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Welfare Assistance Schemes — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:44 pm on 10th February 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 2:44 pm, 10th February 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what has been the response to their consultation on the future financing of local welfare assistance schemes.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, local authorities can continue to offer local welfare assistance alongside a range of other services in 2015-16 if they judge it to be a local priority. To assist them with this, we have identified an amount in each upper-tier authority’s general grant totalling £129.6 million nationally. In response to consultation representations, we have also allocated an additional £74 million to assist them in dealing with pressures on local welfare, health and social care.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

My Lords, I welcome the response to the consultation, but we are still talking about a cut in funding. Without ring-fencing or even any monitoring requirements, how will central government ensure that hard-pressed local authorities spend the allocated money on meeting the needs of vulnerable groups such as women fleeing domestic violence, homeless people or care leavers, as we were promised during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, it is for local authorities to set their priorities; I am sure that all will do so in a responsible way. On the issue of vulnerable women, she will know that, from this very Dispatch Box, I announced an additional £10 million for victims of abuse and women’s refuges up and down the country. This will be available to up to 100 local authorities and will benefit the women most in need.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will be pleased to know that my own council—Kirklees, in West Yorkshire—has allocated for the coming year £1 million to help people in crisis. However, I am also sure that he would be willing to support the notion that, on occasion, additional financial support is always very welcome.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I agree with my noble friend; that is why we have announced an extra £74 million.

Photo of The Bishop of Worcester The Bishop of Worcester Bishop

My Lords, the Minister might be aware that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro has secured a debate on this issue this evening, which I welcome. In the mean time, in the absence of ring-fencing, will the Minister undertake to write to local authorities to highlight the £129 million allocation for local welfare provisions within the local government settlement, and the additional £74 million to which reference has been made, to ensure that local authorities have the resources they need to assist those most in need, and to encourage them to use them?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

In response to the right reverend Prelate, as I said earlier, I am of course aware of the debate and look forward to that later today. It is for local authorities to set their priorities, and we have been responding directly to local authorities; it was part of the consultation after the initial settlement. I myself met with several local authorities. The issue of welfare provision was high on their list, and the Government have responded accordingly.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Are the Government proud of the fact that they had to be dragged through the courts on behalf of some of the most disadvantaged people in our country before they reconsidered their decision to cease funding for local welfare provision?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I will respond in the words of Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, who said of the announcement of the additional money:

“The big winners from this announcement will be the hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty who will now be given a better chance of a fair start in life”.

The Government have responded according to local authorities’ wishes, and that should be welcome.

Photo of Baroness Howarth of Breckland Baroness Howarth of Breckland Crossbench

My Lords, while I welcome the funding and have confidence in local authorities, the Minister must agree that this is a postcode lottery. It will depend on the attitude of the local authority and where you live. Can the Minister say what is going to be done to monitor this, and whether there will be any information as to how different local authorities use the funding?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

As I said, local authorities—and I served on a local authority myself for 10 years—deal with their budgets in a responsible fashion. The Government are committed to ensuring that there is greater welfare provision at local level. Taking the example of the better care fund, in addition to the allocation originally made, there has been an additional 39% of voluntary top-ups, and we already have 146 plans in place. Local authorities are responsible and they are responding accordingly.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Lister said, none the less there is an overall cut in this funding, and it is not ring-fenced. How, then, does the Minister expect local authorities and local people to cope, given that his department and his Government are cutting discretionary housing payments next year by £40 million, thus increasing the number of people—families and disabled people—who will have rent arrears and will face eviction, and will need to turn to a fund that is smaller than it has been in the past?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I am disappointed. Certainly, on this side of the House, we believe in localism, and this is about devolving responsibility to local authorities. On the issue of discretionary housing payments, £445 million of flexible housing funding between 2011 and 2015, and £125 million in 2015-16, has been made available so that local authorities can support vulnerable households through welfare reform.

Photo of Lord Lawson of Blaby Lord Lawson of Blaby Conservative

Does my noble friend the Minister not agree with me that the disparaging term “postcode lottery” is just a way of saying that local governments have autonomy and so there are therefore bound to be differences? Those who disparage postcode lotteries should come out in the open and say that they wish to see the abolition of local government.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Labour

My Lords, the Minister is right in supporting the principle of local autonomy, but was he present when his noble friend Lord Newby, in answer to an earlier question, referred to the fact that the north of England loses out financially, as do the Welsh, because of government allocation of funding and resources? I asked the Minister a question yesterday as to whether these funds were being cut in total or not. Is the answer yes or no?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

Local authorities have to take the burden, as does everyone else in government. We inherited, as we all know—it is well documented—an economy that was failing, but we should now celebrate the fact that unemployment is down, employment is up, and inflation is down. Do you know what? We believe in local authority autonomy; that is what we are doing, and the maximum cut received by any local authority across the country is 6.4%.