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Welfare reform: the role of local government

For a process which is designed to reduce bureaucracy, the language of the reform of the UK’s welfare system is extraordinarily complex. From work capability assessment to personal independence payment to employment and support allowance; as practitioners we are needing to learn a whole host of new intricacies and terminology around welfare.

Just bear a thought therefore for the average benefit claimant. What do these changes mean in reality? Will I be pushed into unsuitable employment? How will the changes affect my livelihood and family? Who do I turn to for support?

The scenarios of welfare reform are endless due to the complexity of the system. For a current claimant of incapacity benefit (aged over 25) who as a result of work capability assessment is shifted to job seekers allowance, the scenario is relatively straightforward; a loss of income of around £24 per week and a need to seek employment.

But what about a family of four with one person in employment; a disabled child; a family member claiming carers allowance; and living in an under-occupied socially rented house? It is exactly this concern over the cumulative impact of welfare reform that government appears to have neglected in its policy and practice over welfare reform. The worry is that it will be these groups of people who will be affected multiple times by welfare reform who will slip deeper into poverty and potentially disappear from the system altogether.

My question is who tries to understand the likely impact of welfare reform and who picks up the pieces? With community advice services facing cuts in funding, the answer almost inevitably lies with local government and partners at the local level. Over the last few months the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) has been working with Manchester Council on research exploring the likely cumulative impact of welfare reform upon the city’s residents and importantly identifying how local authorities are responding.

We have found a willingness and indeed duty on the part of local government to take on this mantle; often despite the Catch 22 situation of cuts eroding support services. A call for practice of the CLES membership base identified a number of means by which local authorities are responding to welfare reform:

  • Authorities have set up cross-departmental and cross-partner working groups to respond to welfare reform. This has often led to intelligence gathering identifying the groups and individuals most likely to be affected;
  • Authorities have adopted a personalised approach to informing claimants of the changes with phone calls and face to face visits to those most likely to be affected. This has also included signposting to wider advice and support;
  • Authorities have provided specialist training on welfare reform for internal management and frontline staff and also undertaking capacity building with partner organisations;
  • Authorities are working in partnership with housing organisations to develop advice services with a view to reducing rent arrears. They are also working with voluntary and community sector organisations to support progression into employment;

In Manchester, a dual city and neighbourhood level approach to responding to welfare reform has been adopted with continuous monitoring around impact and partner focused support activities delivered through the area regeneration teams.

As the rhetoric of welfare reform becomes reality through the continuation of the work capability assessment and the piloting of universal credit, an added dimension needs to be considered. What will be the impact upon local economies including shops and services? This is the focus of the next piece of CLES research with a consortium of housing organisations in Greater Manchester.

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