Local Welfare Provision schemes

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) 2:45 pm, 16th June 2020

No, that is not what they say. I would like to speak to this cross-party new clause tabled in my name, which would ensure that emergency financial support was available to victims and survivors of domestic abuse across England, in the form of effective local welfare provision. It is supported by the crisis and destitution sector, from the Children’s Society to the Trussell Trust, as well as financial experts, including the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, Smallwood Trust and Surviving Economic Abuse.

The Bill, for the first time, acknowledges economic abuse, which creates economic instability and often prevents women in particular from being able to leave an abusive situation, as they lack the financial resources to do so. Defining economic abuse is just the first step. It must be possible to enable those who find themselves in that situation to militate against this form of abuse. The Committee must look at whether we can provide a welfare safety net for all survivors that empowers them.

Local welfare assistance schemes often offer financial assistance to applicants in emergencies. At their best, this type of crisis support works in partnership with other organisations and provides a kind of wrap-around holistic support that other types of welfare cannot, but they are underfunded and underused, and consequently get forgotten.

Without question, cuts to local authority services and changes in the social security system have disproportionately impacted women. That social security system should act as a financial safety net for survivors of domestic abuse, but it does not. Too many survivors are still having to take out payday loans and rely on food banks or, if they are lucky, grants from charities.

Research from Women’s Aid recently found that a third of survivors who left their abusive partner had to take out credit to do so. Smallwood Trust estimates that 70% of their applications for financial assistance are received from women who are fleeing, or have fled, domestic abuse. Given that the Trussell Trust’s most recent food bank figures found an 89% rise in need since the same time last year, with 107% more children needing support, there can be no question but that the welfare safety net for our most vulnerable has gaping holes in it.

Before the creation of local welfare provision, the discretionary social fund, run from the Department for Work and Pensions, was often seen as an essential form of financial support for victims of domestic abuse. Community care grants were often used to enable survivors to establish a new home after a period in refuge accommodation. Since responsibility for those grants has shifted to hard-pressed local authorities, which do not have any statutory obligations to provide this form of support, getting them has become a postcode lottery.

The Children’s Society found that one in seven local authority areas in England now has no local welfare support provided by the council, and that in too many other areas, local welfare provision is far too difficult to access. Some 60% of local authorities had put in place stipulations about routes that had to be taken first before applying for local welfare assistance, including borrowing from friends or family, taking up a commercial loan or using a food bank. That is not acceptable.

Even when a local authority does provide an assistance scheme, Smallwood Trust has suggested that access is often dependent on what time of year one applies for help, and whether the pot is already empty. Analysis of council spending on local welfare provision by the Children’s Society found that in 2018-19, local authorities spent only £41 million on local welfare assistance schemes, out of a possible funding allocation of £129 million for local welfare provision. At their best, those schemes can offer assistance where universal credit cannot. They can be a further source of support while survivors wait for their first universal credit payment, or they can support those not on universal credit who need emergency support, perhaps to buy a new fridge, or a bed for their child, in their new home away from abuse. During the pandemic, some local authorities are even using creative methods to offer emergency financial assistance to vulnerable applicants with no recourse to public funds.

Local authorities should be shouting about the schemes, but they are not, because they do not have the financial resources to operate them, or a statutory obligation to do so. The need for emergency financial support has never been so great, yet figures show that the number of people receiving crisis support from national or local government has plummeted by 75% since central Government devolved responsibility to councils in 2013.

Like most people, I welcomed the announced package of measures for low-income families, and the extra funds given to local authorities to support victims during this very difficult period. That has been welcome support, but I am concerned that those interventions are not enough.

The Children’s Society, in partnership with a coalition of anti-poverty charities, has examined the per-capita spend on emergency financial support by the four nations. It is an astonishing picture. England is currently spending 79p per capita, whereas Wales is spending £6.88, Northern Ireland £9.97, and Scotland £14.76. Survivors of domestic abuse in England need access to that form of support just as much as those in the other nations of the United Kingdom. I urge the Minister to speak with Treasury colleagues to ensure that the schemes are put on a long-term, sustainable funding plan in the upcoming spending review.

A coalition of anti-poverty charities has estimated that the Government need to allocate £250 million to local authorities in England for the support, to bring it into line with the other devolved nations. That funding uplift should be accompanied by statutory guidance that sets out how a local authority should operate a scheme and ensure that it is designed with vulnerable applicants, such as victims of domestic abuse, in mind. That guidance should stipulate that local welfare assistance schemes are not just a public fund, but are also available to migrant victims.

This new clause is a plea to the Government—a plea to Departments to work with one another to recognise the benefits of the schemes and fund them accordingly, so that survivors do not have to go into debt or rely on charity grants or food banks. Survivors must be given the financial support to flee abuse, so that financial need is not a barrier to escaping, an obstacle to re-establishing a home following a period in a refuge, or a reason to have to return to an abusive situation. In short, what we are asking for in the new clause is a financial lifeline for survivors of abuse, so that they can afford to escape to safety with their children.