House of Commons, Work and Pensions Committee: The Local Welfare Safety Net

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This post was originally published on the Welfare Reform Club website and is reproduced here with kind permission. 

The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee recently consulted on the efficacy and sufficiency of the local welfare safety net. The Welfare Reform Club submitted a response to the consultation and Paul Howarth, Director of the Welfare Reform Club, provided oral evidence. The committee’s findings were made public on 12 January 2016.

In the committee’s view, one consequence of recent welfare reforms, including localisation, was that the welfare system no longer guarantees a reasonable minimum for everyone in need. The main outcomes of the report are recommendations for spreading good practice among local authorities, further guidance to local authorities on the implementation of local schemes, and further evaluation of funding and welfare reform by the DWP.

There are a number of recommendations in the report that the Welfare Reform Club can certainly support, as they cover topics which we have been very much involved in. A major part of the report examines the joining-up of local welfare provision, given that a major policy intention of localisation was to better address the underlying causes of financial difficulty. The committee noted the excellent joined up working and pre-emptive work being undertaken by some authorities in this regard (e.g. LB Croydon) but noted that the provision of both joined-up working and pre-emptive action varied greatly between authorities.

In discussing the need for more data on the cumulative effects of welfare reform, the report highlighted evidence given by Paul Howarth of the Welfare Reform Club who informed the committee that it is possible to “assess  cumulative effects using ‘proprietary software’ and matching local authority HB and Council Tax support claims data” and that “this information would be much more powerful if more local authorities could integrate the range of support schemes they have on offer or at least ensure there is a read-across through data-matching.” The report suggests that the LGA should consider seconding staff to councils showing a poor response in this area.

The committee recognised that for claimants there was sometimes confusion between agencies (e.g. DWP hardship payments and LA welfare funds / DHP) and recommended co-location or one-stop-shops which should include DWP, the local authority and troubled families’ units. This is a key issue for the Universal Support delivered locally trials we are involved in. It noted that many of the JCP office contracts end in 2018 and recommends that the DWP uses this deadline to consider co-location. Though recognising that data-sharing is not the problem it once was, the report also recommends that the Government should find a way to overcome any barriers to local and central government sharing relevant benefits data and IT systems. We strongly endorse this recommendation.

There appears to be particular concern around local policy variation of CTRS and DHPs. Specific recommendations are made about these:

  • The report recommends reviewing whether CTRS should be included in UC to ensure that it does not militate against the policy intentions of the national benefits system and also recommends that the forthcoming DCLG review of CTRS investigates methods of dealing with CT arrears that excludes the use of bailiffs and debt collection agencies. In its evidence to a DCLG inquiry, the Welfare Reform Club will explore the merits of an alternative approach to CTRS – keeping the schemes local but extending the scope of existing discounts.
  • Specific concerns around DHPs relate to funding and the policy decisions of local authorities. The report noted that some local authorities are using a high proportion of DHP funding to cover the cost of temporary homeless accommodation. The committee was concerned that this was not the intention (though this is arguable). They were also concerned about the 75% of council’s who still take DHP/PIP income into account in assessing DHPs and that some councils withheld DHPs from those in adapted accommodation who were not actively seeking to move. They also noted the use of DHPS for carers of adult dependants affected by the benefit cap (those caring for children are exempt). They have recommended that the DWP issue policy guidance and also collect further data on the use of DHPs for temporary accommodation. The Welfare Reform Club would welcome more DWP guidance on some of these issues, but also firmly believes that local authorities have a responsibility to get together to share best practice and ensure their DHP schemes are as secure as possible against legal challenge. This is, of course, exactly what we have been helping local authorities to do in recent months.
  • Further concerns on DHPs were around funding where distribution of funds is not proportional to the local impacts of reforms such as the bedroom tax or benefit cap – the report recommended that funding allocation be reviewed.

The select committee also had concerns about the administration of local welfare schemes. The committee recognized that having a local connection criteria attached to local welfare schemes is problematic for some vulnerable groups such as traveller populations, those fleeing domestic violence and those leaving care or prison. The report recommends that guidance be issued stating that any local criteria should exempt such groups.

A further concern with regards to local welfare schemes was restrictions placed on cash payments as the committee felt this did not promote self-sufficiency or allow shopping around. It recommends that guidance be issued that cash payments should be considered.

In order to be prepared for future changes the committee recognised that there should be increased funding for areas of greater deprivation and recommended further evaluation of the impact of welfare reforms, particularly of forthcoming reforms.

The Welfare Reform Club welcomes these findings and believes that local authorities can themselves play an important part in the evaluation work. It should not be left entirely to central government.

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