UK Politics

'Postcode lottery' in emergency welfare claims

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Putting councils in charge of emergency welfare payments to hard-pressed families in England has led to concerns of a "postcode lottery", MPs have said.

The Commons Work and Pensions Committee said the changes worked well in some areas, but there was a wide variation.

Its report urged better co-ordination between central and local government.

The government said it was right to let councils distribute the Department of Work and Pensions cash because they understand local needs better.

But the Local Government Association said significant reductions in funding meant that making crisis payments for some councils was likely to be "a stretch too far".

'Confusion'

Until April 2013, central government distributed discretionary emergency loans and grants to cover food, heating, clothing and other essentials. The responsibility has now shifted to local authorities.

The MPs on the committee said they were not suggesting councils should be stripped of their new powers, but want to see them given more robust guidance by ministers to ensure that disabled people in particular do not lose out.

Its report also expressed concern that people hit by "unintended effects" of national welfare reforms, such as the new limits on housing benefit claims, were being left without a long-established state "safety net".

Councils including Blackpool, Croydon and Milton Keynes were given "great credit" by the MPs for their initiatives to help residents.

But the committee said: "Localisation risks blurring the lines of national and local responsibility, leading to confusion among vulnerable people about where to turn in a financial crisis.

"Closer joint-working and sharing of national and local data must be prioritised."

'Acting cautiously'

In a separate report, the spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, suggested that the future of local welfare provision is uncertain.

It found councils had "acted cautiously" in providing support because they were concerned about high demand and funding levels.

A DWP spokesman said the government's welfare reforms were designed to restore "fairness" to the system and they were working closely with local authorities, charities and landlords to ensure people received support.

Councillor Claire Kober, from the Local Government Association, said the variation in support across the country was driven by shortfalls faced by many councils.

"Without additional funding, there is a real risk that many will be unable to afford to continue to run their local welfare schemes or will have to scale them back significantly," she said.

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