Shredding the safety net to our national safety net

The UK’s social security system has long recognised that benefit levels are not sufficient for claimants to build up savings and manage unexpected or one-off costs. However, from April 2015, there will be no source of funding for this.This will mean no dedicated provision for essentials such as beds and cookers for those leaving institutions or fleeing domestic violence. Or specially adapted furniture or equipment for people with disabilities. Or enabling families to replace broken white goods and essential furniture. Or enable vulnerable individuals to afford food and heating. The list goes on.

How have we reached this situation? Before April 2013 this funding was provided through the Social Fund. This was not a perfect system, but there were clear guidelines and dedicated funding to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. However, ministers claim the system was open to abuse and that a large national scheme like this was not the best way to assess and meet people’s needs. Funding was devolved to Local Authorities so that each could each devise their own Local Welfare Assistance Scheme. While the DWP gave councils a strong steer on how they should be expected to spend this money, there was no ringfence meaning that in practice, there was no obligation for this money to be spent on Local Welfare Assistance.

Designing and implementing local welfare assistance was no mean feat for councils. Funding for this provision was reduced at the same that welfare reform and a tough economic backdrop were causing extreme hardship, meaning most were nervous about demand outstripping funding. They also had a job on their hands to ensure that residents knew about the scheme and how to apply. Given this, it’s no surprise that most schemes were slow to get off the ground and received fewer applications than expected in the first months of operation. By December 2013 there was patchy provision across the country, but we were generally seeing an improving picture as councils tweaked their schemes to better meet residents’ needs.

However, there was a lump of coal in the bottom of councils’ Christmas stockings. In the local government finance settlement published just before the Christmas break, there was a surprise zero against the budget line for local welfare assistance. This was the non-announcement that DWP would stop funding these schemes. No review, no equalities assessment, no planning for how needs would be met. No funding.

The official line is that the schemes have not been abolished, but funding has simply transferred to DCLG. But DCLG is not planning to provide any additional funding to enable local authorities to continue to deliver local welfare assistance. Instead councils are expected to find the money for these schemes from their ever diminishing general funding pot.

Local Welfare Assistance is an essential part of our welfare system – the safety net to our national safety net - but that is not how it is currently being treated. It enables mothers to leave abusive partners, disabled people to buy the equipment they need and stops people going cold and hungry. It is not an optional extra.

We are asking the government to consider one of two tacks: either, that DWP conduct its promised review of LWAS and reassess its decision to cease funding these schemes; or, that DCLG ensures local authorities maintain provision through both a dedicated budget and a strong steer (which could be achieved by imposing a duty, ring-fencing or at the very minimum, improved guidance).

Cripplegate is an independent charity working in Islington and is campaigning to save this vital safety net. The charity is asking for supporters to:

  • Spread the word – tell others about the withdrawal of Government support for local welfare provision and the impact this will have on our most vulnerable neighbours
  • Send their views on the impact of these changes to: keepthesafetynet@cripplegate.org.uk
  • Write to their Council and MP, asking them to challenge the Government’s decision
  • Write to Iain Duncan Smith MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, asking him to reconsider this decision.