Written evidence from the Local Government Association (LGA) (CPM0015)



1.      About the Local Government Association


1.1.  The Local Government Association (LGA) is the national voice of local government. We are a politically led, cross-party membership organisation, representing councils from England and Wales.


1.2.  Our role is to support, promote and improve local government, and raise national awareness of the work of councils. Our ultimate ambition is to support councils to deliver local solutions to national problems.


2.      Summary


2.1.  The LGA supports the work of the Social Metrics Commission (SMC) to develop a broad, universally accepted measure of poverty. The SMC puts financial and material disadvantage at the heart of its definition of child poverty.


2.2.  We need a cross-Government approach to reducing child poverty.  This would be best achieved with a cross-Government anti-poverty strategy and a cross-Government approach to a child-centred recovery.


2.3.  We have embedded the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within our Business Plan and would like to engage in more robust cross-Government working on delivering shared outcomes set out within that framework. The SDGs “recognise that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection.”


2.4.  Councils support the cross-cutting approach of the Troubled Families programme and would like to see this integrated, preventative approach to understanding and addressing disadvantage embedded more widely across Government.


2.5.  The national response to recovery from the coronavirus pandemic provides us with an opportunity to situate employment within and alongside wider approaches to financial inclusion, health and wellbeing. Councils are uniquely placed to help support their communities through the recovery from the pandemic.


2.6.  The LGA’s Work Local programme is the LGA’s vision for an integrated and devolved employment and skills service that would enable us to better meet the needs of disadvantaged jobseekers and match skills to local economies.


2.7.  The LGA is calling for the restoration of local welfare funding to at least £250 million per annum. With appropriate support to draw on the LGA’s work with councils on Reshaping Financial Support this funding could be used in local places to provide efficient and cost-effective support that shifts the balance from crisis to prevention.


2.8.  The LGA’s proposal for a Child Centred Recovery places children and young people at the heart of recovery and highlights the need to recognise that improving children’s lives is not just the responsibility of the Department for Education, but all government departments.


3.      How should child poverty be measured and defined?


3.1.  The LGA supports the work of the Social Metrics Commission (SMC) to develop a broader and more universally accepted measure of poverty in the UK. The SMC puts financial and material disadvantage at the heart of its definition.  For the purposes of this submission we will assume that this is what the majority - the Committee included – have in mind when we talk about ‘poverty’.


3.2.  The Resolution Foundation also highlights the need to ensure the quality of the data on which measures, decisions and objectives are based.  We have been highlighting the importance of data quality and effective data sharing throughout the response to the pandemic.


3.3.  It can be useful to focus on ‘child poverty’ to understand and address the particular impacts of poverty on children. However, efforts to tackle ‘child poverty’ at a cross-cutting level often run into two fundamental challenges: child poverty is a function of family and community poverty – and therefore it usually makes sense to talk about poverty as whole; and poor outcomes for children are not always caused by poverty alone. As we seek to understand child poverty, we would advocate hearing from children and young people themselves about their experiences of poverty.


3.4.  We therefore advocate for a cross-Government anti-poverty strategy and a cross-Government focus on improving outcomes for children.


4.      The measures of child poverty changed in 2016. What has the impact of those changes been?


4.1.  The Child Poverty Act was replaced with a series of measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 which removed the explicit link between children’s outcomes and a family’s financial circumstances and placed the emphasis on parental employment and educational attainment. The requirement for local places to have a child poverty strategy was removed, but the Government’s proposal to remove all monitoring of relative and absolute poverty was defeated in the Lords.


4.2.  The LGA and councils contributed extensively to inquiries and discussions by previous Governments on proposed approaches to addressing the ‘root causes’ of child poverty.  These included a ‘life chances strategy’ and a ‘social justice green paper’, but neither of these were ultimately taken forward.


4.3.  In those discussions we emphasised the need for cross-cutting approaches to early intervention and prevention to reduce inequality, tackle disadvantage and improve children’s outcomes.


4.4.  The Troubled Families programme is one area of Government policy that has retained an emphasis on locally-led and integrated approaches to early intervention and prevention. Although Troubled Families is funded as a cross-Government programme it continues to be owned and driven by the team in MHCLGFollowing welcome indications of a continued commitment to the programme a number of organisations, including the Children’s Commissioner, have suggested that it should be at the heart of a more cross-cutting approach to early intervention. A renewed emphasis on addressing inequality and improving children’s outcomes would allow the findings and practice from that programme to be applied more widely.


4.5.  The Welfare Reform and Work Act reflected a clear Government view that increasing employment was the main way to address child poverty.  It was also seen as a keyway to reduce welfare spending.  Work is indeed one of the most important and widely recognised routes out of poverty. However, the quality, remuneration and sustainability of that work matters.  Additionally, research from LSE notes that “We conclude that lowering the total amount of financial assistance families can receive in social security may increase the risk of mental ill health and could have the unintended consequence of pushing out-of-work people even further away from the labour market.”


4.6.  The LGA’s ‘Work Local’ vision highlights the short-comings of a fragmented, top-down approach to employment and skills support, and makes some important recommendations for closing the skills-gap to improve outcomes. Those who are unable to work – either short-term or long-term - are worthy of both compassion and support.  This need to ensure that work was situated within wider understandings of dignity, progression and wellbeing was one of the key recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on poverty and human rights when he visited the UK in 2018/19.


4.7.  Devolving more power to local places and situating employment objectives in a more cross-cutting context alongside housing, welfare, financial inclusion, health and wellbeing is vital to ensuring that the complex needs of more disadvantaged jobseekers and benefit claimants can be met.


4.8.  Improving employment outcomes – beyond simply getting people into work – remains one of the most under-developed and under-researched aspects of the Universal Credit (UC) programme.  Research on in-work conditionality showed that outcomes improved most when enhanced support was put in placeThe Department has yet to fully build on these findings.


4.9.  In-work poverty has risen in recent years. This is due to complex range of factors, including reductions in the generosity of in-work benefits and high housing costs.  .In their report considering how best to address this issue, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) highlights the need to address the quality of work, but also the need to address affordability of essentials – in particular housing – and to ensure the benefits system provides adequate in-work support. This relative lack of financial resilience in low-income working households is one of the main reasons that we need a more proactive, preventative approach to financial inclusion and a strong and effective safety net to be maintained throughout recovery from the pandemic. This could also be an opportunity to invest in local economies that are better able to meet the needs of local people, taking into consideration broader factors such as climate change, health and wellbeing.


4.10.        The Welfare Reform and Work Act entailed significant reductions in welfare spending. Research shows that these reductions have disproportionately impacted on families with children, in particular lone parents, large families and families with a disabled parent or a disabled child.


5.      What were the advantages and disadvantages of having a set of targets for reducing child poverty?


5.1.  The Government said that it removed the targets because of concerns about forecasting. There has also been long-standing controversy about the merits of an income measure in particular.


5.2.  The Children’s Commissioner recently published a series of essays urging the Government to ‘take child poverty out of the too difficult box’. It is the LGA’s view that we need a framework for understanding both the nature of the challenge, and our progress in addressing it, as we support our communities through recovery from the pandemic. As set out elsewhere in this submission, the LGA supports the move towards a broader and more universally accepted measure of poverty such as that proposed by the SMC. Any new definition of child poverty needs to be based on robust and measurable criteria to allow independent assessment of how any current or future government is addressing it.


5.3.  We would welcome the opportunity to work with Government and key partners to agree how best to identify shared objectives and measure progress.


6.      What has been the effect of removing from law the targets in place between 2010 and 2016?


6.1.  The stated intention when removing the targets was to replace them with an improved cross-Government emphasis on measuring and addressing the ‘root causes’ of child povertyUnfortunately, this didn’t happen.  Many organisations, including the Children’s Commissioner; the coalition of organisations seeking to End Child Poverty; the Institute of Fiscal Studies and many others, including many councils, have highlighted the need for new, shared and agreed objectives to urgently address the challenges the country is facing, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.


7.      What is the impact of child poverty and how can it best be measured?


7.1.  Child poverty would be more helpfully framed as ‘the impact of poverty on children’.  Poverty can be measured as, for example, proposed by the SMC measure; children’s outcomes can be measured, and sometimes strong correlations can be established between the two.


7.2.  Longitudinal research by the Department for Education (DfE) identified a moderate correlation between the percentage of children in low-income families in 2016 and the rates of children in care in 2018, indicating a link between child poverty and the likelihood of ending up in care. This adds support to research by Paul Bywaters which found that children in the most deprived 10 per cent of small neighbourhoods in the UK are over 10 times more likely to be in care or on protection plans than children in the least deprived 10 per cent. While deprivation levels were used as a proxy for individual family circumstances (on which data is unavailable), this indicates that children living in poverty or whose families are on low-incomes are more likely to have contact with the children’s social care system. As the DfE research highlights, children who have had a social worker are more likely to be persistently absent or excluded from school than their peers, and less likely to achieve a strong pass in the English and maths GCSEs. They are also less likely to go on to study A-Levels or to enter higher education.


7.3.  The detailed and extensive work undertaken in the evaluation of the second phase of the Troubled Families programme demonstrated the benefits of taking a cross-cutting, longitudinal approach to understanding both disadvantage and approaches to intervention.


7.4.  Despite some concerns around terminology and priorities, the Troubled Families programme remains well-thought of by councils and partners, and has achieved some significant successes, both in terms of outcomes, and in terms of establishing credible approaches to measuring the impacts of early intervention. It is disappointing how little cross-Government learning and engagement there has been to build more widely on its success.


8.      What links can be established for children between financial hardship, educational under-achievement, family breakdown and worklessness?


8.1.  There is extensive research that demonstrates the links between financial hardship and poor outcomes.  These are not confined to the list above (nor are the relationships exclusive or uni-directional). This complexity is another reason to support cross-cutting multi-agency working, such as that supported by the Troubled Families scheme. Many councils structure services in this way, working across multiple agencies – far beyond the confines of their Troubled Families work, for example ‘Community Solutions’ in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, or ‘Active Inclusion’ in Newcastle.


8.2.  DfE statistics highlight clear links between financial hardship and educational under-achievement at all stages. 55 per cent of pre-school children eligible for free school meals achieve at least the expected standard in all early learning goals, compared to 73 per cent of their peers. 24.7 per cent of disadvantaged Key Stage 4 pupils achieve English and Maths at grades 9-5, compared to 49.9 per cent of all other Key Stage 4 pupils.


8.3.  Research also shows that disadvantaged young people are twice as likely to be Not in Education, Employment or training (NEET) than their better off peers, with half of this gap not explained by qualification levels. Most young people who are NEET will be NEET long-term.


8.4.  Research for the Social Mobility Commission showed that the greatest inequality in outcomes for disadvantaged sons was driven by deprivation factors outside of education. The impacts of the pandemic have also emphasised clearly and devastatingly the correlation between deprivation and poor health outcomes.


9.      How effectively does the Department for Work and Pensions work with other Government departments, particularly the Department for Education and the Treasury, to reduce child poverty?


9.1.  The impetus for cross-Government working needs to come from the top. We saw this drive to reduce child poverty both by former Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May, who proposed the Life Chances Strategy and the Social Justice Green Paper respectively. However, neither of these initiatives were implemented, but would have given Departments a clear mandate to work together on shared outcomes.


9.2.  We know that the Department for Work and Pensions’ desire to work more effectively with other departments is often there, but is hampered by competing departmental objectives. A clear example of this is the disconnect between DWP Housing Benefit, Universal Credit housing costs and MHCLG homelessness policy.


9.3.  The LGA supports the recommendation in the National Food Strategy Part One report for the extension of the Food to the Vulnerable Ministerial Taskforce.  This would enable, for example, effective cross-Government learning from DWP and councils’ use and implementation of the Winter Support Grant and the Holiday and Activity Fund (HAF)


9.4.  Access to and take up of good quality early education can be an important factor in improving social mobility and long-term educational outcomes. It would be helpful if the DWP could work more closely with DfE on childcare issues, for example ensuring councils are provided with lists of children eligible for Early Years Pupil Premium and the Disability Access Fund to ensure that all children are able to access early years places along with the support they need to thrive in their settings.


9.5.  The childcare element of Universal Credit is vital to support parents into work or to help them to increase their hours and move out of poverty. However, claimants must pay costs upfront and claim back up to 85 per cent of what they have paid. This can be a significant amount of money to pay in advance. It would be helpful for the DWP and DfE to work together to enable the upfront payment of childcare costs, for example by direct invoice to the DWP by the provider.


9.6.  Councils have several concerns around the administration of the 30 hours early entitlements scheme for three- and four-year-olds, which are generating barriers to take-up of the entitlement and preventing parents from taking up work:


9.6.1.           Having to reconfirm eligibility every three months leads to a small number of children losing their entitlement not because of a lack of eligibility, but because parents have not reconfirmed. This can particularly be an issue for families with limited digital access as reconfirmation must take place online. It can also discourage applications altogether from parents who are on temporary or variable contracts, who fear losing eligibility and having to remove children from provision in which they are settled.


9.6.2.           The way the system is administered can mean that children must wait up to five months to be able to take up a free place. This is a clear barrier to parents being able to take up a job offer.


9.7.  We are keen to see the requirement to reconfirm eligibility for 30 hours childcare every three months be reduced to annually, and for children to be able to take up placements as soon as they become eligible rather than wait to the start of the next term. It would be helpful for departments to come together to consider ways in which barriers to taking up early entitlements can be removed, both to support parents into work and to reduce the disadvantage gap.


9.8.  Fairly and sustainably reducing the costs of Housing Benefit and Universal Credit housing support clearly depend on tackling housing affordability and increasing the supply of affordable housing.  This requires effective joint working between DWP and MHCLG.


9.9.  Separately identified local welfare funding was removed in 2015, shortly after responsibility for local welfare passed from DWP to MHCLG. The LGA has consistently highlighted the benefits of restoring sustainable local welfare funding to enable councils to develop a positive, proactive and preventative approach to addressing financial hardship and economic vulnerability. If this funding is restored then its effectiveness would be enhanced by a shared anti-poverty strategy across DWP and MHCLG, as well as other key departments including HMT and the Cabinet Office.


10.  How effectively does the Department for Work and Pensions work with local authorities and with support organisations to reduce the numbers of children living in poverty and to mitigate the impact of poverty on children?


10.1.        There are many examples of good working relationships between councils and DWP / Job Centre Plus (JCPs) at the local level.  These include integrated employment support and referral pathways for safeguarding, financial inclusion support and debt advice.  However, the Department could do much more to consistently share learning, particularly across its own estate, and to support effective joint working with councils and other local partners.


10.2.        The Department has also worked effectively with the LGA and councils on specific initiatives such as the Reducing Parental Conflict programme.


10.3.        The LGA has a close and effective working relationship with the Local Authority Partnership, Engagement and Delivery (LA-PED) division, with whom we primarily work on benefits administration.  We were pleased when that team was given responsibility for working with the sector on the Winter Grant Scheme. 


10.4.        We would like to see this team given more support and empowerment from the rest of the Department to engage with councils on policy development, to feed back into Government.  We think this would have real benefits for work on poverty prevention.  One area where we think there could be particular benefits would be to work with the Department on a thorough review of Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) to ensure that it is adequately resourced and effectively integrated with other local support to prevent financial hardship and homelessness.


10.5.        The Department’s significant emphasis on delivering the operational aspects of Universal Credit is understandable, particularly in the present context, and credit must go to the Universal Credit programme for responding effectively to the recent expansion of the Universal Credit caseload.  Timely and effective administration of Universal Credit is clearly important for local income households and the LGA has always supported the over-arching policy intent of Universal Credit.


10.6.        Wider effective support for Universal Credit claimants – and low-income households in general - has, however, been consistently hampered by the programme’s reluctance to engage fairly and effectively with local government.  The long journey from the ‘Local Support Services Framework’ to ‘Universal Support’ to ‘Help to Claim’ exemplifies the problems of this approach, as does the top-down approach to ‘Move to UC’. 


10.7.        There has been some positive progress recently, with a renewed attempt to engage with the LGA on Universal Credit policy at a senior level.  The ‘Help to Claim’ pilot is due to end this year, and the department will have to commission its successor.  There would be real benefits to low-income households to ensuring that the role of councils in providing support and advice on housing; health; employment and skills support, and financial inclusion is recognised and resourced, and is effectively integrated with Universal Credit and work coach support.


10.8.        To provide a truly effective safety net the mainstream benefits system needs to operate in an equal and functional partnership with social care, housing, financial inclusion and public health.


10.9.        Treasury and the DWP need to do more to understand the full costs of reductions in national welfare spending.  These reductions often lead to increased costs for councils, who pick up the impacts on low-income households at a local level.  This was clearly seen with the impact of Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rate freeze on homelessness and Temporary Accommodation.  Retaining the £20 per week uplift in Universal Credit will provide vital support to low-income households throughout recovery from the pandemic.  It will also prevent some of those additional support costs from falling on councils at a time when many of them are facing significant pressures of their own.


10.10.    The LGA has welcomed recent constructive meetings with both the Welfare Minister, Will Quince and the Employment Minister, Mims Davies. We are pleased that both Ministers want to continue to work with the LGA.  We are meeting with officials soon to discuss potential for piloting some new partnership working initiatives and we hope that this may be an opportunity to develop and improve some of the areas set out above.


10.11.    One area where we think there is particular scope for further development is in local welfare support and, in particular, financial inclusion. The LGA continues to call for the restoration of Local Welfare Funding - to at least £250,000 per annum - to enable a more locally-led and preventative approach to addressing financial hardship.


10.12.    Much of the emphasis from partners who would like to see the funding restored has been on crisis support.  While we agree that this is important, one of the key ways in which some councils’ approach differs from that of the former Social Fund is in the emphasis on prevention


10.13.    The LGA’s Reshaping Financial Support programme is working with a core group of councils to look at more preventative and sustainable ways of supporting low-income households. Throughout the pandemic, an increasing number of councils have engaged with the programme. Councils have a strong interest on how to ensure that low income households have the most timely and effective support throughout recovery.


10.14.    The LGA is working with a wide range of partners, including the Financial Inclusion Centre, Fair 4 All, the Money and Pensions Service and the Children’s Society on key aspects of support including the effective use of data. Two key areas for further development that we are currently working with councils on are: access to affordable credit and financial services, and fairness in debt recovery.  Timely investment in these areas has real scope to reduce future costs to the public sector and improve outcomes for low income households. 


10.15.    We are already connected with the Cabinet Office Fairness Group and, to a lesser, extent HMT’s work on financial inclusion. Effective joint working with national Government in the context of an anti-poverty strategy could accelerate and embed this work across the sector.


11.  What would be the merits of having a cross-government child poverty strategy? How well has this worked in the past?


11.1.        A shared strategy mitigates against the risk of competing objectives, which often cause real and significant problems for councils.  A recent example would be the incompatibility of DWP objectives to reduce spending on housing support (largely achieved by freezing benefits and shifting costs elsewhere in the system) and MHCLG objectives to reduce homelessness and rough sleeping.  Another key example is the barriers to parental employment inherent in the DfE’s funding and implementation of its childcare offer for working parents.


11.2.        A very current example is the discourse around financial hardship and food poverty, where the appropriate balance clearly needs to be struck between the national benefits system, employment and housing support, local welfare and financial inclusion support and direct provision of food via e.g. Free School Meals.


11.3.        Shared objectives also provide an important context for local government to propose and develop genuine, locally-led approaches to addressing complex problems – as seen, for example, in the success of the Troubled Families programme.


11.4.        For the reasons noted above, we would prefer to see a cross-government anti-poverty strategy and a cross-government strategy to improve children’s outcomes, that takes explicit account of family and community poverty. It is crucial that any strategy will allow for local variations as councils across the country will face different sets of challenges.


11.5.        In our policy paper, A Child Centred Recovery, we call for a cross-Whitehall strategy that puts children and young people at the heart of recovery, recognising that improving children’s lives is not just the responsibility of the DfE, but all government departments. We believe that incorporating issues around socio-economic disadvantage and outcomes for marginalised groups of children and families could offer a more holistic view of children’s lives than a focus only on child poverty, while still tackling the issues that result in families living in poverty. We would also advocate the use of a partnership approach, not just across the government but also across universities, public, private, third sector organisations and with children, young people and parents themselves.


11.6.        A Child-Centred Recovery also offers suggestions to embed child-focussed thinking across government, including the use of children and young people impact assessments for all new policies and legislation.



February 21