The new patchworks of crisis assistance

What responsibilities does society have to people who are in crisis – people who cannot afford to eat or have unmanageable debts, people who have no money to heat their homes or no homes to heat at all?

Such questions have challenged political leaders and local administrators for more than 400 years, since the first Poor Laws were enacted in England in 1597. For much of the last century the debate has been about the extent of society’s responsibilities towards people facing destitution, and the balance of responsibilities between state and local institutions.

Recent years have seen a shift in that balance from central government to a patchwork of local institutions and voluntary arrangements. The use of emergency food banks, once unheard of in Britain, has now become commonplace with more than 20 million meals distributed in 2013/14, an increase of 54 per cent in one year. Government welfare reforms have shifted the onus of action from central government to local communities.

The abolition of the system of community care grants and crisis loans operated by the Department of Work and Pensions was one of a raft of measures imposed through the Welfare Reform Act 2012. Instead local authorities were given a total of £347 million to run their own ‘local welfare assistance’ schemes to help people in crisis, with the freedom to choose how they were to be run and who should be helped.

Urban Pollinators was commissioned to research the effectiveness of one such scheme. Working in partnership with Papworth Research and Consultancy Ltd, we were asked by the Bill Sargent Trust to examine the impact of Hampshire’s local welfare assistance (LWA) scheme in its first year, 2013/14.

Our findings raise important concerns as Britain’s centralised welfare system is increasingly replaced with a miscellany of local initiatives. While they show the potential of local schemes to provide fast and effective help to people in desperate circumstances, they also reveal the widening holes in local safety nets.

The objectives of the evaluation were as follows:

  • To quantify the number of individuals helped through the scheme, the types of assistance received and the agencies providing that assistance;
  • To examine the impact of the LWA scheme on members of the community in Hampshire;
  • To assess the progress achieved against Hampshire County Council’s vision for the scheme, and to consider whether the evidence supports that initial vision;
  • To make recommendations for the future improvement and management of the scheme, in the context of national trends and policy developments.

Our findings

The stated objective of Hampshire’s LWA scheme was to ‘enable individuals and families to plan for a future without crisis or reduce the likelihood of this as far as possible’.

A sum of £1.6 million was transferred from the DWP to support Hampshire’s LWA scheme in 2013/14, with a further £1.57 million allocated for 2014/15. DWP funding support ceases in March 2015.

Like several other local authorities, Hampshire chose to emphasise ‘signposting’ of advice and support via local charities, advice agencies and local government services (each of which was asked to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, some of which were allocated discretionary budgets, and a small number of which were allocated capacity building grants). It supplemented this with a central telephone advice service.

Agencies involved in early discussions hoped a more flexible, personal and responsive system would be introduced. However, they were also concerned about the loss of the previous system, and the potential impact on workloads and demand for support that the new system might generate. They were concerned too about a lack of clarity within, and publicity about, the scheme. Some were left with the impression that it would involve signposting alone.

In its first year the scheme took 4,538 calls centrally and worked through 62 partner organisations with 187 access points across Hampshire (excluding the unitary areas of Portsmouth and Southampton).

In total, 874 awards were made, with a total value of £90,459, the vast majority in the form of cash, and mostly for food, gas and/or electricity. At least 81 per cent of advice line callers received information and/or advice only.

The degree of underspend – 63 per cent of earmarked funds, or £956,472 out of £1,513,300 – is significant and is comparable with underspends in other local authorities. Hampshire County Council argues that it has taken time to engage with the frontline agencies who could ensure help is targeted effectively, so the spending in 2013/14 is unlikely to reflect probable future demand.

In June 2014 we interviewed 20 people directly involved in the implementation or design of the scheme in order to gauge its impact, as well as analysing data and consulting with the lead officer responsible for the scheme at Hampshire County Council.

Three groups of people accounted for the majority of the help offered: people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness; vulnerable adults with physical or mental health problems or disabilities; and people affected by delays in benefit payments or sanctions. Clients’ needs are increasing and becoming more complex, mainly due to delays in benefits or the effects of the tougher benefit regime, coupled with rising living costs and debt.

There was widespread praise for the administration of the scheme. Around half of those interviewed praised the speed, flexibility and effectiveness of LWA, particularly compared with the previous scheme. Advisers were described as friendly, approachable, helpful and professional and the advice given was seen as high quality and with a good customer service ethos. The scheme was generally regarded as encouraging personal responsibility.

The scheme also strengthened networks and partnerships between support agencies that chose to become involved in it. Discretionary budgets have proved powerful tools for some agencies (although Hampshire County Council says others were reluctant to take on a role as gatekeepers of cash or goods for clients).

However, there was widespread concern about a lack of publicity and the consequent low awareness of the scheme, and some were worried about the low value of the practical support provided. Some agencies experienced difficulties in accessing practical support.

Compared with community care grants and crisis loans, Hampshire’s LWA scheme was viewed by most interviewees as faster, more personal, more flexible and more effective at encouraging clients to take responsibility for addressing the causes of their problems.

Agencies did not report any pressures that outstripped their capacity to respond. It is not clear whether this is because resources were well matched to needs, or because demand was suppressed to fit the resources available. We found some evidence that demand had been reduced by restricting access, especially through an unwritten rule that only one application for help could be made per year.

It is not clear how far LWA helped to empower clients or increase their confidence and resilience, or whether such increased confidence was reflected in reduced demand. One reason for the lack of evidence is that there was little or no continuing contact with many clients after they received crisis support.

There is therefore insufficient evidence to demonstrate that Hampshire’s LWA scheme has succeeded in its objective of ‘enabling individuals and families to plan for a future without crisis or reduce the likelihood of this as far as possible’. However, frontline agencies believe LWA 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.

In the context of welfare reform and squeezed standards of living for people on low incomes, the concept of planning for a future without crisis looks ambitious. The comments of our interviewees suggest, though, that this is still an ambition worth striving for.

The challenge for Hampshire County Council and its partners is not only to build on this promising start, but also to do so at a time when money from central government is being withdrawn, and welfare reforms and rising costs of living are resulting in increased need. This requires careful reinvestment of money not spent in the first year.

While a small number of interviewees believed the LWA scheme in Hampshire should not continue, the majority saw it as an essential last resort lifeline.

 

Our conclusions and recommendations

Our research led us to draw the following conclusions:

The emergence of an inconsistent, localised system of emergency help for people facing destitution marks a cultural shift away from the view that one of the roles of the state is to prevent and relieve poverty. It moves the responsibility first of all to the individuals facing poverty and then to local government and voluntary agencies.

Where Hampshire’s LWA scheme has worked well, there is evidence to suggest it not only addresses immediate needs but gives people in difficult circumstances appropriate advice and links them with suitable sources of help. However, the picture is patchy. Several interviewees were unaware of any continuing contact with clients who had received help; some areas or groups of people were not aware of the scheme; at least one agency had made an initial attempt to engage with it and given up; and occasionally agencies took a deliberate decision to keep the scheme as invisible as possible.

While discretionary budgets were welcomed by some agencies, and used creatively and effectively, some were underused. This may reflect the time it took for agencies to become involved in the scheme, or their reluctance to take on a ‘gatekeeper’ role.

While Hampshire County Council made a serious attempt to involve and support a local network of advice agencies and frontline services, this proved challenging where there were not existing relationships on which to build.

The scheme has a low public profile. While it is understandable that Hampshire County Council and its partner agencies would be concerned that excessive publicity might result in the service being overloaded, there is little evidence that this was a real risk in practice. The converse risk is that people in severe need do not know about the scheme and that, as a result, their situations worsen. The longer any intervention by public or voluntary services is postponed, the more costly and less effective it is likely to be.

In the context of increasing scale and complexity of demand, signposting clients to local sources of assistance that are themselves under increasing pressure may assume a capacity to help that does not exist in reality, or is insufficient to match predictable need.

We therefore recommend that Hampshire 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.

Commentary

The brief for our research did not enable us to explore in depth the national implications of the shift towards local welfare assistance schemes. If the views of practitioners in Hampshire are typical, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the old system of crisis loans and community care grants. But it is hard to be confident, overall, that things are now better for people in crisis.

Our research raises questions for local authorities and their partners, and for policymakers, over who should take ultimate responsibility for helping people in crisis; how they should be resourced to do so; and what levels of ‘abuse’ are tolerable within any system of crisis assistance. The tougher advisers are with people they suspect of abusing the system, the more people in genuine need are likely to be deterred from asking for help or rebuffed when they do.

The move away from centralised systems that have been widely criticised for a ‘tick-box’ approach to eligibility also places more responsibility on local advisers to make accurate and appropriate judgements about clients’ needs. Many are uncomfortable with the idea that they should act as gatekeepers in this way. Getting the balance between discretion and consistency right will be a continuing challenge.

 

• Our full report is available at www.bstrust.org.uk