Local Welfare: Last Chance Saloon

After almost a year of wrangling, the final decision on local welfare funding is about to be made. All consultations are now closed, a decision is imminent and things don’t look good.

Local welfare has ended up in the last chance saloon.

The whole sorry saga almost defies belief; a departmental stitch up, a coalition split, a judicial review, a ministerial stand-off, numerous disingenuous consultations, and a smoke and mirrors “identified” funding trick. A plot with more twists than a spaghetti western.

But amid the farce, the potential impacts of cutting the schemes are far more serious.

In Sheffield, for example, Shelter helped a pregnant client move into a new property after she had become homeless. However, when we visited to see how she was getting on she was 4 weeks away from having her baby, sitting on a box in an empty room.

The client was in despair, as she had nowhere to sit or sleep, nothing to eat with and nothing at all for the imminent arrival of her baby. The council were even considering placing the baby in temporary care until the property was fit to be lived in.

Shelter supported her to obtain a grant from a local welfare scheme and she was awarded £400. With this, we were able to help her source a second hand sofa, bed, coffee table, kitchen crockery and cutlery, and curtains, before the baby was born; keeping mother and child together.

A lack of furniture can be prohibitive to vulnerable clients taking up a tenancy, or lead to clients abandoning tenancies, risking continued or repeat homelessness. Without local welfare, the process of resettling someone into appropriate, stable accommodation becomes incredibly difficult.

How have we got into this mess?

DCLG are in trouble as they don’t want to cut the funding for hard-pressed councils but can’t fund it themselves; DWP simply look bad for washing their hands of the whole thing; and the Treasury seem to be either blocking funding requests or maybe even holding it to ransom, neither are flattering. So at a departmental level, it looks very messy and, if the cut goes ahead, the impacts will be messier still and inevitably lead to an unsavoury blame game.

And councils of all colours – those who know their local schemes intimately – will bear the brunt of the funding cut. Conservative councils could even find themselves either having to cut their local welfare schemes, presumably blaming the Conservative led Coalition, or make cuts elsewhere to fund them, damaging their local reputation.

So it looks pretty bleak for everyone involved. Sticking to the cut is harmful to those in need, unsavoury and politically reckless.

So how can the Government get itself out of this bind?

Well, they could chose to fund it for another year. That would cost around £180 million but would also require a complete Government U-turn, so at this stage – as much as we’d like it – it’s probably out of the question.

Realistically we’re looking at a compromise, most likely, something that allows them to have made a financial saving, keeps the support for people in need going, retains the confidence of councils and MPs, and helps people rebuild their lives.

It was rumoured DCLG thought £70 million could be that compromise.

Now, we’ve maintained grant funding should continue (£180m), but if the Government allocated just £70 million it’s likely that most schemes could keep going – that would help a lot more people than £0 would and crucially ensure that the principle of financial support for emergency expenses is maintained.  

 Without any funding, the schemes will wither and there will be no going back; local welfare is firmly in the last chance saloon.