In the last few years, a slew of reports have been published focusing on the impact of the coalition government’s decision to localise various elements of the national social security system, including council tax benefit (now council tax support) and the discretionary social fund (now local welfare assistance). See CPAG and Zacchaeus 2000 Trust’s report Still Too Poor To Pay on the impact of council tax support on Londoners and Greater Manchester Poverty Action’s study on the collapse of crisis support in England.
In 2011, the government saw localisation as: “…the most effective means of ensuring sufficient local flexibility to secure the planned reduction in expenditure, reflecting local circumstance and priorities...” In other words, it believed that handing decision-making on entitlement to local authorities was the best way of ensuring that limited resources reached those who were most in need. While the government made blunt cuts to budgets, it called upon local authorities to add the nuance to local schemes, in order to protect the most vulnerable.
The reports mentioned above have focused on the effect of localisation on vulnerable people and on local authorities. They have concluded – somewhat depressingly - that localisation has enabled central government to reduce local authority budgets, leading to great financial uncertainty, which in turn has led to local social security provision being cut back and vulnerable people effectively slipping through the net.
But what about the impact on other local services such as advice agencies? How have the cutbacks affected them and what can we learn from their experience of supporting people affected by the changes? In fact, localisation has provided extra challenges for advice agencies too, because in addition to the large scale changes to benefits, advice agencies working across geographical boundaries have had to become familiar with a number of different schemes, eligibility criteria and application processes. Many advice agencies have also found the process for appealing decisions more challenging and at the same time have struggled with a loss of funding.
In 2017, CPAG conducted interviews with 14 representatives from seven advice agencies in London in order to find out what they thought of the localisation of council tax benefit and the discretionary social fund, the expansion of discretionary housing payments (DHPs), and how these changes had affected their services. The interviews made clear just how essential it is for vulnerable people to be able to access the support that they so desperately need, yet localisation has made this more difficult in many cases.
Advice workers reported that residents had very low awareness of DHPs and local welfare assistance (LWA), even when they had already made contact with the council. Advice workers themselves found the system hard to navigate and application processes confusing. Some said that clients ended up destitute at food banks because of the difficulties they faced navigating the system and because of council delays in processing applications.
Some advice agencies even admitted giving up on local schemes and finding ‘workarounds’. In two separate local authority areas, advice agencies said that they no longer encouraged clients to make applications to LWA schemes, as the process was long and applications were rarely, if ever, successful. Instead, they would apply to local grant-giving charities.
Even local authorities themselves were sometimes not referring to their schemes. Some advice agencies found their clients were not aware that they could apply for a DHP, despite presenting to their local authority as having fallen into rent arrears as a result of benefit cuts.
Pressure on advice services was particularly acute when new schemes first started in 2013. Many advice workers said that, initially, local authority decision-making was poor in relation to LWA and that there were often problems with administration. However, many spoke positively about being involved in local authority-run welfare reform groups. This gave them the opportunity to get involved in the design and improvement of the schemes and inform local authority responses to welfare reform.
However, there were also examples of more antagonistic relationships between advice agencies and local authorities. This seemed to be particularly acute when a third party was involved, for example, an external organisation commissioned to deliver a LWA scheme. One advice agency said that initially the local LWA scheme administered by a third party awarded £100 of Argos vouchers for households that needed a sofa, when the cheapest Argos sofa costed £220.
Advice agencies also felt constrained in their ability to appeal decisions. Whereas the nationalised systems had an independent review function, in some cases local decisions were being reviewed by the same person that had made the initial decision. For council tax support, advice agencies had previously been able to challenge an award or query an overpayment of housing benefit and council tax benefit at the same time, but now there needed to be two separate appeals.
Finally, advice agencies reported that the splitting up of the different streams of crisis support (e.g. hardship payments, short term benefit advances and LWA) made it more likely that clients would be passed between different services, making the role of the advice sector even more important to prevent them from falling between the gaps.
CPAG is planning more work in this area. Please contact Alice Woudhuysen ([email protected]) for more information about our research carried out to date or to be notified of future research and campaigns.