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Local Welfare Assistance

Volume 787: debated on Monday 11 December 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the effectiveness of local welfare assistance schemes in meeting need.

My Lords, since 2013 we have given local authorities the flexibility to develop their own local emergency provision for people in their areas. Local authorities are best placed to design and target this discretionary support, alongside their own local services, ensuring it reaches those who need it most at the right time.

Ah, my Lords, the Pontius Pilate response. When the Government devolved crisis and community care support from the Social Fund to local authorities, they placed no duties on the authorities and refused to ring-fence the money. According to the Centre for Responsible Credit, about one in six authorities has abolished its scheme altogether, and many more have cut them back drastically, leading to some people facing destitution for lengthy periods. Will the Government now therefore accept, in the words of the Work and Pensions Committee, that they maintain,

“an ongoing obligation to ensure provision of a safety net which prevents vulnerable people from falling into severe hardship”,

starting with an urgent evaluation of what is now the final safety net?

My Lords, it is important to say that the national welfare system provides robust safeguards. These include: short-term benefit advances or universal credit advances for people in urgent financial need; Social Fund budgeting loans or universal credit budgeting advances to help with one-off and unforeseen expenses; and hardship payments for people who are sanctioned. But by abolishing the Social Fund crisis loans, which themselves had huge problems, we have now empowered local authorities to develop and deliver new provision to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people in their local communities.

My Lords, does the Minister think that it is irresponsible to delegate powers to local authorities and at the same time savage their budgets so that they cannot meet those responsibilities?

No, my Lords. The Government believe that councils are best placed to decide how to support local welfare needs. Local authorities in England will receive more than £200 billion to deliver those and other community services between this year and 2019-20, and will have the certainty to plan ahead through our four-year funding settlement.

According to the report from the Centre for Responsible Credit, in one year, my own city of Portsmouth has reduced the amount it spends on welfare assistance from £700,000 to £30,000. Do the Government intend to review the impact of these sorts of changes? If not, why not?

It is important that I stress again that, under the national system, there are strong safeguards in place. We expect local authorities to concentrate the funding on those facing the greatest difficulty in managing their income and to enable a more flexible response to an unavoidable need, perhaps through a mix of cash or goods and aligning with the wider range of local support that local authorities’ devolved administrations already offer. In short, the funding is to allow them to give flexible help to those in genuine need.

The noble Baroness says that local authorities are best placed and they have £200 billion. Will she confirm that the Government have cut funding for local authorities by some 40% since 2010?

My Lords, perhaps I could quote the Local Government Association’s own study:

“Councils have managed the available budget effectively; reduced the potential for abuse, and created schemes which better meet the underlying needs of applicants and reduce repeat demand. This has enabled them to provide vital, timely support to some of their most vulnerable and deprived residents”.

My Lords, I still have not heard how those authorities that have abolished their schemes are going to meet the needs that the noble Baroness referred to. As she herself said, these are some of the most vulnerable people. There are 26 local authorities where there is no scheme that can meet those needs.

My Lords, the noble Baroness had already referenced the issue of ring-fencing. Government policy is not to ring-fence amounts in the local government finance settlement, as local councils are the best judge of needs and priorities within their areas. As I have already said, local authorities are in receipt of £200 billion. Part of that is to fund these emergency services, in addition to the safety net that we provide at national level.

My Lords, although recognising the tremendous work of local authorities to rise to the challenge, I have concerns which I hope the Minister shares. I listened to a very experienced, long-time child and family social worker in one of the committee rooms here two months ago. He expressed concerns about all the ancillary services being cut back for families, as the statutory services just about hold out. As these are cut, more and more children come into care, and more and more families are at risk of breaking down, so it is a very difficult situation. Of course the Government are doing important work to address these things, but we cannot deny that this is a huge challenge and is harming many people in this country.

My Lords, what the noble Earl has said about family breakdown and what this leads to is quite right. Indeed, that is why we have a strong focus now on the family parental conflict programme, to which we will be contributing £30 million in the coming two years. We have also invested up to £200 million in universal support, which provides budgeting advice and digital support to claimants, delivered by local authorities. This support is tailored to local needs and our work coaches, who gauge claimants’ financial needs from their first interview. We are doing a variety of things to help people at a local level. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, shakes his head, but we are doing an awful lot more than his Government ever achieved. I am proud of what we are doing.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness please have another go at answering the question put to her by my noble friend Lord Howarth? Can she confirm that local authority budgets have been cut by 40%, and if she cannot, what figure does she think is the right one? Can she further say whether she thinks that—if that figure or anything like it is correct—it is at all likely that there has been no major impact on services that were previously provided?

My Lords, it is a great shame that under the Labour Government so much taxpayers’ money was wasted, leaving our local councils bereft of funds. We have worked hard to ensure that there are emergency provisions in place. Although there may be cuts to local authorities, we are ensuring that there is proper provision, but we are leaving it to local authorities to decide the best way to provide for the needs that people have at local level.