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Work and Pensions Select Committee Inquiry: ‘The local welfare safety net’ - Citizens Advice response

16 November 2015

At Citizens Advice we want to see a welfare state that empowers our clients to live meaningful, independent lives, and to move towards work where they can. Benefits and tax credits are the largest area of advice we deliver;  we deal with around 2 million related issues each year.

The new energy around the localism agenda is likely to be an important development for the future of the welfare state. With Local Growth Deals, City Deals and the new provisions set out in the Cities and Devolution Bill, local and combined authorities may gain new scope for employment, health and wider support initiatives. For example, there are currently plans for cities such as Manchester and Sheffield to take on a greater role in commissioning employment and support services such as the Work Programme.

Overall, we are seeing some significant and innovative local initiatives, but there are still very challenging circumstances for local authorities. Many local authorities are ambitious about the welfare agenda, both around improving benefit administration and tackling the wider social and economic problems which contribute to demand in the first place. However, they are also facing a challenging fiscal environment both locally and nationally.

Citizens Advice believes the challenge will be to ensure that the localism agenda supports positive reform of the welfare system  in the medium term, rather than becoming a vehicle for making blunt spending reductions in the short term. As set out in our recent work on the future of the welfare state [ 0.53 mb], local welfare provision has the potential to be much more than simply a ‘safety net’ where national policy fails.

With sufficient scope, it could provide a more innovative, flexible and integrated approach in areas of welfare provision where centrally-administered policy has struggled.

However, at present the evidence suggests that - while there are examples of good practice - local authorities are unable to consistently serve either as a basic safety net or a source of innovation. Issues of resources, communication and the balance between local and national are all relevant.

Citizens Advice response to the Work and Pensions Select Committee Inquiry on 'The local welfare safety net' will:

  • Set out some of the challenges we are seeing on local welfare delivery and examples of good practice to mitigate problems or innovate in this area; and

  • Consider the principles by which these schemes could be improved and provide recommendations for future development.

It will focus on the areas we have seen recent changes:  to the administration of Council Tax Benefit, local welfare assistance, Housing Benefit and discretionary housing payments. Our response relates to England only; some of these areas are subject to different arrangements in Wales.