With thanks to our volunteer Yasmin Adib for her support in producing this blog
Local welfare is the final safety net which prevents people from low incomes from falling into destitution, providing support with essentials such as food, heating, and clothing. In England responsibility for certain forms of welfare have been devolved from central government to local authorities, while spending has been reduced. Recent reports from the Work and Pensions Select Committee and the National Audit Office consider the implications of these changes for the most vulnerable in our society – and the voluntary sector organisations who support them.
Financing local welfare provision
Austerity has hit local government particularly hard; between 2010-11 and 2014-15, core funding to councils was reduced by around 37% at a time when demographic changes had increased demand on services. This had an impact on the kinds of support which local authorities are able to deliver, with many restricting or cutting back on services.
Moreover, uncertainty over the financial settlement for local government has created further difficulties in local welfare provision. Of the grant funding provided by the Department of Work and Pensions for local welfare, up to 78% of councils did not spend all the funding they were given in 2013-2014, and 25% were expected not to spend it all in 2014-2015. While the NAO found that this was a consequence of local authorities acting cautiously due to uncertainties around future funding and high demand for services, for central government this underspend was a cue to reduce the grant.
Local service, local responsibility
Delivering some aspects of welfare locally can make sense – it allows local authorities to join up welfare with a range of social, health, housing and education services and can bring greater accountability. For instance, the London borough of Croydon proactively contacted claimants whose benefits were about to be reduced, mitigating potential hardship and helping claimants to increase their employability.
However, as the Work and Pensions Committee notes, local variation is significant and the sharing of good practice limited. Moreover, joint working between local and national welfare systems remains piecemeal. Devolving welfare provision also means that local authorities with high levels of deprivation (and therefore greater need) are put under greater pressure than relatively wealthy boroughs.
The implications for the voluntary sector
The transfer of responsibility for local welfare just as councils were managing a significant budget cut has inevitably required some difficult choices. However, as the Work and Pensions Committee notes, the “protection of the vulnerable is a core responsibility of the State”. The reduction of provision means that many are facing destitution with no safety net to fall back on.
Moreover, failing to spend on local welfare is a false economy; by providing short term support, the government can prevent hardship from becoming a costly crisis in the future. As the Committee recommends, more needs to be done to ensure co-ordination between national and local government.
The NAO comments on the increased demand for charity services in areas where local provision has reduced. This is mirrored by a recent NCVO report which found that voluntary sector organisations have experienced greater demand for their services as a result of welfare reforms. Moreover, this comes at a time when these organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to attract funding – as attested to by the closures of well respected organisations such as Eaves, PACE and the Havering Association of Voluntary and Community Organisations.
The energy at LVSC’s recent “A Space to Think” conference shows that the sector remains resilient and determined to support those who need our help. In times when the society is going through great change, it’s not just the different arms of the state that need to co-ordinate. If we are to ensure that the most vulnerable are not falling through the cracks, government and the voluntary sector must work more closely together to seek better solutions.