Thousands dragged into poverty, as lifelines are cut

Compassion-in-CrisisWe never know when emergency or crisis will strike. When it does, it is vital that support is available. Our new report today, however, shows such support has been cut drastically across the country, leaving thousands of people adrift.

A quarter of a million people in England turned to their local council for help during a crisis last year, but many were turned away. In some areas, there was not even a lifeline to reach for, with funds having been closed completely.

Our compassionate society is full of systems and supports that we hope not to need, but which must be ready just in case. Take the emergency teams at our hospitals, for instance, or the lifebelts we see alongside rivers all over the country.

For many years, such crisis support has been a vital part of our welfare system too. The old social fund meant people could get quick help in times of emergency such as after a fire or flood, or support to stay in their community – perhaps after being homeless, or fleeing domestic violence.

In 2013, that responsibility passed from central to local government. Councils set up Local Welfare Assistance Schemes, but in the past five years the emergency provision has been eroded, the lifelines removed. People looking to be kept afloat in times of emergency have instead been left adrift.

Today, Church Action on Poverty has released a new report, Compassion in crisis: how do people in poverty stay afloat in times of emergency?

It shows that:

  • Central Government funding for vital crisis support fell from £330 million in 2010–11 to £178 million in 2013–14.
  • Over the past five years, at least 28 local authorities have closed their schemes completely and almost all the remaining schemes have been drastically cut back.
  • In total, the amount available for Local Welfare Assistance by councils who responded to our Freedom of Information requests has been cut by 72.5% since 2013–14.
  • There is great inconsistency between areas, meaning people’s ability to access emergency support during times of crisis depends on where they live.
  • People who need crisis support and cannot access it are at increased risk of hunger, debt and destitution.
  • Around a quarter of a million people in England sought help from a LWAS in 2017–18.
  • In the first five years of the schemes, there have been more than 1.5 million applications nationwide.

You can see how sharply crisis funding has fallen:

  • In the final year of the old Discretionary Social Fund (2012–13), it issued more than 1.7 million Crisis Loans, worth a total of £103.2 million, and 197,000 Community Care Grants worth a total of £137 million. (Total: £240.2 million)
  • In 2013–14, Government funds for English councils’ LWAS schemes totalled £172 million.
  • In 2017–18, English councils’ combined LWAS budgets totalled an estimated £46.6 million, recent research by Greater Manchester Poverty Action suggests.

As a compassionate society, we need to ensure the system can prevent people being swept further into difficulty.

Supporting the report, Right Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, says today:

“Anyone can experience a financial crisis at some point in their lives, and I believe we have a moral duty to care for people through these difficult times. Unfortunately, this report shows that local authority welfare schemes are increasingly threadbare, leaving families in many areas with nowhere to turn for help.
In Greater Manchester, spending on crisis support schemes has fallen from nearly £20 million to less than £4 million over the last seven years, a situation that is mirrored across the rest of the country. It cannot be right for central and local government to abdicate responsibility for people in crisis, when they need our help most. I hope this report leads to a firm commitment to repair our crisis support system before it disappears entirely.”

In 2017, Church Action on Poverty spoke with ‘Emma’, a mum of two teenagers in North East England. She became trapped in poverty when her benefits were stopped without warning for eight months. Struggling to stay afloat, she turned to her local council for help but found the lifeline she thought was there was not. She said:

“When I was only getting child benefit support for the girls, I was told that did not constitute a crisis. The crisis support that is there is not working properly.”

Local Welfare is a very small proportion of the overall public budget but a vital emergency resource that any one of us could find ourselves needing without warning. It is an emergency life-belt that must be retained.


We recommend:

  • Government should make it a statutory duty for top-tier local authorities in England to run a LWAS that can provide cash grants, loans and in-kind support for people, as appropriate, in times of need.
  • As part of the forthcoming spending review, ring-fenced funding should be provided for Local Welfare Assistance Schemes across England
  • The UK Government should work with the Local Government Association, local councils and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to identify and replicate best practice across the UK.

Our director Niall Cooper said today:

“The purpose of the social fund was that people could stay afloat and hopefully ride out a crisis, rather than sinking deeper into poverty.
A lifeline in times of emergency is a vital part of a compassionate society, but it has been withdrawn in many places and neglected almost everywhere.
We need the Government in its forthcoming spending review to make it a statutory requirement for top-tier English councils to provide local welfare provision that includes cash grants, loans and in-kind support. We also need the Government to provide ringfenced funding so the system is fit for purpose.”

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