17 Mar 2019

Thousands of families in financial crisis are missing out on vital emergency support, new research by The Children’s Society has revealed.

It says parents are being left at risk of debt and struggling to afford basics like feeding and clothing their children and heating the home following Government funding cuts which have seen crisis support scaled back.

Schemes offer crucial help like shopping vouchers, electricity meter top-ups, white goods and cash grants.

But the charity’s new report, Nowhere To Turn, found the number of people receiving crisis support from national or local government has plummeted by 75 per cent since the Government devolved responsibility to councils in 2013 and then stopped providing a separate cash grant for their schemes in 2015 as local authorities faced unprecedented funding cuts.

The research, part of The Children’s Society’s Strengthening the Safety Net campaign, was supported by OneFamily through its Foundation which helps improve the financial futures of families.

It found that in 2012/13 there were 1.3m applications to the Government for crisis support, of which 737,000 were successful.  Using data obtained through Freedom of Information requests, the charity found that under council-run schemes, applications for the same kind of support fell to 320,000 in 2015/16, of which 208,000 were successful, and to 284,000 in 2017/18, of which just 187,000 qualified for help.

It estimates that more than a quarter (27,000) of the near 100,000 applications which were turned down last year were from families with children.  A third of councils do not specifically take the presence of children into account in considering applications to local welfare assistance schemes, as they are now commonly known.

The Children’s Society says the fall in applications reflects strict eligibility criteria introduced by cash-strapped councils, including requirements by some to have explored accessing a food bank or borrowing from relatives or a commercial lender, and to receive out of work benefits in order to have a chance of support. 

It says this - along with the fact that 23 councils have scrapped their schemes entirely, and others do little to promote them - means many more families are being denied help than its figures suggest.

Nick Roseveare, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society, said many families were struggling against a backdrop of rising in-work poverty, Universal Credit delays, the benefits freeze, and the growing gap between private rents and housing benefit.

“At a time when families need support more than ever this vital source of help is drying up,” he said.  “An unexpected event like a broken boiler or long-term sickness, can tip a family into crisis and this kind of support can be the difference between them keeping their heads above water or drowning in debt and ending up hungry or homeless.”

Marcelina, who has no local welfare assistance scheme to turn to in her area, told The Children’s Society how she got into difficulty last year and was often left feeling stressed and hopeless by her financial situation.  The single mum, who now works as a cleaner for two hours a day, said: “I could not find affordable childcare for my baby and so could not work.  I ended up falling behind with my rent. Now all my wages and benefits go to paying back the rent arrears.  I pay back so much each month and then after all my bills are paid I have nothing left.  I feel so sad because I struggle to feed and clothe my daughter." 

Other parents told how delays in processing claims and complicated forms had added to the stress and that it could be difficult to hide the impact of a crisis situation, with children being left worried, withdrawn or angry.  One parent said: ‘Mental health isn't just in us, it’s in young children, so whatever the process the parents are going through the children are taking on mentally even if they might not be showing it.’

The Children’s Society says councils have been offered little guidance on how crisis support schemes should work.  The Government asks them to fund the schemes from the funding they have available, which includes grants from central Government.  While it recommends how much should go towards crisis help in each area there is no legal obligation for councils to spend that amount and there are currently no plans for this arrangement to continue beyond March 2020.

Councils spent £41m on the schemes last year - less than a third of the £130m the Government suggests they should, and a fraction of the £267m that was spent under the equivalent parts of the old scheme in 2010/11.  Between 2015/16 and 2017/18 two thirds of councils cut spending on the schemes and nearly one fifth have slashed spending on them by more than half. 

Nick Roseveare added: “The crisis situations these families face can have a devastating impact on children’s health and happiness as they struggle to sleep, fear a knock at the door from bailiffs, go to school hungry and worry about asking for things like new clothes or money for a class trip.

“It’s vital that the Government uses the next spending review to make sure that from April 2020 each council gets a dedicated pot of cash which has to be spent on crisis support and which rises with inflation.  Ministers should also introduce new guidance on how schemes should operate in order to end the current postcode lottery.”

The Children’s Society wants new guidance to ensure councils consider the presence of children when assessing applications, make decisions within 24-hours in emergencies, open schemes to people in work, and ensure awards available from all councils include cash and support with child-related costs like school uniform.

It is also calling on councils to give families in crisis better support and to work with voluntary and community organisations to help prevent crises arising.

ENDS

Notes to editor

  • The full report Nowhere To Turn is available here  https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/crisis-support-one-family-report.pdf
  • Financial services business, OneFamily runs its Foundation to give customers the chance to support the good causes that matter most to them, The Strengthening the Safety Net Campaign secured funding from the Foundation when customers voted for The Children’s Society as one of three charities they wished to support to help improve the financial future of families.
  • Data obtained from councils via Freedom of Information requests shows that in 2015/16, among the 113 councils which provided information on applications and the 117 councils which provided us with award data, there were 319,949 applications to local welfare assistance schemes with 207,530 awards made.  In 2017/18, among the 114 councils which provided information on applications and the 119 councils which provided us with award data, there were 284,380 applications, of which 186,505 were successful.
  • Data showing that there were 1,267,580 applications and 737,430 awards made in England via the equivalent components of the Discretionary Social Fund – Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans (excluding Alignment Payments – crisis loans to support claimants awaiting a first payment of benefits which are still administered national as Advance Payments) – is based on figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions. Discretionary Social Fund by local authority Apr 2012 to Mar 2013. September 2014. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/discretionary-social-fund-by-local-authority-apr-2012-to-mar-2013
  • 33 councils could provide information on applications from families with children and 33 councils – a slightly different list to the 33 which could provide information on applications – could provide data on awards made to children.  From this, we found that 39% of applications came from families with children and 45% of awards were made to families with children.  Applying these proportions to the total number of applications and awards made across the country, we estimate that 110,908 applications were made by families with children across England in 2017/18, of which 83,927 were successful and 26,981 were unsuccessful.
  • The Trussell Trust’s foodbank network distributed 1.3 million emergency food supplies to people in crisis during 2017/18, with 484,026 of these going to children - suggesting that demand for emergency support from families with children is significantly higher than the volume of applications made to local welfare assistance schemes.
  • According to the National Audit Office, central government funding to local authorities halved in real terms between 2010/11 and 2017/18. See https://www.nao.org.uk/report/financial-sustainability-of-local-authorities-2018/
    • The Children’s Society is a national charity that works with the most vulnerable children and young people in Britain today. We listen. We support. We act. Because no child should feel alone.