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Years of cuts leaves councils unable to help families in crisis

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Long term and sustained cuts to local emergency support schemes are leaving families, especially those affected by the coronavirus, with nowhere to turn in a financial crisis, says a leading children’s charity.

New research by The Children’s Society has found spending on schemes, designed to support to those facing financial crisis, has fallen by 86% (£250m). In 2010/11 £291 million was spent on crisis provision through the nationally administered Discretionary Social Fund, compared to just £41 million in 2018/19 on the replacement Local Welfare Assistance schemes.

Local Welfare Assistance was first introduced in 2013 after elements of the Discretionary Social Fund were scrapped by the government. The scheme offers emergency support to families in crisis, some hand out one off cash grants, food or shopping vouchers or white goods if needed. The current pandemic has highlighted just how essential they are.

However, the charity’s analysis found that around 63% of councils reduced their spending on welfare assistance between 2015/16 and 2018/19. Of those, more than 1 in 3 decreased spending by more than 50%.

These reductions are the result of a combination of issues – from a total lack of guidance from the government on how to deliver an effective scheme of assistance; the absence of a legal requirement to deliver this type of service; no ring-fenced funding; and most importantly, huge reductions in overall funding made available to Local Authorities by central Government.

The Children’s Society asked authorities what their budget for local welfare provision was for 2019/20, of those councils that provided data, 13 councils reported that they did not have a specific budget, which is an increase from seven councils in 2018/19.

The current coronavirus crisis is having a devastating effect on family incomes, meaning more people are turning to their councils for support. However, before the virus the number of successful awards from councils to residents had steadily fallen. In 2012/13, the final year of the previous nationally administered Discretionary Social Fund, 737,430 awards were made. Following the introduction of local welfare assistance, awards fell dramatically. The Children’s Society analysis found that in 2015/16, when 207,530 awards were made. While in 2018/19, just 183,693 awards were given out.

The Children’s Society warns that even before Covid-19, decreases in support available were extremely worrying, faced with the current crisis, it is absolutely vital that more is done to protect welfare schemes.

In coalition with several partners, The Children’s Society runs a programme called Community Crisis Support (CCS). The project is working to improve how councils and voluntary organisations collaborate to deliver a more cohesive system of emergency support. Since the crisis began the charity has heard that a number of councils have seen a huge increase in applications to welfare schemes and many are doing some all they can to help those financially struggling.

One council, working as part of the CCS programme, received 670 applications in April 2020, compared to 172 in April 2019 – a rise of just under 75%. Another reported that their scheme has seen a 164% increase in applications over the first seven weeks of the pandemic. Between 16th March and 27th April the scheme made 3,923 urgent needs awards and spent an additional £212,000 compared to the same period in 2019.

Councils are also working to shorten and simplify the application process, while others are investing more and increasing the amount of cash they give out.

The Children’s Society, The Trussell Trust and a number of other poverty relief organisations, are calling on the government to allocate an extra £275 million to local authorities so they can provide robust and well-resourced welfare assistant schemes. Detailed guidance should also be given to support the effective use of the money, so that local authorities can quickly provide crisis grants to vulnerable families.

Mark Russell, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said:

“The coronavirus crisis is likely to have a devastating financial impact for many families for months or even years to come. Without savings to fall back on, this virus could leave them unable to feed and clothe their children, heat their home or pay rent. Local welfare assistance must be there to help in these circumstances, but its erosion has meant too many people are left with nowhere to turn.

“While the recent hardship fund from the government is welcome, once used for council tax relief it is unlikely there will be enough to allow councils to rebuild the welfare support that is needed. Without more urgent investment vulnerable households will be left to fall through the cracks.”

The Trussell Trust’s chief executive Emma Revie said:

“The coronavirus pandemic has shown we must come together to protect each other against the unexpected. An economic crisis is sweeping towards us – but we don’t all have lifeboats. It’s not right that as a result some of us don’t have enough money for essentials and are being pushed into poverty. That is why we are calling for funding that would allow local authorities in England to provide emergency cash grants to get money into people’s pockets quickly. This is one of a range of vital steps we believe the Government should be taking at this time. We have the power to come together as a country and make sure support is there to stop any of us being swept into poverty during this emergency.”

Cllr Jane Corbett, Liverpool’s Assistant Mayor for Fairness and Tackling Poverty said:

“The Government’s long-term and systematic dismantling of Council funding, particularly in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, has severely hindered local authorities’ ability to continue to respond to households in desperate need of support. Government withdrew all targeted funding for Councils’ local welfare schemes in 2015.

Liverpool is a city that believes in fairness, so even with budget cuts of 63%, we committed to continue our scheme, determined to keep supporting our citizens struggling to make ends meet. The Liverpool Citizens Support Scheme is both highly efficient and effective, but along with many others this Council has reached the financial cliff edge; our scheme is now unsustainable.

The Government must provide targeted funding for Councils’ local welfare schemes as a matter of extreme urgency. These are very dangerous times and the Government has promised to ‘do everything it takes’ to get us all through, including our children. We therefore support The Children’s Society’s call for the Government to invest in Councils’ local welfare schemes.”

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