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Household Support Fund

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Household Support Fund; and what plans they have for (1) the future of the fund, and (2) the role of local crisis support generally.

My Lords, an evaluation of the current household support fund scheme is under way to better understand the impact of the funding. The current household support fund runs until the end of March 2024, and the Government continue to keep all their existing programmes under review. Councils continue to have the flexibility to use funding from the local government finance settlement to provide local welfare assistance. As with all government policies, this remains under review.

My Lords, the discretionary household support fund has acted as a vital lifeline come sticking plaster, filling some of the holes in our totally inadequate social security safety net. If, as is feared, the sticking plaster is torn off from April—just two months away—it will leave and deepen a gaping wound of dire hardship. Will the Minister therefore convey to the Chancellor the urgency of the calls from local authorities and civil society groups for the fund to continue for at least a year, followed by a proper long-term strategy for local crisis support in place of last-minute, ad hoc funding decisions?

I will certainly convey the noble Baroness’s entreaties on that front. I am the first to be aware that the Government recognise that pressures remain on certain household budgets. The household support fund primarily includes help with food and energy bills but also support for other household essentials and bills, such as broadband or phone bills, clothing and essential transport-related costs. On average, households in the poorest income deciles are gaining the most in cash terms as a percentage of net income in 2023-2024 as a result of this Governments’ policies announced in the Autumn Statement of 2022.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister stated that an evaluation is under way to better understand the impact of the household support fund. Does he agree that the scheme is allocated fairly to local authorities, and, importantly, who decides where funds are targeted?

I can reassure the House that allocations are targeted fairly and proportionally on the basis of population, weighted by the index of multiple deprivation. The distribution of funding is targeted at the areas of the country with the most vulnerable households. This ensures that funding proportionally reaches those areas in England with the most need. It is for each local council to decide, as my noble friend may know, where and when they distribute their funding, within the parameters of the fund’s terms and conditions.

My Lords, the term “impact assessment” has been used by other speakers. I am sure that the Government have carried out impact assessments of what will happen if this fund is removed or reduced. Can the Minister tell the House how much funding will remain available to local authorities for discretionary local welfare assistance should the household support fund be reduced or discontinued? The idea is that it will come out in the wash, more or less, as the Minister says, but we want to know in advance what the situation will be. For instance, is there an estimate in the Minister’s file of the number of children in England who will no longer be eligible for free school meals during the school holidays once the household support fund is ended or reduced?

To date, over £2 billion-worth of support has been allocated to local authorities in England via the household support fund to support those most in need. As I said, it is up to local councils to decide how it is disbursed. Local authorities in England are funded through the finance settlement to deliver local welfare provision.

My Lords, it would be deception of the worst order if the Government were to announce, as they have over the last few days, a £600 million uplift to upper-tier local authorities only then, a few days later, to pull the plug on £2 billion. The £10 million that goes to Sheffield has been crucial in maintaining the well-being of thousands of children. I appeal to the Minister to go back to his colleagues and ensure that there is no duplicity and that the most vulnerable can continue to get help from 1 April.

I hope I can provide some further reassurance to the House and to the noble Lord. He will know that the Government have announced initial measures for local authorities in England worth £600 million. This includes £500 million for new funding for councils with responsibility for adult and children’s social care, distributed through the social care grant.

My Lords, what discussion have the Government had with local authorities about sustaining a local crisis support service, given that the majority of the funding is about to vanish in March with the household support fund?

I alluded earlier to the fact that we were undertaking an evaluation of the household support fund; the HSF4 scheme is under way, which will seek to understand the delivery and impact of the HSF4 funding provided to local authorities. We expected this to be completed in the summer, so I hope that this answers the noble Baroness’s question.

My Lords, groups such as those with English as an additional language and disabled people face higher barriers to accessing local crisis support. Will the Government in their evaluation consider the strategies that are in place, or could be put in place, to ensure that those who face barriers can access local crisis support?

Absolutely. That is a very good point, because local authorities have the funding and the autonomy to decide how it is directed. The government guidance is that the most vulnerable must be targeted first. I think the categories the right reverend Prelate has raised would fit into that area.

My Lords, I would like to return to my noble friend’s original Question about the temporary sticking-plaster measures. Decisions made at the last minute are not a substitute for a proper social security system that offers families a safety net in difficult circumstances. I want to ask the Minister about the plan, beyond the decision about the household support fund, which will come very late for families and local authorities. How will the Government ensure proper stability and security for families during difficult circumstances?

I have outlined some of the measures. Perhaps the noble Baroness is alluding to the benefit cap, which we always keep an eye on. We believe that this provides a very strong work incentive and fairness for hard-working, tax-paying households and encourages people to move into work where possible. I reassure the noble Baroness that we are keeping that under review. The Secretary of State is not minded to review the levels, as there is no statutory obligation to do so. There was a significant increase, as the noble Baroness will know, following the review in November 2022.

My Lords, the house- hold support fund has given a lot of help to vulnerable families, not least unpaid carers. I very much hope it will be possible to continue it. However, if the resources are not there, could my noble friend consider some sort of tapering, rather than a sharp cut-off at the end of March?

My noble friend is right that we should continue to recognise the important role that unpaid carers play around the country. Our guidance asks that local authorities consider the needs of various households, including unpaid carers. The Government have increased carer’s allowance by around £1,200 a year since 2010-11.

Will this evaluation include full consultation and discussions with the charity and voluntary sector, which, after all, understands very well the impact that reducing or removing this fund would have? That sector will be at the front line of picking up the problems should it be removed.

I will need to check, but I feel certain that that will be the case. I will write to the noble Baroness if I am wrong. It is a very good point.

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend Lord Blunkett, the Minister mentioned the £600 million recently announced for local councils. My noble friend suggested that, even when Sheffield has its allocation of that money, it will still not be enough and will not provide the desperately needed assistance that clearly comes at the moment from the household support fund. How do the Government think that local councils will be able to provide the sort of support that the household support fund gives if it is not there?

Fairness should be at the heart of this. I reassure the noble Baroness that we are providing support to households, directly and indirectly, to help with the high cost of living, worth around £104 billion over 2022-23 and 2024-25. This includes raising working-age benefits by 6.7% and state pensions by 8.5% from April next year.