UK

Benefit cuts 'to hit orthodox Jewish community'

A member of the north-east London Jewish community Image copyright bbc
Image caption "Manni" is one of the Haredi Jews who fears losing his home as a result of the changes

Manni, 28, opens his front door in Stamford Hill and invites me inside for a tour.

"I live in a five-bedroom house and I've got six children," he explains. "I cannot pay the rent if I'm not receiving the benefits."

Manni (not his real name) works full-time in a local Jewish organisation, but his low income and large family mean he qualifies for £420 a week of Local Housing Allowance to help pay his rent.

He puts in £80 a week himself for the family's home in an old Victorian street in north-east London.

But along with many tenants across the rest of England, Scotland and Wales, he is about to see his payments drop. From next April, the benefit will be capped at a maximum of £400 per week.

Six months later the cap will fall again to a lower rate, under the coalition government's plans to reduce housing benefit nationally.

Because no-one will be allowed to claim more than the reduced rate for a four-bedroom property, there will be a big impact in the Haredi Jewish community where families are often large.

The term Haredi indicates a devout and strict dedication to Orthodox Judaism.

The community's leaders estimate families like Manni's will lose £170 a week, and that around half of the community's 4,000 families use Local Housing Allowance to pay their rent.

Many in the community have already seen their housing benefit payments fall when the amount paid for a property with five or more bedrooms was capped in April 2009.

Of the 32 families in Hackney who were affected, 30 were from the Haredi community. This time, it is likely the impact on the community will be even greater.

Tight knit

"Every hard-working family in this country has to make a decision on where and how to live," says Welfare Reform minister Lord David Freud.

"It doesn't make sense for the taxpayer to see a different set of rules for people on benefit from those they have to live on themselves."

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption Rabbi Pinter does not want his community to be forced to move

So did Manni realise this could happen when he chose to have a large family?

"I understand this point," he tells me. "But I cannot change my life, because I'm Orthodox Jew."

"I've got my children and I cannot give them away," he adds. "I have to help them to grow up."

Life in the Haredi community is intensely local. Stamford Hill has 70 synagogues, several Jewish schools and rows of Kosher supermarkets.

It is a tight-knit place where people follow strict teachings on their dress and behaviour, such as the rule that only travel by foot is permitted on the Sabbath.

"I love this area, but to be very honest I don't have a choice," explains Rabbi Abraham Pinter, a proud local figure who runs several schools.

"I have to live in this area because this is the only area where I would have the infrastructure where I can practice my religion and where my extended family lives."

The changes have prompted a series of crisis meetings in Stamford Hill. But the strictures of religious custom mean options for the community are limited.

Deprivation

There is very little suitable council housing on offer in the area. Community leaders say that although charity within the Jewish diaspora will help, it will not be enough to support all the families affected.

Still, Rabbi Pinter resolutely refuses to use the politicians' terminology of "social cleansing" that has coloured the debate.

"There's no question about it that the system needs to be reformed," he says. "But it needs to be done in a thought out way, and not to force people out of their communities."

The government is hoping that people will not need to move en-masse, because so many rents are paid by Local Housing Allowance that private landlords will be forced to drop their rates.

"I don't accept that they have to move," says Lord Freud. "I think some people may have to make adjustments in their housing."

But for Rabbi Pinter, the changes will mean a rise in deprivation and overcrowding - as families squeeze in to smaller homes rather than move out.

He says the prospect of recreating the fabric of Haredi life in a cheaper part of the country is a daunting one - but he is prepared to think about the option.

"In an organised way I think that is a future," he says. "We should have that vision of moving into other areas, but not in a forced way."

The Report is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 25 November at 2000 GMT. Or listen again via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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