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Financial-crisis support for families ‘is drying up’

22 March 2019

Local authorities need more guidance, says Children’s Society


THE number of families receiving financial-crisis support from the Government has fallen by 75 per cent since responsibility for the provision was devolved to local authorities “with little or no guidance” in 2013, the Children’s Society has reported.

Before April 2013, emergency financial assistance was provided through the nationally administered Discretionary Social Fund, including interest-free cash loans and grants.

The charity’s report Nowhere to Turn: Strengthening the safety net for children and families facing crisis, published last week, states that there were 1.3 million applications to the Government for this support in 2012, of which 737,000 were successful. Under council-run schemes in 2015, applications for the same kind of support fell to 320,000, of which 208,000 were successful, it says. This fell again in 2017 to 284,000, of which 187,000 qualified for support.

The Children’s Society estimates that more than a quarter (27,000) of the 100,000 applications that were turned down last year were from families with children. Councils were not taking children into account in the applications, it says.

“At a time when families need support more than ever, this vital source of help is drying up,” the charity’s chief executive, Nick Roseveare, said. “An unexpected event like a broken boiler or long-term sickness can tip a family into crisis, and this kind of support can be the difference between them keeping their heads above water, or drowning in debt and ending up hungry or homeless.”

The report is based on freedom-of-information requests sent to all 152 county councils and unitary authorities in England last September, to which 147 councils responded.

It cites strict eligibility criteria from “cash-strapped” councils as reasons for the fall in applications, including the requirement that families should explore using foodbanks, borrow from relatives or commercial lenders, or must be receiving unemployment benefits. Twenty-three councils had scrapped the scheme entirely, while others did little to promote them.

Marcelina, a single mother who now works as a cleaner for two hours a day, had no welfare-assistance scheme in her area. “I could not find affordable childcare for my baby, and so could not work,” she said. “I ended up falling behind with my rent. Now, all my wages and benefits go to paying back the rent arrears. I pay back so much each month, and then, after all my bills are paid, I have nothing left.”

The commonest reasons given for families’ falling into poverty include changes to disability benefits such as protracted delays, unfair decisions, and insensitive or negligent treatment of claimants. Others include the lowering of the benefit cap in November 2016 (from £26,000 nationally to £20,000 outside London, and £23,000 in Greater London); benefit sanctions; errors and poor administration; and the introduction of Universal Credit.

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