This Thursday, the consultation on the Local Government Finance Settlement closes. This is the last chance for councils to have a say before their budgets for 2015-2016 are handed down from DCLG.
Within the settlement, funding for local welfare has been cut from around £180 million to £0.
Instead, £129 million has been ‘identified’ from within council’s budgets, which ministers say councils can use to maintain the schemes. This isn’t new money, it’s from the budgets council have to take other essential costs from.
A bit like a doctor refusing to give you a crutch when you’ve sprained your ankle, but pointing out that you could buy one from the money you need for painkillers.
And local welfare is just that for many people; a crutch to lean on in hard times. People who flee domestic violence or cannot afford nappies, or food for their children, are helped by local welfare schemes to get basic relief from acute hardship.
Why is this happening?
Well to be honest, it’s a bit of a mystery. Councils are screaming out for the money to keep these services going. The Local Government Association has called for additional grant funding to remain in place and suggests that the vast majority of councils will pare back their schemes, with some getting rid of them completely.
According to media reports, the Department for Communities and Local Government are in favour of some continued form of grant funding. Both Lib Dems and Conservatives from the department have been making the case for funding, including Secretary of State Eric Pickles.
As far as anyone can tell, this request for continued grant funding has been blocked at the Treasury by the Chancellor.
That’s quite a feat for such a relatively small pot of money.
The Chancellor presides over the UK’s £700+ billion annual spending. The fuel duty freeze, by way of comparison, may have cost the Treasury up to £6 billion a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal studies.
It’s perhaps surprising that motorists are worth giving a few pence a litre of their fuel but those facing destitution, through no fault of their own, might be given nothing.
So it’s also surprising we are seeing such a cut this close to the election. We know that senior Conservatives are haunted by the maxim of “the nasty party,” and that they’ve taken a bashing in recent months over things like the bedroom tax, and most recently benefit sanctions. Policies that were met with initial acceptance, if not support, have slowly sapped the credibility of welfare reforms as their impacts are felt.
Stories of people being penalised by the bedroom tax for being unable to move home or for being charged for a spare room containing dialysis equipment haunt this Government, as does rising concern about benefits sanctions.
It isn’t hard to imagine local welfare adding fuel to the flames is it?
Imagine your friend being abandoned by their husband and left in a property they cannot afford. They’re unable to keep up with the rent or mortgage, the support now available from the benefits system isn’t enough, and they start falling behind on payments. Then they face eviction and, because they have rent arrears, the council finds them intentionally homeless and refuses to rehouse them.
They are at rock-bottom.
Nothing but a list of private landlords in their hand (none of whom turn out to accept people on low incomes). No money for a deposit. No one to help. No money for food. How are they supposed to get back on their feet? What do they do then?
It’s hard to imagine what that must be like. But it’s not so hard to imagine the public outcry when we start to see the impact that removing this funding could have. People are increasingly nervous about spending cuts when the impact becomes apparent.
Pressing ahead with a cut most people probably won’t support and then waiting for the unpalatable case studies to turn up on the newspaper’s front pages as a result, looks increasingly counter-productive, if not bizarre.
Last time I asked whether people are worth the small amount of money local welfare costs to help them get back on their feet. The answer is simple; of course they are.
Instead, maybe the Government is weighing up whether cutting local welfare is worth the backlash?
I’m pretty sure it’s not.