Last week the Archbishop of Westminster complained about the destruction of the safety net of benefits; the government condemned his position as ‘ill-informed’. Now it has emerged that the government intends to scrap Local Welfare Assistance in England, the successor scheme to the Social Fund.
The Social Fund was a system mainly of discretionary payments and loans for people who were desperate. It had a bad press, but a large part of that was down to a more fundamental problem. If benefits don’t pay enough – and the benefits system in the UK has been described (in a Council of Europe report) as ‘manifestly inadequate’ – people are not going to have enough to cover predictable expenses, let alone unpredictable ones. This is not the fault of discretionary benefits. Any system, no matter how good it is, is likely to leave some gaps, and something like the Social Fund would be needed to fill them.
Local Welfare Assistance, introduced last year, is not a single scheme; it covers a wide range of schemes throughout England. There have been problems with the scheme in England, largely because the capacity of local authorities to respond to unpredictable problems is inversely related to the needs of their populations. (In Scotland we have the Scottish Welfare Fund, a much more uniform scheme with extra funding supported by the Scottish Government. Presumably the £24m committed by the DWP will also be cut.)
The importance of this kind of provision is much greater than its relative expense. This is the provision for people who are desperate, who face unpredictable crises – including flooding – and who have nowhere else to turn. Local authorities have the legal power to make some provision, but if they have no funding (and no right to raise it) maintaining any sort of provision is going to be difficult. This blasts another major hole in the safety net.