The Tory ‘emergency fund’ is an admission that universal credit shouldn’t be cut | Tom Pollard

The government is plugging its £6bn cut with a £500m one-off bung. How many people will struggle for food and heating?

Working in frontline NHS mental health services during the darkest days of the pandemic, I often encountered people in crisis who did not know where their next meal was coming from. Fortunately during that period, I was able to call on a rapid response from local services and community groups who did everything they could to catch those who fell through the cracks. It made sense that emergency funding was devolved to local authorities to coordinate these efforts.

Frontline services are about to face another wave of demand as a result of the government’s deliberate decision to cut £20 a week from the incomes of the country’s poorest households, just as they are facing a cost-of-living crisis. Ministers’ recent announcement of an emergency £500m fund to support people who are struggling to “afford the essentials” is tantamount to an admission that the universal credit cut will make many people destitute. Rather than taking responsibility for the consequences of ripping £6bn from the social security system, the government is handing local authorities less than 10% of that amount to deal with the impact.

Some 800,000 people could be pulled into poverty as a result of the universal credit cut. The new emergency fund is clearly insufficient to respond to even the initial fallout from this decision, let alone the longer-term inadequacy of universal credit without the £20 uplift. Despite this, the fund is being pitched as a one-off measure to help people ride out the aftershocks of the pandemic. It will be divided between local authorities, who will then be expected to provide “small grants to meet daily needs such as food, clothing, and utilities”. But if people cannot meet these daily needs, a single payment does next to nothing to address their underlying problems.

In my experience, people are only likely to access this sort of scheme if they have someone looking out for them who can tell them it is available, or make a referral on their behalf. Even then, it is demeaning to have to seek emergency support so that you and your family can eat, and it provides little comfort if you know you will continue to struggle afterwards.

Many people who will face hardship this winter are socially isolated and not necessarily in touch with the sort of services that might be able to identify and respond to their needs. Mental health services, local authorities and charities are already extremely stretched, so it is no surprise that people slip under the radar, sometimes with tragic consequences.

The government claims it is asking local authorities to distribute this support because they “know their local areas best and can directly help those who need it most”. While additional funding for local services is welcome, particularly given the neglect they have suffered over the last decade, it will quickly be swallowed up by efforts to fill the void left by the removal of the universal credit uplift.

Local authorities will have to dedicate time and resources to distributing their share of the fund, while staff across a range of local services will be called upon to identify and refer people in need of emergency assistance. At the same time, these services will be responding to increased demand as more people struggle with mental health problems, housing issues and debt.

As a mental health social worker, I want to be able to focus my efforts on supporting people to feel happier, safer and more in control of their lives, not seeking emergency grants so that they can afford to heat their homes and eat. The financial insecurity experienced by many people supported by mental health services is often a significant factor in them becoming and remaining unwell.

The inadequacy of our social security system predates the pandemic. Many of the problems facing the country’s poorest households are not the result of a temporary emergency, and will not be fixed with a one-off bung of funding. We should be building on the £20 universal credit uplift, not scrambling to mitigate the impact of its removal.

Giving people the security of knowing their basic needs will be met would ensure they could focus on trying to build a better life for themselves and their families. In turn, it would mean that frontline workers such as me would be better able to support people to make positive progress in getting on with their lives, rather than just trying to avoid the next crisis.

  • Tom Pollard is a mental health social worker and a policy expert on mental health and social security


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Tom Pollard

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