Legislation to give councils responsibility for emergency poverty payments contravenes social work values, and would harm practitioners’ relationships with service users and deepen poverty.
That was the warning from welfare rights experts after the government included plans to localise the payment of discretionary community care grants and crisis loans under the Social Fund in the Welfare Reform Bill, published last week.
The move is likely to see social workers administering income payments to vulnerable users, though some councils may choose not to provide the service and use the budget transferred by the Department for Work and Pensions for other purposes, as it would not be a duty.
The Independent Review Service for the Social Fund, which reviews Jobcentre Plus decisions on Social Fund awards, would be scrapped.
The plans were originally revealed by Community Care last November and sparked concerns that social workers’ relationships with clients would be harmed.
Giving social workers’ the power to award payments or not “would make their relationships with clients a far more unequal one,” said welfare rights specialist and registered social worker Neil Bateman this week. “It fundamentally alters the role of the social worker as advocate and some service users will be more difficult to engage as a result of that.”
His views were echoed by Gary Vaux, head of money advice at Hertfordshire Council, who said: “It potentially places local authority stuff in an invidious and difficult position of having to make decisions about financial matters that run counter to social work values and practice, possibly to the detriment of that practice.”
He warned that making councils the sole port of call for families needing help in financial crises would also “create new and substantial demand, from many families who are not social work clients”.
However, Bateman said there was a big risk of councils not setting up the service and using the money for “filling potholes in roads”, deepening poverty. “There is currently a legal framework and national consistency and accountability, which will be completely lacking if this goes ahead.”
He accused the DWP of trying to “offload the worst aspects of the social security system” and said the plans would “recreate many of the features of the Poor Law”.
Under the plans, the discretionary Social Fund would be scrapped, ending the national payment of community care grants to families in stress who need essential household items, and of crisis loans to vulnerable people who need general living expenses covered in an emergency.
Local Government Association policy consultant Philip Mind said concerns about the impact on social workers were valid, but councils would not necessarily give social workers responsibility for gate-keeping payments. “That doesn’t strike me as a sensible way of discharging this responsibility,” he said.
However, he admitted that the LGA had concerns about the plans. “Our stance is that there are big risks around the [impact on] customers’ experience and big risks around finance [for councils], including because of the [wider] turbulence in the welfare system, but we are prepared to engage with government to see a way through,” he said.
In a consultation on how the plans would work, the Department for Work and Pensions said decisions on eligibility for grants and loans had been criticised in the past and were currently taken too remotely, which did not support “the high levels of discretion that are needed”.
It claimed its proposals would create a “more responsive, better targeted and relevant service”.
The other parts of the discretionary Social Fund – budgeting loans and alignment loans to cover delayed welfare payments – would be replaced by a new national scheme to cover welfare claimants who need advanced payments.
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