Emergency support schemes are under threat. Photo: Getty
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"The last backstop for the most vulnerable": what now for local welfare schemes?

Yesterday’s Provisional Local Government Settlement contained the worrying news that dedicated funding for council-run emergency support schemes will cease.

Announcing the provisional local government finance settlement yesterday, Kris Hopkins made things sound just rosy for local welfare provision. A £129.6 million allocation for the successor schemes to the social fund next year? Happy Christmas, one and all.

Well, not really. In fact, what Hopkins announced yesterday was a classic sleight of hand. Since their inception in 2013, local welfare schemes have been funded by a dedicated £170m-plus grant provided to local authorities from DWP. As of next year, this grant will cease. What Hopkins was talking about, then, is simply the amount he thinks councils should spend from their ever-shrinking general funds if these schemes are to endure.

Of course in reality, it’s not just councils that are having their pockets picked, but the vulnerable people who receive support from these schemes. A low income means living hand to mouth, and certainly doesn’t allow you to save for a rainy day. So when your cooker breaks, or your child grows out of its cot, local welfare provision fills the gap. These schemes help young people set up home after leaving care, disabled people to buy equipment to make it easier to live independently, and families avoid destitution.

Although local welfare schemes are less than two years old, the social security system has long recognised the need for provision of this type. In fact, there has been some form of help with one-off and emergency costs since the inception of the welfare state. But from 2015 onwards, any support that families receive with these costs no longer comes as part of the social security system, but is simply the gift of their local authority – a return to the pre-war poor law?

It’s hard to imagine what people will turn to without local welfare schemes when an unexpected cost occurs. Grant giving charities and food banks can expect more knocks on their doors, ditto pay-day lenders and loan sharks. But when no help can be found, and a one-off cost escalates into a crisis, it is social services, housing departments and the health service that will pick up the pieces in the longer term.

The announcement is surprising in the light of public support for continued funding of local welfare schemes. The government received over 5,000 responses to its recent consultation on the issue; a glance at just a couple of these shows the overwhelming evidence there is that funding needs to continue.  And look at the petition the online organisation 38 degrees issued only yesterday morning. When Kris Hopkins stepped up to the despatch box at lunchtime, almost 45,000 people had asked George Osborne not to cut the funds. By the time this blog was published, 94,000 have pledged their support.

So is local welfare provision dead in the water? The government have at least put a figure on how much they think councils should spend on these schemes, even if they haven’t had the decency to provide the funds. And a glimmer of hope remains. The consultation on local government funding as a whole remains open, with Kris Hopkins intimating the government will take responses into account when drawing up the final local government settlement in February.

Once more, the call on ministers to listen to the evidence is clear. Not only will this cut create extra costs elsewhere in the system, but the human costs are perilously high. At some point there surely has to be a cut too far – and this could well be it.

Megan Jarvie is Campaigns Coordinator and Lindsay Judge is Senior Policy and Research Officer at Child Poverty Action Group

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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