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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How society is failing transgender children

In the wake of the cancellation of a public debate on this subject, one of the speakers shares her view on where society's approach to gender nonconformity is going wrong.

In August this year, several UK councils issued guidance to schools on accommodating female pupils who wear binders. A binder is a constricting undergarment for the upper body: what it binds are the breasts, pressing them down to a flatness that the wearer feels is appropriate to their self-perception as masculine or gender-neutral. According to Cornwall Council, the binder is “very important to [the wearer’s] psychological wellbeing.” But binders have unwelcome physical side-effects too, including “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting.” Lancashire Council’s advice urges teachers to “monitor [wearers] carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

When the NSPCC invited me to participate in a discussion on the subject “is society letting down transgender children?” (part of its Dare to Debate series), those guidelines were one of the first things I thought of. They’re written in accordance with the overriding principle of gender identity politics, which is that affirmation is all. Any bodily harms incurred count for little compared to the trauma believed to be inflicted by a “mismatch” between appearance and identity. It’s a doctrine that insists we’ve moved beyond the tyranny of physical sex and social pressure, and into a realm of pure selfhood where all must be able to live in accordance with their own inherent being.

And yet, look again at that list of side effects: breathing difficulties, skeletal problems, fainting, inability to participate fully in exercise. The female adolescents wearing binders have reproduced all the problems of tight-lacing corsets, this time in the service of restrictive anti-femininity rather than restrictive femininity. So is issuing guidance to reduce the harms of binder-wearing in schools an act of care for transgender children, or an abdication of it? Is the role of adults in authority – whether parental, educational or medical – to validate everything that comes under the rubric of transition, regardless of long-term consequences, or could another approach be better?

The number of children who identify as trans is small, but rapidly increasing: referrals to the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust’s gender identity development service have doubled year-on-year. Putting gender-nonconforming youths on a medical track opens the possibility that they will be prescribed puberty blockers, delaying the physical changes of adolescence that individuals may find distressing. Later, treatment can include cross-sex hormones and surgery to create the desired sexual characteristics.

For many, this can alleviate profound anguish about the self, but not without costs. The long-term effects of hormone therapies aren’t known, and won’t be until the current generation of trans children have lived well into adulthood. There’s a risk that increased medicalisation could be imposing permanent physical changes on children who, left to their own devices, would discover they are quite happy living with their natal sex – about 80 per cent of children diagnosed with gender dysphoria desist before adulthood, but the normalisation of medical transition could commit many to irrevocable treatments they would otherwise avoid.

Remarkably, as I found out when I worked on a long feature on the subject, there isn’t any agreement on what gender identity is or how it relates to the physical body. Which means that transitioning children are receiving an untested treatment for an undefined condition. Medicine often involves a surprising degree of idiosyncrasy and guesswork, but this uncertainty both about what is being treated and the effects of the treatment should be a cause for caution. While many who transition find it wholly positive, not everyone does: doubt and detransition happen, and these stories tell us that the quickest path to reassignment is not always the best treatment for someone presenting with dysphoria.

Sometimes, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria might mask a different underlying cause to a child’s distress. Psychiatrist Susan Bradley reports that children with cross-sex identification are often (not always) either responding defensively to a violent background or engaging in the obsessive behaviours associated with autistic spectrum disorders. A policy of “watchful waiting” – listening to the child, supporting them and giving them freedom to experiment and develop – is vital if we are to give children the kind of help they really need. But in an environment where anything short of total and immediate reinforcement is deemed abusive, “watchful waiting” is not an option.

One more problem: if gender dysphoria is conceived as the problem, and gender reassignment as the solution, then transition represents the summation of a process which should in theory resolve everything. In practice, newly-transitioned young people (especially those crossing the threshold from child and adolescent mental health services to adult provision) can find themselves stranded, no longer in receipt of the support they had during transition. We simply aren’t getting the treatment of transgender children right if we’re only treating their gender.

The consequences extend well beyond children who identify as trans, of course. Schools are suffused with sexual harassment and sexual violence, yet girls are expected to accept a child they previously knew as a boy as female like them, or be called bigots. The naturalisation of sex-stereotypes in parental narratives of transition surely has a limiting influence on other children’s conception of sex-appropriate behaviour. For some gender-nonconforming children, the cultural celebration of transition leads to anxiety about whether they themselves should be trans, even if they’re happy in their bodies. Certainly, many gay and lesbian adults have looked back on their own childhoods and remarked nervously that their behaviour then would qualify them as trans now.

If we’re not able to address these issues, then we’re manifestly failing children. But addressing them is incredibly difficult: practitioners who privately mention their doubts about current approaches to gender noncomformity are afraid to ask questions publicly, anticipating personal attacks and the loss of their jobs.

They’re not wrong to do so. After announcing the Dare to Debate event, the NSPCC was put under sustained pressure, I was persistently abused, and following the withdrawal of the other panelist, the charity cancelled the event. Previous installments in the series have looked at child sexualisation, foetal alcohol syndrome, and asked whether the investigation of child sexual abuse has tipped into “hysteria”, but apparently it would be just too daring to talk about gender. Doctrine so bitterly defended that it must even be protected from good-faith debate is a kind of restrictive garment for the intellect. Wearing it can ease our mental pangs. But the damage it does besides is very real.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.