Amid the fury, the closure of the social fund is a quiet tragedy

This government, the most radical in recent times, is laughing at us, writes Carl Packman

Welfare reform has been a huge part of the national conversation this week, but one under-reported move by the government will see community care grants and crisis loans, which were paid through job centres as part of a centralised social fund package, end.

Instead local authorities will now have unspecified funding for alternative provision – boosting the worry that help for the most vulnerable will be subject to a postcode lottery.

While people in receipt of benefits will face more challenges, and almost certain crises, the money sources they can apply for as a last resort are being squeezed. From the bedroom tax, caps on the amount they can receive, and a real term cut after benefits are capped at 1%, measured alongside a rising cost in living, government policy is disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable, especially disabled people who make up one third of social fund claimants.

A new report looking at the localisation of the social fund, by the Centre for Responsible Credit, notes that “Many local authorities are implementing tight eligibility criteria and their assistance is less likely to involve cash payments, with in-kind support such as food parcels and voucher schemes used in their place.”

According to Damon Gibbons, the author of the report, though some local authorities are keeping something akin to the social fund, many are not proposing to put anything in its place, which will inevitably lead to the reduction of support for those in crisis. 

With no state provision, the likelihood that payday lenders and other high cost credit suppliers will benefit is dramatically increased. 

The Social Fund was introduced in 1987, during the Thatcher days. Norman Fowler, who served as a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet from 1981 to 1990, instituted what came to be known as the ‘Fowler reforms’ of the social security system, under which the social fund was introduced.

The fund, set up for those who could not withstand financial shocks or who have little or no savings, could be applied for through government to fund various one-off payments such as funerals or larger items such as furniture. 

Because of problems such as delay, many critics said the fund needed reform. But adding further proof that this coalition government is in many ways more radical than the Conservative government of the seventies and eighties, its future existence is compromised. 

In her book Hard Work, Polly Toynbee re-told her hardship at applying from her local authority for a social fund loan. After making her application she was told she would have to wait several weeks for it. For recipients this meant weeks without money for necessities, and when it did come in it was less than she had applied for. To be sure the social fund needed reforming – but not in the way that this government has done it. 

This is a dangerous move, not only because it removes part the state's duty to provide for the most vulnerable in society, but because it boosts the possibility of more bad consumer debt when all other options are off the table. 

At such radical moves by the establishment, we have to level equally radical demands back at it. The social fund should be immediately reinstated and centralised, so as to avoid the trappings of a postcode lottery. Government needs to reform the fund so it is fit for purpose, helping families in the face of severe financial shocks. Policy makers should seriously consider making the social fund something that operates through a credit union, which would increase credit union funding and do more to highlight its social importance.

This government, the most radical in recent times, is laughing at us, while the media responds painting welfare claimants are feckless. Radical demands from citizens and consumers can and must counteract this, and that time is long due.

Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.