At this time of year, the strains of financial insecurity are keenly felt—and it’s not about the Christmas presents—people are struggling to pay the heating bills, to buy food for the family or to pay the rent. Earlier this year, we wrote about the abolition of the discretionary Social Fund and our concerns about the new system. Top of the list of worries was that localising responsibility for essential support services, such as crisis grants and community care grants, would result in a ‘postcode lottery’—leaving some without a safety net during times of crisis.
So, eight months in, how are these reforms playing out? In many ways the picture is as expected—variable, and a bit blurry. In the absence of comprehensive research, it’s difficult to see the range of approaches that councils are taking across the board. But, based on the limited analysis that has been carried out, the outlook is less than heartening—as the majority of the limited funds don’t seem to be finding their way to those experiencing financial crises.
But, not wanting to be a harbinger of doom and gloom, I think it’s important to focus on where things are working well. After all, a lottery can have winners as well as losers—and by putting the focus on the pockets of good practice, we stand a much better chance of spreading it.
I recently visited the Poplar branch of Tower Hamlets Food Bank to see this kind of work first hand. Here they’ve gone far beyond dispensing food and are working alongside Tower Hamlets Council to become the hub for a wide network of localised support. The friendly and welcoming reception is a chance for visitors to relax in a communal atmosphere and receive their much needed food parcels. But it also acts as a ‘triage’ area, in which volunteers can hear a bit more about the visitors’ situations and consider what other support they might need. The council’s housing benefits manager and a welfare rights adviser are on hand to provide advice. In the hour I was there both were constantly in short back-to-back appointments—whilst also liaising with each other and the rest of the food bank team. The visitors were families and individuals, all with different stories that had brought them through the doors—but all sharing a visible relief at receiving such comprehensive support.
What makes this approach so effective is that the council and voluntary services are working together as part of a local network, to provide support as efficiently as possible. With ever present budget cuts, the number of access points for those in crisis is shrinking, whilst policy upheaval can make them less visible. Approaches like this make sure that all the local support services are speaking to one another and that people know where to come for support, meaning that problems can be solved in a timely fashion and nobody falls through the cracks. These services are operating with less money, but are able to do more by using an intelligent process.
So, whilst there is certainly some cause for concern about the reforms to the Social Fund—namely the lack of national oversight and shrinking funding—there are ways to make things work in the situation that we’ve been presented with. Not only are these projects a positive example of how local community networks can operate in the wake of the reforms, but they’re a shining example of effective local service provision in general.
I’m coming across this sort of approach more and more (the Islington Resident Support Scheme, run by the Cripplegate Foundation and Islington Council is another great example), and if more councils and frontline services would take up this approach, I think we could make some real progress. Let us know if you’ve come across any other good projects, as there’s nothing like shining a light on what works to get people motivated.