Does local discretion on social security deliver ‘localism in action’ or a postcode lottery? That’s one of the questions being asked by the Commons Work and Pensions select committee in looking at the interaction between the national benefits system and locally-run schemes.
It has just published nearly 50 responses from local authorities, national charities and others to its recent inquiry into local welfare assistance, localised council tax support and discretionary housing payments.
Our submission to the inquiry points out that the record of localisation of social security in recent years has been patchy. While it has encouraged some progress on some issues in some areas, there’s been an overall weakening of support more generally. National duties have been disbanded without imposing any equivalent local duties. The government has given local councils the freedom to decide how to meet local residents’ needs at the same time as it has cut council funding. Inevitably, this has made some significant holes in the safety net.
The responses from local authorities understandably put their local schemes in a favourable light and tend to welcome localisation in principle. For example, Suffolk County Council reports how it has worked with partner organisations from the start in 2013: the partners act as gateways, are involved in monitoring and have a sense of ownership. In the main, they already work with the people who need local welfare assistance, which means they are more likely to have an open and honest conversation about what the applicant really needs. Decision-making and administration are quicker than under the old DWP system.
Responses from other charities reinforce CPAG’s submission. For example, Peabody housing association reports that a client who needed a cooker couldn’t get a payment because there hadn’t been a “crisis”, so they bought a mini barbeque set which caused a fire. The fire damage cost far more than a cooker would have cost to the local welfare scheme.
Homeless Link, while recognising that many councils have embraced new powers to work with the voluntary sector, also reports complex bureaucracies that tend to exclude vulnerable people. Nearly half of the clients of homelessness agencies in 97 local authority areas found the new schemes less accessible than the old DWP system (a fifth said it remained roughly the same), according to a 2015 survey by Homeless Link.
Where next for local welfare assistance?
The government spending review is imminent. The Treasury will announce its settlement for local authorities shortly afterwards, which will give some indication as to what the funding for local welfare assistance schemes (LWAS) will be for 2016/2017.
It was only after significant campaigning and a judicial review that government provided an additional £74m in funding towards these schemes last year. So, further tightening of the screw on local government funding may see local welfare assistance schemes targeted again.
It’s true that charitable foundations, furniture projects and other voluntary sector interventions, like foodbanks, may catch some people, but the bigger truth is that fresh funding cuts, coupled with local variation in practice, will mean many more vulnerable people falling through the safety net.
 Local welfare assistance is the range of locally-run schemes which have replaced elements of Department for Work and Pensions' discretionary Social Fund. Discretionary Housing Payments are available where a claimant’s Housing Benefit is insufficient to pay their rent.