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Crisis Loan Funding

Volume 546: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2012

I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate crisis loans and the changes to the social fund ushered in in the Welfare Reform Act 2012. My primary purpose in requesting today’s debate was not to rehearse arguments we have already had on the substance of those changes, although a number of issues remain unresolved and undoubtedly inform today’s debate, but to seek clarity from the Government about the implementation of the new system and assurances about the funding allocations accompanying the policy changes.

Although social fund crisis loans and community care grants will disappear from April next year, the need for emergency and one-off support for people on low incomes will not. We know that funding will be made available to local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales to provide discretionary social assistance, but we do not yet know how that will work in practice or how local authorities and devolved administrations are expected to deal with the shortfalls. Questions raised throughout the process on the merits of ring-fencing the social fund allocations remain acute. We need to know what guidance the Government will issue to support implementation and whether resources will be allocated to establish a replacement system.

In terms of contextualising our discussion this afternoon, it is worth drawing attention to the important role that social fund crisis loans and community care grants play in our welfare system. They act as a safety net for people on low incomes who face unexpected or unplanned costs and help people to acquire essential furniture or equipment if they are setting up home in very straitened circumstances.

As the debate about crisis loans progressed last year, the Government repeatedly relied on the argument that the cost of crisis loans was spiralling and needed to be brought under control. Back in March last year, I suggested to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that the rise in the uptake of such loans was largely attributable to the recession. Given the ongoing economic turbulence, financial insecurity and high unemployment of the past few years, that might seem to most of us to be a no-brainer, but the Secretary of State insisted that the cost of crisis loans was rising prior to the recession.

I am glad to have the opportunity this afternoon to scrutinise that claim in more depth. It is clear that there is a link between the rise in demand for crisis loans and the onset of the financial crisis. We should be honest enough to face up to that. Members who have followed the issue will be aware that the Department for Work and Pensions annual reports on the social fund have been published from 2006-07 onwards only. If we use 2006 as our pre-recession baseline, as the Government appear to have done, there is clearly a dramatic year-on-year increase in both the number of claimants and the amount spent on crisis loans as the recession began to bite.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on a very important subject. Underlining the point she makes, does not the DWP’s own research, “Local Support to Replace Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans for Living Expenses in England”, show that there is indeed a close correspondence between flows on to jobseeker’s allowance and the number of crisis loan applications?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a salient point, which backs up the point I am making.

I want to look back a little further, using information that had to be obtained from the Government under a freedom of information request by a non-profit company called Full Fact. Looking at that, we can see that, in reality, prior to 2006-07 and the start of the banking crisis, the amount spent on crisis loans was remarkably stable between 2000 and 2005-06. During that period, the gross amount spent on crisis loans did not fluctuate—up or down—by more than 5%, and spending dropped in 2003-04 and the following year. Although overall there was a slight upward trend prior to 2007, it would be misleading to compare that with the dramatic increase in applications and expenditure once people started to experience hardship, as work dried up and costs for basic foods and heating started to rise. I am concerned that we are still in that position and that we can expect demand to continue to rise for as long as the economic turmoil continues.

I am struck by briefings from Citizens Advice Scotland and others that outline the wide range of circumstances in which people try to access the social fund. Those seeking crisis loans and community care grants include people moving into independent living and those who need basic furniture to set up home after a family breakdown or a period of homelessness. They also include people with employment problems, those with complex benefits claims, who are caught in the quagmire of the system with no immediate source of money for food or heating until their claim is resolved, and those who incur unexpected travel costs due to the illness or hospitalisation of a close relative.

Those eligible for crisis loans face a wide range of circumstances, but what they all have in common are cash flow problems, compounded by an underlying low income. That is a temporary state of affairs for some, but some others, such as those who are disabled or have long-term health problems, have little financial resilience to deal with unexpected costs. They have limited means to absorb financial shocks, such as the cooker or fridge breaking down or the aftermath of exceptional events such as burst pipes or a break-in. Burst pipe problems came home to me in the past couple of very severe winters. People living in homes that are not well heated are often those who would particularly struggle if faced with having to redecorate or get a new carpet. Such events are not only a burden on those on very low incomes, but on anybody living on a modest income who has to count the pennies.

Does the hon. Lady share my despair at the report in The Guardian today and the series of reports that will come out this week? About 3.5 million families are one step away from disaster. They have no resources, no savings and are potential claimants of the social fund. The potential is enormous.

The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made. There are connections to be made across a wide range of policy agendas. His point is particularly important because it acknowledges that the prolonged economic stagnation we are experiencing has eroded the savings and assets of many, not only the unemployed or disabled. For the very poorest however, things have become a lot more precarious. I am sure that many MPs here today will have cases in their constituencies and can think of people who have been living an insecure, hand-to-mouth existence for some time, because work is so hard to find in the current circumstances.

The situation with crisis loans presents us with risks and challenges. Welfare organisations have expressed marked concerns about what will happen in practice when the social fund disappears. Their chief concerns relate to ring-fencing and whether set eligibility criteria and binding policy guidance will be attached to the funding allocations. They fear that without ring-fencing and clear guidance, big disparities could emerge in different parts of the UK and that, at a time of substantial cuts in the public sector, it will be all too easy for allocated funding to be absorbed into more general social work budgets or used to plug funding shortfalls elsewhere.

Those are legitimate, serious concerns. I hope that the Government will take the opportunity today to offer reassurance that they will put in place robust measures to ensure that there is good provision across the country and to prevent wide divergences emerging.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that without appropriate crisis loans many of our constituents in crisis will be left hostage to high-cost and illegal lending, which will lead them into greater disaster?

The hon. Gentleman makes a critical point and, incidentally, the Secretary of State has acknowledged that that is a risk.

The welfare system is different in Northern Ireland, where it is more fully devolved to the Assembly. I am conscious that a lot of my remarks today are not so pointedly directed there, but the general principle very much pertains. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, the risk of payday loans is real and causes untold misery in communities. MPs are presented with those stories, but are in many cases helpless. Once people are caught in a spiral of uncontrollable debt, it is difficult to get them out and reschedule those debts, particularly if they already have limited means. That is an issue for another day, but it is an important point that I hope I can come back to before I conclude my remarks.

I have some concerns about the way the changes will work in practice. We are less than 10 months from a substantial change to the welfare system, and it is not yet clear what resources will be available to the devolved Administrations and local authorities to help with set-up costs and administration associated with implementation, and whether those resources will be enough. I hope that the Minister will provide clarity about that this afternoon, and set out in more detail how the Government intend to proceed, and on what time scale. Given the substantial administration costs of the current arrangements, we must accept that there will be significant cost in setting up a new system. Local authorities and devolved Administrations need to be properly resourced to do that. I hope that a ministerial commitment will be set out today, with an explanation of what is being done and how far towards implementation the plans are.

A crucial underlying issue that cannot be ignored is the fact that, while demand for social fund support has risen dramatically since the start of the financial downturn, the budgets are not keeping pace with the growing need. For example, the community care grants budget has been frozen since 2005-06, so it has fallen in real terms in the past seven years. The 2012-13 community care grant budget in Scotland is 7% down on last year. I am sure that MPs, who work alongside their local authorities, will be aware of the increased strain on their budgets. I am sure I am not the only one who has met constituents who are waiting far too long for simple home adaptations or equipment that they could not otherwise afford, to enable them to live independently.

The budgetary constraints often prove to be a false economy. They put more pressure on local authority social services when they must step in with more intensive and usually more expensive interventions. The Government have made it clear that they aim to pull back crisis loan spending to its 2005-06 level, with the spend reduced from about £10 million in Scotland in 2009-10 to a projected £4.7 million in 2011-12. On the basis of the existing spend, that will create a funding gap in the region of £5 million to £10 million in Scotland alone next year. That is just one manifestation of problems that will arise in Scotland, England and Wales as the devolved Administrations and local authorities attempt to establish a fair and efficient way of distributing resources from a diminishing pot, against a background of increasing demand for support.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the real losers will be people on very low incomes who turn to unscrupulous lenders and loan sharks who charge eye-watering levels of interest for modest loans. Googling the words “crisis loans” results in the search engine bringing up a range of sites offering very high-interest loans. Those are listed well before the Government website that makes it clear how to get access to Government crisis loans. In fact, crisisloans.co.uk is the website of one such high-interest lender. I am concerned that those lenders of last resort are becoming lenders of first resort. Increasingly, they are the only way people can obtain the money they need just to keep going. That often gets people into a downward spiral, and means that they get caught in debt. How on earth can someone on a limited income who is paying back four-figure interest ever hope to meet such debt servicing? Even people on modest incomes—or quite high incomes—get into trouble with credit cards and find it difficult to live within their means. We must take responsibility for the alternatives if we do not get crisis loans right.

It is not in anyone’s interest if the system is not fit for purpose, or if there are wide disparities within it between different parts of the country or local authority areas. There is pressure on us all to prevent that, and to avoid the avoidable. The people we are discussing are not, for the most part, the ones who caused the economic problems that we face, but they are being asked to carry a disproportionate share of the responsibility for them, and take a disproportionate part of the pain. I look forward to hearing how the Minister intends to tackle the funding shortfalls and the implementation budget, in particular, and, more generally, how she hopes the system can be made to work.

I thank the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) for securing the debate and giving the Government the opportunity to consider some of the details she discussed. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh.

The hon. Lady rightly wants clarification about aspects of implementation, and I hope I can provide that. However, it is important to remind hon. Members of some of the reasons for the importance of reform. Clearly, some financial situations are incredibly difficult to plan for, particularly if a family is already struggling to make ends meet. Various pressures can affect different communities, from the flooding of homes, as happened in the recent storms, to the loss of the main breadwinner’s job, when there is a large family. It is important that the welfare state should have the flexibility to cope with the realities of people’s everyday lives, and the needs of different communities. That is the principle on which our reform is built.

For some, crisis loans have, as the hon. Lady pointed out, made a real difference in times of financial crisis. However, I remind the House that we are retaining the alignment payments that make up the majority of crisis loan payments. In future they will be called payments on account. In relation to the costs that the hon. Lady has been discussing, which arise in situations where people need support and, perhaps, lower-cost loans—or, in the case of budgeting payments on account, zero-cost loans—those payments will continue to be available. The change on which I want to focus the House’s attention is not to those alignment payments, which are the majority of crisis loan payments at the moment; it is to personal payments, which are a minority of crisis loans. It is important for the House to understand that; otherwise the discussion will be confusing.

It is important also to understand that demand for crisis loans has tripled in the past six years. That started well before the current economic downturn. Accordingly to the analysis that we have done, that is driven by young, single people on jobseeker’s allowance, many of whom are still living in their parents’ home. That was very out of kilter with trends in other parts of the benefits system, and that is why we felt it was important to take action. It is clear that for some the discretionary social fund had become something more akin to an open credit facility, with crisis loans and community care grants funding everyday expenditure and not being used to deal with the extraordinary financial pressures that, as the hon. Lady pointed out, were the original purpose of crisis loans. That has meant that availability for others, particularly pensioners, who might benefit from some additional support to smooth financial pressures, was not really considered. Some important groups were not necessarily getting access to the support that could have been helpful to them. Our reforms are intended to simplify the currently complex situation, improve targeting, and remove the element of remoteness that has crept into the system. I shall come on to that because it is important in relation to driving the increase in demand of recent years. We want to ensure that the support is focused on its main purpose, and that it gets to people who really need it.

The hon. Lady talked about the increase in demand among those who were going on to jobseeker’s allowance. In reforming the social fund we are doing two things, as I have pointed out, the first of which is maintaining the national payments of budgeting loans and advances of benefits, which make up more than 60% of the discretionary social fund. The change is in the flexible support. We want to get support to the most vulnerable people and enable them to have support at a local level when they most need it. We will ensure that that flexible support gets through to people via the local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. This new local provision will replace community care grants and crisis loans for living expenses.

For total clarity, we need to ensure that we see the difference between those two budgeting streams. Budgeting loans and advances for alignment payments will continue to be there, and they currently make up the lion’s share—some 60%. The change is in that flexible support, which can be better delivered at a local level. By putting in place such changes, we can improve the support that is available to people who find themselves in difficult situations.

The hon. Lady was rightly concerned about the people who are in financial crisis and who might be seeking short-term loans. As she pointed out, some organisations charge extortionate levels of interest to individuals who have little choice over where they borrow their money. Let me reassure her that the new system will provide no-interest loans to claimants who are suffering financial hardship, especially those who are waiting for their benefit payments. Such a scheme will be developed and delivered under the new universal credit system. Let me also reassure her that since 2011, we have invested more than £5 million in a crackdown on illegal lenders, which has resulted in a number of arrests. Hopefully, she will see that we are as serious as she is about the problems that those sorts of lenders can create for very vulnerable individuals.

Ultimately, these reforms will constitute part of the Government’s wider social justice strategy which will try to deal with some of the root causes of poverty while still maintaining a safety net for the most vulnerable in society.

Local authorities are well placed to provide personalised support. We feel strongly that what has happened in recent years, particularly as a result of changes that were made under the previous Administration, that the allocation of personal funding under the crisis loans scheme has become somewhat detached from communities and that it has been difficult to judge the claims. Councils’ local knowledge, broad responsibilities and experience of benefits administration put them in an ideal position successfully to take on the role of delivering the sort of support that is currently being delivered through community care grants and crisis loans.

Let me reiterate the question that I posed during my own remarks. Will the local authorities and devolved Administrations receive funding to help them implement and set up this new system? If so, how much and when will it come on stream?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that any administrative costs will be covered outside the budget that is there for supporting vulnerable individuals. I do not have the details of what those budgets will be, but I can write to her with that information.

We are working closely with the Scottish Government as we develop options for the successor scheme. They also agree that local authorities are best placed to deliver the new provision and have agreed with local authority leaders in Scotland that they will work with councils on the replacement scheme from April 2013.

On the Budget, the hon. Lady is right to ensure that funding is available. The Department for Work and Pensions’ current annual funding allocation of £178 million for the discretionary fund will be passed in full to the devolved Administrations and the local authorities. As I have said, any administrative costs will come on top of that.

The Department is basing the division of this £178 million allocation on the amount spent in 2012-13. It is important that the hon. Lady notes that because spend on the crisis loan element of the discretionary social fund is being managed back to 2005-06 levels—the levels before the significant increase that resulted in the change of process. We will be managing this particular aspect of the funding back to those sorts of levels.

As I have said, crisis loan awards have almost tripled since 2006. There were 1 million such loans in 2005 and 2.7 million in 2010. Such an increase can be directly linked to the structural changes that were introduced by the previous Government and not to the recession.

If the hon. Lady could let me finish this point it might help her understand why the changes were so large. We moved from a controlled administration of this benefit to a remote telephone application, which allowed people to push up their number of claims. Claimants were not seen and their cases were not properly known about, which made it difficult to decide whether the loans were accurate or needed. Local areas will be far better able to recognise who requires this support, what conditions they are in and what circumstances apply to them. Localising the process will be a very important part of ensuring that money is getting to people who need it the most.

I take on board the Minister’s argument, which I have heard from the Government many times before. However, I just do not accept that this is about process. Evidence that was found through a freedom of information request showed that the spending prior to that had remained remarkably stable. It really was not fluctuating. It went up one year and down another year. I am no economist, but I cannot help thinking that it has more to do with the state of the wider economy than with the change of the telephone system. I wish the Government would be more honest in facing up to that.

The hon. Lady needs to accept that if we open up the benefit gateway in such a way as to make it difficult to manage or police, it is entirely unsurprising if we see a significant increase in the level of demand. I take her back to one of my earlier comments about the nature of that increase. It is among a very distinct and particular set of people. It is not at all representative of any increase or changes in the nature of those claiming benefits in total.

In 2011, some 17,000 people received 10 or more crisis loans in a 12-month period. Crisis loans are about preventing serious risks to health or safety or about an emergency. Is it entirely possible that an individual could be in such serious risk and danger over such a prolonged period of time? The hon. Lady must agree that some urgent change is required here. As this is cash limited, any shortfall that is created would have had to be met from the budgeting loan scheme, which would have meant less money for those people who were trying to regulate their borrowing in a responsible way.

In the time that remains, will the Minister address another important point that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) raised about what safeguards there will be to ensure that vulnerable people who need this support actually get it from local authorities and that other local pressures do not absorb the money?

The right hon. Gentleman neatly brings me on to my next point. Although there is no need for any new statutory duties on local authorities and the money will not be ring-fenced, the money will be sent out via a specific identifiable grant and it will be accompanied by a settlement letter that will set out what the funding will be used for and the underlying principles, and it will describe the outcomes that must be achieved. The funding will concentrate on providing resources for those facing the greatest difficulty in managing their income and it will enable more flexible responses at a local level. The letter will be explicit that the funding is to provide a replacement provision for community care grants and general living expense crisis loans. It will set out the sort of detail that the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady are looking for to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society get the support that they need.