Save our safety net

This blog first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Four children are left home alone for five days. Social services step in to move the kids out to live with their father. But there’s a problem: the council have found a flat for the newly formed family, but it is unfurnished. The dad lives on a low income and does not have the savings to buy five beds and mattresses, and all the other furniture that is needed. If the property isn’t adequately furnished, the children will have to be taken into care. (See case study here).

Situations like this exist up and down the country. In this case, the family were awarded a loan from the local welfare provision (LWP) scheme run by their local authority which allowed them to start again after this period of massive instability. But if they lived in a different part of the country their local provision might not have been as generous, or the local council simply may not have established a scheme at all. And with central government funding to councils for LWP currently under threat, support of this type is likely to be even more limited in the future.

This week, the government’s consultation on how LWP should be funded in 2015/16 is closing. The consultation provides three options which propose ending the DWP grant that has supported schemes to date, and a fourth open option where respondents can offer other views on how schemes could be funded. At Child Poverty Action Group, we are asking the government to put the needs of vulnerable people at the heart of decision making and maintain the annual DWP grant of £178 million that has funded these schemes to date.

In addition, we are asking that the current patchy provision be improved. There are some excellent schemes in parts of the country, but others have been hard to access, overly restrictive, or simply shut down. Like the Work and Pensions Committee, we want to see funding for these schemes ring-fenced. This would ensure councils disburse funds to the neediest, rather than using resources to fill one of the many other gaps in their rapidly shrinking budgets.

Since the formation of the social security system, there has been statutory provision which recognises that benefit levels are set at a rate that does not allow low-income households to make savings to manage one-off or unexpected costs. The need has existed for over 60 years and is not going to vanish now. Local welfare provision is a necessary part of our social security system – the safety net to our national safety net. Maintaining funding and ring-fencing is necessary to make sure that remains the case.

Without this funding, it is hard to imagine how low-income families will cope. Everyone needs beds and furniture for their children, but with benefits losing value and the cost of basics rising, the idea of being able to save for a rainy day is a pipe dream for many on low incomes. In the absence of LWP, they will have to turn to high cost credit, suffer acute stress, and experience ever more entrenched crises including increased risk of homelessness. As well as the misery this causes parents and their children, in the long run, it is likely to prove a false economy and generate additional costs for the state.

This is a mean and short-sighted cut. We’re pleased that through this consultation the government have provided an opportunity for a rethink. Steve Webb was the minister in charge of setting up these schemes; we need to build on this work, not put it at risk.