Hidden amidst the drama of the Scottish independence referendum, last week saw the welcome news that the Department for Communities & Local Government had agreed to look again at its outrageous decision to end funding for the Local Welfare Assistance schemes that replaced the Discretionary Social Fund Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants. The move followed an application for Judicial Review of ministers’ decision by Christian Jump, a disabled Cheshire resident, who was represented by Doughty Street Chambers and Public Law Solicitors, and backed by the Child Poverty Action Group.
The Discretionary Social Fund had many problems, but like many others, Z2K always feared that the devolution of responsibility to local authorities would make those problems even worse. The last Labour Government consulted on very similar proposals to those implemented by the Coalition last year, but backed off after intense lobbying by anti-poverty campaigners. It was little surprise to see them resurface when the Coalition took office. But even the most cynical observers were shocked by the Government sneaking out news of the £178 million cut in the fine print of the local government funding settlement over Christmas break.
Of course, it is true that while some local authorities took their new responsibility to use the funding to alleviate financial hardship very seriously, others have not. In response to Parliamentary Questions, ministers regularly fell back on the example of Nottinghamshire County Council, which decided to “wind down” its Local Welfare Assistance scheme even before funding had been cut, so it could spend the money elsewhere. But the truth is they could find very few other examples as bad as that and DWP’s review of the impact of devolving responsibility had barely even started when ministers decided to end the funding.
The Consent Order agreed by the Government requires ministers to complete that review, conduct appropriate consultation with stakeholders and carry out an Equalities Impact Assessment before making a fresh decision on whether or not to end the funding. All that needs to be done before the next Local Government Funding announcement, which is expected in December, and so there is some hope that this will not be completed in time and so will mean a reprieve of at least a further 12 months’ worth of funding, particularly if the Lib Dems extend their new-found truculence from the Bedroom Tax to this policy area too.
With the honourable exception of Kate Green MP, Labour’s Front Bench Team were worryingly silent on this funding cut and it was left to back bench MPs and Peers to raise the alarm. With Ed Balls yesterday signing Labour up to the Coalition’s 1 per cent cap on Child Benefit, the prospects of Her Majesty’s Opposition taking a principled stand against this funding cut might appear slim. But this JR has offered a second chance to those in Parliament who failed to stand up for the most vulnerable and marginalised earlier in the year, and so Z2K will be doing everything we can to help persuade London’s councillors to put some real pressure on their local MPs to speak out against this cut.