CPAG welcomes new government money for local welfare assistance and urges councils to now adapt schemes to widen access
- Charity says £63 million for schemes is welcome, but falls short of the £250 million required by councils to support all hard-hit families in England
- A new best practice guide urges councils to adapt their schemes to the pandemic by widening access to them as much as possible
- Councils leading the way are topping up local welfare assistance schemes; providing cash rather than in-kind support; relaxing qualifying criteria of schemes; promoting schemes widely; making the application process as simple as possible and collecting and maintaining data on awards and applicants.
Following the government’s announcement of a further £63 million for local welfare assistance, CPAG has published a new guide that aims to help councils looking to establish or develop their local welfare assistance schemes to respond to families and residents who have been financially affected by Covid-19.
Cash in a crisis: best practice on local welfare assistance for local authorities during Covid-19 draws together CPAG’s evidence of the gaps in support that exist for children and families affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, research into how local authorities are spending the hardship money they have been allocated by central government and good practice with local welfare assistance schemes.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, many families with children are now facing severe financial hardship and need emergency financial support to pay utility bills and buy food, particularly when alternative forms of support such as council tax relief or free school meal vouchers are not available to them.
Local welfare assistance schemes provide families with cash or grant support – giving them more flexibility and dignity than in-kind support – and are vital to preventing hardship. When schemes are effectively coordinated with other council services and voluntary and community sector support, they can help to address the underlying causes of financial crises.
Although new funding will increase the expected spending on local welfare assistance during the Covid-19 crisis from just 73p per capita to £1.85 per capita in England, this is still very low compared with the rest of the UK. Wales is expected to spend £6.88 per capita, Scotland £14.76 per capita and Northern Ireland £9.97 per capita.  Along with The Trussell Trust, The Children’s Society, Independent Food Aid Network, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, StepChange Debt Charity and Turn2us, CPAG is calling for an immediate increase in funding of £250 million to higher-tier local authorities in England on a one-year basis to improve their capacity to deliver local welfare assistance. 
The guide recommends that all local authorities have a local welfare assistance scheme with a designated budget. In London, five boroughs out of 33 (Haringey, Bexley, Redbridge, Hillingdon and Enfield) currently do not have schemes and it is unclear whether three boroughs (Brent, Barnet and Merton) have designated budgets for their schemes.
It should now be possible for local authorities to top-up their schemes with additional government money, and if possible, money from the hardship fund. In London, Hounslow has topped up its scheme by £1m. Barnet and Harrow are spending their funding on council tax relief and on their hardship funds and Greenwich, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster are putting money from the hardship fund allocation into their schemes. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Councils have confirmed that if there is money left over from their hardship fund allocation after funding council tax relief, they will increase support available through their local schemes.
Most schemes provide in-kind support (goods or vouchers), or make referrals to charitable organisations, rather than make cash payments. However, during a pandemic, families with children can ill afford to wait if they need to pay for daily living expenses, such as food, clothes, nappies or transport. In London, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets, Barking and Dagenham and Waltham Forest are leading the way in making cash payments to applicants, while East Riding of Yorkshire Council, Hull City Council and Norfolk County Council are also making cash payments.
Encouragingly, some local authorities have relaxed the qualifying criteria of their schemes to enable them to support more people more easily during the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, Greenwich has relaxed the restrictions for students and residents with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) to apply to its scheme. Harrow’s scheme permits one application per household to be considered each month. Middlesbrough Council has extended its scheme to help residents directly impacted by or as a result of coronavirus and who are waiting for their universal credit applications to be approved and Oldham Council is now accepting applications from families with NRPF.
Councils should also promote their schemes widely to the public and to other agencies, making eligibility criteria clear before application stage and making the application process itself as simple as possible. Just under half (12) of schemes available in London could be found in two or three clicks from the council website homepages. Shropshire County Council is promoting its scheme widely, including via local registered social landlords, local landlord forums and several charities and North Yorkshire County Council’s scheme operates through a network of ‘authorised agents’, including frontline council teams, charities, treatment services, social landlords and public sector services.
Finally, for local authorities to fully understand the impact of their schemes and to target them effectively, they should collect, maintain and publish data on the awards made to applicants, collect data on the characteristics of applicants and keep records of the impact of the awards made (for example on applicants’ finances and wellbeing).
Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of CPAG, said:
“The Covid-19 crisis has exposed just how vulnerable any family is to income shocks and job losses. Local authorities must have the resources to respond adequately to the urgent needs of local residents via their local welfare assistance schemes. While we welcome new government money for local welfare assistance, £63 million falls far short of the £250 million they are likely to need. Once sufficiently resourced, councils should adapt their schemes to widen public access to them during Covid-19, including by topping them up; providing cash rather than in-kind support and relaxing the qualifying criteria so that groups who are often excluded from schemes (such as families with no recourse to public funds or working families) can apply for support. These schemes should be promoted widely, with the application process made as simple as possible, and records of the awards maintained. There are already many local authorities that are demonstrating good practice – others should follow suit.”
CPAG media contact: Jane Ahrends 07816 909302