Two years ago, further responsibility for discretionary payments to people in need was transferred from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to local councils. That was a perfectly sensible decision as local councils are better placed to determine local needs than a central government department. But since then, Shropshire has underspent the allocated budgets for Discretionary Housing Payments and the Local Support and Prevention Fund.
The Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) scheme gives financial support towards housing costs over and above housing benefit. The Local Support and Prevention Fund (LSPF) provides support payments and crisis funds, known as prevention payments. Now Shropshire Council is consulting on how it should allocate the money in future years. The deadline for responses is 23 April.
With my limited knowledge, the criteria it is proposing for allocating funds look about right. But I do think it needs to beef up its communication strategy so that people in need know that these schemes exist.
Local Support and Prevention Fund
The scheme aims to provide quick and effective support to people who require help to meet an immediate short term need, and to assist people to establish themselves or maintain their independence in the community. In 2013/2014, Shropshire Council received £467,992 for the LSPF but spent just £68,517 of the funds (15%). This financial year, it is expecting to spend around £150,000 of a budget of £459,740 (c. 33%). Next year the budget is £325,939.
The new Shropshire Council policy sets out who might be eligible for support payments, for example, people who are homeless, fleeing domestic violence or leaving care. The awards could be used provide food, fuel, travel costs, interview clothing and other essential items. Prevention payments are available for people who have suffered an emergency or disaster. More details on the LSPF consultation…
Discretionary Housing Payments
Discretionary Housing Payments are payments towards housing costs in addition to any statutory provision such as housing benefit. Payments might cover rent, rent in advance, deposits and removal costs, or help people cope with the bedroom tax (spare room subsidy). In 2013/2014, the government gave Shropshire Council £277,475 for DHP, but it spent only £214,000. New working practices were introduced in 2014/2015 and it is expected that the final spending will be over £300,000 against a budget of £383,819. Next year’s budget has been reduced to £323,000 by the government even though demands might well increase with the roll out of universal credit.
The new Shropshire Council policy sets out the objectives for the scheme, which are to support vulnerable people, those in difficulty and those that are trying to help themselves. It details the evidence that applicants must provide and criteria officers will use to assess the application. More details on the DHP consultation…
Do these policies make sense?
I’m not an expert in this field but the criteria for allocating grants in the new policies look okay to me. What puzzles me is why we are underspending by so much, especially on the LSPF.
Shropshire Council is not alone in underspending on DHP. Last June, the DWP trumpeted the national underspend as showing that “recent scare stories about councils running out of [DHP] money were grossly exaggerated.” Critics of the DWP’s press release in the Guardian and on Community Links take a different view.
I think the Shropshire Council task and finish group that looked at DHP spending was right when it said: The group believes it is important to ensure the use of Shropshire’s allocation is maximised to support the need of Shropshire tenants. At the moment we are not maximising use of money granted by the government. I can’t see these policies achieving that partly because the communication strategy is weak. This is a point picked up by task and finish group which said that greater efforts needed to made to ensure that social and private tenants are aware of the DHP scheme. That has to be right, but the communications sections of the new policies have no mention of tenants’ newsletters, social media or of being proactive in promoting the schemes.
Shropshire Council seems to be expecting other bodies such as Citizen’s Advice and housing associations to promote the schemes. That’s fine but it could also do much more itself. A search of the council’s website for ‘discretionary housing payments’ produces nothing other than a list of policy papers. The same is true for the LSPF. The council is promising dedicated web pages but they are not in place yet and that can’t be helpful for struggling people or their advisers. This may be one reason why the schemes are underspent.
The thing I find most difficult is that there is no independent evidence about the level of need. That mean we will never know what the right spending level should be. (Here is the link to the DHP application form.)