning economic think tank, says successive UK governments encouraged people to migrate on to sickness benefit as a way of massaging down the more politically sensitive unemployment figures.

That trend could now be reversed as ministers toughen eligibility assessments for sickness and disability benefits. Not everyone in Merthyr thinks this is a bad thing.

Surinder Khehra, owner of the Castle Hotel, supports government efforts to "make work pay".

"I have youngsters applying to work here who say they will only do 16 hours because otherwise they lose their benefits," he says. "I think the more they cut the welfare bill the more people will go back to work."

Tim Owen, founder of a chain of community pharmacies in the Valleys and a rumbling bass in the local male voice choir, believes Merthyr suffers from a "sponge ethic", with too many people dependent on welfare.

For local retailers, the knock-on effect of benefit cuts could be severe in an already rundown town. The convenience store where Mr Mason works is located in one of Merthyr's poorest housing estates. Yet, its owner, Udam Singh, believes he may be one of the few local beneficiaries of welfare reforms.

"I think people will have to live on more of a day-to-day basis," he says. "They won't have the money to do the big shop at the supermarket. That could be good for us."


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