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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.