Crisis support schemes run by local authorities are failing to operate effectively with increasing numbers of destitute people turning instead to food banks and other voluntary agencies for help, according to a new report published by The Children’s Society and the Church of England. Tom Sefton from the Church of England, one of the report’s co-authors, writes more.
Families and individuals who seek crisis support are going through some of the hardest times in their lives, such as fleeing domestic violence or experiencing a serious mental or physical health problems. It’s vital that when they need help to buy food or nappies, put money on the electricity meter or replace a broken fridge, they can access this help quickly and easily.
Local authorities’ local welfare assistance schemes are supposed to be the first port of call for people in a financial crisis, when they are not entitled to one of the national payment schemes. As well as meeting people’s immediate financial needs, the localisation of welfare in 2013 was meant to enable to a more joined-up, prevention-focused approach to crisis support.
Five years on, we looked at how these new systems are working in practice and whether people are getting the support they need, by talking to councils, advice centres, children’s centres, food banks and other local organisations who regularly come into contact with people in crisis.
What we found is that national schemes are under-used and that local authority-run schemes are helping relatively few people, leaving voluntary and other statutory agencies trying to fill the gap. The number of awards under the local welfare assistance schemes in our seven case study areas ranged from just 3% to 29% of the level of equivalent awards in 2009-10 under the former Social Fund.
Lack of publicity, bureaucratic hurdles, and restrictive eligibility criteria are all deterring potential applicants and referral organisations from applying. People in crisis are instead reliant on a patchwork of mostly voluntary sector support including food banks and charitable trusts, with the effectiveness and consistency of provision varying widely from one area to another.
Other than for small, exceptional awards, cash payments or loans are not generally available, leaving a big gap in crisis provision for people who need help managing a temporary cashflow problem without relying on high-cost credit or getting into arrears on their rent or other bills.
We also interviewed a number of families who had both good and bad experiences of local crisis support. One mum fleeing domestic violence with her children barely ate for five weeks while she waited for her new benefit claim to be processed and says if it hadn’t been for financial help from friends and family she probably would have returned to her abuser. Another mother and her three children, who were made homeless after a fire, endured months of bureaucracy to access the help they needed.
All too often, the provision of crisis support is fragmented, and the experience is bewildering to those seeking help. Outstanding debts and untreated mental health problems mean that people frequently find themselves in a cycle of repeated crisis.
Unfortunately, there is no consensus at present on who should be taking the lead in the provision of crisis support. Central government has devolved responsibility to local authorities with little or no support or guidance. Local authorities, in turn, are increasingly looking to the voluntary sector, and to individuals themselves, to meet this need.
We believe the state has an important role to play in crisis provision and cannot simply delegate this responsibility to the voluntary sector. Morally, the state has an imperative to help those most in need. Practically, given that problems with the benefits system are one of the main drivers pushing people into financial crisis, the state must do more both to prevent crises from happening and to ensure there is a strong safety net when they do occur. With more and more people facing crisis, particularly as the roll-out of Universal Credit rollout continues apace, the need for an effective crisis support system is even more pressing.
That is why we are calling for a renewed commitment from local authorities and for central government to provide more funding and set minimum standards for local welfare assistance schemes. Clear leadership, coordinated referral systems, common eligibility criteria, co-delivery of services (led by local authorities), and client monitoring are some of the key principles that we think should underpin a constructive debate about the future of crisis support in England.