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  • Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), End Furniture Poverty, Cash Perks and Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA)

Is there a future for crisis support in England?

At the start of our joint summit on the future of crisis support expertly chaired by Liverpool City Council’s Councillor Jane Corbett last Tuesday, Sir Stephen Timms MP spelt out a shocking reality. If the Household Support Fund (HSF) isn't extended, "we will end vital support long before the cost-of-living crisis has finished and we'll also end an element of the social security system which has been supported by every government since 1934.” The abandonment of the Discretionary Social Fund in 2013, alongside local authorities being given the discretion to set up their own local welfare schemes without statutory obligations and ring-fenced funding, has clearly led to increased numbers of people seeking the emergency help of food banks in England as social security payments alongside punitive measures like the two-child limit have driven people to financial precipices.

At last week’s extremely well-attended online summit, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee went on to make clear that the Household Support Fund (HSF) has provided a lifeline to people. This message was amplified by all our speakers. Claire Donovan shared End Furniture Poverty’s research which has found that 62% of local authority spending on welfare has come from the HSF. What’s more, in some areas, 100% of local welfare spending has been from the HSF. Claire further reinforced the perilous reality when comparing 2019/20 with 2010/11 – local welfare assistance spending had declined by 87%. Claire also pointed out that discretionary support is at risk as more local authorities are issued with section 114 notices. 

Removing this funding stream will be devastating for people. The last cost-of living payments are being transferred from the 6th to the 22nd of February. The removal of local authority firepower to provide at least some discretionary support at a time when this direct cash payment scheme is coming to an end will literally mean an already shredded rug is being pulled from under people. In the words of the joint public letter to the Chancellor published this week by Barnardo’s and signed by over 120 organisations, a “cliff edge” is approaching. 

Food banks won’t be able to pick up the pieces 

Ellie Coteau, Chief Executive of IFAN member The Welcome Centre, was able to illustrate just how impactful both the HSF and cost-of-living payments have been in terms of reducing demand for charitable food aid. The large independent food bank in Huddersfield has supported 6,600 people across 3,500 households over the 12 months. As cost-of-living payments have come in, there have been sharp declines in the number of households seeking support for a two or three-week period. As Ellie explained: “This supports what we already know. People are only coming to us when they need to, when they don’t have any other choice.” Providing cash first support is a “sure fire way of reducing food bank need.” Similarly, the distribution of the HSF in the area, direct to residents, has meant that the Welcome Centre has seen far fewer households seek their help. If the HSF is removed in April, Ellie warns of a significant increase in need for emergency food parcel support and that “it will be increasingly difficult and unsustainable for that need to be met”.

Providing crisis assistance via cash payments is practical and effective

Following our speakers’ contributions on the impact of local authority crisis support, Cllr Jane Corbett went on to introduce contributions on its delivery. IFAN’s Maria Marshall spoke first outlining what’s meant by a cash first approach to food insecurity and how a hierarchy of cash first responses can be effective in reducing the need for charitable food aid. Fundamental to this income-focused approach is the provision and knowledge of local crisis support via cash payments. This element is central to IFAN’s co-development and promotion of ‘Worrying About Money?’ resources across the UK as well as their new project looking at where you can get cash in a crisis. It’s clear that HSF has increasingly been delivered via cash payments and now is exactly the time for this progress, as Maria put it, “not to fall by the wayside”.  IFAN has put together a template letter to MPs on the extension of the HSF.

Gareth Evans of Cash Perks went on to share examples of best practice in terms of the delivery of cash payments. This type of support has progressively been made possible through the HSF as increasingly more flexible guidance to local authorities on the fund’s delivery has been issued by the DWP. Gareth referenced key documents focussed on the importance of providing local authority support via cash payments and the delivery mechanisms to do so. Gareth outlined critical considerations for local authorities in designing, distributing and evaluating cash first support. Gareth highlighted the importance of using different modes of communication to reach different groups of people with key information. 

It’s important to add that End Furniture Poverty makes clear that support in relation to furniture or white goods shouldn’t necessarily be via cash payments. As Claire Donovan pointed out earlier in the summit, furniture and white goods procured by local authorities can provide the best value and allow bulk buying power meaning household budgets can be stretched through the purchase of energy efficient models without hidden delivery and installation charges. Local authorities can also ensure that these vulnerable clients get an enhanced level of service when these items are delivered and installed.

Versatility of Household Support Fund distribution is proving vital 

Helen Starr-Keddle of Food Matters and Sustainable Food Places (SFP) spoke next. SFP is a network of food partnerships often supporting networks of frontline organisations providing help to people unable to afford food. The food partnerships have really welcomed the HSF and the fact that decisions around its distribution have been made locally. Direct cash first support has been vital, but funding provided to local frontline organisations has also enabled help for people who can be harder to reach and that local groups can often have contact with –  providing the warmth, space and one-to-one help that can be critical. 

Accentuating the value of this type of support, and the need for the HSF to perpetuate, Helen detailed the case of Marge who was provided with a rich tapestry of vital support on leaving hospital all through the very HSF threatened with extinction. The risk of overburdening already overstretched and overwhelmed frontline charities is very real and as Helen put it “the removal of the Household Support Fund at a time when demand is still at its highest will be completely devastating for local welfare services and the people who rely on them”.

Meanwhile, more and more people are living without the essentials

Ali Cooper of Barnardo’s shared stark data published by Barnardo’s last October on bed poverty impacting children and young people before outlining new research published this week shining a light on the value of crisis support in terms of bed poverty and the impact of losing the HSF. Barnardo’s figures show that crisis requests for bed and bedding has risen from 4,000 to 18,000 between 2018-19 to 2022-23 while the success rate for applications has been falling. Alongside a joint letter to the Chancellor on the need for the HSF to be extended Barnardo’s is running an e-action calling for a Government extension. 

The importance of never losing sight of the bigger picture 

Before hearing from a panel of local authority councillors and officers, Cllr Jane Corbett made clear the importance of adding decent affordable homes to the ultimate gold standard of adequate incomes and properly funded, easily accessible and well-promoted local crisis support. She also pointed out how important it is for us to be collectively talking about the “causes of the causes” upstream as well as the economic argument: “This is just wild. This is such a waste of money. This is so damaging to people's lives. It’s costing the NHS more, it’s costing GPs, it’s costing education as children’s life chances are badly damaged.”

The essential and transformative role Household Support Fund does and could play in individual local authorities 

Our panel of local authority representatives from Salford, Leeds, Brent, Southwark and Tower Hamlets considered questions on their own experiences reflecting on what they’d heard so far; the importance of continuing the HSF; what the immediate future looks like for crisis support; and what it should look like. They were united and unequivocal in their concern about the removal of the HSF in April and the “cliff edge” households would be facing across their individual local authorities as a result. 

Councillor Sharmina August of Salford City Council spoke about the invaluable contribution the HSF has made to the support that’s been provided to 20,000 people (of a population of 280,000) including wraparound income maximisation welfare rights and debt advice alongside crisis support. It’s not the “silver bullet” but helps to prevent people falling into crisis. Sharmina was clear that the temporary, last-minute nature of the decisions around this funding also impacts on councils’ capacity to plan, retain staff and build appropriate and flexible infrastructure around crisis support. Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA) has been commissioned by Salford City Council to evaluate the impact of their HSF scheme. 

Jo Rowlands, Financial Inclusion Manager for Leeds City Council, manages the HSF alongside other council support schemes across Leeds. Jo highlighted the importance of partnership work as a local authority isn’t necessarily best placed to support people. She also spoke about the value of always having had a local welfare assistance scheme in Leeds which would suffer without the extension of the HSF. Jo also reinforced points around the importance of a cash first approach referring to the Cash First Pilot undertaken by the Trussell Trust, Leeds City Council with Cash Perks. Around 70% of the HSF in Leeds has been delivered by cash payments. Jo also advocated for permanent HSF funding allowing for planning as well as much needed evaluation and the collation of the rich data so clearly available. 

Cllr Shama Tatler, Deputy Leader of Brent Council represented the Local Government Association (LGA). The LGA’s report from their recent survey of local authorities on the Household Support Fund was published last Wednesday. Having outlined the support that Brent Council have provided including preventative help, Shama voiced the position of the LGA on the value of the HSF in terms of being able to locally tailor support. She went on to explain that on top of the potential reduction in HSF support alongside the halting of cost-of-living payments, people are also about to be faced with increased council tax bills and reductions in the level of support provided by council tax support schemes. 

Eugene Nixon of Southwark Council reflected on the big change he’s seen in terms of providing support in recent times – that help Is provided through a cash first approach. Southwark Council has continued to administer local welfare assistance through a separate budget given the temporary nature of government support. Eugene referred to the council’s evaluation of HSF 3 and the importance of understanding the gaps in provision clearly linked to institutional mistrust. This has resulted in the council working with 80 VCS partners across the borough to funnel support to some people indirectly who otherwise might not get access to this help. 

Again, Eugene pointed to the damage likely to be incurred by removing the cost-of-living payment scheme in terms of increasing demand for local welfare support in the area. Continued HSF funding might allow the Southwark Council to extend eligibility of free school meals in the borough. And critically in terms of the need to increase social security payments across the board, Eugene pointed out that demand for local welfare assistance in Southwark had never been lower when the weekly £20 uplift to Universal Credit was in place. With further HSF funding Southwark Council might be able to explore ensuring adequacy of income in the long-term for residents within the framework of an Essentials Guarantee. 

And then from north of the river Thames, Ellie Kershaw, Acting Director of Growth and Economic Development at Tower Hamlets council echoed fellow panellists in terms of the value of being another local authority topping up existing local welfare support through the HSF. Ellie also spoke about the benefits of being able to run a food hub through the HSF to support frontline food charities as well as using the funding to support the distribution of free school meal vouchers through schools. But Ellie warned of the “perfect storm” emerging as vital funding streams are removed. As she put it: “Taking out 6 million pounds a year going to people who are living on or below the poverty line is going to be absolutely catastrophic for some households.”

Anxiously waiting for news 

Towards the end of last week many of us battling to #SaveCrisisSupport became hopeful that an extension of the HSF was imminent following Sir Stephen Timms MP’s Westminster Hall debate on the future of the funding pot last Wednesday. Oral DWP questions in the House of Commons last Monday provided ample opportunity for the Government to reassure local authorities and people struggling to afford essentials that this vital lifeline would be extended. It was disappointing to hear Mel Stride reiterate that "We do not yet have a decision on the Household Support Fund" from the Treasury. Referencing the "ongoing review as to where we go with the Household Support Fund" is ill-timed for local authorities with already allocated budgets or for people facing destitution. Deferring to the Treasury yet again when the end of March is imminent is, at best, impractical, damaging and illogical. 

The Government argues that a 6.7% increase to social security payments alongside the year-long increase to Local Housing Allowance from April will be enough to provide the “strong safety net” referenced by Jo Churchill MP, Minister of State for the DWP, in the House of Commons on Monday. We, alongside people struggling to afford food and other essentials and the countless charities and frontline groups trying their utmost to keep up with demand, beg to differ. Hunger, hardship and soaring food bank numbers tell another story. 

Extending the HSF has strong cross-party support

But we are reassured that there was cross-party support for HSF at the Westminster Hall debate. Thérèse Coffey MP said “I hear what councils are saying, and I do think the Government should extend the household support fund—whatever they may choose to call it in the future.” While Conservative MP Selaine Saxby who is member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee contributed: “Despite the Government’s hard work on bringing down inflation, continued economic pressures on vulnerable families mean that the household support fund is still needed in constituencies like mine.” And former DWP Minister Will Quince reflected on the HSF: “When I look back at my time in the Government, it is one of the things that I am most proud of, because it has made a huge difference to millions of families up and down the country. I urge the Minister and the Treasury to ensure that the scheme is continued, so that it can go on to support millions more.”

Time is running out

So, as the clock ticks and months are turning into days before the Household Support Fund ends, we urge the Government to heed the groundswell of calls to extend this critical lifelines not only for the next year but beyond that. It’s evident from the testimonies shared throughout our summit that there is an invaluable and essential role for crisis support as part of a wider adequate and well-functioning social security system. 

As the 31st of March gets closer, it’s vital that the Government understands that food aid providers and other frontline charities do not have the capacity to cope with further demand. And as Ellie of the Welcome Centre in Huddersfield said, depending on volunteers to feed people is not a sustainable position to take. But for people facing hardship and desperation who can’t get support because it no longer exists “what does that actually mean” asked Helen of Sustainable Food Places? As Maria Marshall of IFAN pointed out, most households reporting severe food insecurity do not access food banks at all.

We are facing the bleak reality that in every community across England, the situation for people on low or no incomes is about to get even worse. And so it’s vital that as campaigners we remember the words of Raymond Williams quoted by our chair Cllr Jane Corbett “make hope possible rather than despair convincing”. 

As the firefighting against all odds continues, let’s not take our eyes off the need to drill down into the long-term economic argument. Without a Living Income, we cannot aspire for a Healthy Standard of Living for All. Without a social security system that’s fit for purpose including a well-promoted, adequate, and easily accessible crisis support system, we collectively risk the health and wealth of our nation. The HSF has a critical role to play with a “strong safety net”. People’s futures cannot continue to be blighted by worsening food insecurity, poverty, and destitution and it’s incumbent on us all to make that clear to our government and government-in-waiting. 

You can watch back a full recording of the summit.

Contributors' slides:

Key documents referenced by Gareth Evans, Cash Perks:

APPG on Ending the Need for Food Banks: 'Cash or food? Exploring effective responses to destitution'


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