Co-ordinated working and potential partners
Authorities need to coordinate responses, to prevent duplication and to ensure partners can both manage issues and maximise the potential solutions welfare reforms may present. The sort of coordinated responses that were talked about often requires establishing some sort of multi-agency welfare reform or poverty group.
These multi-agency groups need to be cross-partner and cross-departmental. Some potential partners, and their potential contributions, were noted in the section around new partnerships. To work cohesively however, may require tackling some initial inertia and producing a cultural shift, so that different partners and different departments work together rather than competitively. Multi-agency working was described as imperative, but requiring leadership and coordination.
The benefits of a coordinated approach include the following.
- Often being able to make small, practical differences. For example, parents do not qualify for child benefit until the birth of their child is registered, so in Birmingham there has been a concerted focus on decreasing birth registration times to ensure payments commence as soon as possible.
- Ensuring that up to date, accurate information is shared quickly, which gives local authorities and partners a more holistic view of the picture on the ground.
- Allow service gaps to be identified.
Partnership working in Birmingham
From the outset, it was clear that welfare reform would have a serious impact upon thousands of Birmingham people. In a city already grappling with long-term issues around deprivation, poverty and unemployment, welfare reform is another heavy burden placed upon some of the hardest pressed neighbourhoods.
As part of our Birmingham Social Inclusion Process, Giving Hope Changing Lives, a welfare reform seminar was held in July 2012 to discuss the potential impact of the Welfare Reform Act and the steps we could take locally to support the city’s most vulnerable people.
It was clear that we needed to build a strong partnership of public sector agencies, voluntary organisations, and community groups in order to coordinate activities and services across Birmingham. So we created a Multi-Agency Committee on Welfare Reform, chaired by myself as the Council’s Cabinet Member for Social Cohesion and bringing together the key players on a monthly basis to review actions and progress.
The Committee has a diverse membership. Sat around the table are key players from the public sector – City Council officers, Birmingham Social Housing Partnership, Community Safety Partnership and the Department of Work and Pensions. Alongside them, we have local voluntary organisations: Citizens Advice Bureau, SIFA Fireside, Gateway Family Services CIC, Birmingham Disability Resource Centre, St Basil’s, Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid, Freshwinds, Birmingham Settlement, Birmingham Law Centre, Refugee Action, Trussell Trust Network of Foodbanks and CASA.
The Committee’s work is focused on three areas. Firstly, the short-term actions to help people deal with the immediate impact of welfare changes. Second, we are looking at the way in which we need to reshape services to meet demands created by welfare reform in the longer term. Finally, we are developing policies to address the longer-term issues arising in communities from the impact of the changes
We are driving this work forward through eight work streams, each of which are led by one of the partner agencies:
- Communications and multi-agency advice/training: Developing a communications and training strategy to ensure that claimants, service providers, staff and elected members are informed of the impact of welfare reforms and know where to go for help and advice.
- The impact of welfare reform on individuals: Modelling data to identify who will be affected by the welfare reforms and the scale of the impact on individuals, neighbourhoods and communities.
- Case studies: Developing scenarios around what the benefit changes will mean for particular individuals and groups, so we can better understand the practical impact of the changes and the actions we need to take to support those affected.
- Financial inclusion: Developing and putting in place a plan of action to address the serious challenges around affordable credit, financial education and loansharking.
- Digital inclusion: Looking at practical solutions to provide people with digital access. As part of one of 12 national universal credit pilots, Birmingham is developing ‘digital logbooks’ for residents which will be a personal account for individuals containing references to support services.
- Discretionary social fund: The Committee helped to shape the city’s Local Welfare Provision scheme, ensuring that the support we provide to people in crisis reflects real experience at the front line.
- Employment: Delivering effective cooperation between the key agencies around welfare reform and job creation and developing the kind of support that can be provided to low paid workers to allow them to remain in work.
- Coordination of crisis support: Ensuring that our crisis support services are coordinated across the city. We’ve mapped different types of crisis support across the city (clothing, emergency accommodation, financial advice, financial support, food, housing advice, legal advice) to enable more effective signposting and a coordinated approach to sharing and allocating resources.
The strength of the multi-agency approach in Birmingham is the quality of its partnership working and its ‘can-do’ problem-solving approach. Over the last few months, the Committee has coordinated a successful funding bid to secure extra resources for the city’s advice agencies. Our multi-agency approach has also resulted in the city council reviewing its arrangements for registering births to avoid delays in vulnerable people claiming child benefit and DWP and St Basils working together to look at how young people in hostel accommodation can be supported to reduce their vulnerability to DWP sanction arrangements.
Evidence from the group is also being used to inform conversations with government about the impact of welfare reform.
These are challenging times for people in Birmingham. These reforms do not make our work to tackle poverty and deprivation any easier. But through strong partnership working, we will do all we can to help and support those who are bearing the brunt of these change.
With thanks to Cllr John Cotton, Birmingham
Identifying partners and departments to bring together can be difficult, but mapping available services can help to both bring partners together, but also create clear and transparent signposting networks.
Coherent signposting networks that highlighted best options for their needs were discussed. It was generally felt that a coherent signposting network needed to include:
- directories of locally available support including crisis support, such as social fund replacement schemes and foodbanks;
- bankruptcy advice;
- debt advice services
Supporting vulnerable residents in Tameside through mapping
Tameside is very aware of the welfare reform agenda and the impact that will be felt by our residents. We are keen to support vulnerable residents as effectively as possible and our Supportive Communities Partnership has agreed that developing personal financial resilience should be a key objective for the next 12 months. This Partnership includes elected members, council services, social landlords, Greater Manchester Police, Age Concern, Jobcentre Plus, representatives from the voluntary sector, faith groups, BME groups, health and social care, youth participation and children’s services. Task groups have been established to take this work forward, one working on mapping where foodbanks are around the Borough and the other on information, training and communication. This second task group includes mapping where in the Borough residents can access help and advice, where they can get online and also developing and communicating messages around benefits changes. The actual tasks agreed to achieve the aim are:
- collate and maintain up to date information on where people can get online, both independently and also with assisted help;
- collect intelligence on where there are gaps;
- linking people into appropriate support/advice services;
- consider a communications strategy around welfare reform changes and development of a welfare reform webpage;
- identify any services/community groups who would benefit from briefings on welfare reform changes.
The first element of this work around mapping where people can get online and mapping access to appropriate advice and support services has been completed. Work has now commenced around website development which will incorporate this information along with information around welfare reform.
In addition to residents being able to self-serve, all partners coming into contact with residents will have access to this information and will be able to make effective referrals to the relevant agency that can assist.
Although we cannot alter the impact that welfare reform will have on our residents, we are hopeful that by providing access to services we will assist them in understanding the changes, be able to seek relevant advice and, moreover, be in a position to interact with a world that is becoming increasingly digital by default – such as universal credit claims being required to be made online.
With thanks to Mandy Kinder, Tameside Council
A range of authorities suggested that welfare reforms may sit across a range of areas, and there was a need to look at all of the structures that might be interested in these reforms, including:
- multi agency task forces;
- commissioning groups;
- fairness commissions.
The value of working with a range of partners was highlighted at a number of meetings, and included:
- frontline workers;
- registered social landlords (RSLs) and housing officers;
- grassroots organisations and food banks;
- children’s centres;
- general practitioners;
- advice, information and guidance providers;
- money advisers;
- credit unions;
- fairness commissions
A ‘make every contact count’ approach was described in a number of locations, often with a focus on health professionals and social workers. This involves ensuring that frontline workers are aware of upcoming changes to the benefit system, as well as support networks to signpost people to. This meant that at every point of contact, families could become aware of welfare reforms and where to go to seek help.
Registered social landlords and housing officers
A number of RSLs also adopted the ‘make every contact count’ approach, and worked with all of their staff, from handy-people to plumbers, to ensure that at every point of contact with a family, basic information about upcoming reforms, possible supports and signposting towards more evidence was made available.
Housing officers in some areas had also been recruited to provide information to newly arrived tenants about local services, including social fund provisions.
Many RSLs were also keen on providing as much information about welfare reforms and potential services to tenants as possible.
Some RSLs were also looking to bring money advisers on to staff to help families budget as payments move to monthly.
Many RSLs were also keen to establish transparent links with local authorities, so that mechanisms to ‘feed up’ case studies and persistent problems were developed.
Grassroots organisations and foodbanks
Grassroots organisations were often able to offer a dual role in reducing child poverty at local levels, through providing real-time information about family needs to local authorities, and by being able to offer direct services themselves.
For example, one organisation outlined its role in capturing data and stories, as well as providing advice, information and guidance:
The Broughton trust, capturing data and helping families
Part of our remit as support workers (at the Broughton Trust) is to provide information, advice and guidance and recently we have had many of our service users approaching us for help with benefit changes, during this process a large number of individuals spoke to us in details about the effects of the changes to their day to day lives. Many are suffering from anxiety and are fearful of how the changes will affect them this is leading to health problems and depression.
We at The Broughton Trust, started to record what our clients were telling us as and when the changes to their benefits started to take effect. We also noted their increasing fears as they believe it is going to put them in a more disadvantaged place and they already think they’re in a bad place as it is…’
They have case studies they can share, but importantly for other organisations, have some data about who is being affected and why. For example, ‘we have also dealt with ESOL learners being sanctioned on JSA as they don’t have great understanding of the action they must do for the job search’.
We also run a food bank where we record why and when a person has had to use it. With thanks to Tina Tudor from the Broughton Trust
Many grassroots organisations were also keen to establish transparent links with local authorities, so that mechanism to ‘feed up’ case studies and persistent problems were developed.
The role of children’s centres, as a good point of contact for young families, was also discussed a number of times.
GPs surgeries were identified as a good place to contact ‘hard to reach’ families, and a number of local authorities had had some success in working with local surgeries to distribute information about welfare reforms.
However the need to find the ‘right’ surgeries, and develop strong relationships with the practice managers appeared critical to the success of any relationship.
Unions were also mentioned in one location as a potential partner, especially if advocating for a living wage.
Advice, information and guidance agencies
Ensuring adequate advice, information and guidance (AIG) was discussed as critical to supporting families through these reforms. Many local authorities discussed mechanisms to improve the capacity of local AIG services, possibly by creating local welfare rights consortiums of different providers.
With the move to monthly benefit payments, many local authorities were looking to ensure that money advisers were part of the ‘service mix’ available to support people moving on to universal credit. Embedding money advisers within youth services was also discussed as one way of potentially assisting young people to budget and encourage saving.
Credit unions were discussed as useful partners for their ability to:
- increase financial inclusion, and provide services necessary to help families manage their finances as universal credit is implemented;
- support families to save, thereby reducing the need for shrinking social fund replacement scheme budgets in times of crisis;
- provide low-interest loans in case of a crisis, thereby challenging the use of loan sharks;
- provide financial literacy training.
Salford credit union: supporting young people to learn money management from an early age
Salford credit union has established collection points in a number of primary schools in the city. These are run by volunteers (usually parents or friends of the school) who organise regular collections (usually on a weekly basis) where pupils come and pay their savings in. Each child has a savings book so they can keep track of their money. They usually come to the credit union office once or twice a year to take out their savings, often for a holiday or for Christmas. We have heard lovely stories of children being paid small amounts of money by their parents for small jobs around the house, which they then pay in to their savings. A ‘savings bank’ at their own school gives them a good start in learning about the value of money and having control over their own money.
The credit union is working with other schools to set up new collection points and hope to have them available across most schools that want them over the next year.
With thanks to Sheila Murtagh, Chief Executive Officer, Salford credit union
Schools were often described as good partners, for both contacting affected families and also providing services. Services ranged from credit union contact points to measures to address food poverty.
For example, St Patrick’s Primary School in Birmingham has been involved in contacting families in advance of various reforms, and introducing a credit union point to increase access to low interest loans.
St Patrick’s school in Birmingham
The way they have been helping parents prepare for the welfare reforms is by introducing a credit union point in the school where parents and children are able to save each week rather than signing up for high percentage loans. The credit union has also helped provide parents with low interest loans and the children are saving for items they would like in the future through doing chores at home.
Parents are also made aware of reform changes through a variety of ways such as newsletters and text messages. The local community law service has provided invaluable advice to both parents and staff about the key changes to the bedroom tax, universal credit etc. Organisations such as this where parents are able to come into a familiar setting and discuss worries and concerns are key to addressing the murkiness surrounding benefit reform changes. (The school hosts meetings with the local law service.)
Parents appreciate a text message, note, flyer, letter in the child's bag to update them of any upcoming events that will concern them. The local community law service has also offered to have a coffee morning workshop where parents and their children can go through their income and expenditure and where cuts can be identified in preparation for the welfare reform. With thanks to Lorraine Sergent, St Patrick's Catholic Primary School
Schools were also described as good partners in tackling food poverty, through the provision of breakfast clubs and providing meals in afterschool clubs.
Fairness and poverty commissions
For local authorities with current commissions around fairness or poverty, there was extensive discussion around the ability to leverage the work of these groups to explore possibilities and propose longer-term solutions for families affected by welfare reforms. For local authorities without commissions, they were discussed as a potential way to keep child poverty high on the political agenda.