Welfare Assistance Schemes — Question for Short Debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 10th February 2015
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Conservative 8:12 pm, 10th February 2015
My Lords, first, I join other noble Lords in thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for securing this debate and, in doing so, pay tribute to his work on the hunger inquiry, with which my noble friend Lady Jenkin also engaged and was involved. I have not been asked a question on that specifically, but the Government welcome the report, which is a serious contribution to discussions. As the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend may know, we convened a meeting with representatives from food
retailers, manufacturers, trade associations and the food distribution charity sector on 20 Januaryto discuss how more surplus food can be put to good use, including the vital and incredible work done by local charities.
In 2012, the Government replaced the national community care grants and crisis loan schemes with localised funding so that local authorities could tailor and deliver support to vulnerable people as part of their existing services to their communities, depending on local need. This followed criticism from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee that the national schemes had become complex to administer and were poorly targeted and open to abuse.
Local authorities responded in different ways. Some set up new schemes, while others upped resources to in-house or partner services to ensure fit with local needs and existing services. This support is often called “local welfare provision”—an umbrella term, or shorthand, used to describe the variety of local schemes and responses.
On funding, we have heard figures cited—and, of course, I welcome the support, albeit somewhat qualified, for the additional funding that the Government have found in the current settlement for this important issue. We feel that local authorities could spend as much or little of the funding as they wanted, depending on their local priorities. However, the fact that the Government, in making these announcements, flag up the fact that this is related to welfare spend should give an indication of the Government’s intent for how this money should be utilised. However, we feel, as many local authorities will also feel, that they are better placed to determine their local priorities.
On local provision, the Department for Work and Pensions published a review of the new localised provision last November. It found that local authorities have used their funding to help people experiencing an unexpected emergency or crisis, or those who need help and support to live independently in the community, by providing emergency support for vulnerable adults to move into or remain in the community; helping families under exceptional pressure to stay together; and providing household goods to people fleeing domestic violence, care leavers or those who had previously been homeless. My noble friend Lord Kirkwood talked about the use of emergency support in that respect. It is important to reflect that sometimes Governments are accused of U-turns when what they have done is to reflect on certain elements, taking the issue of vulnerable women, particularly those who have suffered domestic violence. As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have allocated an additional £10 million to women’s refuges in a direct response to need. I am sure that that is well received, not just across this Chamber but across the country as well.
Different local approaches have been taken. Many local authorities work in partnership with other agencies and have aligned support with existing services—the local glue of which my noble friend Lady Jenkin spoke so eloquently—for example, with local credit unions, homeless charities, or domestic violence charities. This has led to the establishment of wide-ranging models
of delivery—wholly in-house using internal teams, wholly by external providers, and others, or a combination of the above.
Local authorities have also developed many methods to facilitate payment or provision. Some use cash-based systems for both grants and loans, with payments being made electronically to a bank account or a kiosk in a local shop. Others offer pre-paid cards, vouchers, travel cards, provision of furniture or equipment and food parcels. My noble friend Lady Jenkin talked of innovative schemes. When I was a local councillor in the London Borough of Merton, we partnered with the Vine Project, providing grant letters for applicants to take to the project to exchange for recycled furniture or kitchen appliances that had been donated and were available at affordable prices. In addition, the local authority innovated further to ensure that the Vine Project also offers training and employment opportunities to the local community, including those who have been referred by the council. The right reverend Prelate and my noble friend quoted other examples and there are other great schemes up and down the country.
I turn to the better care fund. Local welfare is not the only service that works better when local areas set their own priorities and join up services for the benefit of those who use them. We know that many people with complex health and care needs often find it frustrating when health and social care services do not talk to each other and they have repeatedly to tell their story. It is welcome that the £5.3 billion better care fund requires every clinical commissioning group and local authority to pool budgets and to work more closely together. The vast majority of the better care fund is being spent on social care and community health services designed to keep people well in the community and prevent them ending up in hospital or residential care.
The troubled families programme has also been enormously successful at turning around the lives of some of our most troubled families, through an integrated, whole- family approach. I have often been asked what turning around a family means. It means that children are back in school, youth crime and anti-social behaviour are significantly reduced and adults are off benefits and in work. As some noble Lords may know, the programme is bang on track. Almost 118,000 families have been identified and more than 117,000 are being worked with. More than 85,000 of these have already been turned around, and more than 8,000 adults have been helped into continuous employment. These are good examples of how welfare provision and support is working at a local level.
The right reverend Prelate asked a specific question about what happens if local authorities close schemes or people are turned down. My noble friend Lord Kirkwood also referred to this. Other support schemes are available. There is the benefit system as a whole, including short-term benefit advances and budgeting loans for those on benefits. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, spoke about discretionary housing payments. Some £445 million of flexible housing funding was made available between 2011 and 2015, and £125 million in 2015-16. Local authorities can do exactly what noble Lords have said this evening: help the most
vulnerable households through welfare reform. Credit unions, to which I referred earlier, have also been supported by £38 million of government investment, providing affordable alternatives to high-cost credit. DWP hardship funds are available in certain circumstances. The Government’s aim is to incentivise work and tackle root causes of poverty. I am sure noble Lords share this sentiment.
I turn to the provisional local government finance settlement. As with the better care fund and the troubled families programme, councils know how best to support local welfare needs. What might be right for Merton will not necessarily be right for Macclesfield. So from 2015-16, councils can continue to provide local assistance to take on board local priorities funded from within their general grant rather than a specific one. A clear theme in responses to our consultation was that there should be more guidance on possible spend in this area, based on the review of provision to date. This is why we identified £129.6 million within the upper-tier local authority budgets for local welfare provision funding.
The right reverend Prelate asked about the £74 million. I repeat that Governments are often accused of not listening but we listened to representations on the financial pressures faced by councils and many welcomed this. I met the London Borough of Enfield and Havering Council as part of the ministerial engagement on this issue. My ministerial colleagues and I also met a large number of local authorities and the Local Government Minister held a phone-in with more than 100 authorities. The consultation also received numerous written responses from a wide range of organisations from both local government and the voluntary and community sector. The representations predominantly called for additional funding to be made available to maintain schemes and prevent costs increasing in other services, including preventing homelessness. They also highlighted financial pressures more broadly, in particular the costs of providing social care services.
I pay tribute to the Local Government Minister responsible for this, my honourable friend Kris Hopkins, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State who, with other ministerial colleagues, have listened to these representations. As a result, the Government announced an additional £74 million to assist them in dealing with pressures on local welfare and health and social care. This will further help councils as they develop localised arrangements and enable them to continue to provide assistance to the most vulnerable people in their communities and maintain their front-line services. The Government continue to believe that the £129.6 million relating to local welfare within the settlement is appropriate. I have been asked about local authorities being given the freedom and flexibility to respond to the needs of their own communities. We have announced that this money will not be ring-fenced and we will not be placing any additional monitoring requirements on it. However, I note that good practice will be shared, and the 2016-17 financing in this regard will, of course, form part of the next spending review.
My noble friend Lady Jenkin and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth also talked about this element of sharing good practice. The Department for Work and Pensions has published a review, which
contains many examples of good practice. I welcome other organisations such as the Children’s Society, in which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro is involved, helping local areas to develop their schemes. Indeed, I know that the society particularly welcomed the recent announcement.
Other questions were asked about guidance, by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, among others. I recognise that there is a strong desire to share good practice. The Government, as I have said, have done this through the DWP review, which included many examples. However, it is right that one should reflect on what has been said in this Chamber, and I will certainly reflect on those comments and on the points that have been made across the board about local schemes, which my noble friend Lady Bakewell and others mentioned. I will also take back the comments made in this debate to see how the Government can do more to facilitate sharing good practice at a local level. I speak from experience in this respect, and maintain that local authorities remain best placed to run local schemes, but the ultimate objective is helping local residents most effectively, particularly the most vulnerable. I hope that, in at least part of what I have said, I have given noble Lords—indeed, the right reverend Prelate—some assurance in this regard.
I take this opportunity to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short but extremely important debate. If questions remain, I shall of course write to noble Lords in more detail. However, for now, I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions, which I will take back to see how the Government can continue to improve their aim to support local authorities in providing for the most vulnerable within our communities.