FRESH fears have emerged over the impact of welfare reforms on North-East poverty levels following a stark warning from a leading figure within the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).

Pauline Chambers, chief executive of Sedgefield and District CAB in County Durham, said the team had encountered levels of hardship not seen for 21 years.

Telephone enquiries have increased by 100 per cent in the last two months, with many people struggling to pay for basic food and utilities.

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And, at a recent welfare advice surgery organised by Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson, Mrs Chambers warned the situation would only get worse when the welfare reforms, including the controversial “bedroom tax,” come into effect in April.

“It's a very worrying time for people,” said Mrs Chambers. “Welfare reform in general is causing a lot of concern. “The increase in client numbers for us is steadily rising already and we expect to see that rise even more.”

Mrs Chambers said some clients were struggling to pay for basic items, adding: “Some of them have asked us for food vouchers, and I've never seen that in the 21 years I've worked for the service.”

Her concerns echo those of Neeraj Sharma, chief executive of Darlington CAB, who fears the benefit cuts could lead to an increase in homelessness in the town.

Nationally the CAB has estimated the demand for its free and impartial advice and advocacy services will quadruple in the wake of the reforms.