MPs inquire into local welfare changes

18 Sep 15

MPs are to probe the effectiveness of local welfare provision, including devolved council tax benefit schemes, in order to determine best practice across the country.

The work and pensions select committee’s inquiry will also look at the operation of the Department for Work & Pensions’ discretionary social fund and local discretionary housing payments, which are paid where a claimant’s Housing Benefit is insufficient to pay their rent.

Committee chair Frank Field said there was a great deal of concern that some of the least advantaged people were slipping through safety nets due to different local schemes. The inquiry will seek to provide an assessment of the extent to which emergency welfare and housing policy objectives are being met at local level, he said, including whether the most vulnerable are consistently being given sufficient support.

Field said the country’s welfare safety net had been developed over decades because there is a level below which we as a society do not believe anyone should fall, no matter where they live.

The report would consider the extent to which local discretion and variations in provision represent “localism in action” or in fact create a “postcode lottery”, he stated.
“We want to understand how local councils are adapting and coping with the changes in benefits and the extra responsibilities on them to meet genuine need and maintain that basic safety net.”

The review will consider the extent to which local authorities are using different criteria for deciding eligibility for schemes such as council tax support, which was devolved to town halls from April 2013. Under the localisation rules, councils were not able to reduce the level of support offered to pensioners, which has led a majority of authorities to now require all working-age residents to pay a proportion of their council tax liability regardless of income.

Committee member Karen Buck added that recent changes in welfare provision – such as the benefit cap and Housing Benefit regulations as well as council tax support localisation – had placed more pressure on local councils to offer a basic safety net.

“This raises huge questions over their capacity to meet need, and over variations in practice between areas which I hope the inquiry will help us understand.”

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