Where next for local welfare assistance and emergency provision?


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Last week the Prime Minister promoted to the Cabinet a critic of the Coalition government’s original plans to end dedicated funding for local welfare schemes. While Amber Rudd MP’s career hasn’t been harmed by her stance, what are the prospects for local welfare assistance schemes (LWAS) and other emergency provision?  

For the uninitiated, in 2013 council-run LWAS replaced the discretionary Social Fund as the way we help people on low incomes cope with unexpected or one-off costs – the safety net beneath our safety net.

I want to look at two key areas:

  • Which local welfare assistance schemes are still going and which have ended?
  • What else is CPAG doing on related issues regarding localisation and emergency provision
Local welfare assistance schemes – the story so far

Last year, the government sought to abolish all central funding for LWAS, worth £172 million in 2014/15, as of April 2015.

Thankfully, a judicial review - on which CPAG and Islington Council intervened - and the subsequent cross-party, cross-sector Keep the Safety Net campaign secured an improvement in the funding situation – although the picture is far from clear. Councils were told that £129 million of their general grant is intended for LWAS, and were granted an additional £74 million to help fund them.

But, crucially, there’s nothing stopping councils – who are under severe financial pressure – from spending this extra money on things other than LWAS. Given this, it’s no surprise some councils in England are closing their schemes ‘due to a lack of funding’, including London Borough of Bexley, London Borough of HillingdonNottinghamshire, North Lincolnshire, North East Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire.

It is striking that the Scottish Welfare Fund and the Welsh Discretionary Assistance Fund remain intact and are not subject to the cuts being made in England because their respective devolved governments have given their LWAS extra money and support.

Note also that Northern Ireland still operates the unreconstructed discretionary Social Fund: this is due to the political gridlock in the Northern Ireland Assembly over the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill for Northern Ireland. This has stalled the roll-out of personal independence payment and universal credit, as well as local welfare assistance there.

You can read more on recent changes here.

Short-term benefit advances and other emergency provision

Local welfare assistance is one kind of emergency provision; short-term benefit advances (STBAs) are another.

With the closing down of some of the English LWAS schemes, STBAs and other forms of emergency provision are becoming more important and, to take account of this, we’ve updated our information at www.cpag.org.uk/stba. To recap – with page references to our new 2015/16 Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook

  • Although community care grants and crisis loans for emergencies were abolished in April 2013, budgeting loans still exist for items like a replacement cooker or a bed for a growing child. (See Handbook page 788 for details.)
  • Crisis loans for benefit delays evolved into STBAs in April 2013: with the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) picking up speed – if that is an appropriate metaphor for something so glacial – there is an increasing need for information about UC budgeting advances: we believe that UC’s monthly payment in arrears could be a massive issue for low-income families in the future. (See Handbook page 166 for details.) 
  • The DWP out-of-hours service for emergencies also still exists. As our Handbook says on page 1190, if you have lost all your money or there has been a crisis, it is possible to get help at any time. Your local police station should have a contact phone number for DWP staff on call outside normal office hours.
  • Local authority social services departments have statutory duties to provide a range of practical and financial help to families, children, young people, older people, people with disabilities and asylum seekers. In an emergency your local police station should again have a contact phone number. (See our Handbook page 871 for details.) 
Next steps

Building on the success of our Oak Foundation-funded LWAS portal – which contains information about every local scheme – we are looking at what we can do to meet the growing demand for advice and information on other localised elements of the welfare state.

A user survey that we conducted earlier this year suggests that people would like other centralised resources to counter the dispersion caused by localisation – which points to a need for information on local variations in Council Tax Support (like this one) and Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs).

We’re looking at focussing on DHPs later this year as well as continuing to  improve the information on short-term benefit advances and other emergency provision.

Keep checking back on the portal pages to see these new developments and please get in touch at lwas@cpag.org.uk if you have any other suggestions for ways we can improve what we’re doing.

You can also follow @AskCPAG on Twitter for live updates on the portal. We believe these resources could become ever more important as anticipated government austerity cuts bite deeper and we pursue our aim to help as many low-income families as we can to avoid extreme hardship.