Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Government to undertake a review of the adequacy of local welfare assistance schemes provided by local authorities.
This Bill would require local councils to publicise their local welfare assistance schemes and account for how they have spent the money allocated to them. It would require the Government to provide support and guidance to councils on best practice, eligibility criteria and scheme design, and would review the impact of the pandemic on the sufficiency of schemes.
Local authorities, as we all know, play a key role in providing a local welfare safety net, and they have made a superhuman effort in recent months during the pandemic to make this a success. They are well placed for this role; they already have existing financial relationships with their residents, such as through council tax collection, and they have a wealth of data about those residents. Combined with other forms of financial support that they provide through council tax reduction schemes and discretionary housing payments, a well-funded and administrated local welfare assistance scheme means that local authorities can act as a first point of call for individuals in need. By running an effective scheme, they can also act as a central hub for signposting to voluntary sector organisations that can offer additional support.
We must note the scale of need at the moment, even before the pandemic. With so many in often unfurnished private rented properties, it is no wonder that more than 1 million people are lacking a cooker, fridge freezer or washing machine. It is also no wonder that so many find themselves turning to food banks and other forms of emergency food aid. Many of those being helped are people experiencing sudden, unexpected and traumatic change in their daily lives; some are fleeing domestic violence, whereas there are others whose financial precariousness sees them quickly lose both job and accommodation, with many finding themselves in communities with high levels of transience and insecure tenancies.
Let us think about some of the underlying statistics: low-income families have an average of only £95 in savings; and some 40% of those aged 20 to 29 have no savings at all. These sorts of situations reinforce the so-called “poverty premium”—that is a phrase I dislike—which is increasingly prevalent. For example, where someone has no cooker it may mean that they spend more on costly takeaway meals if they are “time poor”. Having no washing machine might mean someone paying £4 down the launderette, and £3 for the dryer, rather than 25p for an average home wash. Local welfare assistance schemes, importantly, offer timely support, but it should be a wider challenge to policymakers to find ways to incentivise small or even tiny amounts of saving to improve financial resilience over time.
The Government have recognised the value of local support for families and individuals facing a financial crisis during the covid-19 pandemic. The £63 million emergency assistance grant over the summer and the £170 million covid winter grant scheme, which ends in the spring, have enabled local authorities to scale up their offer in response to increased demand. The short-term funding has been a welcome boost to council provision, although the effectiveness of delivery has probably been dependent, to some degree, on the existing mechanisms authorities had in place prior to covid-19; there is some evidence in respect of local authorities that already had a robust LWAS in place. There has already been a commitment to review this, and the Government need to make sure they publish their emergency assistance grant review as soon as possible, to make a helpful contribution to understanding the effectiveness of local welfare provision as a whole.
Political debate often focuses on the adequacy of Government funding, and much argument occurred over the replacement of the social fund in 2013. Views will differ across the House on the adequacy or otherwise of the £120 million allocated under the most recent local government funding settlement, but I hope we can find some consensus on the fact that it is worrying that, as charity Turn2us has found, only 39% of what has been allocated has been spent on the intended purpose of providing local welfare assistance. The Children’s Society found that, pre-pandemic, 23 of 157 upper tier local authorities no longer ran LWAS; a further 16 spent less than 10% of what was allocated to them; and only six operated the full wraparound service that represents best practice—I do, however, suspect that more will do so now, post-pandemic.
If ring-fencing is not Government policy any more, there should at least be transparency and accountability as to how councils choose to spend the money allocated to them for this purpose. Without that, it is hard to assess the adequacy or otherwise of government spending. There needs to be much clearer guidance on what best practice looks like. There should be a focus on how schemes are promoted, with a simple pathway to help that is not dependent solely on access to IT, or restricted by onerous residency requirements that deter those fleeing domestic violence, for example, or an obligation to exhaust all other charitable means of support first, which builds delay into what is already a household emergency. There needs to be better co-ordination with third sector bodies, which may provide many similar services, so as to avoid unnecessary duplication. That would also improve support for individuals and families through better joint working that focuses on crisis prevention rather than intervention after the fact, which is just what we do here in Blackpool. We should not dismiss cash as a potential solution, even if vouchers or other restrictive payment mechanisms somehow seem easier for providers. Better data collection and monitoring would then help the Department for Work and Pensions properly understand levels of actual need and better target funding.
We need clearer advice, best practice and guidance from the Department to share with local authorities, but we also need better co-ordination among third sector funders to exploit economies of scale and start to build strong links with local government and to forge corporate partnerships to deliver those economies of scale that will make the funding go as far as it possibly can. From professional bodies such as Perennial, who care for those in the horticultural sector, and religious groups such as St Vincent de Paul or Quaker Social Action home care, to very local groups such as the Foxton Dispensary and the Blackpool Ladies’ Sick Poor Association in my own area, there are myriad providers out there. The Association of Charitable Organisations counts some 800 in this field alone. The overlapping tapestry of voluntary support is highly creditable to our nation’s sense of collective endeavour, but together they can achieve so much more as part of a wraparound best practice model that in turn reduces longer-term costs for councils and social housing providers.
I know that the Minister is not present, but I hope that he may see a copy of the speech at some point, and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss his plans for the future of local welfare assistance services. I am grateful for the assistance of Turn2Us, in particular, in having thought up the detail of this proposal, but also to the Child Poverty Action Group, the Children’s Society and the Local Government Association, whose quantitative research has formed a compelling evidence base on the issue.
I am sure that all Members across the House can cite examples in their constituencies of families and individuals who, in the current crisis, have been confronted by unexpected challenges in which caseworkers have had to work amazingly hard to find solutions that work for them. An effective network of local welfare assistance schemes should be one of many legacies that emerge from this time of national emergency as we seek to build back better.
I have been given no indication that anybody intends to oppose the ten-minute rule Bill, so I intend to put the question.
Question put and agreed to.
That Paul Maynard, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Stephen Timms, Robert Halfon, Caroline Lucas, Peter Aldous, Jason McCartney, Andrew Selous, Gary Sambrook and Simon Fell present the Bill.
Paul Maynard accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 251).