Councils warn against scrapping emergency welfare fund

Published on Monday, 24 February 2014 09:34
Written by Govtoday staff

The scrapping of a government fund used by councils to provide emergency support will make it increasingly difficult to help vulnerable people facing short-term crises, local authorities are warning.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England and Wales, is calling for government to rethink its decision to scrap the £347m local welfare assistance fund.

Councils are concerned that the withdrawal of government funding for local emergency support schemes may leave some areas unable to afford to help out families in crisis. This could lead to short-term problems escalating. Overall funding for local government has been cut by more than 40% over the course of this parliament.

The local welfare assistance fund is currently used by local authorities to give emergency and financial help to people facing crisis situations, including families under the threat of homelessness or domestic abuse. It has paid for food vouchers for people struggling to afford to eat and basic household essentials.

Councils have also been proactively targeting support at people and groups where short-term help is likely to prevent longer-term problems. For instance, some councils are working with the prison service to improve the transition from prison back into the community and reduce the risk of re-offending.

The local welfare assistance fund was introduced in 2013 to replace government-provided crisis loans, with each local authority area allocated money from the £347m total. This year's local government finance settlement revealed that government funding would not be renewed in 2015.

Councils have expressed "extreme disappointment" that government has gone back on an earlier promise to consult on the effectiveness of the scheme before making a decision about its future.

LGA chairman Sir Merrick Cockell said: "This fund has been used by councils to provide crucial support to people facing personal crises in their lives, from help paying the rent to putting food on the table. By helping people at an early stage and targeting support at where it is needed most, we have been able to give essential support in people's time of need and prevent short-term problems escalating.

"It is extremely disappointing that government has removed the funding for this safety net without first honouring its promise to discuss with councils what the consequence of such a move might be.

"Early indications suggest that this scheme is working well, and has been far more effective at getting support to those most in need than the government crisis loans scheme which it replaced.

"Local authorities are working hard to support the most vulnerable in society while managing the biggest cuts in living memory to funding for services. For some councils, providing crisis payments to those in need from local service budgets is likely to be a stretch too far.

"We urge government to work with the LGA and councils to review the fund with an open mind about its future."

Examples of how the local welfare assistance fund is being used across the country include:

  • In Portsmouth the LWA scheme has made a total of 533 awards for the period 02/04/13 to 17/01/14. Around 75% of awards have been made in order to: improve living conditions to enable someone to remain in their home; resettle into more suitable accommodation; or meet needs caused by domestic abuse.
  • The Surrey LWA scheme has helped more than 1,500 Surrey residents including families forced out of their homes during the winter 2014 floods who were assisted with food, clothing and utilities as well as new bedding.
  • In Lambeth, the LWA scheme has allowed the council to support people with the process and costs of moving house in response to the benefit cap and spare room subsidy which has affected around 4,400 households in Lambeth. They say that the LWA funding has been invaluable in supporting their efforts to prevent families becoming homeless.
  • Brighton and Hove City Council operates a scheme of payment for prisoners at the point of release to provide some initial support for basic needs and minimise the risk of reoffending. The scheme was designed with HMP Lewes and has been standardised and coordinated with neighbouring authorities so prisoners are treated the same even if they return to different local authorities.

Source: LGA

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