Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Behind the Leaflet I – Localisation of Welfare Benefits

Of necessity my election leaflet has a number of fairly cryptic bullet points which refer to ‘hidden’ manifesto ideas behind them. In the run-up to the local elections on May 2nd (Vote for me!), I intend to use this blog to spell some of these out in more detail. So – 

“Manage the localisation of welfare benefits with carefully thought-through schemes that support claimants through a difficult transition.”

The present government is devolving a number of benefits to local authorities to deliver – at the same time changing their character and criteria and reducing the amount of money available. The Green Party are obviously campaigning on this at a national level – but at a local council level, all that can be done is to manage the transition well, creating the minimum of bureaucracy-caused hardship. As Chair of Northumberland Credit Union, sitting on the county Financial Wellbeing Partnership – I’m on the fringes of these matters already.

I’ve already blogged about the localisation of council tax benefits – mainly concentrating on the unforeseen impact on parish council precepts. The government has awarded a ‘discretionary fund’ amounting to about 90% of the money previously spent on council tax benefits, then set a number of criteria prescribing how this should be allocated. NCC has topped this up by upping the council tax on second homes, so is mostly able to meet claims. But because this changes the local council tax base, it has turned parish precepts into a regressive tax, with lower taxes in areas with lots of second homes and higher council tax where there are a lot of people getting council tax benefit. 

As regards the cuts to housing benefits linked to house occupancy, the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ – I’m told that there are about 3,500 households affected in the county, with an estimated £38,000 per week reduction in benefits. The Government has awarded NCC £415,000 for ‘discretionary payments’ – but that won’t go far… I gather that many housing benefits recipients have said that they will ‘absorb’ the reduction – but housing associations are preparing for a spike in arrears when they do their four-weekly assessments at the end of April.

However – the Northumberland Emergency Transition Support scheme is perhaps more interesting: it replaces the former Social Fund Crisis Grants with a system of interest-free loans, ASDA food vouchers, food parcels and – as a last resort – cash. Claimants can claim up to twice a year (as opposed to three times a year under the national scheme). The assessment has been outsourced to DAWN and Voices, and is very stringent, I gather in the first ten days of the scheme running (it started ion 2nd April), there were 324 applications and only 9 were granted awards.   

So – the Council is in for a tough time running a local benefits system prescribed fairly tightly and under-resourced by the government, and will see real hardship and poverty in the county if they get it wrong. Isn’t this something candidates should be aware of and talking about? 

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