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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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.