With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 39, page 52, line 22, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
‘(1) Section 138(1)(b) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (discretionary payments out of Social Fund) may be repealed, if the Secretary of State—
(a) publishes a detailed proposal for a replacement scheme, or schemes, based on wide consultation with relevant stakeholders;
(b) ensures that such a scheme, or schemes, will provide financial protection for applicants in an emergency or crisis, with the eligibility criteria for applicants specified in regulations;
(c) demonstrates the feasibility of such a scheme, or schemes, through a pilot or pathfinder process; and
(d) demonstrates how an independent appeals mechanism will be implemented.’.
Amendment 40, page 52, line 24, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘(2) In consequence of the provision in subsection (1), the office of the social fund commissioner may be abolished.’.
Amendment 54, page 128, line 28, leave out Schedule 8.
The Government propose to abolish key elements of the social fund—the community care grants and the crisis loans—and to replace them with support through local authorities. The social fund, particularly the crisis loan, is critical to many Members in representing their constituents. That is the case not only in my constituency but across the country. These mechanisms support people in desperate need and at key times in their lives, and they are safety nets when people are facing essential expenditure that they cannot meet. My concern is that many organisations have made representations to the Government, Committee members and Members of the House urging that the social fund should not be abolished without robust and effective alternatives put in its place. The proposal should certainly be fully explored and tested before any change is made.
Social funds have been critical. The numbers of recipients of social funds and of applications demonstrate their importance. In 2009-10, there were 640,000 applications for community care grants, 3.64 million for crisis loans and 1.69 million for budgeting loans. Some 263,000 CCGs were awarded, 2.7 million crisis loans were awarded, and 1.2 million budgeting loans were awarded, so the expenditure was significant. They have a significant impact on individuals’ lives and in tackling poverty across the country. Some £139 million was spent on CCGs, £109 million net was spent on crisis loans, and £482 million gross on budgeting loans. This is therefore a large-scale activity that is vital to the most vulnerable and poorest members of our society. Even at this level of expenditure, however, the Public Accounts Committee concluded, having investigated CCGs, that only 32% of legitimate demand was being met.
I am extremely pleased that the Department for Work and Pensions is retaining budgeting loans and advance loans for alignment payments. However, I and many Members and voluntary organisations working in this field are unclear about what will replace the crisis loans and the CCGs. I am gravely concerned about the proposals to transfer responsibility to local authorities, which will be expected to design their own schemes for emergency support. Those responsibilities are being transferred at a time when local authority budgets are being cut. My understanding is that the funding will not be ring-fenced. In their consultation, the Government suggested that local authorities could also meet some of the demands with payments in kind—food parcels and second-hand furniture were mentioned as examples. I am also concerned that without clear guidance councils might be able unilaterally to introduce and force new conditions on those applying for emergency support.
I tabled the amendment because of the real danger that we will now be faced with numerous schemes being developed by local authorities, and that vulnerable people will lose this essential support. I am concerned that if the funding to local authorities is not ring-fenced, it will be diverted to other priorities.
Let me give the example of what happened to the playbuilder grant in my area. I chair the local play association, which I also helped to set up. When the ring fence was lifted, the Government initially sought to withdraw elements of the second year of the scheme. I am grateful that the Secretary of State for Education reinstated them and returned significant amounts to local authorities, which was a real breakthrough. However, because the money was not ring-fenced, much of it unfortunately appears to have been diverted into other areas of council expenditure, rather than going to improve play for children. That is just one example, from the most recent period, of funds that were not ring-fenced being allocated to local authorities and then spent for purposes other than those that the Government had intended. The Minister has agreed that allocations will be based on social fund spending, which will be regularly reviewed and the data updated. However, my concern is that if money is not ring-fenced in the first stages, it will be creamed off in the early years to be spent elsewhere.
We in Scotland have had four years’ experience of the removal of ring-fencing, supposedly to free up local authorities. I would be interested to hear my hon. Friend’s comments on our experience. Now that the ring fence has been removed, it is difficult to track what is happening to funds such as the supporting people fund, which give people valuable low-level support.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me: I forgot about the experience in Scotland. What she describes is a classic example of what could happen. I am quite fearful, because I have been a councillor and I know about the pressures on local authorities when they expend their resources. If there are no clear guidelines or statutory duties placed on the authorities, elements of expenditure that the Government might have allocated with the best of intentions might not be spent in the way that the Government would want.
I am fearful that if people lose access to the scale of emergency support they currently draw on, their alternative will be to go to higher-cost lenders such as loan sharks, thereby falling into greater debt. Even in advance of the reforms, we have already had a number of pawnbrokers opening up in the town centre in my area, with the local citizens advice bureau reporting increased evidence of the use of loans from loan sharks. A number of organisations have expressed their concern that having numerous different local schemes could mean that we end up with—I do not like this phrase—a postcode lottery of access to life’s necessities, as a result of the loans not being distributed coherently and consistently. I am also concerned that local authorities seem not to have been given any guidelines or directives about establishing an appeals mechanism. Unless an appeals mechanism is set up, claimants will not have the security of being able to challenge decisions made locally.
I would therefore urge the Government not to abolish or wind down the social fund without giving an absolutely clear commitment about what will replace it. If emergency support is to be localised, we need strong, unambiguous and extremely clear statutory duties placed on local authorities to support vulnerable people, and for those duties to be attached specifically to such funding. I urge the Government to think again about ring-fencing, so that the money cannot be diverted away from the poor. The social fund commissioner proposed that the Government consider establishing national criteria for the schemes to be drawn up by local authorities, to ensure consistency in the use of local discretion. It would still be possible to reflect local circumstances, but national parameters would be set on the use of that discretion. I am also concerned that the devolution of emergency support services might create high administrative costs—this has been mentioned by a number of organisations, including Age UK and the Disability Alliance—which might divert funds away from provision for the poorest.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. Would he like to comment on the observation made in the evidence that we received on the Public Bill Committee that the distribution of such loans nationally is very uneven in any event, despite a national body administering them? On that basis, would there not be some merit in distributing funds to local authorities on a needs basis?
I appreciate that argument, but there is a difference between having a national system and having a complete free-for-all at the local level. There is a midway point, which would involve the Government setting clear criteria and guidelines, backed up with statutory force, so that when the changes are introduced locally, funds are not diverted but go to people who need them, and local authorities do not face high administrative costs. What I am searching for is
Government action to reach a compromise and achieve a balance between national distribution and local distribution, thereby avoiding a free-for-all.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s generosity in giving way, but I would query what he is describing. Would it not go against the ethos of the Localism Bill, which is about trusting authorities with the responsibility to do what is right for their areas, and trusting the electorate to keep them in check so that they do just that?
I understand, and, coming from a local government background—both as a councillor and as a local government officer—I very much support the localist agenda of freeing up local authorities to do as much as they can to reflect the direct wishes of the local electorate. However, we are talking about people in severe poverty, and one of the overall duties of government at every level is to ensure that people in our communities are not put at risk as a result of that poverty. Therefore, there is a danger in the localist agenda, which I support, of allowing a free-for-all. Without establishing national standards and monitoring, we could have a number of local authorities failing to fulfil their responsibilities as we would wish. Although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the local electorate should hold those authorities to account, we have unfortunately had numerous examples—I speak as an advocate of local government—of that mechanism for keeping local authorities in check not being effective, particularly on the detail of administering such schemes. I am sure that we can all cite examples of that on a cross-party basis, no matter who has been in control.
I am not talking about just my individual concerns. Virtually every organisation dealing with the poor in this country has expressed its concerns about this element of the legislation. My local citizens advice bureau has provided me with numerous examples—which I will not take the House through—of the benefits of both social loans, particularly crisis loans, and community care grants. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Heather Brown, director of the Hillingdon CAB, and all her team for their hard work. They have emphasised the need to explore all the implications locally and nationally before the Government leap into a new system.
Shelter and Crisis, the housing charities, have undertaken their own assessments of the process. Crisis surveyed 250 of its housing advisers. Numerous Members across all parties work closely with Crisis, and we have the greatest of respect for its work. That survey showed that 69% of clients used crisis loans for rent in advance, with 87% using them to help furnish their properties. In its briefing, which many Members will have seen, Crisis quotes one person as saying that unless we have a system that is at least as effective as the social fund, the effect on efforts to get people to move into independent accommodation would be “catastrophic”. Anxieties have been expressed across the board about the fact that we have not yet had that assurance.
I am concerned about the lack of analysis in the Government’s proposals of people’s needs. There is also a lack of detail on how the proposals will work. My worry is that poor and vulnerable people will be put at risk as a result. It therefore behoves us as a House in discussing this Bill, as well as the Government, to come forward rapidly with detailed proposals that have statutory backing, in order to assure our constituents and all those working in the field that we will have a system to provide emergency support to people who are poor and vulnerable, but not one in which local decision making risks diverting those resources away from where they are needed. It is on that basis that I have tabled this amendment for discussion. I hope that, as a result of this debate, we will at least gain a clear understanding of how the Government are going to address these issues—and address them fairly urgently—given that they are causing considerable concern.
I congratulate my hon. Friend John McDonnell on the way in which he has introduced this group of amendments. His amendments and those tabled in my name cover much the same ground. Like him, I am deeply concerned that the Government propose to remove the discretionary element of the social fund without giving us a great deal more clarity about how the poorest and most vulnerable will be protected, about the adequacy of the replacement system, about the protection of vulnerable people without a local connection—a matter to which I shall return in a moment—and about the lack of a proper system of review. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the numbers involved are significant, with 640,000 applications for community care grants and 3.6 million applications for crisis loans. We are not talking about a modest amount of money, and those figures represent a great deal of need. He also suggested that they represent only the tip of the iceberg of need. Of course we accept that there cannot be unlimited capacity to meet need, and it is clear that, were more resources to be made available, more need would come out and be met.
I want to pick up on a point that my hon. Friend made in response to an intervention. Despite the numbers of people who apply for and receive loans and grants under the discretionary grant, and the fact that when local government takes on this responsibility it will be accountable, in the spirit of localism, to its electors, we must recognise that the characteristics of people who seek assistance from the social fund do not make them a cohort of people that is likely to influence local politicians on a significant scale. This will tie into comments that I will make in a moment about what we should do with people with no local connection.
All the evidence that I and my hon. Friends have received from our law centres, citizens advice bureaux and other organisations shows that the claimants of discretionary social fund elements are very likely to be highly mobile people in a crisis that frequently severs their connections to the local community. They are not likely to be over-represented among those on the electoral register, or to wield a significant amount of local clout. They would not always need to do that; a good, responsive local authority will map and respond to their needs without it, but the reality is that, in a competition for scarce resources, that will not always be true of all local authorities.
We are completing the stages of the Welfare Reform Bill today, having been asked to make decisions on a number of important elements, which we discussed on Monday and are debating today, without having been given a great deal of substance or detail about how those elements will work. The Government called for evidence on the discretionary element of the social fund in February, but the consultation did not close until we were in the middle of the Bill’s Committee stage. That worries me. Yet again, the Government seem to be pushing ahead with their proposals even though we have not had a proper opportunity to reflect on the breadth of views and opinions of people with experience of and expertise in the subject.
The Minister might care to report to the House on what the responses to the consultation actually said. It would be nice if she assured us that all the responses would be placed in the Library. I think I can guess, however, that their overwhelming tone will be one of deep disquiet, and that they will be urging the Government to think again, which is consistent with the principles outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington. As he said, almost all the organisations with expertise and specialist knowledge in the operation of the social fund have told the Government of their worries. Let us take note of who they are. They include: Age UK; the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services; Barnardo’s; the Child Poverty Action Group; Citizens Advice; Community Links; Crisis; Disability Alliance; Family Action; the Family Fund; the Family Rights Group; Gingerbread; Homeless Link; the National Housing Federation; Oxfam; Platform 51; the Prison Reform Trust; Save the Children; Scope; and St Mungo’s. I am sure that there are others.
Those organisations are the big society in action. In many cases, they provide complementary services to the social fund, and they are expressing their concerns about the Government’s proposals and about their capacity to deliver to the people who will need their services when the changes are introduced. If the Government are serious, as I have always thought they were, about the idea of the big society and about a partnership with voluntary and community organisations, surely the first principle must be to listen to what those organisations are saying. Let us take an example from that list. Oxfam has said:
“The Social Fund provides vital support for people in times of crisis. The government proposes to devolve much of this money to local authorities, but without any statutory duty on them to provide an equivalent system of protection. This runs the risk of driving people to use high-cost lenders, reducing their chances of managing their debts successfully. This is particularly important as Universal Credit constitutes a radical reform, and it is almost certain that its introduction will suffer from teething troubles. These are likely to cause significant need for emergency payments like crisis loans, just as they are abolished. The Social Fund needs to play an important role in protecting people during this transition, which further supports the need for a delay to the change.”
The Committee also heard directly from people who know more about the social fund in all its strengths and weaknesses—we know that there are some weaknesses in the operation of the existing scheme—than anyone else. They included Sir Richard Tilt from the Social Security Advisory Committee, who said:
“Community care grants are the bit I am most concerned about—£141 million. By the time that you have dished that out to 100 plus local authorities, there will not be a great amount of money at local level, and I think, as it is not ring-fenced, it is likely to disappear into other things.”
He also said:
“My view on all this is that we have a UK social security system and that, for the past 25 years, the discretionary social fund has been the ultimate, final safety net for the poorest and most vulnerable…I would argue for a UK safety net underneath it.”
Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee,
Professor Kempson told the Committee, in respect of the role of local authorities:
“Some will provide a better service than we have now”.
I do not think that that is in doubt. There is excellent practice in local government. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, I also came to the House after serving in local government and I am a great advocate of it. Professor Kempson said:
“Some will provide a better service than we have now; many will provide a worse service; and some, I fear, will provide almost no service.”
She also said:
“As I read it, there will be no ring-fencing, and I cannot even see that there is any proposal as yet to build in any form of accountability by local authorities. That is the very least that is needed.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee,
We know that the social fund has many flaws and has been subjected to scathing criticism from the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office and others. I completely accept that those criticisms need to be taken seriously. The issue before the House today, however, is whether the Government’s proposal risks making things worse by entirely removing that essential safety net without addressing the genuine concerns of the present system. The Minister made it absolutely clear to the Committee that
“there is no expectation that local authorities will replicate the current scheme.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee,
She is nodding at that. She made it clear that, when the discretionary social fund is removed, local authorities will provide a service equivalent to the present one. She said that this was not devolution to local government, but something fundamentally different.
Central to that is the fact that the Government do not expect local authorities to manage loan schemes, as happens now with the crisis loan scheme, and that as loan repayments were topping up the available resource through the current crisis loans, the capacity to provide an equivalent level of service through emergency funding is now severely restricted. The figure I was given was 84%, although the Minister told us in Committee that it was 50%—and I am happy to accept her correction. None the less, the cash sum as an annual figure starting from now that will be devolved to local authorities does not tell us much about the funding that will available for the equivalent level of crisis service once the scheme gets under way because that 50% repayment will very quickly fundamentally erode the value of the service. As we have heard, the likelihood is that it will drive people into the arms of the cowboy and high-interest lenders as well as into debt.
The current proposals expect local authorities to devise their own schemes for emergency support, but without ring-fencing or without specific accountability attached to the funds. It is highly likely, as we know, that some or all of the funds can be diverted into other local priorities and the safety net would disappear.
The Government also envisage local schemes that will make use of the provision of other cash support to assist people in need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, emphasising the potential use of credit unions, charitable support, recycled furniture outlets and food banks. Setting aside whether that is really the kind of service that we want to operate, it has to be accepted—this is central to our thinking—that in many cases, although not all, when people are in need of emergency assistance, money is the best way of helping them to purchase the goods that they are likely to need.
That is very much in the spirit of empowerment, which we often hear the Government talk about in other respects. When people are at a crisis point in their lives and turn up to ask for assistance—perhaps fleeing domestic violence and needing to set up a new home—I fail to see how it empowers them when the only thing available is a second-hand recycled white goods store that may or may not have the form of assistance that they need. Whether or not it will be good value for money is another point. We all know that second-hand and recycled goods are of less value than new ones. There are all kinds of practical issues to consider.
Is it not also the case that many of the arrangements for people to purchase second-hand furniture are increasingly set up as social enterprises, which are intended to recoup money and make a working profit to go back into the business, so they will charge people, albeit less than for new goods, as otherwise their enterprise will not work? In any event, if this were going to be free, it would have to be heavily subsidised by someone.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Government’s mindset is an old-fashioned one. There is an excellent case for making better use of recycled goods as a commercial or social enterprise facility, but there is also a strong empowerment argument for letting individuals make their own choices with cash at their disposal to meet their needs appropriately. As my hon. Friend rightly says, in many cases, the vision we used to have of a charitable sector simply opening a warehouse into which people can go to choose whatever donated goods might be available no longer applies.
I would counterpoint that on the basis that it is entirely possible to imagine a financial arrangement between the charity and the local council in which the council uses the funds provided for the purpose to future-buy services from the charity, giving people free access under certain circumstances to the products provided. There are many different ways to skin this cat; I can see these arrangements working perfectly adequately.
The problem is that once we start creating a necessity for such an arrangement to be run at every single local authority, we will also create the potential for a mismatch between the goods that people need, the goods that are available, the charities providing those services and the area in which they are available. That also risks setting up a completely bureaucratic system in every single local authority to do what the current discretionary social fund does.
I do not suggest for a moment that what I said should be a prescription nationwide. I said simply that it is easy to imagine an entrepreneurial solution that used the social fund to provide services locally that were administered by local councils but did not involve money changing hands.
I will do a deal with the hon. Gentleman. If he supports our amendment, I will accept his point. There is some truth in what he says: there is some excellent practice out there and plenty of innovation in the local government sector, but it is not consistent across the piece. The amendment effectively says, “Do not abolish the discretionary social fund without piloting or without allowing a proper ability for local authorities across the piece to demonstrate that they have the capacity to do what needs to be done”. The hon. Gentleman might well have enough confidence in that, but it cannot be guaranteed. At the moment, there is absolutely no assurance that a consistent level of innovation, expertise and commitment is available in some, let alone most local authorities.
In my constituency we have done just that. A furniture fund has been set up by a voluntary organisation that is partly contracted by different agencies, but it has taken us 10 years to get to that. Now, because of people’s change in circumstances as a result of loss of benefits, we are setting up an arrangement for food parcels, which are being distributed by religious organisations. It is, however, extremely difficult, and it takes a long time to set this sort of thing up. My anxiety is that in the rush to legislate on this matter, none of the preparatory work has been done and there are considerable costs in setting these things up, particularly in the early years.
That is an excellent point. As we have said so many times in debating this Bill, one does not necessarily disagree with some elements in principle—localism and the involvement of local government in shaping the response to local needs, for example—but these local projects take a long time and require investment to set up and they tend to come and go. In north Paddington, one of the most deprived communities in the country, two credit unions were set up over the last 15 years—with regeneration funding in both cases—but they have both collapsed. I do not want some of our most desperate and vulnerable people to be forced into reliance on a set of services that come and go, that might not be available and that might well collapse. I think credit unions are marvellous; I would like to see them flourish in all parts of the country, but they are much more vulnerable than people sometimes allow.
Many of us have been through the same exercise that my hon. Friend described to establish credit unions, so the last thing we need at the moment is anything that destabilises our local credit unions. Loading this sort of responsibility on to them could undermine not only individual credit unions, but the whole sector.
That is absolutely right. We need to carry on growing the local expertise and the local voluntary and community organisations, including credit unions, which need to come up with innovative and practical responses to help deal with our social problems. However, they are not a replacement, but a complement, and they have to be approached with a great deal of care.
I commend credit unions to all Members for the work they do, but for those in financial difficulties, the crisis is already there and unless someone is already in a credit union, they cannot borrow from it. With respect, I do not believe that credit unions are an option.
That is absolutely right. The Government mention credit unions as part of the package of alternatives that they want to see picking up the slack. They may have a role for some people, but the hon. Gentleman is right that they are not an emergency response. As I said in my opening remarks, precisely because a disproportionate number of the individuals who need crisis intervention do not have a local connection or a stable household background, they are the ones who will not be in a credit union. They are disproportionately unlikely to be in a credit union or to have the scope to be able to join one. That is precisely why the social workers—expected to be a part, although admittedly not the entirety, of the gatekeeping process for the replacement of the discretionary social fund—are so concerned. Although they will not be alone, they will be very much on the front line of gatekeeping for this dramatically reduced and very different type of service, which is patchy and might be flourishing in some cases and not in others. As I said in Committee, the consortium of community care stated a few months ago that social workers are anxious about having to deliver the social fund, knowing that applications for community care grants are already turned down in 60% of cases. They say that their role as advocates and supporters for people in need through a crisis in their lives is dangerously undermined by the new financial gatekeeping role that they will be asked to take on.
In evidence to the Committee, Councillor Steve Reed, speaking on behalf of the London Councils and the Local Government Association, said that local authorities have expressed an in-principle willingness to be part of this process. I understand why he would do that. He also told the Committee that he was worried that the localisation of the discretionary social fund should be fully funded and that it should cover all the costs, including the administration costs, which, for the community care grant alone, were £19 million in 2008-09. As we have drawn out in the debate over the past hour, the likelihood is that the administrative process for local government and the gatekeeping, which will not simply be about deciding whether to give a crisis loan or community care grant but whether to find people alternative levels of support, are likely to put an increased financial burden on local authorities.
Some Government Members on the Committee argued that social workers and others will be able to provide more intensive, personalised intervention for people in crisis, helping to end a cycle of repeated loan applications, but that is likely to make the situation worse. If the 3.64 million crisis loan applicants or 640,000 applications for community care grants have to be funnelled through a more intensive and personal level of intervention, who will do that work? Where are the social workers and the available time in local government to improve on this? The answer is that they will not be there. Local authorities are retrenching and they are on the back foot financially, and the likelihood is that they will have a smaller pot of money as they act as gatekeepers for an even wider group of individuals.
The Minister tells us that there is an expectation that there will be some form of review process, but the current review process is national and now every local authority will be expected to set up its own, leading to huge complications with differences in approach and the structure and bureaucracy of setting up a process in every local authority to determine how initial decisions will be reviewed and appealed against. I know that that causes a great deal of alarm in the advice sector.
Let me return to the vexed concern about local connection. Sample work on discretionary fund cases was carried out by the Department last year, which considered a basket of 500 different cases, and 20% of those cases involved people who were homeless. Some 20% and more of the applicants in such cases—the amount varied between different parts of the country—had no single connection with any individual local authority. That is my single biggest concern about the Government’s approach to this agenda.
One example, which was highlighted in the media last week, is the case of victims of domestic violence. A group of the women’s charities has written to the Minister for Women and Equalities, warning that some councils will not be financially able or willing to help women escape violent partners on the grounds of the provisions in this part of the Bill. The belief is that there will be an increased postcode lottery of provision that does not reflect the Government’s previous claim that tackling domestic violence is a priority and the fear is that councils could impose a local connection test that could disadvantage women fleeing domestic violence who are often, almost by definition, forced to move into another local authority area. The charities say that many women fleeing the home have to leave everything behind, including household furnishings and essential items, such as cookers, that most families take for granted to rebuild their lives in a new home. They quoted a mother from Croydon, south London, who left her abusive partner in 2003 and said that she had only been able to escape a life of domestic violence thanks to a £700 grant that helped her to rebuild her life. The chief executive of Women’s Aid said:
“The social fund is a vital resource for victims attempting to rebuild their lives after domestic abuse and, if it is not available, victims may be forced to return to their abusers.”
The director of Refuge added that if the discretionary social fund is abolished, there is a risk that
“more women will be forced to delay their escape from their partner.”
We flagged up other groups in Committee that deserve to be mentioned again, such as those that deal with the problems for ex-prisoners. About 66,000 people leave prison every year, a third without accommodation. The Prison Reform Trust has lobbied me and others on its concerns about the loss of the discretionary social fund and has flagged up the fact that ex-prisoners have a particularly strong need for early financial assistance to prevent debt, because once they are in debt there is a grave danger that that will lead to a risk of reoffending, as the two are heavily correlated.
I worry that local authorities, which are subject to political pressures from their resident populations and forced into painful choices that, in some cases, involve retrenching youth services, libraries and so on, are hardly likely when allocating a non-ring-fenced grant to make ex-offenders, for example, a priority. That is human nature. It is inevitable that some groups will be less of a priority than others and ex-offenders are likely to be a particularly at-risk group in that context. If we take each local authority on its own merits, we can understand the political reality of that position, but it will come back and bite local communities and the Government many times over if those individuals are not assisted and cannot make a stable life for themselves after they leave prison.
Local authorities such as mine and such as those in seaside communities, in particular, have an incredibly high population turnover. In my constituency, 30% of those on the electoral register alone move address every single year. Those individuals do not have a local connection and there will be a real risk that a mechanism will be created to determine who does and who does not have a local connection. Where, then, will those individuals go?
When the Committee took evidence, the Secretary of State said that there would be a “moral duty” on local councils. I repeat what I said in Committee: I do not know what a moral duty means. We all believe that local authorities have moral obligations and we have a moral obligation to respond to homelessness, to children in need and to the care needs of our elderly people, but in practice, without a legislative framework, people will not necessarily assume that duty if they have grounds to believe, for example, that the person approaching them at a time of crisis is not someone whom that specific local authority has a duty to assist. Although I welcome the principle of a moral duty, I want to see a legislative framework. I want to see it piloted so that local authorities have the opportunity to draw up a code of practice that can be tested and shown to work so that when people do not have a specific local connection they will be dealt with and not turned away.
For all those reasons, and for the reasons so well expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, I shall press amendment 39 to a vote. There might be scope for a localised response to some of these needs, but we are a long way from having anything like the structures, framework and legislation to enable individual needs to be accommodated, including with reviews and when the vexed question of local connection is not resolved. I hope that the House will take the opportunity to say that we should not proceed until we have seen this working in practice and dealt with any of the problems that will undoubtedly arise.
I know that Stephen Timms is keen for us to make progress today and was somewhat concerned that we did not complete consideration of all elements on Monday. I will try to address all the issues that I am able to address in a speedy manner so that we can consider things fully.
Right hon. and hon. Members who have been listening to the debate thus far will already have a flavour of the complexity of the current scheme. Unfortunately, the scheme is open to widespread abuse, and some of that is driven by the remoteness of the administration of these elements of the discretionary social fund. Just so that hon. Members are absolutely clear, I should say that we are talking about replacing budget loans, crisis loans and the community care grant with national payments on account, including advances and alignment payments, and with local authority -delivered local assistance. The bulk of the comments of the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Westminster North (Ms Buck) were about crisis loans, half of which are alignment payments, which will continue to be paid at national level through payments on account. It is important that hon. Members are aware that to all intents and purposes people will still have access to that money on a national basis. I hope that will reassure hon. Members regarding a number of the issues raised.
I do not think that the status quo is an option because of the level of abuse in the system at the moment. First, the number of crisis loans has tripled since 2006, but we do not believe that that increase reflects an underlying increase in genuine need as a result of the recession or anything else. We have looked in detail at the individuals who are causing that increase in demand and our analysis has shown that it is being driven by young single people on jobseeker’s allowance, many of whom are still living at home. We should be looking at what is driving that demand and asking whether the money is getting through to the sort of vulnerable people about whom the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is rightly concerned.
What is the Minister going to do to ensure that the operation of the social fund across the devolved regions does not set a hierarchy of standards and differences that are so far apart that people come to realise that the social fund operates very differently in certain parts of the UK? That would create hardship for many vulnerable people.
The national payments on account will be dealt with on a national basis in the same way in any part of the country and the regulated part of the social fund will continue as it is. The hon. Gentleman is talking about how local assistance will be dealt with and I am sure that he, like all hon. Members, will know that local authorities want to do their best by the vulnerable citizens we are talking about. That is certainly my experience of most, if not all, local authorities.
Will the hon. Lady forgive me if I make a little more progress? As I have said, we really need to move through this quite quickly.
Another reason why the status quo is not an option was highlighted only this week when community care grants were referenced in a “Dispatches” programme, which showed that an ex-offender who had received a community care grant for resettlement had spent the money on drugs. We should all be concerned about the lack of checking on how money is used and we should look at how to improve the system.
The hon. Member for Westminster North took a great deal of pain to talk about people who claim crisis loans having some degree of mobility and disengagement from the democratic system. I am not sure what evidence she has to support those assumptions, but we do not have that evidence to hand. The three elements of the discretionary scheme that I have talked about have very different and distinct client groups.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to one group of people who might fall into that category? Victims of domestic violence might not be on the electoral register because they are forced out of one area and into another and they therefore do not have the democratic accountability that comes through the ballot box.
The hon. Lady is obviously a mind reader, because I was just about to talk about whether the changes we are discussing will be a problem for victims of domestic violence—a group whom we all want to ensure get that support and are able to move to a place of safety, as is absolutely right. We do not believe that the new localised service will be a barrier to people in genuine need, particularly victims of domestic violence. It will provide an opportunity for more joined-up services on the ground while continuing to give individuals in that situation access to national payments on account through advances or alignment payments. The hon. Lady will be aware that under the current scheme victims of domestic violence must have fled the family home to qualify for support to set up home from the discretionary social fund.
A third and very important reason why keeping the status quo is not a sensible option is the need to align support with the wider changes that are happening in the welfare system. To continue running the current administratively burdensome system is no longer financially sustainable. Community care grants and crisis loans for general living expenses will be replaced by locally based support, which will be the responsibility of local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. That will deliver on the coalition’s commitment to implement the Calman commission’s recommendations and will tie in with the wider Government agenda on localism, as has been mentioned. Local authorities are better placed to understand the issues that people in their area face and to dovetail existing and needed services. Different areas face different issues and local authorities will be free to come up with the sort of innovative ideas that will address these issues and make sure that the money that is available is targeted at the right purposes so that we move away from a situation that allows the sort of abuse I have mentioned.
We learned in Committee that although council tax is delegated to local authorities, investigations of fraud will be carried out nationally by the single fraud investigation service. The Minister has talked about abuse. In the case of the devolved social fund, where there is a worry about fraud will it be investigated by the local authority or by the single fraud investigation service?
Local authorities will be free to consider whether they need to set up their own service locally or use the local government ombudsman. It really is for local authorities to look at the most effective way of dealing with levels of fraud or with any dissatisfaction with the way in which they are delivering services. The amendments do not really grasp the premise behind the Government’s proposals. We want to move to a situation in which local authorities are looking at the gaps in their services locally and are able to use the funding that is forthcoming as a result of these changes to fill those gaps and pull together the sort of service that is required by vulnerable groups such as those we have been discussing.
Crisis loans for alignment purposes and budgeting loans will be replaced by new national provision. As I have said, that accounts for half of all current crisis loan applications. That provision will be delivered nationally by the Department for Work and Pensions. The ending of the discretionary social fund and the implementation of replacement schemes, both nationally through payments on account and locally by local authorities and the devolved Administrations, is the best way to approach the reform. Amendments 53 and 54 would prevent those reforms from taking place and would leave us with an out-of-date and inefficient discretionary social fund scheme that would soon be unworkable with the introduction of the wider benefit reform we have already outlined.
Amendments 39 and 40 would impose criteria set by central Government on arrangements to replace the discretionary social fund if it were abolished. Some of the requirements in amendment 39 are activities that we are already undertaking in our work on the replacement of the discretionary social fund. Other elements in the amendment would not be helpful to what the reform of the social fund is trying to achieve. As I said, in some ways the amendment misses the point of the reform, which is that local authorities are better placed to understand the needs of their local communities and to make sure that the money is getting through to the right people for the right activities.
The hon. Lady will know that we have had a call for evidence, and we will be considering the many different views of the organisations she mentions. We will of course want to work with those organisations to make sure that our policies work well. I remember some confusion in Committee about whether we were talking about the social fund or the discretionary social fund, so perhaps we need to make sure that people really understand our policy. Empowering local organisations at local level—the sorts of organisations that the hon. Lady named—to work with vulnerable groups in the individual community will, I think, be welcomed by many organisations on the ground.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I too was thinking about some of the speeches earlier this week; responsibility and empowering people are vital.
Amendment 39 misses the point when it proposes a pilot scheme to determine the feasibility of whatever scheme would replace the discretionary social fund. It would be impossible to run a pilot scheme for each local authority. We could run only a single pilot scheme, which would lead to our stifling any ideas local authorities might have about how to improve their local area. I hope that my experience of local authorities is no different from that of the hon. Member for Westminster North. They really understand their responsibilities to the most vulnerable groups in society and rather than deprioritising them, which is the inference from her comments, they are very much a priority. Those groups may not have a strong voice at the ballot box, but most councillors I meet are very motivated about getting the right support to them.
I do not want to get drawn into discussions about blue Labour, and I understand the hon. Lady’s anxiety about almost flying against the localism agenda, but there is a mid-way point. Even if the Government are not looking at laying down criteria or guidelines, is there no thought that central Government could convene local authorities to explore best practice before the proposals are implemented?
There have already been conversations with local government, and as I think Opposition Front Benchers hinted at, there was a broad welcome for the proposals. We shall certainly be working with local authorities to make sure that what happens is exactly what the hon. Gentleman was talking about; the spread of best practice will be critical.
The amendment seems to have taken no notice of the national provision of payments on account that DWP will provide under clause 98. Budgeting advances—the replacement scheme for social fund budgeting loans—will be very similar to budgeting loans, which have been hugely successful and largely self-financing. Budgeting advances will be targeted at those who are least likely to be able to access mainstream lending. That will help to ensure that vulnerable people are not driven to illegal lenders, which is rightly of concern to Opposition Members.
Short-term advances—the replacement scheme for interim payments and crisis loan alignment—will ensure that people who face financial need as a result of problems with their benefit claims will, if they are eligible, be able to access financial assistance through interest-free advances of their benefit. The grounds for eligibility will be set out clearly in regulations.
Another element of the amendment is a requirement for the Secretary of State to publish a proposal for a replacement scheme, based on wide consultation with stakeholders. We are already taking that approach in our discussions about replacement schemes. We will soon publish our response document to our call for evidence, which was based on wide consultation with lobby groups and local authorities. There will be a large amount of information and evidence for Members to consider.
The amendment requires local authorities to set up an independent appeals mechanism, but as I have already said, local authorities will be able to set up an internal review mechanism if they think it appropriate. Furthermore, the local government ombudsman offers a fair and impartial service for people who are dissatisfied with a decision made by their local authority.
In conclusion, the national scheme of payments on account and the local provision, as delivered by local authorities and the devolved Administrations, will provide well-considered replacements for the discretionary social fund, and will make sure that we are supporting more effectively than is currently the case the vulnerable individuals we have discussed today. With those reassurances, I hope Members feel it appropriate to withdraw their amendments, and we can press forward with the Bill.
As we have heard, the discretionary social fund currently consists of budgeting loans for managed expenditure, crisis loans for emergencies and community care grants for essential household items such as cookers and beds for certain groups—for example, vulnerable people who are moving into new accommodation. The provision is national and acts as a safety net for benefit recipients facing essential expenditure they cannot meet.
It bears repeating that in 2009-10, there were 640,000 applications for community care grants and 3.64 million applications for crisis loans. That demonstrates the scale of the activity we are asking local authorities to take on. It is no small task, but it is absolutely vital to the financial well-being of many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Although an alignment scheme will be introduced—in effect, allowing advance payment of benefit—I have seen from experience how important it is that people can claim a community care grant, which does not have to be paid back, for their living expenses. It does not put people on the lowest possible income into debt. Without that, people will be driven into the arms of the high-cost lenders, which will reduce their chances of managing their debts successfully. That will put more strain on other services—for example, the health service—due to the increase of stress and depression caused by the cycle of low income and debt.
Proposals were outlined in 2011 to transfer to local authorities, with guidance, the funds currently used, but there will be no new statutory duty for how the money is to be used. It will not be ring-fenced. Local authorities have numerous calls on their expenditure at present, and without ring-fencing we cannot guarantee that the provision will go to those who are most in need. I envisage a number of different policies and that some vulnerable people will lose the right to apply for emergency support. They may be trapped between two local authorities with differing policies.
My hon. Friend talks about the involvement of local authorities. Several of my constituents have contacted me about a situation that arose when the computer system in Sefton council’s housing office was down for six weeks. The staff advised my constituents to get crisis loans until the problem was fixed. I cannot understand how the Government’s proposals will make it possible for those staff to provide any kind of crisis support. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I apologise for intervening on the hon. Lady, but may I clarify that people will be able to access that sort of money through payments on account, as I outlined?
I shall return to the issue of domestic violence. Who will be the responsible authority? If people move overnight to interim accommodation, whose policies will prevail? There are problems at the moment with local authorities taking responsibility. I know of situations in which one local authority says, “These people can’t come back to us,” and the other says, “We don’t want to accept them.”
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is a serious and acute problem in London. Given that the boroughs are geographically small, people who move at a time of crisis are not aware of what borough they are moving to and from, and the situation can be disastrous for their future housing options. Central Government direction is needed, and there must be complete ring-fencing and a statutory requirement on each local authority because otherwise the most vulnerable will be short-changed as a result of demands for expenditure—albeit understandable demands—in other areas of a local authority.
I completely agree. The Government’s approach seems to be predicated on a view that local management will more accurately assess local people’s needs and use a range of local provision and services to support people in need, but that argument is flawed.
We have heard mention of credit unions and charitable support, as well as recycled furniture outlets and food banks. However, let me cite the example of an individual whose washing machine or cooker breaks down. They might be given a recycled product, but such goods are often much less energy-efficient than new goods, so that person will face higher fuel costs and will have no choice but to pay them with more of their low income. Such goods also lack a guarantee and have questionable reliability, so the approach might well be a false economy.
There is also a question of whether charities will be able to sustain continuing demand and, importantly, of whether the dignity of the individual will be adequately protected. I have heard many people—young and old—say, “I am not asking for charity. I do not want charity.” I fear that people will be deterred from applying to any scheme under which they will be referred to a charity and that they will therefore be forced into the hands of the high-cost lenders and credit companies.
I might have misunderstood the hon. Lady, but is she really criticising the charities that provide such services? For example, councils for voluntary service provide excellent second-hand furniture facilities. These charities are not undignified, but offer an extremely worthwhile service through which they provide good quality goods at reasonable prices.
I absolutely accept that, but some people do not want to be forced to use such charities as their only course of action. Vulnerable people on low incomes have a great sense of pride when claiming benefit. I absolutely believe that forcing individuals into the arms of charity will mean that they will instead go to high-cost lenders.
I will not give way. I want to move on to the lack of an appeals process.
I regret the loss of the extremely useful digest published by the social fund commissioner that gave an overview of appeals and reviews. That was an invaluable tool for advisers. It assisted them to help their clients to obtain their rights consistently. Such consistency is extremely important. Without a universal scheme, it will be lost, so vulnerable claimants will be left with a patchy and inconsistent service. People might have a right of appeal or independent review but, depending on local authorities’ policies, one side of the street could well get a cash grant while the other side would be given advice about which charity to approach. In the context of homelessness, I have seen that one local authority’s interpretation of “advice and assistance” can be very different from that of the local authority that gives people a list of private landlords.
I am glad that my hon. Friend brings up the issue of private landlords because the majority of the people about whom we are talking—certainly in London, but possibly in the rest of the country—tend to live in private rented accommodation, which is often unregistered and usually incredibly energy-inefficient, certainly compared with council and housing association accommodation and most owner-occupied properties. These people therefore face higher energy costs and their permanency of accommodation is more vulnerable. We need to take account of the fact that we will be throwing people into the most vulnerable housing sector of all those available.
I agree. This is no way to treat vulnerable individuals who are trying to obtain life’s necessities. I urge hon. Members not to legislate for the Government’s proposals before a robust, effective and consistent alternative, with a proper right of appeal, has been fully explored.
One of the Bill’s underlying principles is that it focuses resources on those who are the most vulnerable and in need. It is also designed to reduce complexity and to make the delivery of welfare support more effective and efficient. Clause 69 satisfies those requirements. Localising the delivery of the social fund will clearly promote a more joined-up delivery of services and support.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the remarks made by Yvonne Fovargue, who seemed to suggest that benefit claimants should be entitled as of right to buy all their furniture as new, rather than resorting to sensible and reasonably costed alternatives? What person who starts a new home does not have to buy a little bit of second-hand furniture?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are talking about taxpayers’ money, so we have to be resourceful.
I do not believe that Labour amendments 39 and 40 would make the delivery of the social fund more effective, and nor would they further support applicants and people in need. They would put additional bureaucratic burdens on the Government and risk delaying the implementation of the reforms. Amendments 53 and 54, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and
Harlington (John McDonnell), would dogmatically block change by retaining the existing top-down system that is nowhere near as effective as we want it to be.
Ms Buck talked about several of the anomalies and dysfunctional problems in the social fund, as well as the National Audit Office’s criticism. Members of the Public Bill Committee know that the number of crisis loan applications has soared since 2006 from 1 million to 2.7 million, while more than 17,000 people have received crisis loans in the past 12 months. Given that such a significant number of people require multiple crisis loans, delivering the social fund locally will help to signpost them to support mechanisms, rather than encouraging the top-down approach that has been in place thus far. Many of the arguments put forward by Labour Members have been flawed and inaccurate, and I think that the amendments would be counter-productive to the Bill’s objectives.
I am not against the principle of welfare reform, but I am against how it affects those people who regularly come to see me. Not a week passes in the offices that I look after in which we do not see people who need crisis loans, and we hear from people who are under financial pressure all the time. With respect, I sometimes wonder whether some hon. Members have ever seen a social fund or crisis loan form. Do they know what it is like to be in financial crisis and under pressure?
I support the amendments for a number of reasons, and I hope they will be put to the vote. What happens in the House today will be sent to the Northern Ireland Assembly for its endorsement. On the principle of parity with the rest of the United Kingdom, I expect the Northern Ireland Assembly to endorse the decision of the House. The measure will then become the law for Northern Ireland as well. So if we feel concerned about it, we must oppose it here today. That is what the people I represent tell me.
Most of us are probably affluent enough to be able to borrow money from the bank if we are under financial pressure, but the people who come to me in my office seeking crisis loans through the social fund cannot do that. They do not have the option of the credit union either, because of the credit union methodology. I fully support credit unions. Everyone on the Opposition Benches who has a particular knowledge of credit unions would support them 100%, as we have in the past, but they are not an option for people in financial crisis, as the Government have suggested.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the difficulty is that in circumstances where people’s finances are very stretched and they are very vulnerable, the crisis loan system stands between them and lenders with extortionate interest rates and loan sharks, which can impact not only on their financial welfare, but on their health and well-being more generally?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She clearly has cause to represent people in relation to social fund issues and has a good understanding of the financial crisis they face.
Many of the people who come to me in my office have health problems. If they are unable to work, possibly because of an injury at work or an accident at home, they are left facing a financial crisis. Intimidation is not rife in Northern Ireland and nowhere else; it happens in other parts of the United Kingdom as well, and there are occasions when someone has to leave home quickly, and they face financial crisis. Most of those who come to me are single people, maybe a single parent with a young child, or sometimes they are people coming out of care or out of prison, or people who have experienced family break-ups.
Yvonne Fovargue described the situation well, and I share her experiences as a representative. Those people are under great financial pressure and are worried about where they are going to go. They look for alternatives to borrowing money. Sometimes, as a result of their inability to pay back their loans on time, they end up in hospital. Loan sharks are probably the only people willing to lend them money but at an extortionate rate, which puts them under great pressure. I am sure other hon. Members have seen that.
Is my colleague, like me, at a loss to understand how some hon. Members who are prepared to commend the social fund measures are the same people who, in relation to parliamentary expenses, argue for the operational principles of clarity, predictability, responsiveness, consistency and the right to query or appeal? They demand those operational principles where it affects themselves, but they are prepared to mangle them where they affect their most marginal constituents when it comes to the social fund.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his passion and his commitment. I would find it difficult to argue against those points. I should like to hear from the Minister what measures the Government intend to put in place to ensure that the people whom I have described—the single people facing financial problems or those experiencing health problems, marital break-ups or intimidation, who clearly have problems at home—will fit into the system. I do not see that they will. I see extreme difficulties for them in future.
The hon. Lady spoke about those managing debt. Not everybody has the ability to manage their financial circumstances. We meet people in my office who unfortunately fit into that category. We try to advise them or send them to someone who can give them advice and help, but in many cases they are unable to manage their financial circumstances. The crisis loan enables them to borrow and get out of the crisis that they face, and agreeing a direct debit helps them to manage their money.
For those who come to me in financial crisis, the crisis loan is their only way out. I would love to be the Northern bank or the Ulster bank and be able to lend all those people money personally, but unfortunately my resources do not go that far and it is not my responsibility to do that singly and individually. That is the responsibility of Government.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for his concerns about the loan system. What worries me, reading the clause, are the references to discretion and appropriate decisions by the Treasury about what does or does not constitute grounds for payment on account. A constituent who came to me was denied employment support allowance and was told that he was fit for work. When he went to the jobcentre, he did not qualify. That person needed three separate crisis loans. The point about managing debt is well made. The issue of appropriateness will cause huge problems.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Many Members in all parts of the House know how the system works and the importance of a crisis loan system operating through the social fund.
My final point relates to the appeals system. The proposed changes will do away with the independent appeals system or at least make it unnecessary. I fought a number of appeals for people who had applied for crisis loans through the social fund. Having the appeals system in place is critical. If they are turned down the first time, it may be because they provided the wrong information, or because all the necessary information was not available. An appeals system allows a review to take place. It is crucial that the independent appeals system is retained.
The system of crisis loans through the social fund is a crucial aspect of life in Britain today for the people who come to my office and for those I meet. It gives people hope and an opportunity to get out of sometimes dire financial circumstances. The Government, the House and we as elected representatives have a duty to make sure that the social fund and the crisis loan are retained.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to this important group of amendments concerning the discretionary social fund, particularly amendment 39, which calls on the Government to bring forward detailed proposals for the replacement scheme.
Discretionary social fund payments, such as crisis loans and community care grants, provide an essential safety net for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities who, at times of extreme hardship or disadvantage, need financial support. One such group I wish to talk about in detail are women fleeing domestic violence who, through no fault of their own, are forced out of their own homes and have to seek shelter elsewhere. It is because of my experience working with women affected by domestic violence and their families that I am so concerned about the Government’s proposals and what they could mean for those women.
A woman fleeing domestic violence often must leave her home with nothing more that the clothes she is standing in, without money or access to money, but she still needs access to vital items for herself and her children, from food and nappies to children’s clothing. The social fund provides a vital lifeline for those women. Although far from perfect—I admit its shortcomings—it gives reassurance to the woman that help is available should she need it so that she does not feel pressured to return home to violence simple because she has no access to money. Community care grants allow women to start afresh, with a new life and a new home, by covering some of the costs attached, such as a washing machine or a cooker.
At present, clear guidance operates for decision makers, with clear processes in place if the individual is unhappy and wishes to challenge a decision, but the Government’s proposals will shift those responsibilities to local authorities and are deeply concerning on a number of levels. There is little reassurance that an adequate service will be provided or that the quality of service and the appeals process will not differ greatly across the country from council to council. The Government say that local authorities will be open to scrutiny at local level, and to a degree that is true, but I simply do not feel confident that vulnerable and excluded groups, such as women fleeing domestic violence, will be able to make their voices heard in those circumstances.
As I indicated when I intervened on the Minister, those women are often not on the electoral register and cannot cast a vote, so at the most basic level there is a lack of democratic accountability. I am sure we all hope that local councillors and councils would take due notice of those groups regardless, but the realities of life mean that if those women are unable to vote, as is the case for the vast majority who are forced to move to a women’s refuge, they are denied an important opportunity to affect local decision making.
Skilled and experienced professionals in the Department for Work and Pensions currently administer the discretionary social fund, but it is not clear who will take on that role within local authorities. That will present a significant capacity problem for local authorities that are already stretched in the current financial climate. The Government have not set out minimum standards and levels of service that they expect councils to adhere to. How will individuals access the replaced discretionary social fund, and where? What time scales can they expect for decisions? We might end up with significant variation between councils, whereas at present we have a clear national scheme. I do not believe that we have had clarity from Ministers on local eligibility.
The point that the hon. Lady is making is critical. A local authority might lay down a policy on this matter that is very good, but if another authority then does something slightly different that appears to be better, automatically all the good work that the first local authority has done will be seen as of no use as it will be held to another standard. We must have a single national standard so that people who require this fund, whether in Bushmills or Birmingham, know that they will see the same standard, with the same requirements, the same grant and the same opportunity to avail themselves of that assistance.
I agree entirely. It is vital that people feel that appropriate safeguards are in place with a national scheme and a national appeals system so that when things go wrong, as they sometimes do, there is an appropriate means of redress and decisions can be looked at again.
My concern with the Government’s proposals is that we will end up with massive variation between councils and between different parts of the United Kingdom, which will disadvantage people in certain areas. Some councils might choose a system that works very effectively and addresses the needs of vulnerable groups, but others might not do that so well. That is why the Government must be very clear about the standards that they will demand of local authorities, but they are not being clear.
Women fleeing domestic violence are often forced out of their local area in order to seek safety, so what safeguards can we expect when a woman is forced to move to an area where the local council might decide that she is ineligible for support? In the urban areas of the north-east, where large local authorities cover small geographical areas, it is not a great distance from Gateshead to Sunderland, but might the local authority in Sunderland, for example, take the view that the woman should seek support from her local authority in Gateshead? I sincerely hope that it would not take such a view, as that could hold up the process when the woman desperately needs financial help. This is not a factor at present because the scheme is a national one, but devolving responsibility to local councils will create a raft of potential problems for those councils and risk placing some very vulnerable people at risk of harm.
It is simply not good enough for the Government to hope that local councils will be able to manage this complex change. With a budget that is not ring-fenced and the potential for a reduced level of funding from recovered grants, it is inevitable that some local councils will not want to take people without a clear and established local connection, which I believe will be particularly damaging for women fleeing domestic violence if this is not done properly. That is why it is imperative that the Government set out detailed proposals, as amendment 39 makes clear, including eligibility criteria and an independent appeals mechanism. Without further clarity and detail, there is a real likelihood that some of the most vulnerable people in our communities will be unable to access financial support when they need it most.
I will not delay the House any further because I think that colleagues from all Opposition parties have demonstrated why they are not convinced by the Government’s proposals, and why every charity and housing group in the country is not convinced either. Members’ surgeries will fill up as people can no longer receive grants and loans, so it is inevitable that we will return to the issue at a later date to reform the Government’s reforms. I will not push for two Divisions on this group and, on the basis of supporting amendment 39, beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: 39, page 52, line 22, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
‘(1) Section 138(1)(b) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (discretionary payments out of Social Fund) may be repealed, if the Secretary of State—
(a) publishes a detailed proposal for a replacement scheme, or schemes, based on wide consultation with relevant stakeholders;
(b) ensures that such a scheme, or schemes, will provide financial protection for applicants in an emergency or crisis, with the eligibility criteria for applicants specified in regulations;
(c) demonstrates the feasibility of such a scheme, or schemes, through a pilot or pathfinder process; and
(d) demonstrates how an independent appeals mechanism will be implemented.’.—( Ms Buck .)