Local Welfare Assistance: a key role but an uncertain future

Thursday, 14 January 2016 - 8:33am

New report from the National Audit Office takes a critical look at the effectiveness of Local Welfare Assistance, and at the vital support it brings to people who become homeless.

Photograph: Andy Aldridge (Flickr)

Local Welfare Assistance (LWA) has been a concern for many of our members ever since it replaced the former system of community care grants and crisis loans. The National Audit Office (NAO) has published a report looking at what has happened to spending on LWA and any evidence of its effectiveness.  This is in a context where spending on discretionary local welfare support by central and local government has reduced since April 2013, and the NAO aimed to better understand any consequences to this change in provision.

Homeless Link gave evidence to the inquiry, based on feedback from nearly 100 members who shared their views about how well LWA works for their clients. Ever since the changes to LWA, we have been clear that – despite some limitations - it can be invaluable for homeless people in periods of crisis and to aid people’s transition into independent accommodation or their own home. This is why recent reductions to the budget allocated to LWA, amid a now localised system, have been of such a concern to homelessness agencies across the country.

Your feedback reinforced the value of LWA, but also told us about limitations in the current system, such as restrictive eligibility, issues with local connection, and a lack of financial support in lieu of only goods in kind.

It was encouraging to see the NAO report reflect many of these points. It explicitly recognised the benefits of LWA to people who are experiencing homelessness, saying ‘… local welfare provision gives vital help to people in times of need. By addressing short-term problems, such as a lack of money to pay for heating or essential household items, local welfare provision can help avoid greater public spending when problems escalate, for example if people become ill or homeless..’

The report also details how councils have allocated funding for LWA and looked at the reasons why people apply for LWA in the first place:

  • Councils generally provide goods in kind rather than cash with only 24% of councils offering  cash support.
  • Since April 2015, some councils have stopped or curtailed the provision they introduced in 2013 because there is no longer specific grant funding.
  • It found a significant proportion of the applications for LWA were from people facing hardship as they switched between different types of benefits, experienced benefit delays or sanctions, or moved from benefits to work.

Crucially, at a time when local government finance is coming under more pressures, it asks central government ‘ to note councils’ concerns about their ability to continue local welfare provision due to funding pressures, to inform the government’s decisions about future local government funding.’ As we outlined in our submission to the spending review, spending on LWA has already been drastically reduced, and unless adequate central allocation is retained, it is unlikely to have the positive impact we know it can have for both individuals and longer term savings to the public purse.

The Government is currently consulting on the future funding of local welfare as part of the Local Government Finance Settlement 2016-17. Presently, no additional funding has been proposed, with £129.6 million instead identified as part of councils’ core spending power.  We hope Government considers the NAO’s concerns as it consults on these plans.

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Helen Mathie

Helen Mathie

Head of policy and communications

Helen currently job shares her role with Caroline Bernard, jointly overseeing Homeless Link’s policy, research, information and communications team.