Guest blog: Government should not scrap emergency welfare fund
Future funding of local welfare schemes is uncertain but we cannot allow it to wither on the vine, says Peabody welfare benefits adviser Danny Hardie
From next year, the £172m Local Welfare Provision Grant – the DWP successor to the Social Fund which enables councils to provide emergency support to residents in crisis – will be transferred to the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Given that any future social fund provision will need to come from local authority general funding, it’s clear that this is another cut to local government which will make it more difficult for councils to help the most vulnerable. As a charitable housing provider we know the impact of the fund for our residents, and we need ministers to look at this again.
Local authority spending
While the current arrangements are not perfect, the localisation of the Social Fund has in my experience worked well.
Having a distinct fund has encouraged many local authorities in London to set aside the funding and to develop responsive and localised schemes. Payments are only exceptionally made in cash, with goods ordered and supplied by contractors.
The financial provision from the DWP is not ring-fenced, but most boroughs have taken up the support and made really good use of the money. As it is a separate pool of funding, local authorities I speak to have taken the view that it is for a specific purpose. Support for the most vulnerable, although squeezed like all public spending, remains in place.
Supporting the vulnerable
I recently met a severely disabled resident living in Islington (a council running an excellent Local Welfare Provision scheme).
Money is tight for this resident, and when her fridge-freezer broke last month she did not have the money to replace or fix it. She is part of a tightly knit community, and neighbours kindly agreed to provide meals for her in the short term. But she needed sustainable support.
Peabody made an application to Islington Council’s social fund and a week later she had a brand new fridge-freezer. Our resident still has challenges and remains vulnerable, but because of social fund support she is able to store fresh food and maintain a healthy diet.
A resident I work with in Westminster was sanctioned by Jobcentre Plus for failing to attend a job interview on time.
He explained to me that as his mattress was so worn he was sleeping on the floor, and his lack of sleep combined with back pain meant that he was in no fit state to work or attend interviews. While he accepted responsibility for the sanction, he was anxious about this happening again, and missing other urgent appointments.
When I met with him he was in the process of completing an online payday loan application so he could make up the shortfall in his benefits and buy a new mattress. An application was made for a new single mattress through the localised social fund. It was delivered within a week, our resident’s condition improved and he is now in full-time employment.
These examples show the value of Local Welfare Provision funding. With our help, vulnerable people are supported and, where possible, helped into work. The funding provides vital support to our residents, so we cannot allow it to wither on the vine.
It is difficult to see how stretched councils can continue current levels of support if funding is cut and/or integrated into general revenue funding. The local government finance settlement for 2015/16 will require further council spending reductions over and above the £20bn local authorities have cut since 2010.
The removal of distinct local welfare provision funding in addition to these further cuts to local government could make welfare schemes unviable and unaffordable for councils, with potentially devastating consequences for our residents.
Apparently, the DWP will be conducting a “planned progress review” on councils’ local welfare provision schemes over the next few months.
What happens to the funding of local welfare provision after 2015 will depend on this review, and it will be for councils and the DCLG to act on its findings. This review should take evidence from councils, housing providers, voluntary groups and residents to get the whole picture on the value of the funding in local communities.
In the boroughs that I work in, local welfare provision is working and essential. It protects the vulnerable and supports people enduring difficult circumstances improve their situations. It can improve health and wellbeing, offers vital support to people in crisis, assists people with limiting disabilities, and helps get people into employment or training and on to their own two feet.
The government must continue to fund it.
Danny Hardie is an adviser in our welfare benefits team