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.
 

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle