Prorogation times out answers over future for welfare assistance

MHCLG minister says written Commons question asked in July could not be answered ahead of the House being suspended.


With Parliamentary priorities thwarted by Brexit, an attempt to uncover what action MHCLG was taking to protect Local Welfare Assistance schemes in England has been timed out.

In July, Labour’s Lisa Forbes put a written Commons question asking for an outline of steps taken by HHCLG to protect such schemes.

MHCLG minister Luke Hall replied: “It has not proved possible to respond in the time available before Prorogation.”

As reported by 24housing in July, it took a written Commons question to confirm that the government had no plans to no plans to ringfence funding for local welfare provision despite evidence of rising destitution.

Then, it was DWP minister Will Quince who responded.

That week, a report released by the poverty grants charity Buttle UK revealed families are routinely unable to afford regular meals, wash clothes or provide their children with basic items such as beds and sheets.

And the fourth annual Universal Credit (UC) survey from NFA and ARCH said councils were struggling to sustain cash-draining UC ‘subsidies’.

‘Local welfare assistance schemes’ is an umbrella term for local welfare provision – councils decide what local provision to provide and at what cost.

The Local Government Finance Settlement for 2015-16 identifies a notional amount relating to local welfare provision in each upper-tier and unitary authority’s general grant, totalling £129.6m for England.

Councils are increasingly concerned over the scope for – and even survival of – assistance schemes as cuts continue.

A year ago, a joint report from The Children’s Society and the Church of England said schemes were failing to operate effectively, with increasing numbers of destitute people turning instead to food banks and other voluntary agencies for help.

The report stressed that the need for coordinated, consistent support was “increasingly urgent”.

A lack of publicity, bureaucratic hurdles, and restrictive eligibility criteria are all cited as deterrents to applying for Local Welfare Assistance schemes.

In September last year, FoI responses revealed nearly eight million people as living in council areas with no access to local welfare assistance schemes.

Of the 131 top tier councils who responded to an FoI request from the Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group (GMPA), 22 said they do not have a scheme providing payments such as care grants and crisis loans in place.

Provision was said to be under threat in 29 other areas.

This research revealed government funding for such payments totalled £178m in the first year of localisation in 2013-14, compared to an allocation of £330m in 2010-11.

Councils have continued to receive some reduced un-ringfenced funding for local welfare since localisation in 2013-14, but there is no requirement for councils facing financial pressure to provide schemes.

The amount spent on crisis loans and care grants in 2017-18 was found to be 69% lower than in the final year before localisation, and the total budgeted for assistance fell from over £64m in 2015-16 to less than £47m in 2017-18.

Budgets for local welfare assistance schemes were found to have fallen by an average of 17% in the 25 most deprived local authority areas in the country.

And there is significant variation in the amount councils allocate to schemes across the country.

The largest fall in expenditure on schemes between 2010-11 and 2017-18 was in the East Midlands, where the outlay fell by 94% from £16.2m to £0.9m.

And the West Midlands saw the second biggest decrease – from £24.4m to £3m (88%) over the same period.

The decrease was 75% or more in all but one region, East of England, where there was a fall from £17.4m to £5.4m, or 69%.

Questioned over estimates the DWP had made of the number of councils that no longer provide local welfare assistance schemes, the government references reforms to the Social Fund in 2013 allowing councils in England and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales to deliver their own local provision for those in need of urgent help.

Essentially, funding has been passed over to local authorities and devolved administrations on a non-ringfenced basis – with no statutory duties or monitoring requirements attached.

The government view is that councils are best placed to decide how to target flexible help to support local welfare needs.

Other related written questions asked of MHCLG that couldn’t be answered ahead of prorogation included:

  • Assessment of the adequacy of funding allocated to councils for the provision of support and advice to families and young people in a financial crisis
  • What steps were being taken to ensure that families and young people have access to the help they need when faced with a financial crisis
  • What assessment of trends in the level of landlords that allow older renters to make modifications to their rented property to accommodate for mobility issues

Prorogation was also referenced as the reason why MHCLG couldn’t answer for how much it had spent on ministerial travel last year – either first or second class.

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