Handing responsibility for emergency welfare support to local authorities risks turning the welfare system into a “postcode lottery”, an influential group of MPs have warned.
A new report published by the Commons Work and Pensions Committee raises concerns about the pressures on families caused by welfare reforms, and the “coverage and adequacy” of localised welfare safety nets to fill the gaps – particularly in England.
The Committee examined three locally-run discretionary schemes: Council Tax support, Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) and local welfare assistance schemes.
The cross-party group of MPs say the Government “must act” to protect vulnerable groups from national welfare reforms such as the Benefit Cap and Bedroom Tax, otherwise known as ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’.
The Committee has also urged central Government and local councils to do more to prevent vulnerable people from being plunged into severe hardship and destitution.
Key findings from the report include:
– Localisation risks blurring the lines of national and local responsibility, leading to confusion among vulnerable people about where to turn in a financial crisis: closer joint-working and sharing of national and local data must be prioritised.
– Time-limited Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) are clearly inadequate protection for some groups of people the Government did not intend its welfare reforms to affect, but who cannot reasonably be expected to take steps to mitigate the effects. Such groups should be exempted.
– The DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) should strengthen and put onto a statutory footing its guidance in relation to Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) for disabled people.
– Central and local government should agree and implement an effective local government funding system which can cope with future economic downturns and protect services, including crisis welfare, in more deprived areas.
– The recently announced DCLG (Department for Communities and Local Government) review of local Council Tax support schemes should investigate, and if necessary recommend eradicating local authorities issuing court summonses, and instructing bailiffs, as a method of raising revenue.
– The lack of any cross-departmental evaluation of the adequacy and effectiveness of the welfare safety net in preventing severe hardship and destitution must be addressed: the Government must ensure that its reforms are working as intended to prevent vulnerable people falling into severe hardship and destitution.
Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “As the old saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine: emergencies that are not dealt with early will escalate.
“Some councils are doing great work and realising the potential of localised emergency welfare – tackling the underlying causes of their residents’ needs, where possible promoting self-sufficiency and ultimately saving public money.
“But localisation of welfare is the most radical departure in welfare since the Attlee government laid down a minimum income throughout the entire country for what would otherwise be the destitute poor. Inevitably some local authorities are not yet achieving a national minimum.
“Local and central government must take joint responsibly for closing the gaps in the safety net and minimising both the human and financial costs.
“Welfare reforms such as the Benefit Cap and the Bedroom Tax, and an expansion of discretion in deciding who receives welfare, mean that the principle of a state-guaranteed minimum income to prevent hardship and destitution, which has been the cornerstone of our system certainly since the time of the Attlee government, is under threat.”
Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Commons Communities and Government Select Committee said: “I welcome the publication of the Work and Pensions Committee’s report on the local welfare safety net.
“This is very much in line with the conclusions of our reporting in the last Parliament, in particular our reports on Localisation issues in welfare reform and Implementation of welfare reform by local authorities.
“In these we welcomed the localisation dimension to welfare reforms and stressed the fact that local authorities have a valuable contribution to make in planning and targeting local welfare provision.
“As the Work and Pensions Committee note, the move to 100% retention of business rates will be important for local welfare, and the Committee’s report is a helpful contribution to the inquiry into business rates that we announced before Christmas, which will examine all the implications of the proposed changes.”
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Changes to welfare provision mean many people don’t know where to turn when they are in urgent need of financial help.
“In some areas people face restrictions when applying for help and are sent from pillar to post, with no agency taking responsibility. The impact of this can mean people struggle to pay essential bills or are forced into debt.
“The national rollout of Universal Credit provides an important opportunity to improve access to welfare, but it is vital that people are given effective support to help them through the changes.
“Councils must also ensure that they are clear about what support they can offer residents and how people can access the local help they need.”