Last week, the Government opened its new consultation on the funding for Local Welfare Assistance Schemes (LWAS). Admittedly, that doesn’t sound very exciting.
But don’t be fooled – because local welfare schemes are at risk, so the outcome of this consultation could become incredibly important to people in need.
In another life, LWAS was the Social Fund. Both have provided one-off assistance to people who fall on hard times. So when your fridge breaks, and you can barely keep up with the rent – let alone pay for a new fridge – you don’t have to choose between putting your family home at risk or feeding your children with food that might have gone off.
Crucially, these schemes provide welfare support nationwide, but can be used flexibly to meet the needs of people living locally. There isn’t anything else like it.
Without it people who suffer a setback could simply spiral into debt and homelessness again.
We know what happens when people can’t get help for basic goods – in our Sustain research into private renting we spoke to one mother whose children relied on bucket baths to wash, and another who couldn’t even keep milk cold.
We also know that the Social Fund has helped people living in the private rented sector to keep paying their rent when things have taken a turn for the worse.
So these schemes are important, but why is the funding being cut?
Well, it used to be funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, but in April 2013 they shifted responsibility to the Department for Communities and Local Government, who then left it to councils to deliver locally.
Importantly, the money still came from DWP; at least until they announced earlier this year that they weren’t going to fund the schemes beyond 2016.
This left DCLG high and dry and meant that councils – who have had to set up these schemes – have been given extra responsibility to carry on running them, but without the funding to match.
In the meantime, the Government were Judicially Reviewed by Child Poverty Action Group. Clearly nervous, the Government offered to review its decision through a consultation to settle the case, which CPAG accepted.
So there’s a proper consultation happening, right? Wrong.
The consultation “offers” three specific choices; no funding; no funding but suggestions on how much councils should spend; and no funding with ring fenced spending from elsewhere in councils’ budgets.
Let’s be clear, the funding has been cut in all of those options.
For 2013-14 and 2014-15 funding for LWAS was given to councils on top of their budgets but in each of the consultation options councils will be expected find the money from within their existing budgets.
Oh, and by the way their funding formula hasn’t been altered to take this into account, while their overall budgets for next year have shrunk by 13%.
There’s also an open ended fourth option, but if you want to suggest continued funding, you’re expected to cost it by proposing suggestions that wield the axe elsewhere.
So what we have is a consultation on whether to continue funding the schemes, where none of the three choices are continued funding.
There are three simple points to be made here.
The first is that this is a cut. Under current proposals, funding will be stopped. Councils’ funding formula remains unchanged; so even if councils are forced to ring fence money for the schemes, they will have to find savings elsewhere, and from even smaller budgets.
The second is that this cut needs to be challenged. These schemes are incredibly important and need to be continued; they help prevent homelessness and aid some of the most vulnerable people to access the basic goods we all take for granted.
So please respond to the consultation through our website and tell the government that they need to keep this funding in place.
The third is a wider point; when it comes to people’s homes, is this the way people expect important decisions to be made?
It is the funding equivalent of a cheap pavement shuffle cup trick; we knew where the funding was; we all followed it from place to place; we were teased with glimpses of future funding along the way; but, when we look inside the cup, it’s too late, the Government’s already made the switch.
Sadly, it’s a game where only the most vulnerable stand to lose.