Emergency local council help for families in crisis has been slashed to just 98p per head, while 14 million people have nowhere to turn after schemes were axed altogether.
New research by poverty campaigners has exposed how badly-funded and “chaotic” local welfare schemes are failing to reach residents in need, even as the cost of living crisis grows.
It reveals that help with emergencies such as a lack of clothing or furniture, or a broken washing machine, has plunged by a quarter to only 98p per head in England – with one Conservative-run authority spending just 2p.
In stark contrast, councils in Scotland allocated £9.42 in 2021-22, with spending in Wales (£8.76) and in Northern Ireland (£14.90) also dramatically higher.
Almost one quarter of English councils, a total of 35, now offer no scheme at all, leaving more than 14 million people with no crisis support, the research shared exclusively with The Independent shows.
Worryingly, the flagship government scheme meant to plug the gap – the Household Support Fund (HSF) – is a poorly-targeted “sticking plaster”, the End Furniture Poverty study finds.
Applications were possible for just 17 per cent of the first £500m tranche, with the vast bulk distributed automatically according to criteria such as eligibility for free school meals.
Claire Donovan, the charity’s head of policy, said Local Welfare Assistance (LWA) schemes – introduced as part of austerity cuts in 2013 – are failing “the most vulnerable people in our society at a time of great need”.
“The HSF system has been chaotic and, while we are very pleased it is continuing, it is just another sticking plaster when something more permanent is badly needed.”
Paul Maynard, a Conservative MP demanding a rethink of poverty-fighting schemes, told The Independent the research proved the system is simply “too complex to navigate”.
“It is more important than ever that government reviews how LWAs is operating, and how it fits into its overall approach to remedying destitution. I have already urged the minister to look at a wider picture.”
And Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “The fact that councils have had to either cut back, or their budgets have been depleted, is a damning expose of the desperate hardship so many families, disabled people and pensioners are grappling with after 12 years of the Tories.”
The statistics are revealed after the launch of The Independent’s On The Breadline Christmas campaign, in partnership with its sister title the Evening Standard, Comic Relief and The Childhood Trust.
The LWA system was introduced when then-Tory chancellor George Osborne, amid huge controversy, axed the government’s Social Fund and threw responsibility onto cash-starved councils.
In 2021-22, the number which have scrapped their assistance schemes rose from 32 to 35 – while, of those that survive, two-thirds handed out less money.
The disparity in spending between authorities is vast ranging from £8.71 per capita in Labour-run Islington, in north London, to just 2p in Wokingham, in Berkshire, which was Tory run in 2021-22.
The report states: “The result is a patchwork of different schemes, the quality of which depends upon the attitudes of the local council. Whether a person receives crisis support is, in effect, a postcode lottery.”
The HSF was announced hurriedly in late 2021 – when then-chancellor Rishi Sunak was under fire for cutting Universal Credit – and has now been extended to 2024, worth £1bn a year.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has been asked to respond to criticism of the schemes.