Thursday, 28 March 2013
Yesterday I had a moment's silence for the Social Fund. Previously a centrally controlled pot of money available to people under strict rules, it will be abolished in its current incarnation from the 1st of April. Its passing doesn't just mark the removal of my own personal safety net but a further dismantling of the welfare state.
The Social Fund was genuinely open to everyone. Crisis loans supported benefit claimants and those hit by unexpected changes to their lives of the worst kind. They fed you and clother you in fire, flood and fear when the insurance companies can't act fast enough or you don't have your documents to hand. Budgeting Loans and Community Care Grants offered opportunity and social mobility. A low cost, low interest option, they allowed for the risk of changing your life and trying to make more of it all.
All these grants and loans came in the guise of cold hard cash, a currency opne to misinterpretation, but also opportunity. As of April, they transfer to a council run scheme with each Local Authority setting their own rules from a non ringfenced budget and will become a combination of pre paid card, vouchers, food stamps at a food bank or allocated items. It's the realisation of Alec Shelbrooke's 'scroungercard' idea refused recently in the House of Commons. I warned then that was a decoy to distract from the eradication of the Social Fund and I take no pleasure in saying "I told you so now".
Sneaked in by the back door, this new incarnation of the Social Fund is in direct contradiction to Iain Duncan Smith's idea that claimants should take more responsibility, a mantra he uses to force through every change to welfare he dam well likes. The Social Fund now knows better than you what you should spend it on and offers only the barest essentials such as Asda cards for food only in Birmingham. I claimed a Crisis Loan to pay the shortfall between my Housing Benefit and my hostel costs when my benefits were delayed due to the address change of being in Temporary Accomodation. Being able to rollback the prices and slap my arse in Asda would not have helped put a roof over my head. Lack of flexibility and this patrician attitude would have had me on the street.
I then also claimed a Community Care Grant when I was rehoused. I was awarded £350 to furnish my entire flat and I was already told what i could or couldn't have. Cutlery was a non essential but curtains were fine (presumably so I could keep them shut and signal my scrounger status to my neighbours...) But within those boundaries I chose what I needed and I took responsibility, showing evidence for what I wanted, pricing it up and shopping around in my local area. I felt treated like a member of my new community and I've been able to integrate fully.
I've helped other people apply for Social Fund payments since. A friend got the deposit for her flat that way or she would have ended up homeless. A neighbour claimed costs for her 25 year old daughter's funeral costs after she was unexpectedly killed by a drunk driver. Clients have been able to keep their flats while in hospital or prison. Others got the cooker that allowed them to eat properly and take their meds, saving on relapse and hospital admission. We've helped people sleep in a bed for the first time in 4 years, heat their homes, get cars back on the road so they could start new jobs and not have to choose between heat and eat. Each one was a small event. No one ever got more than a few hundred pounds and they were able to take small steps that became big strides.
The conditionality and morality clauses such in Manchester's new Social Fund remove that fair and adult attitude and infantilise us all while allowing payday loan companies and supermarkets to make more money from more misery. These are organisations who don't even pay their staff a living wage and get state support in the form of tax credits, bleeding even more from the welfare state and leaving it in critical condition. The changes to the Social Fund will be as detrimental to stability and security as the bedroom tax and a test as to what other universal entitlement can be eroded in modern Britain. And unless they start specifying exactly what those who take out loans from tax payer funded banks can spend it on, you woun't be able to convince me that the whole thing isn't utterly ideological and unfair to the most vulnerable.
(The image above is by the very funny and clever @DocHackenbush on Twitter. Many thanks to him for saying it so well and letting me use it...)