Social Fund reform: another threat to vulnerable people
The government’s plans to abolish parts of the Social Fund threaten some of the poorest people in the country with destitution at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. That is why the TUC has joined more than a dozen anti-poverty campaigns and charities to ask social security minister Steve Webb to withdraw plans to abolish Community Care Grants and most Crisis Loans.
The benefits system helps with day-to-day living expenses, but it wasn’t designed to meet unexpected one-off costs that can break a family. The Department for Work and Pensions fills this gap with the Social Fund – it helps people with insurmountable debts, pensioners whose homes were destroyed by floods or fires, women and children escaping from domestic violence, families fleeing from racist attacks.
The system strains to fill this gap. As the joint letter to Mr Webb points out, evidence to the Public Accounts Committee in 2010 showed that on average, only 32 per cent of “legitimate demand” for Community Care Grants was met.
This is definitely the right time for a detailed look at the system, as a prelude to designing a reformed system. And you could make a rational case for the government’s argument that the Social Fund’s work could be done better by local authorities.
But taking a detailed look and making a rational case are just what the Department has not done. As the letter to Mr Webb pointed out:
Instead, the Department has issued a call for evidence which has less than 4 pages of discussion of the government’s proposals, and contains practically no analysis of the needs and circumstances of people who currently receive CCGs and CLs.
The Public Accounts Committee’s report on Community Care Grants made two important points about handing responsibility to Councils. One was that a case should be made first; the other, even more important, was that the shift should only take place “if local authorities are properly resourced to do the job.”
The main reason why the Social Fund has so many examples of unfairness (which clearly troubled the PAC) is that there simply isn’t enough money in the Fund to meet the level of genuine need for support. There is no chance of the new arrangements working better than the existing system without two vital provisos:
- Sufficient resources
- At a time when other local authority services are under so much pressure, there must be a mechanism for making sure that these resources are spent on meeting vulnerable people’s needs for essential items.
But, as the letter to Mr Webb points out, the Department’s consultation document is extraordinarily sketchy on these vital issues. The document is explicit that there will be no ring-fencing of any grants provided to meet these new responsibilities and no statutory duty on local authorities to provide a service (let alone a guarantee of the level of service.) There isn’t even a guarantee that funding for the replacement for Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans will continue beyond the first few years.
Before he became a Minister, Steve Webb used to know more about social security than 99 per cent of MPs. If ever there was a Minister who ought to understand the importance of evidence-based policy making it ought to be him.
What was he thinking of?