Crisis cash goes to church projects

07 June 2013

PA

Ready to wear: a volunteer arranges items of clothing to give to people at a foodbank in St Luke's, West Norwood, London, on 5 April

Ready to wear: a volunteer arranges items of clothing to give to people at a foodbank in St Luke's, West Norwood, London, on 5 April

A FIFTH of local authorities are channelling money earmarked for people in crisis to churches, to fund services such as foodbanks, health care, and counselling, new research shows. One council has transferred its entire budget to a church-based project.

Of the 144 local authorities, from a total of 152 who responded to a Church Times Freedom of Information request, 30 said that they had agreements with churches to respond to residents in need of emergency support.

Most of these involved foodbanks, and churches were either reimbursed for each food parcel or given a lump-sum grant. Other local authorities are transferring significant sums to church-based projects.

The results show that churches are deeply involved in delivering care to people in crisis, and that local authorities trust them to do so. Staff at projects identified in the research said that they had been approached by the local council because of their expertise in responding to people in crisis. They emphasised that they offered support to all, not just to those of a particular faith.

The Church Times asked each local authority about how the Local Welfare Provision (LWP) money allocated to it by the Department of Work and Pensions would be spent in 2013-14. The LWP has replaced the Social Fund, abolished in April. It is administered differently around the country.

The Government allocated £230 million through the Social Fund in 2009-10. The LWP pot for 2013-14, shared between local authorities, is £178 million. Steve Webb, a minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, told councils last year that the Government expected the funding "to be concentrated on those facing greatest difficulty in managing their income, and to enable a more flexible response to unavoidable need, perhaps through a mix of cash or goods, and aligning with the wider range of local support that local authorities/devolved administrations already offer".

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The strongest church involvement we found was in Kent. Medway Council received an LWP allocation of £663,252, and said that, until a long-term provider was in place, 100 per cent of expenditure was going to an "interim provider", Caring Hands, an outreach project of King's Church, Medway (see panel). The project provides hot freshly cooked food, a foodbank, a clothes- and shoe-bank, showers, an on-site GP, counselling, and guidance on housing, employment, and welfare benefits. It is bidding for the council's long-term contract.

Rather than issue a cash loan, most local authorities are offering non-monetary support, such as vouchers for foodbanks, or referrals to furniture schemes.

Staff at various church projects voiced their concern about the shift to a cashless system of support, a potential postcode lottery of support, and the adequacy of the overall funding. They reported concerns that not everyone who fulfilled the councils' eligibility criteria could be helped, although this did not mean that they were turned away by the churches.

CASE STUDY: MEDWAY

MATTHEW GUEST, the senior pastor at King's Church, and founder of Caring Hands, said that the organisation had been approached about the LWP because "we are covering such a wide area with a lot of people who are quite needy, and we have got a reputation for being able to work with these people.

"My vision is that the localised church and localised government should work in excellence together. The trouble is, the church has generally got a reputation for its jumble sales and save-our-church-roof campaigns rather than good-quality business acumen, and excellence in service provision, which is our desire."

People referred to Caring Hands by jobcentres or the social services are assessed for eligibility. Staff then go with them to buy what they need, from beds to washing machines, or a top-up for their gas or electric card. This eliminated fraud in the system, Mr Guest said. 

He believes that this is a better response than the cash loans of the Social Fund: "Anything is open to abuse, and people get caught in a system of dependency. Our ethos is not a hand-out: it is to hand up. . .

"With the council, people were just going and pleading their case, and they got something, or did not. With us, it's a more personal service. Even if they do not qualify, we can still help them through Caring Hands."

There was a "bit of disgruntle­ment" in the first few weeks from people accustomed to receiving a loan, he said, "but now, it is fine. A lot of these guys, we were already working with them through Caring Hands. . . So this is just another area [where] we are able to bring a holistic approach to social deprivation."

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Mr Guest believes that other churches should "absolutely" be bidding for LWP contracts: "The Church has relinquished its responsibilty to the Govern­ment. So much of education, health, welfare reform, started in the Church, and I think the Church has got the mindset and the mandate to be able to deliver exactly what the community needs."

CASE STUDY: KIRKLESS

KIRKLEES has been allocated £1,119,027, of which £41,300 has been assigned to the Huddersfield Methodist Mission, which runs a café that offers hot food, advice, and support. The money will enable the mission to employ an additional support worker.

When asked about the change to a cashless system of support, the manager of the mission, Paul Bridges (below), said: "It depends on how it is done. For us, one of the key things is respect and dignity." 

Reliance on food parcels, he said, meant that churches and other organisations needed to ask "tough questions" of the Government. "Why is it that half a million people need food parcels? . . . Why have we got a society where that is the case?"

Other local authorities working with churches include Cheshire East, with an LWP allocation of £612,032. It has approved grants of £78,000, of which £45,000 goes to church-based projects.

Darlington, allocated £407,268, said that it had a contract with King's Church to provide crisis support through a foodbank. It estimates that expenditure on food vouchers for 2013-14 will be £58,856. King's Church will also provide second-hand furniture as part of the local welfare provision, and expenditure is estimated at £13,575.

Peterborough has been given £803,904, and has allocated £75,000 to KingsGate Community Church to support the five foodbanks that it runs in the city.

'Historic opportunity'

MATT BIRD, who founded and chairs the Cinnamon Network, which supports churches involved in community projects, said that there now existed "a historic, unpreced­ented opportunity for the Church to step up to help those people most at need in our communities.

"Non-monetary support is the best way to help those people most at need in our communities, because it is faster, more practical, and is less likely to be abused," he said this week. "Churches receiv­ing statutory funding need to protect their Chris­tian ethos, guard against mission-drift because they are 'following the money', and to hold in tension their responsibility to both care for the poor and challenge government policy."

The co-ordinator of Church Action on Poverty, Niall Cooper, said that theChurch Timesresearch was "on balance, an encouraging and a positive sign that churches are working in partnership with local authorities to serve their local com­munities".

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He said: "The key thing about the safety net is that it is comprehensive, non-judgemental, accessible, and pro­vided without discrimination to all, on the basis of need. Churches and church-based charities have a long and honourable tradition of co-operating with the state to provide schooling, child and elderly care, and housing provision."

He expressed concern, however, about the process by which the So­cial Fund was being replaced, including the risk of a "postcode lottery".

"As far as I am aware, there has been virtually no public debate - or even visibility, let alone account­ability - as to the criteria that each local authority is using. Many of the schemes have been put together seemingly in great haste. [That] would give me great concerns that a significant number of schemes have not been thought through properly, or properly researched, and will fail to offer the support that people genuinely need."

Mr Cooper is also "deeply worried about the general trend away from cash payments", which "fits with the increasingly prevalent narrative that poverty is people's own fault - and that people in poverty cannot be trusted to make the right decisions with their money. This runs along­side the pernicious stereotypes of people in poverty's spending all their money on drink and alcohol rather than food, fuel, and children."

Foodbanks and other local church projects "cannot be an adequate sub­sti­tute for a proper safety net, which has been provided by the Welfare State for more than the past 60 years. There is a real danger that we are sleepwalking towards the American model of welfare, with wholly inadequate benefit levels, and the institutionalised use of food stamps, food handouts, and soup kitchens.

"If this becomes the norm here, it will truly set us back to Dickensian times."

 

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