CHARITIES and community groups are bracing themselves for upcoming changes to the welfare system, which could plunge thousands of residents into hardship.

More than 100 representatives from the council, police, housing associations and the voluntary sector met at Central Hall, in Darlington, today (Friday, January 25)and pledged to work together to address the problems likely to arise when the welfare system changes in April.

Addressing the conference organised by the Darlington Partnership, MP Jenny Chapman said that the benefits cap and other planned cuts will affect thousands of people across the town and put added pressure on the voluntary sector and the local authority.

She said: “There are things that are going to be critical; emergency needs that have to be met.

“I’m thinking of food banks and homeless services, which I think we are quite good at here, but we will have to get even better at.

“Advice services will have to cope with more and more people in debt and mortgage arrears.

“These are things that we need to look at very, very carefully but I don’t think we can do any of these things without coming together to talk and take action together.”

Ada Burns, Darlington Council’s chief executive and chairwoman of the Darlington Partnership, said that the changes to the welfare system will remove around £14m from the town’s economy.

She added: “It is going to impact on people on low wages, people who are not in work, people who are looking for work and it is going to impact on people that are disabled.

“All we know is that an awful lot of people are going to suffer.”

Mike Dixon, assistant chief executive at Citizens Advice, warned that the country is less than a third of the way through the total amount of government cuts expected to be made over the next five years.

Karen Grundy, operational lead for One Darlington which is working to bring all the sectors together, said resilience and financial inclusion are the key things that organisations need to work together to achieve.

“It is not about being a talking shop; this very much a call for action,” she said.

“We need to be sensible and realistic in how much we can do.

“We won’t be able to achieve everything, so we need to make sure that by working together we can achieve things that are going to have the most impact on people.”