Local Welfare Assistance: How much are people worth?

Imagine for a minute that you’re 74 years old, and you’ve fled your abusive partner after decades of cruelty. Now imagine, finding a flat but having no money for a mattress, a bed, and no cooker or pans.

Sadly, Shelter has helped someone who didn’t have to imagine. For her, starting again was so hard that at one point she nearly went back to her husband.

Through local welfare this woman was given £900 for basic items which helped her to start a new life. Crucially, this meant she didn’t live in squalor and could rebuild her life with dignity, which helped her keep her resolve to leave her abusive husband. 

£900 to help someone in desperate need? Not a lot is it?

Across the country, Local Welfare funding totals just £178 million of the £700+ billion the Government spends every year. A fraction of the £1 billion the Government decided it didn’t need when it froze fuel duty. So really, for local welfare, we’re looking at a pittance for the Treasury.

But yesterday, the Government decided that beyond 2015 these people may no longer be worth their money and that a small investment to help people rebuild their lives cannot be justified; they plan to go ahead with cutting the local welfare budget in its entirety.

The government said that’s ok because there is now “separately identifiable funding” of £130 million so councils can fund them if they want.

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad does it?

Except, of course, this money isn’t extra funding; it’s from council’s existing budgets, and isn’t ring-fenced either, so it might never get to those in need.

Oh, and they also announced today that those very same council budgets have shrunk again too. So there is no money from government specifically for local welfare, and councils have less money in their budgets to fund schemes, assuming they wanted to. We already know that the LGA have warned 75% of councils will scale them back and some will cut them completely if this happens.

Sadly, this announcement comes following months of wrangling and a hard-won consultation on local welfare funding. We had 4,000 supporters respond to the consultation and our submission included cases  where the funding had helped people escape domestic violence, such as the woman leaving her husband after decades of cruelty.

Bizarrely, we found out today that the government will not respond to that consultation until February. But guess what’s also happening then? Yep, that’s when today’s announcements on the cuts are due to be finalised.

Now, when there is a Local Government Finance Settlement there is also an accompanying consultation where they ask for views on announcements. This happens every year, but strangely this time, there is an explicit reference to local welfare where the responses for all announcements are generally encouraged – no other announcement is mentioned (although of course there are questions on them).

So it’s not hard to imagine that there is something strange going on here. But is this just a stay of execution?

In the final hours before the finance settlement was agreed, there was a much rumoured split inside the Government – and not the usual coalition wrangling either.

With councils and charities screaming about the loss of funding, DCLG, including Secretary of State Eric Pickles, appeared to favour keeping the extra funding in line with recent spending (£70 million or so).

However, according to the media, this was seemingly blocked at the Treasury by the Chancellor George Osborne, despite endorsement from Chief Secretary Danny Alexander.

So we now have a pot of money that has been cut – unless miraculously revived in February – a delayed consultation response, a new strange consultation, an inter-departmental split, and a coalition split.

And all for a fraction of welfare spending for those is desperate need.

The big question now is whether DCLG and, increasingly, the Treasury see the value of helping those in immediate need and retain a decent level of additional funding for councils.

Shelter exists to ensure no one has to fight bad housing or homelessness on their own; it is our job to tell the stories of those who are worth every penny of help.