Report (6th Day)
Welfare Reform Bill
Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)
My Lords, we support the amendment moved with the great passion and inescapable logic which we have come to associate with my noble friend Lady Lister. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Newton, that I prefer the noble Lord of Wednesday to the one of Monday. As my noble friend said, this is light-touch and effectively cost-free, so we should not have the usual argument about what this would do to the deficit reduction programme. Most noble Lords, with the possible exception of the noble Lord, Lord German, were pretty much on the same page, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester said. To the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I say that this is not about trying to roll back the decision and retain the Social Fund as it is; it is simply trying to ensure that the money allocated through this process will be spent as it was meant to be. I should have thought that, in these times of austerity, the Government would feel it particularly incumbent on them to ensure that.
The amendment is intended to build on the useful reassurances we had from the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, at earlier stages in response to concerns we raised about the localisation of the discretionary Social Fund. Those concerns primarily centred on the lack of a ring fence for the money that is to be transferred to local authorities to allow them to provide services that replace those that the Social Fund currently provides to some of the most vulnerable people when they are facing a particularly difficult situation.
Those concerns about the lack of a ring fence were raised by more than 40 per cent of respondents to the Government consultation on reform of the Social Fund. They have been raised by a wide range of charities, including Scope, Crisis, and Family Action, which state that they are seriously concerned that the abolition of the discretionary Social Fund and its replacement with a patchwork of local arrangements will remove one of the final safety nets for some of the most vulnerable and needy members of society.
Those concerns are so acute because of the degree of vulnerability of those to whom the Social Fund community care grant scheme provides support. Thirty-two per cent of those receiving a community care grant in 2009 were disabled, 26 per cent were lone parents and 10 per cent were pensioners. Many women fleeing domestic violence see community care grants as a vital lifeline when setting up a new home on exit from a refuge. The fear is that, without some way to ensure that local authorities use the money for the purposes for which it has been allocated, the needs of those groups will go unmet and the money will be diverted to other purposes-a lesson we learnt the hard way, as my noble friend Lady Lister pointed out, when we were responsible for removing the ring fence for the supporting people grant when we were in government. Crisis points out that councils are, on average, cutting supporting people services by 13 per cent, despite the overall supporting people budget being cut by only 2.7 per cent.
Local authorities themselves are worried about that possibility. DWP research published in December 2011 into local authorities' plans to replace the Social Fund found that a number of authorities were concerned that without a ring fence and some level of reporting, funding would quickly become amalgamated into existing budgets and that, as a result, its identity, visibility and purpose would be lost. A second concern was that councillors or directorate heads would redirect the funding to plug gaps in other budgets. The most common example mentioned was the social care budget.
The amendment would not place a ring fence around the funding, which the Minister argued would be restrictive. He also argued that the settlement letter which accompanies the transfer of moneys to the local authority will be sufficient to ensure that those funds are used for the purpose for which they are intended-the meeting of often urgent need. If this is the case and local authorities intend as a matter of course to use the funds for this purpose, there should be no barrier to the Minister accepting the amendment, which merely puts in place a checking mechanism to ensure that what he is confident will happen takes place. We support the amendment.