Bishop of Truro leads debate on local welfare assistance for those in crisis

On 10th February 2015, the Bishop of Truro, Rt Rev Tim Thornton, led a debate in the House of Lords on local welfare assistance schemes and help for those in crisis. The full text of his speech is below, followed by those of Peers who participated. The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Rev Christopher Foster, also spoke in the debate towards the end.

Welfare Assistance Schemes

Question for Short Debate

7.30 pm

Asked by The Lord Bishop of Truro

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that local welfare assistance schemes provide effective support to people in crisis and will continue to be able to do so.Bishop of Truro 20.6.13

The Lord Bishop of Truro: My Lords, I am very grateful indeed for this opportunity to raise a very important issue by putting some questions to the Government on, and raising matters relating to, local welfare assistance schemes. In doing so, I declare my interest that I am chair of the Children’s Society, a national charity which has conducted quite a lot of research in this area and to which I shall refer.

I begin by welcoming the government decision to make visible within the local government settlement £129.6 million for funding for local welfare provision. This funding provides a vital safety net for families and children, and vulnerable residents, in a crisis. The additional allocation of £74 million to local authorities, coming on the back of campaigns run by the Children’s Society and others and announced last week by the Government, is also a welcome, necessary and vital step in ensuring that all local authorities up and down the country have the resources available to put in place local welfare schemes.

The level of public support for the reinstatement of funding for local welfare provision has been significant. I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber earlier to hear the Question asked on this matter. More than 5,000 campaigners from the Children’s Society and Shelter responded to the government consultation in November on the future of local welfare provision, calling for funding to be provided in addition to the core grant funding made available to local authorities. The consultation on the provisional settlement, held in January, received an even greater number of responses, with more than 12,500 answering the specific question on local welfare provision—and all calling for the funding to be reinstated at the level available for the current financial year. In fact, since 2010, spending on the discretionary Social Fund has been reduced by £150 million in real terms, so this emergency support has faced significant funding cuts in the last five years.

The need for an effective safety net of last resort is vital to provide emergency help to very vulnerable families and children in crisis situations. This is especially necessary given the growing struggles that many families are facing, as evidenced in particular through the growing use of food banks and other emergency food aid provisions. The growth in these also shows the growing need for such crisis support. In addition, the combined proportion of household incomes spent on food, housing and utilities for households in the bottom income decile rose from 31% in 2003 to 40% in 2012, as we made clear in the report Feeding Britain, produced in December. On the back of this public support and calls from councils and the voluntary sector, I am pleased with the announcement that a visible funding line will be available for local welfare provision and that additional money will be made available to local authorities to ensure that these schemes are in place.

The vulnerability of claimants to local welfare schemes, and previously to community care grants and crisis loans through the discretionary Social Fund, is clear. Over half of community care grants awarded in the final year of the discretionary Social Fund, prior to localisation, were made to families in a crisis. Research shortly to be published from the Children’s Society found that over a third of local authorities used their local welfare assistance schemes as one of the only ways in which they could support young homeless people aged between 16 and 20. Many local authorities up and down the country have put in place innovative local schemes to help vulnerable residents, while evidence from local authority returns to the Department for Work and Pensions review found that 86% of funding allocated to local authorities was projected to be spent in 2014-15.

The Children’s Society has worked closely with a number of councils seeking to improve and continually evaluate their local schemes. However, there is undoubtedly a mixed picture up and down the country; the quality of schemes varies enormously. Following additional money being made available by central government to support local authorities with local welfare provision, there is the opportunity to provide guidance—or a clear steer from Ministers—that this funding should be spent protecting the most vulnerable. It would be really useful to hear tonight from the Government their plans in this regard.

We know from the information currently available that information gathered about local schemes varies hugely. Monitoring the effectiveness of local schemes is therefore a significant challenge for local charities, service providers and central government departments in taking decisions on the future funding of such schemes. I point the Minister to the Children’s Society’s report Nowhere to Turn?, which has recommendations for local schemes. These include, first, ensuring that low-income working families are able to access local schemes by ensuring that eligibility criteria are not restricted to those in receipt of out-of-work benefits. Evidence has found that a quarter of schemes require claimants to be in receipt of out-of-work benefits, with only 9% of schemes explicitly stating that they allow claimants in receipt of working tax credits or work benefits to apply for emergency support. We know that approximately six in 10 children in poverty now live in low-income working families, making this requirement extremely important to ensure that families have somewhere to turn in an emergency.

Secondly, not requiring applicants to the scheme to access other sources of consumer credit before applying to their local welfare scheme is another suggestion from the report. Forcing families further into a debt trap will not help those who are struggling. This should not be a requirement for accessing your local scheme in an emergency. Thirdly,the report recommendsensuring that local schemes do not have restrictive and overly long residency criteria, prohibiting many families in a crisis from accessing their local schemes. Half of all schemes require claimants to be resident; a further 13% require claimants to have lived in the area for more than six months.

If local schemes are cut and vulnerable people have nowhere to turn, we are likely to see a number of additional and more expensive costs to the public purse. This will motivate councils to maintain schemes but central government will also bear costs, and so should be motivated to ensure that local schemes are maintained.

Since the provisional local government settlement for 2015-16 was published in December 2013, schemes up and down the country have been hampered by uncertainty over funding. This uncertainty has caused some councils to restrict access to schemes, in the hope of being able to roll over underspend to future years and ensure that they do not have to cut back a service which they are no longer able to fund. I therefore suggest that greater certainty over funding going into 2016-17 would enable councils to design schemes to meet the needs of residents now, and in the longer term. There has also been a lack of clarity on how funding levels are decided. Even if it is not currently possible to commit to levels of future funding, which I would of course understand, the Government should be able to provide clarity on the process that they will undertake to make this decision.

I believe that it is possible to monitor local schemes effectively. The Scottish Welfare Fund, for example, is administered locally with information gathered centrally. This includes information about whether the applicant has children or a disability, and the reason for the application. People with disabilities are particularly likely to be overrepresented among recipients. In the last year of the Social Fund, 32% of community care grants expenditure and 19% of crisis loan expenditure was for people with disabilities. In Scotland, where we can still see a clear picture of the characteristics of recipients, two out of every five recipients of the Scottish scheme claimed ESA.

Alongside the more effective monitoring and evaluation of local schemes, putting funding on a more sustainable future footing is required, as I have said, to ensure that this vital safety net continues into the future. As I end my speech, I will therefore ask some questions of the Minister and I hope that other people will support the idea that we need to find ways to ensure that these local welfare schemes are firmly put within local authorities and used for the purposes for which they are set.

Will the Minister consider issuing guidance or best practice on local welfare assistance schemes to help local authorities implement effective schemes in their local area? Children are a key beneficiary of local welfare schemes. Will the Minister explain where families will be able to turn in an emergency should their local authority not provide a local welfare assistance scheme?

What steps, I wonder, will the Minister take should schemes be completely abolished in a minority of local authority areas, and how will he address this circumstance? Will he outline how the additional funding amount of £74 million was decided upon and why the full allocation for 2014-15 was not provided in addition to the core government grants, as called for by many members of the public, charities and local authorities? Does the Minister agree that the next comprehensive spending review will provide an ideal opportunity to ensure that longer-term funding for local welfare provision is available over the course of the next Parliament? I look forward to answers to some of these questions.

7.40 pm

Baroness Jenkin of Kennington (Con): My Lords, I wish to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for securing this debate, which gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to his commitment to social justice issues and those in need, and also to thank him for his leadership, together with Frank Field, of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger. He and I travelled to Birkenhead and South Shields together to listen to local evidence and I was particularly sorry to miss the inquiry session which he helped to organise in Looe, as I know that great work, much of it done by local churches, is taking place in Cornwall.

I would like to start by quoting from the right reverend Prelate’s introduction to the inquiry’s report published in December last year in which he acknowledged that these are complex issues. For those who have not read the report and his thoughtful comments, I take this opportunity to recommend it. He wrote:

“We are living at a time of difficult financial circumstances. The Government has to make hard choices with limited resources”.

He went on to set the increasing need for food banks in the context of,

“a deeper problem in our society; the ‘glue’ that used to be there is no longer there in many instances”.

But this social glue is precisely what localising welfare assistance can help to create and nurture and he and I have seen many great examples of it. It is vital that national government continue to fund local authorities to deliver effective schemes. Indeed one recommendation of the inquiry’s report was that the Government should continue to protect local welfare assistance funding and not allow it to be wholly incorporated into the local government finance settlement.

Everyone in this Chamber today knows how much pressure every local authority is under and we were concerned that assistance for vulnerable working-age adults and financially needy families would fall by the wayside if forced to compete with statutory duties.

Like the right reverend Prelate, I welcome the fact that the DCLG has earmarked £74 million in response. The inquiry also recommended that DCLG monitor take-up rates for local welfare assistance within each local authority and work with those where registration is inexplicably low. Eighty per cent of authorities are not spending the whole of the allocated funds. Where this is due to potential applicants’ low awareness of availability, a range of agencies, including Jobcentre Plus, must ensure that those who need it are finding their way to accessing it. Yet the focus cannot simply be on meeting need with cash. Where severe financial need is partly due to inability to access and progress in work, serious personal debt, drug or alcohol problems, domestic abuse or other profound relationship problems—all of which can be a driver and effect of mental illness—these root causes must also be addressed.

I want to focus my remarks on a couple of the many local welfare assistance schemes that are doing just that and I wish time allowed me to acknowledge more of the organisations working in this field. The individuals delivering them are, if I may say, evidence that social glue, which can perhaps be defined as love for fellow human beings, is by no means absent. Indeed it is flourishing where the state is acknowledging that the human-scale, whole-person approach on which many local grassroots organisations operate will very often be more effective than top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches. The DCLG could help to increase the effectiveness of its funding by showcasing superb practice, as I am about to do, by drawing on examples which we heard about during the inquiry into hunger.

The Matthew Tree Project in Bristol is so much more than a simple food bank in terms of its early intervention and prevention approach. Its 400 volunteers offer advice, support and love—that word again—to help people develop skills to make life healthy and sustainable. For some that means becoming work-ready while others need help with budgeting and other advice. A couple of weeks ago a group of us, including the Members of Parliament for Birkenhead and for South Shields, visited in West Norwood the first community shop to be up and running on the lines of a social supermarket model. It is an entirely replicable, self-funding social enterprise. We came away inspired and enthused and I would encourage other noble Lords to visit and see for themselves.

I could spend the whole of my time today talking about it, but will save that for another day because I also want to mention the Centre for Social Justice Alliance of over 300 grassroots charities working at the coalface of poverty as another source of inspiring good practice. Furniture Now in Brighton is an innovative community waste, reuse and training charity which recycles unwanted furniture and white goods and sells them on either at very low prices to homeless families, others in sudden crisis and those receiving benefits or to other customers who pay a full second-hand cost. The organisation provides free training and employment skills for those who are not in education, employment or training, have mental health difficulties, or have struggled with drug and alcohol dependency. All of its more than 60 volunteers are from vulnerable groups—those with mild learning difficulties, those in drug, alcohol, mental health or domestic abuse recovery and ex-offenders—enabling them to contribute meaningfully to society.

These welfare society foot soldiers are, however, rarely funded by local welfare assistance money and it is important to consider if and why they are missing out in local authority commissioning practices. In a survey, 91% of the CSJ Alliance said they did not feel there was a level playing field for small organisations providing public services and two-thirds were not consulted by local government about the design of services relevant to their work. It is to be hoped that the current review by the noble Lord, Lord Young, of the Public Services (Social Value) Act for the Government will consider whether those best equipped to help people transform their lives and circumstances are getting a fair crack of the whip when it comes to commissioning.

7.47 pm

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this important and timely debate. I also thank the Government for the welcome concessions they have made following two rounds of consultations. I should perhaps declare an interest as the honorary president of the Child Poverty Action Group, which was instrumental in the test case that led to the consultation—an example of the threat of judicial review bringing real benefit to some of the most deprived members of our society.

However, the new money available is also intended to ease pressures on health and social care and the total allocation represents a cut of around £100 million on the previous year, which itself represented a cut in funding, as the right reverend Prelate has already noted. The statement underlined that there would be no ring-fencing or monitoring of its use. I hope the right reverend Prelate will forgive a Biblical allusion when I say that this smacks of the Pontius Pilate approach to policy-making—central government washing its hands of all responsibility for what happens to the money it has earmarked to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of society.

It is important to put these schemes in context and remember that they are not some new addition to the welfare firmament but replace long-standing social safety net provisions within the social assistance scheme. Some of us recall when discretionary exceptional needs payments were replaced by regulated single payments. These were described at the time by the Social Security Advisory Committee as an “essential part” of the social assistance scheme,

“providing a cushion against particular one-off events which cannot be provided for from within a very basic weekly income”.

This is still the case, as minimum income standards research highlights. Regulated payments were of course then quickly replaced by the discretionary social fund.

Given this history, it really is essential that central government does not wash its hands of all responsibility for the allocated funds. At a minimum it needs to establish basic monitoring requirements so it is possible to evaluate how well the schemes are meeting needs and also so that local authorities operating less effective schemes can learn from those operating more effective ones. The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, highlighted some of them.

The Department for Work and Pensions review of the first 18 months of operation included very little information on those seeking help. This means, among other things, that, as the equality statement on the 2015-16 funding allocation acknowledges, it is difficult to predict the full impact on protected groups because the Government do not nationally collect data on who has benefited from existing local schemes. Yet it also acknowledges that it is reasonable to consider that a number of protected groups could be impacted by any decisions. This is simply not good enough, especially as the Scottish Government have shown that it is possible to monitor local schemes effectively, revealing, for example, that people with disabilities are particularly reliant on the scheme, as the right reverend Prelate has already observed. In its report on localisation issues in welfare reform, the Work and Pensions Select Committee recommended that central government should monitor the use of the funds until the new arrangements had bedded in, suggesting a period of five years, which seems very reasonable. Interestingly, I noted that it has moved from its initial position of not supporting ring-fencing and is now recommending that the money should be ring-fenced.

I am making a very modest request, which is that the Government review their position on monitoring and accept that they still have a responsibility to ensure that the money earmarked to meet the needs of vulnerable groups, such as homeless people and care leavers, is used effectively for the purposes intended. Simply intoning that local authorities will act responsibly, as the Minister did earlier today, is no answer. I am not accusing local authorities of acting irresponsibly. I am simply asking for accountability.

7.51 pm

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (LD): My Lords, as always it is a great pleasure to follow my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett. I share her concern. This is a very risky area of policy to continue in the current vein. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for drawing this important matter to the attention of the House.

The first point I want to make is that these are not local welfare services; these are local crisis and emergency services. When the right reverend Prelate went into his speech, he lapsed out of the jargon into crisis and emergency services. He is absolutely right about that. I hate the word “welfare” because it is so pejorative and indicative of a patronising and wholly inappropriate way of treating people in emergencies. Language and approach are all-important in this.

I absolutely agree that it is not good enough to say that £74 million is better than a slap in the face with a cold fish. We need this to be put on an ongoing basis, and it is incumbent on the Government to do so. Of course they cannot commit future Governments—I will be interested in what the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, who is also my friend, says about what the future might hold. It is no good saying, “We’ll put this in place and see what happens”. This is the safety net, the last resort. People have nowhere else to go and there is no other port of call. Leaving this to local authorities and not ring-fencing the money is taking a huge risk. The five questions that the right reverend Prelate asked are interesting. If the Minister has not got time to deal with them adequately, I hope he will write to the right reverend Prelate and the rest of us to give us some comfort because all these questions are absolutely appropriate and need an answer.

The context for all this has changed quite dramatically. We underestimate the level of household debt being experienced by the lowest one or two deciles of household income distribution. People are now using credit cards to pay for weekly day-to-day expenditure. I have been as interested as my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, in all this for more than 35 years. I have never known a situation such as now where households are making ends meet by borrowing money. You cannot do that indefinitely. We are storing up trouble for ourselves if we do not understand that.

Emergency and crisis provision takes no account of the ability to enter into any kind of preventive and advisory support and sustaining services. I do not think local authorities should provide them; central government needs to do it. We might be doing some of that with universal credit—if it works, when it works. Universal credit’s so-called local delivery, the support system which is applied to claimants at their universal credit application point, is something we need to work on to make sure that it dovetails with what is being provided by local authorities.

Coming from Scotland, you might expect me to say this, and everybody else has said it so I do not want to be left out: Scotland does some of these things better. The national monitoring framework is an essential tool that must be put in place in the future to make sure that things get done right. In the old days, there used to be systems of appeal. There used to be a Social Fund commissioner whose responsibility it was year on year to produce a report for Parliament saying what he thought was being done with the increased money that used to be available. Now we have nothing of that kind. There are no appeals and there is no guarantee that people have any certainty about where they can go if their applications for so-called local welfare provision payments fail.

I endorse everything that has been said so far, but I want to make two extra points. First, DCLG will need to accept responsibility, and I hope the Minister will, for the co-ordination of all the agencies that are now involved in this area of public policy, not just DWP and the LGA but including the devolved Administrations and civil society. Somebody has to co-ordinate things. Secondly, I hear on the grapevine that Northern Ireland has just agreed a settlement that gives discretionary grants for community distribution. I do not know how much money is involved, but I would be very pleased to hear whether that is a bit of best practice which might be considered for sharing in the future. I hope that DCLG and the ministerial team involved in this will look carefully at these things. I hope we will get some answers to these important questions. I am much less happy about getting £74 million because I do not think it is enough.

7.57 pm

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD): My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate and for his very powerful speech. As a district councillor, I have seen many instances where local assistance schemes have kept the wolf of hunger, want and need from the door while families gained a breathing space to enable them to cope. There are numerous reasons why individuals and families require emergency relief. They may have been evicted from their home for non-payment of the mortgage due to the main earner losing their job. Having been evicted, they may have lost their furniture and personal belongings because they had nowhere to store them. They may have been in temporary accommodation provided by the local council and are now being offered a permanent rented home. They may have been able, through friends or charity shops, to gather together the basics of beds, chairs and a small table, but they have no cooker or perhaps no fridge. They may not have been able to make their money stretch and have run out of credit for their electricity pre-payment meter. They may have no food with which to feed their children, again having not been able to make their money stretch. In cases such as these, referrals to the local assistance scheme have provided them with the vital necessities to enable them to rebuild their family life.

Let no one be in any doubt that every one of the cases helped by the local assistance scheme is totally justifiable. The people assisted are not scroungers but are desperate, with their backs against the wall. In Somerset, local citizens advice bureaux administer the scheme on behalf of the county council. They receive referrals from social services, housing associations, district councils, the voluntary sector, GP surgeries, the faith communities and many other sources. No cash ever changes hands. There are some who turn up thinking that they will get cash, and when they find that the help on offer is in the form of a voucher, they often go away and look elsewhere for help. Sometimes they will go to a loan shark. Perhaps their child’s class at school is due to go on an outing that has to be paid for: most parents would not want their child to be the one left behind. Many schools will have funds to help children from families struggling to make their money stretch, but often there is a reluctance on the part of parents to identify themselves to the school as being in this category. It is less embarrassing to go to the anonymous citizens advice bureaux and sometimes easier to fall victim to a loan shark who does not ask questions about what they want the money for.

However, the local scheme does help a large number of people and families by providing vouchers for white goods that can be exchanged at specified outlets; vouchers for furniture exchanged at Furnicare, the local charity that takes in unwanted furniture, refurbishes it and passes it on; vouchers that can be exchanged for a top-up of their electricity key meter, and—often the most used facility—a referral to the local food bank. As I said earlier, the reasons for needing emergency help are many. Some are claimants and have been sanctioned, but do not realise that until the money does not arrive; some have very limited budgeting skills. However, local citizens advice bureaux are able to refer these people to skills courses where help is available not only with budgeting but also with basic literacy and IT skills.

Like other noble Lords, I was extremely concerned when I realised that the local assistance schemes were coming to an end. I am delighted that, due to the considerable efforts of my friends the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right honourable Danny Alexander, and the honourable Stephen Williams, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, additional money has been provided, although not enough, according to many noble Lords. I welcome the £74 million that will go to upper-tier authorities to help them meet the needs covered by the local schemes and to deal with the additional pressures on social care. While this money is not ring-fenced, it is an identifiable line in the budget. I feel certain that these authorities—perhaps I am being optimistic—will distribute the money wisely, where a very small amount of resource can make the most difference to the lives of their residents. I look forward to witnessing a positive impact on the lives of the most vulnerable in our communities and to hearing the reassurances sought by the right reverend Prelate.

8.02 pm

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I intervene briefly in the gap to emphasise two matters that would support the encouragement, advice, steer, or even the requirement on local authorities to distribute local welfare provision, recently enhanced by a further £74 million. As other noble Lords have said, this is vital crisis support—genuinely a safety net—that is needed and should be used.

First, I want to request that attention be given to the stability of this provision and funding going forward. Despite the political uncertainties of the coming months, we can be clear of the need for local welfare provision beyond this year. That unfortunately is certain. Allocations that are made in a piecemeal fashion, as has happened recently, are less than helpful; consistency from year to year would be preferable. Some local authorities seem to have rationed this year’s funding while provision for the coming year was uncertain. An undertaking to maintain this notional provision, or at least a process that did not demand last-minute substantial representations, would increase the likelihood of local councils adopting best practice. I hope that the Government will consider this.

Secondly, I emphasise that there is an economic case for local welfare provision. The review by Portsmouth City Council, my own see city, of this provision concluded that modest expenditure saved costs elsewhere. Failing to grant a little often increases the demand for mental health services, children’s social care, temporary accommodation provision and debt advice. Preventing a tenancy breakdown, for example, saves an authority nearly £7,000 per eviction. I trust that local authorities will heed that and the Government will encourage, steer, advise and even ask for undertakings about the spending of this vital provision.

8.05 pm

Lord McKenzie of Luton (Lab): My Lords, like all others who have spoken, I should thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for the opportunity to focus on local welfare assistance schemes in this short debate. I draw attention to my interest in the register as a trustee of NOAH Enterprises—that stands for “new opportunities and horizons”, rather than the boat—which is a Luton-based charity supporting disadvantaged individuals.

Like others, I begin with the good news, and recognise that the Government did, by consent order in the judicial review proceedings in September last year, agree to conduct a consultation, conclude their review of local welfare provision and review their funding for 2015-16. As we have heard, this led to additional funding being allocated for that year, but it was to cover health and social care as well as local welfare. This is a real advance on where things were heading when the announcement was made that there was to be no funding from 2015, without formal consultation or consideration of the equality duty. Sadly, this was an insight into the mind of the Government of what they were hoping to get away with.

It might be worth recapping how we got to local welfare assistance schemes. It was the Welfare Reform Act 2012 that paved the way with the abolition of key components of the discretionary Social Fund, namely community care grants and crisis loans. This funding was described then as the ultimate safety net for the most vulnerable—enabling, for example, women and children fleeing domestic violence to clothe themselves and furnish their homes. Funding under the new arrangements was to be channelled to local authorities and devolved Administrations for them to provide assistance as they saw fit. This funding, as we have heard, was not to be ring-fenced—a bone of contention at the time which was, from recollection, vigorously pursued by my noble friend Lady Lister. The best we could get was an agreement that the funding allocated was to be set out in the settlement letter that accompanied the local government finance settlement. However, concern was about not only the lack of ring-fencing but the lack of any new duties to provide support for the most vulnerable.

Although the Government claim to have passed through programme funding levels previously available to the Social Fund, that was after the Government had set about “managing” demand of the latter down, back to its pre-2006 levels. They did this by no longer paying crisis loans for such items as cookers and beds and cutting back the rate paid for living expenses to 60% of the benefit rate. The problem was not the devolving of responsibilities for providing this support to local authorities; it was the nature of the funding regime into which it was devolved.

Although it might be said that it is early days, work done by the LGA and the DWP suggests that councils are creating schemes which better meet the underlying needs of applicants because they have a good understanding of their local community and its demography. This is to be welcomed. The DWP, in its November 2014 review, instances a range of approaches as to who are supported and how they are chosen. The survey of local authorities showed a common list of provision—with food being on the top—but differing restrictions or limitations on what was provided. It showed some good practice on aligning funding with existing services, but overall the picture was of the limited provision of the most basic components of daily living for those in crisis: patchy provision, as the right reverend Prelate said. There seem as yet limited attempts to monitor outcomes.

There are concerns that even this provision is not sustainable, which is why, before the recent announcements of some additional funding, LGA research showed that as many as three-quarters of local welfare schemes would be scaled back or scrapped, a deeply worrying prospect. Of course, the model is familiar. Government devolves responsibility to local authorities, fails to adequately provide starting funding, fails to ring-fence what funding is available, continues to cut local authority support, and does so in a way which takes proportionately more from the most disadvantaged, and it leaves local government with the awful choices of which discretionary budgets to access to fulfil the statutory obligations in adult and children’s services.

The Minister may tell us that a majority of councils did not spend the whole of their allocated funds in 2013-14. That is not altogether surprising, given the time to get processes up and running and the then understanding that the council would have to fund the service from 2015-16, a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. Over half of local authorities forecast spending all of the funding in 2014-15 but, again, some plan to carry forward some to support the subsequent year. It is in part the uncertainty of what is going to happen in future that engenders caution on behalf of local authorities and, of course, the price is paid by those who miss out on current support because the criteria are too restrictive.

The question may be asked—indeed, it was asked—about what the Labour Party would do should government come our way. We are committed to a fairer allocation of resources between councils and, in that context, would review the operation of local welfare assistance schemes.

We debate this in terms of budgets, allocations and resources, but it is really about people. What commitment are we in this rich but still unequal country to make to those down on their luck, hitting a crisis, or in need of support? Above all, I suggest, we need to see them as human beings, like you and me, and not just as the poor.

8.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con): My Lords, first, I join other noble Lords in thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for securing this debate and, in doing so, pay tribute to his work on the hunger inquiry, with which my noble friend Lady Jenkin also engaged and was involved. I have not been asked a question on that specifically, but the Government welcome the report, which is a serious contribution to discussions. As the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend may know, we convened a meeting with representatives from food retailers, manufacturers, trade associations and the food distribution charity sector on 20 January to discuss how more surplus food can be put to good use, including the vital and incredible work done by local charities.

In 2012, the Government replaced the national community care grants and crisis loan schemes with localised funding so that local authorities could tailor and deliver support to vulnerable people as part of their existing services to their communities, depending on local need. This followed criticism from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee that the national schemes had become complex to administer and were poorly targeted and open to abuse.

Local authorities responded in different ways. Some set up new schemes, while others upped resources to in-house or partner services to ensure fit with local needs and existing services. This support is often called “local welfare provision”—an umbrella term, or shorthand, used to describe the variety of local schemes and responses.

On funding, we have heard figures cited—and, of course, I welcome the support, albeit somewhat qualified, for the additional funding that the Government have found in the current settlement for this important issue. We feel that local authorities could spend as much or little of the funding as they wanted, depending on their local priorities. However, the fact that the Government, in making these announcements, flag up the fact that this is related to welfare spend should give an indication of the Government’s intent for how this money should be utilised. However, we feel, as many local authorities will also feel, that they are better placed to determine their local priorities.

On local provision, the Department for Work and Pensions published a review of the new localised provision last November. It found that local authorities have used their funding to help people experiencing an unexpected emergency or crisis, or those who need help and support to live independently in the community, by providing emergency support for vulnerable adults to move into or remain in the community; helping families under exceptional pressure to stay together; and providing household goods to people fleeing domestic violence, care leavers or those who had previously been homeless. My noble friend Lord Kirkwood talked about the use of emergency support in that respect. It is important to reflect that sometimes Governments are accused of U-turns when what they have done is to reflect on certain elements, taking the issue of vulnerable women, particularly those who have suffered domestic violence. As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have allocated an additional £10 million to women’s refuges in a direct response to need. I am sure that that is well received, not just across this Chamber but across the country as well.

Different local approaches have been taken. Many local authorities work in partnership with other agencies and have aligned support with existing services—the local glue of which my noble friend Lady Jenkin spoke so eloquently—for example, with local credit unions, homeless charities, or domestic violence charities. This has led to the establishment of wide-ranging models of delivery—wholly in-house using internal teams, wholly by external providers, and others, or a combination of the above.

Local authorities have also developed many methods to facilitate payment or provision. Some use cash-based systems for both grants and loans, with payments being made electronically to a bank account or a kiosk in a local shop. Others offer pre-paid cards, vouchers, travel cards, provision of furniture or equipment and food parcels. My noble friend Lady Jenkin talked of innovative schemes. When I was a local councillor in the London Borough of Merton, we partnered with the Vine Project, providing grant letters for applicants to take to the project to exchange for recycled furniture or kitchen appliances that had been donated and were available at affordable prices. In addition, the local authority innovated further to ensure that the Vine Project also offers training and employment opportunities to the local community, including those who have been referred by the council. The right reverend Prelate and my noble friend quoted other examples and there are other great schemes up and down the country.

I turn to the better care fund. Local welfare is not the only service that works better when local areas set their own priorities and join up services for the benefit of those who use them. We know that many people with complex health and care needs often find it frustrating when health and social care services do not talk to each other and they have repeatedly to tell their story. It is welcome that the £5.3 billion better care fund requires every clinical commissioning group and local authority to pool budgets and to work more closely together. The vast majority of the better care fund is being spent on social care and community health services designed to keep people well in the community and prevent them ending up in hospital or residential care.

The troubled families programme has also been enormously successful at turning around the lives of some of our most troubled families, through an integrated, whole- family approach. I have often been asked what turning around a family means. It means that children are back in school, youth crime and anti-social behaviour are significantly reduced and adults are off benefits and in work. As some noble Lords may know, the programme is bang on track. Almost 118,000 families have been identified and more than 117,000 are being worked with. More than 85,000 of these have already been turned around, and more than 8,000 adults have been helped into continuous employment. These are good examples of how welfare provision and support is working at a local level.

The right reverend Prelate asked a specific question about what happens if local authorities close schemes or people are turned down. My noble friend Lord Kirkwood also referred to this. Other support schemes are available. There is the benefit system as a whole, including short-term benefit advances and budgeting loans for those on benefits. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, spoke about discretionary housing payments. Some £445 million of flexible housing funding was made available between 2011 and 2015, and £125 million in 2015-16. Local authorities can do exactly what noble Lords have said this evening: help the most vulnerable households through welfare reform. Credit unions, to which I referred earlier, have also been supported by £38 million of government investment, providing affordable alternatives to high-cost credit. DWP hardship funds are available in certain circumstances. The Government’s aim is to incentivise work and tackle root causes of poverty. I am sure noble Lords share this sentiment.

I turn to the provisional local government finance settlement. As with the better care fund and the troubled families programme, councils know how best to support local welfare needs. What might be right for Merton will not necessarily be right for Macclesfield. So from 2015-16, councils can continue to provide local assistance to take on board local priorities funded from within their general grant rather than a specific one. A clear theme in responses to our consultation was that there should be more guidance on possible spend in this area, based on the review of provision to date. This is why we identified £129.6 million within the upper-tier local authority budgets for local welfare provision funding.

The right reverend Prelate asked about the £74 million. I repeat that Governments are often accused of not listening but we listened to representations on the financial pressures faced by councils and many welcomed this. I met the London Borough of Enfield and Havering Council as part of the ministerial engagement on this issue. My ministerial colleagues and I also met a large number of local authorities and the Local Government Minister held a phone-in with more than 100 authorities. The consultation also received numerous written responses from a wide range of organisations from both local government and the voluntary and community sector. The representations predominantly called for additional funding to be made available to maintain schemes and prevent costs increasing in other services, including preventing homelessness. They also highlighted financial pressures more broadly, in particular the costs of providing social care services.

I pay tribute to the Local Government Minister responsible for this, my honourable friend Kris Hopkins, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State who, with other ministerial colleagues, have listened to these representations. As a result, the Government announced an additional £74 million to assist them in dealing with pressures on local welfare and health and social care. This will further help councils as they develop localised arrangements and enable them to continue to provide assistance to the most vulnerable people in their communities and maintain their front-line services. The Government continue to believe that the £129.6 million relating to local welfare within the settlement is appropriate. I have been asked about local authorities being given the freedom and flexibility to respond to the needs of their own communities. We have announced that this money will not be ring-fenced and we will not be placing any additional monitoring requirements on it. However, I note that good practice will be shared, and the 2016-17 financing in this regard will, of course, form part of the next spending review.

My noble friend Lady Jenkin and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth also talked about this element of sharing good practice. The Department for Work and Pensions has published a review, which contains many examples of good practice. I welcome other organisations such as the Children’s Society, in which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro is involved, helping local areas to develop their schemes. Indeed, I know that the society particularly welcomed the recent announcement.

Other questions were asked about guidance, by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, among others. I recognise that there is a strong desire to share good practice. The Government, as I have said, have done this through the DWP review, which included many examples. However, it is right that one should reflect on what has been said in this Chamber, and I will certainly reflect on those comments and on the points that have been made across the board about local schemes, which my noble friend Lady Bakewell and others mentioned. I will also take back the comments made in this debate to see how the Government can do more to facilitate sharing good practice at a local level. I speak from experience in this respect, and maintain that local authorities remain best placed to run local schemes, but the ultimate objective is helping local residents most effectively, particularly the most vulnerable. I hope that, in at least part of what I have said, I have given noble Lords—indeed, the right reverend Prelate—some assurance in this regard.

I take this opportunity to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short but extremely important debate. If questions remain, I shall of course write to noble Lords in more detail. However, for now, I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions, which I will take back to see how the Government can continue to improve their aim to support local authorities in providing for the most vulnerable within our communities.

8.25 pm

Sitting suspended.