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19 December 2014

“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.

By megan jarvie

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.

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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