Overall spending on discretionary support to help people meet urgent needs for food, heating, clothing and essential household items has been reduced by central and local government since 2013, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
In 2013-14 and 2014-15, councils received £347 million grant funding from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to provide local welfare provision after the government abolished crisis loans and community care grants. Almost four fifths (78%) of councils reported spending less than the funding they received in 2013-14 due to a range of factors. DWP spending on short term benefits advances in 2013-14 was 91% lower than its spending on 2012-13; £4 million compared to £40 million.
The report by NAO found that councils acted cautiously in designing local welfare support as they were concerned about high demand and uncertain about funding after 2014-15. They also set restrictive eligibility criteria and limited public awareness of the support available. In some instances, some councils had stopped the provision they had introduced in April 2013.
With ongoing welfare reform, a significant proportion of the applications received by councils for local welfare provision were from people facing hardship as they switched between different types of benefits, experienced benefit delays/sanctions or moved from benefits into work.
Increasingly, charities are reporting rising demand for their support in areas where local welfare provision has reduced, and are concerned they may not be able to meet additional demand if local welfare provision ceases.
The future of local welfare provision appears uncertain. With reducing resources and competing pressures, many councils say they cannot afford to continue offering this support without specific government funding.
It remains to be seen how councils will respond to the government’s proposed continuation of funding for local welfare provision in the provisional local government finance settlement for 2016-17.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office said: “Councils provide discretionary local welfare support, but increasing numbers are stopping doing so, and less is being spent overall now than in 2013. The consequences of creating this gap in provision are not understood, either in terms of impact on vulnerable people or of creating potentially costly additional care or medical needs in the longer term.”
Simon Hopkins, chief executive of Turn2us said: “The ability for individuals to access emergency finding is an important way of ensuring that an unexpected event doesn’t lead to long term financial difficulty. Since the administration of emergency funding has been decentralised, clearly many have been left unaware or in some instances unable to access this vital assistance. On top of that, our own research carried out last year, as part of our Benefits Awareness Month campaign, revealed that only a third of those struggling had checked to see what support might be available in form of benefits and other assistance.
"I hope that these findings help ensure that more is done to combat the post-code lottery in the provision of emergency assistance, often it is those that are most in need who find it hardest to know where to turn. Anyone looking for more information about applying for emergency assistance in England or in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should visit our online information page on Emergency Assistance.
Source: National Audit Office press release