The abolition of a national system of crisis loans and community care grants has left a patchwork of emergency help offered by local services and charities, research by Urban Pollinators has found.
When people are offered assistance, the help is often faster and more responsive to the needs of people in crisis than in the past. But often people do not know help is available and publicity is low-key at best.
Urban Pollinators and Papworth Research and Consultancy Ltd were commissioned by the Bill Sargent Trust to examine the first year of the local welfare assistance scheme run by Hampshire County Council. Under the Welfare Reform Act 2012, the system of community care grants and crisis loans operated by the Department of Work and Pensions was abolished and local authorities were given £347 million to run their own systems of emergency help.
A sum of £1.6 million was transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions to support Hampshire’s LWA scheme in 2013/14, with a further £1.57 million allocated for 2014/15. DWP funding ceases in March 2015.
In its first year the scheme took 4,538 calls through the Hampshire Crisis Information and Advice service and worked through 62 partner organisations with 187 access points across the county (excluding Portsmouth and Southampton, which had their own schemes).
In total, 874 awards were made, with a total value of £90,459. Most awards were in cash, mainly for food, gas and electricity. At least 81 per cent of advice line callers received information only.
The budget for the scheme was significantly underspent, with 63 per cent of earmarked funds (£956,472 out of £1,513,300) not used. This is comparable with underspends in other local authorities.
Our research found that when people received help and advice, the agencies working with them considered the help more responsive and timely than under the previous system of crisis loans and community care grants. The telephone advice line staff were considered friendly and helpful – one charity worker called them ‘my angels’.
At the same time we found evidence of deliberate attempts to limit demand. Several interviewees told us of a rule that only one application for help could be made per year, even though Hampshire County Council said it had never imposed such a rule.
One housing organisation, offered a discretionary fund of £10,000 to help people in crisis, said it deliberately did not publicise the fund: ‘I was adamant from the start we were not going to be going large on this,’ a staff member told us.
Frontline workers frequently complained that delays in benefits and sanctions imposed by jobcentres were pushing vulnerable people into crisis. One jobcentre serving rural Hampshire was described as ‘particularly aggressive’.
We found insufficient evidence to show that Hampshire County Council was achieving its stated objective – to ‘enable individuals and families to plan for a future without crisis or reduce the likelihood of this as far as possible’.
However, frontline agencies believe the scheme offers an opportunity to address the causes of crisis and to encourage a sense of personal responsibility among clients. While the scheme in itself may not build resilience, it provides a means of enabling this to happen.
Our report recommends that the county council and its partners:
- Provide clear and effective communication to agencies and the public
- Investigate whether more can be achieved by distributing smaller pots of discretionary funding among a greater range of service providers
- Stop practices that artificially limit demand, including an unofficial rule that only one claim can be made per year
- Assess and address unmet need and identify gaps in support
- Involve frontline agencies more closely in co-designing sustainable networks of support
- Closely monitor the impacts of welfare reforms, building on previous research by Bill Sargent Trust on the impact of welfare reform in Hampshire.