Helping families through the tough times

By Toby North | 20 January 2021

With schools once again closed and children having to be at home, many families will be feeling the pressure. Not only will home schooling be causing anxiety, for many families the added expense of having your children at home will also be a worry – from the extra heating to keep them warm, the extra electricity and of course, the extra food – it all adds up.

The majority of parents will be able to cover these costs, but for others it will be tough. That is why it is vital they have somewhere to turn for financial support.

While food banks and other charities have seen a massive increase in demand and have worked tirelessly to help families in need, at The Children’s Society we believe the first place people should be able to look to for help is their council’s local welfare assistance scheme (LWA).

Local welfare assistance schemes were established by many local authorities in England from 2013, after the Government abolished most of the centrally-run Discretionary Social Fund.

The schemes offer emergency financial support to families and individuals who are experiencing a money crisis and cannot cover their bills. This could be due to a number of reasons, such as job loss, ill health or a household emergency like flooding or fire. Support varies widely, but can take the form of a one-off cash grant, food, utility bill or shopping vouchers or even white goods, if needed.

Sadly, after years of falling investment from central Government, we found a decrease of around £250m in spending since 2013. This, alongside no statutory requirement for local authorities to deliver this support and a lack of guidance from central Government, has meant many councils have been forced to drastically reduce or even cut their schemes altogether.

So, when the Government announced a new package of winter support which included £170m to be given to councils to deliver vital emergency assistance, we were delighted. However, it is now important councils make the most of it and ensure they meet the Government’s expectation that 80% of the funding goes towards helping families with children.

One of the ways we believe this can be achieved is by investing in local welfare schemes. The Children’s Society and a number of other poverty relief organisations have produced some guidance. We hope it will assist councils to ensure they help as many families as possible.

So far we have been very encouraged; many councils have looked at our guidance and informed us they are allocating the funds to LWA schemes. Some councils, who previously did not have schemes in place, have set them up, meaning there is now the financial safety net available to families in those areas.

More money is also allowing councils to give larger grants that will cover expenses for longer. They are also widening the support provided to include vouchers for utility bills and other essential items.

Alongside welfare assistance schemes we understand the money has been allocated to give food vouchers to cover school holidays for families entitled to free school meals. With England now back in lockdown, more families are finding themselves in need of this vital help.

We have been encouraged to hear how many councils are expanding this offer to include early years children with a pupil premium entitlement, care leavers living independently, young carers and households living with no recourse to public funds.

The pandemic has disrupted the lives of many children. They have had their mental health and well-being affected, their education interrupted and many have seen their families experience a job loss or drop in income.

Councils should be there to provide a range of support services for young people, but years of central funding cuts mean many simply do not have the resources to help families during times of crisis. This winter package is enabling councils to do a little more, but we know more is needed.

In reality, this funding will only last until April 2021, but the impacts of the COVID crisis are likely to go far beyond that.

With unemployment levels rising, furlough schemes ending, no clear decision on whether the £20 uplift to Universal Credit is likely to be made permanent, many families will be very worried.

It is vital investment of this scale is not a one-off phenomenon. Instead, the Government must recognise the value that welfare assistance brings and the potential safety net it offers to all families facing financial crisis.

Alongside the guide, the charities – which include The Children’s Society; Trussell Trust; The British Red Cross; Child Poverty Action Group; Mind; Turn 2 Us; Independent Food Aid Network and Stepchange – have also called on councils to show their support and demand that Government must commit to long-term funding to LWAs and ensure they are there to stop more people falling into crisis and potential destitution.

Toby North is senior public affairs officer at The Children’s Society

View the guide here  

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