COUNCILS in England are urging the government to extend one of its most essential schemes to help protect vulnerable households in the country.
The Household Support Fund (HSF), which has provided £820 million in government funding for local welfare support over the past year, is set to end on 31 March. The fund has been used to help millions of households facing hardship, who would otherwise have struggled to buy food, heat their home or go without other essentials.
More than eight out of 10 of the councils that responded to a Local Government Association (LGA) survey say that financial hardship has increased in their areas just as vital local funding used to support vulnerable households is due to end.
Nearly three quarters of responding councils (73 per cent) also said they expect hardship to increase even further over the next 12 months, while just under a fifth expect it to stay the same.
The Government has not confirmed that the HSF will be extended, leaving councils, their delivery partners and residents in limbo. This uncertainty is impacting councils’ ability to set their budgets for next year. There is also the risk that any last-minute extension of the fund would come too late for councils, who would have lost experienced staff in anticipation of it ending.
Given record demand for this support, the LGA and councils across the country are calling for the fund to urgently be extended for at least a year, to prevent a cliff-edge in support for vulnerable people which cannot be filled from already overstretched council budgets.
Ending the HSF on 31 March would also coincide with an end to the Government’s cost of living payments, which means low-income households would be doubly hit by a reduction in support.
The LGA’s survey of its members found that:
- More than eight in 10 responding councils (84 per cent) said that financial hardship had increased in their area in the last 12 months.
- Around three quarters of respondents (73 per cent) said that they expect financial hardship to increase in their area in the next 12 months, whilst just under a fifth of respondents (19 per cent) said they expect it to remain about the same.
- Almost two thirds of respondents (62 per cent) said they could provide no additional discretionary funding to replace what is lost from the end of the Household Support Fund, whilst just under a fifth of respondents (17 per cent) said that alongside the fund ending, they would also be reducing their own local welfare discretionary funding due to financial pressures.
- Around a fifth of responding councils (22 per cent) said they would have to make redundancies if the Household Support Fund were to end.
The HSF was first introduced in October 2021 and allowed councils to significantly expand the help they could give to vulnerable residents during the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. It has been subsequently extended several times, with the current tranche running from 1 April 2023 to 31 March 2024.
Since 2021, the HSF has boosted investment in local welfare support by more than £2 billion and now funds 62 per cent of local welfare provision, allowing councils to target support to the needs of their communities.
Among the vital HSF-funded services and support which are set to be lost, or significantly reduced, if the fund ends include:
- Cash grants or vouchers to help people in crisis with energy, food and other essentials.
- Targeted support for people in receipt of council tax support, free school meals or pension credit, such as energy vouchers for pensioners living in fuel poverty.
- Helping with significant or unexpected costs, such as furniture, white goods or replacing broken boilers.
- Funding the voluntary sector to deliver support, like foodbanks, social supermarkets or schemes to deliver home energy efficiency improvements for low-income households.
- Providing vouchers to children eligible for free school meals to prevent holiday hunger.
Cllr Pete Marland, Chair of the LGA’s Economy and Resources Board, said: “The Household Support Fund has provided an essential lifeline for our most vulnerable residents, but our survey shows this help is needed now more than ever.
“Now is not the time to scale back support. Many at-risk households continue to face considerable challenges in meeting essential living costs, with demand for support greater than when the fund was first introduced.
“Ultimately, councils want to shift from providing crisis support to investing in preventative services which improve people’s financial resilience and life chances, alongside a sufficiently-resourced national safety net.
“However, without an urgent extension of Household Support Fund for at least a year, there is a risk of more households falling into financial crisis, homelessness and poverty.”
* Read the Household Support Fund survey report here.
* Source: Local Government Association