Lifelines in a crisis: what can cities do?

Would you have somewhere to turn in an unexpected crisis? Would you know where to find a lifeline, if you suddenly faced losing your home, or had no money for food or vital bills?

Crisis support: one city's story

None of us knows when emergency might strike. That’s why reactive crisis support has long been part of UK society, ensuring people can keep their heads above water rather than being swept into deeper poverty. It’s one of the essential elements of any compassionate society.

In 2017-18, a quarter of a million people in England sought help from their local council, but our research last autumn found that more than 25 councils in England have closed their crisis funds. Nationally, the money available has diminished by almost three quarters in five years. Church Action on Poverty and others are deeply concerned that people are being cut adrift instead of kept afloat.

How does the system work in practice? How crucial are local welfare funds? With less money, how can councils maximise impact?

A new report from York gives some answers. The city council runs the York Financial Assistance Scheme (YFAS). Funding has fallen by 55% in the past five years (a lower cut than most), but the approval rate fell sharply last year too, to only 36%.

The city council conducted research into the scheme 2018, and the full report is now available here: York Financial Assistance Scheme

Firstly, here are some comments from people who had cause to apply to the fund:

“It saved me. Without it I would have been in dire straits.”

“I don’t know how I would have managed to get a cooker without this help. When I moved I had to claim Universal Credit and my money was changed and my rent got into arrears due to the change, which meant it was difficult to manage my money.”

“We are struggling again now with paying rent & council tax. We have made a new application for Council Tax support. I am prioritising paying these when I get my UC, but have had to cancel direct debits. Having difficulty managing financially.”

“Should give cash or vouchers for a particular store. Also I am really struggling to get my daughter school uniform for starting secondary I am starving having to go without food to get it; it would be good if you helped with that.”

“48 hours later and still no decision made. I have gone 13 hours with no gas and electric, I have no food in and I’m currently sat in the dark wrapped up.”

“If I hadn’t had this help I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know how me and my children would have managed.”

Here are some of the most interesting findings and observations from the council’s research:

  • In 2017-18, there were 1,092 applications from 857 different people. Most applicants are single people.
  • Most people who took part in the council survey were positive about the fund’s impact, but most people needed help with the application and knowledge of the fund is limited, including among organisations who could recommend people.
  • The council is missing an opportunity to keep in touch with applicants, to ensure ongoing support is in place, and to make suitable referrals to other organisations.
  • Making people attend the council’s offices to top up fuel cards was an avoidable inconvenience, and the council is now looking into ways of awarding fuel top-ups or supermarket vouchers via mobile phone.
  • “It is well documented that the changing landscape has resulted in many struggling to manage to meet their living costs. Feedback from residents and those working with local communities highlights the continuing needs of residents.”
  • Universal Credit problems led to 170 applications in 2017-18 but these were refused. The report says: “There are a large number of people applying, whose applications do not meet the criteria for a YFAS award who are in financial difficulty and struggling to meet every day basic needs, especially those affected by welfare reforms, such as Universal Credit.” Indeed, most applicants miss out, and the council is concerned about two of its reasons for refusing applications:
    • 15% were refused because people couldn’t provide the supporting evidence of further information, but the council says there are possible barriers. It says: “For people that are vulnerable, in crisis and/or financial hardship getting to West Offices (the council HQ) could be prohibitive, and as we know many people do not have skills to screen shot/email information or do not have access to the internet.”
    • The fund doesn’t support people who can access other funds, such as Universal Credit hardship payments – and the council’s definition of an emergency leads to many rejections. The report says: “Many YFAS applications are made where residents are receiving various benefits and tax credits. Frequently people are finding that they are struggling to meet their everyday needs as they find their income doesn’t meet their out goings. Living long-term on a low income means people are only just managing on a day to day basis to cover essentials, leaving nothing left over to put aside, to the extent any large expenditure, such as a new school term, a family occasion or the breakdown of a household appliance can have severe consequences. These events are not unforeseen emergencies or extraordinary events. Similarly, making an application for UC is not an extraordinary event. Whilst we know that the waiting time for a first UC payment is several weeks, claimants can now more easily apply for an advance payment of UC. Therefore, if claimants are receiving their entitlement to UC there is no exceptional circumstances purely as a result of claiming UC. YFAS cannot mitigate the whole impact of national welfare policy, but this raises the question how we can best use our limited resource to support residents with low incomes and support those in financial difficulty as a result.”

We say:

Local Welfare is a very small proportion of the public budget but a vital resource any of us could need without warning.

We recommend:

  • Government should make it a statutory duty for top-tier councils in England to run a local welfare assistance scheme that can provide cash grants, loans and in-kind support for people, as appropriate, in times of need.
  • Ring-fenced funding should be provided for such schemes
  • The UK Government should work with the Local Government Association, local councils and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to identify and replicate best practice across the UK.

City of York Council’s comments on Universal Credit also illustrate the need for reform. We and other organisations are calling for the five-week wait for first payments to be reduced. For more information, visit endhungeruk.org

What has happened to crisis support where you live?

See the data for every council area in England here. (The systems are different in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, so data for those nations is not available unfortunately).

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