By Graham Whitham
In December, GMPA launched our Strengthening the role of local welfare assistance report. The report identifies good practice and recommendations from across the country and considers how these can be applied to local welfare assistance schemes here in Greater Manchester.
Local welfare assistance schemes are an important means through which local authorities can respond to the needs of residents facing a financial crisis. Relatively small interventions delivered through these schemes can help meet a person’s immediate needs and prevent them from falling deeper into hardship. However, national research has found that there’s often a lack of awareness of schemes, that they are poorly advertised and difficult to access.
In Greater Manchester, where all local councils have schemes in place, there is some existing good practice and a real opportunity to strengthen support in each of our boroughs. Taking the recommendations detailed in the report, GMPA has developed a checklist for local authorities and their partners to use to assess their schemes and understand what further improvements could be made. Importantly, at a time when local authority finances are coming under even greater pressure, most of the recommendations come at no extra cost.
We are pleased with the engagement we’ve had on the report to date. This month we held events for elected members, council officers and other stakeholders from across GM, and we’ll continue to work with councils and their partners over the course of this year.
Of particular relevance as we (hopefully) begin to recover from the pandemic, is the focus in the report on taking a ‘cash first’ approach to supporting people. This means that the default way in which someone facing hardship is supported is through a monetary payment rather than in-kind support such as a fuel voucher or food parcel.
Local welfare assistance schemes represent an obvious opportunity for local authorities to adopt this approach as a key role of schemes is to support residents with essential living costs for those in financial crisis, such as buying food or heating their home. Whilst most of the schemes in Greater Manchester offer this support, it is usually in the form of vouchers.
There has been a range of research highlighting the benefits of cash payments over any other form of support for those in financial crisis due to its:
a) Flexibility, choice, speed and convenience – vouchers have to be used with certain companies or certain locations or for certain products; cash can be used anywhere and if issued electronically, is available immediately. Vouchers may mean someone having to travel a distance to buy food, costing them money and time, when they could have used their local shop if they had access to cash, benefiting the local economy. There is a much greater risk that vouchers won’t be used compared to money.
b) Preservation of dignity – having to use vouchers can be stigmatising and may reduce access to the support that residents desperately need.
c) Administrative efficiency (when processed electronically) – once an electronic system is set up to pay cash it can be processed quickly and remotely, without the need for face-to-face visits. This approach removes the need to make arrangements with third parties (e.g. voucher providers) further reducing administrative pressures.
Adoption of a ‘cash first’ approach by local welfare assistance schemes across Greater Manchester would help contribute to addressing the atomisation of poverty that we’ve seen over the last ten years. You can read more about the importance of this approach in our ‘Cash first’ briefing and in the Strengthening the role of local welfare assistance report.