Help for people in crisis collapses

Emergency fund gave vital support in crisis

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Campaigners have called for urgent action after it was revealed that financial help for people in crisis has collapsed across England – disappearing altogether in parts of the country.

New research by Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA) shows spending on crisis loans and grants has plummeted since the government devolved responsibility to councils and removed the ring fencing in 2013. Up to this point, vulnerable people could access help through the government’s Discretionary Social Fund in times of crisis.

The changes have led to a huge decrease in the available funding. Across Greater Manchester, the budget dropped by 80 per cent from £19 million in 2010-2011 to £3.8 million in 2017-18.

No access to help

In Bury, support dropped by 55 per cent over the past three years, Trafford fell by 35 per cent and Bolton, Tameside and Stockport fell by 21 per cent, 15 per cent and seven per cent. Salford managed to increase its budget by 49 per cent over the same period and Rochdale by 14 per cent. Manchester and Wigan kept their schemes broadly flat.

Outside the north, at least 22 cash-strapped councils have stopped making any crisis provision at all – meaning up to 7.6 million people have no access to help, should they need it.

A further 29 schemes were found by GMPA to be under threat, with local authorities having slashed funds by two-thirds over the last three years or operating schemes
on budgets of less than £100,000 a year. These include Barnsley, York, Oldham, Rotherham and Wirral.

Campaigners want the government to re-introduce ring-fenced funding for the schemes, alongside a statutory requirement on local authorities to operate schemes.

GMPA director Graham Whitham said: “It was unrealistic to expect local councils to pick up the responsibility for crisis support during a period when they have been facing unprecedented cuts to their budgets and without any proper guidance or support from central government.

“The consequence of the government’s approach has been the emergence of an ad hoc approach to crisis support across England. There is no consistency of provision and the type of support people can access varies massively across the country.

“In many areas local schemes are underfunded and not well advertised. Having a well-funded and well-operated scheme in the place where you live could be the difference between living independently in your own home or ending up on the streets.”

No cash grants or loans

The support available varies wildly between areas. Worryingly, two-thirds of local welfare assistance schemes do not provide cash grants or loans, with people instead being provided with vouchers, referrals and advice. And local authorities are increasingly reliant on being able to signpost people to third sector provision.

While Manchester City Council provides cash grants to people experiencing different types of hardship, such as fuel poverty or risk of homelessness, others may not.

GMPA found that Rochdale Council provides vouchers to support people with energy bills and signposts customers to support agencies.

Trafford Council provides support to people with food and fuel costs in the form of vouchers, and staff will look at referring customers to relevant organisations where possible.

Stockport Council provides grants or refers people to the local credit union for a loan, in addition to providing vouchers.

Whitham said: “The government’s intention was for local welfare assistance schemes to be the first port of call for people facing a financial crisis. The reality is that schemes are often bypassed with people referred to voluntary and community-run initiatives such as food banks.

“The state cannot absolve itself of the responsibility to support people facing hardship and deprivation.
The government needs to step in and provide proper funding for crisis support.”

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