Support in the last resort

The Scottish Government has published new stats about the operation of the Scottish Welfare Fund.  when the Social Fund was abolished, local authorities in England were left to their own devices, but funding was made available for Local Welfare Assistance, interpreted differently by different authorities.  In Scotland, the Scottish Government intervened, laying out the terms of a national scheme and offering extra funding to make it possible.  The actual expenditure has been less than expected, largely because it is not done on the same terms as the Social Fund was, but the scheme has operated very effectively;  local authorities have used it not just to support people in desperate straits, but to mobilise resources in their behalf, linking support to welfare rights work.

It’s difficult to do justice to nearly seventy pages of stats in a short summary, but the key points are probably these.  In nine months, just over 76.000 households have been helped; about half are single people.  The average Crisis Grant has crept up from about £50 to nearly £70, and many are spent buying food; Community Care Grants are typically over £600, and are rather more likely to be spent buying cookers, fridges, floor coverings, washing machines and beds.  About half the claims were in the most deprived 20% of areas – which means that the other half weren’t.

Any benefits scheme needs to have some provision for crisis.   The main criticisms that were made of the Social Fund were not really about the Social Fund at all; the problem is that if benefits are not enough to meet basic needs, people will be driven to claim what they can.  The main problem with the Social Welfare Fund is still not that it’s there, but that many people are claiming it because they don’t get enough to manage in any other way.

The government has announced that Local Welfare Assistance is going to be discontinued in England.  That presumably means that the funding offered for the Scottish Welfare Fund (£24m plus administration) will also be withdrawn, and that has to raise questions about its future.  I hope the Scottish Government will continue to fund it; it offers a small flicker of decency in a dark and nasty world.


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