Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance
Looking back over a year of intense welfare reforms and tough conditions for those on benefits. CIPFA’s Housing and welfare reform advisor takes a moment and remind those in Whitehall about the Work and Pensions Committee report published in January 2016 The Local Welfare Safety Net. It set out its concerns that there are gaps in local welfare provision, as well as identifying some concerns about the fairness of local approaches to council tax support and these points should not be forgotten in the run up to the Autumn statement. These concerns still exists and although the government of the day rejected the call from the Work and Pensions Committee for it to carry out an evaluation of the adequacy of the local welfare safety net perhaps the May administration will be more willing to hear.
The committee’s report identified a range of welfare services as contributing to a local welfare safety net. This included local council tax support schemes and discretionary housing payments, as well as local welfare provision schemes
The potential benefits of delivering aspects of welfare support locally, it said, were well recognised and widely supported. It brings accountability for decision-making closer to the people who require support and, because local authorities run or work closely with a range of social, health, housing and education services, it has greater potential to address the underlying causes of people’s needs.
Concerns were expressed, however, that the discretionary nature of the local schemes has led to widely varied local practice, particularly in England. Combined with very considerable budgetary pressures across local and central government, this creates the potential for ‘postcode lotteries’ in the provision and availability of support. Localisation of support has entailed an expansion of discretion in the overall benefits system at a time when council budgets, like those of the whole public sector, have been under immense pressure. The committee’s report contained a number of comments as well as recommendations to the government aimed at improving the provision of welfare services within the overall local safety net.
Mitigating the impact of the government’s welfare reforms where the recommended:-
• that the DCLG and the LGA work together more actively to facilitate the adoption of best practice in the administration of the local welfare safety net. They should have a particular focus on approaches which proactively identify vulnerable people and help them to avoid unintended effects of planned national welfare reforms, and most effectively link up discretionary local welfare, housing and Council Tax support with other local services.
Joint working and integration with Jobcentre Plus where they recommended:-
• Support for co-location of JCP staff and Troubled Families Advisers with local authority benefit teams, where possible in ‘one-stop-shops’ with other related services for people on low incomes, including credit unions, [including] by ensuring that options for co-location are explored in all JCP Districts.
Local welfare provision schemes where they recommended:-
• that the DCLG and the LGA issue joint guidance on acceptable use of local connection and residency criteria in local welfare assistance scheme criteria.
DHPs and allocation of DHP grant where they recommended:-
• that the DWP review its methodology for calculating and distributing individual local authority DHP allocations, to ensure it more effectively matches funding to needs resulting from particular welfare reforms.
DWP and NAO reviews of local welfare provision where they recommended:-
• Regardless of responsibility for delivery, central government maintains an ongoing obligation to ensure provision of a safety net which prevents vulnerable people from falling into severe hardship.
• a cross-departmental evaluation of the adequacy and effectiveness of the welfare safety net in preventing severe hardship and destitution. Its scope should include remaining DWP Social Fund and Hardship Payments – and Advance Payments in Universal Credit – Council Tax support, Discretionary Housing Payments and local welfare assistance schemes.
Many of these requests are still relevant especially as the welfare reforms announced in 2015 are now in place and the impact being felt around the country.