We have been working with a number of local authorities since 2012, as elements of the welfare system have been localised.
One of the trends we have noticed is the introduction of local ‘conditionality’. So far, it has usually been applied at national level, by Jobcentre Plus. The introduction of conditionality by local authorities may have largely gone unnoticed, but it is an important side-effect of localisation.
Why is local conditionality being introduced?
Local authorities have had to introduce a whole raft of changes to their local welfare systems. Some obvious examples are:
- Local council tax support schemes have replaced the nationally administered Council Tax Benefit.
- Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) have been introduced to mitigate the impacts of under-occupation and the benefit cap.
- Local welfare support has replaced parts of the social fund.
There are three key drivers behind the introduction of conditionality in these local schemes.
The first is grant-based funding. Councils need to ensure that they do not overspend the amount of grant allocated to them.
The second is the need to determine who receives support, either though discretionary schemes, like DHPs, or by determining the rules on allocation of the local support fund.
The third driver is the need to support wider welfare objectives where they are designed to change behaviour. Previously, many local authorities saw their role as processors of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit claims. Some now see themselves playing an important role in supporting people to take steps into work, or toward greater independence.
As one local authority put it:
“We want the council to move beyond sticking plaster solutions. If we can promote work and independence by understanding who is impacted by welfare reforms and working closely with partners, we will have more resources available for people that still need our support. We have an obligation to protect and support the most vulnerable.”
It is that last sentence that provides the greatest justification for conditionality, but does it work?
What do well designed local schemes look like?
Well-designed local schemes have the following features. They:
- Encourage people to engage in support services
- Offer support services that are tailored to make a difference in people’s lives
- Ensure that the right support gets to the right people
- Are well-integrated so that it is clear exactly what support services any one household is receiving and duplication is avoided
- Fall within allocated budgets, so that other council services are not affected.
When considering conditionality specifically, it needs to be thought through. Advisers need to know the customer’s circumstances, and be properly trained to be able to recommend actions that actually help the customer toward independence. Poorly applied conditionality can cause people to disengage from the benefit system.
“If you make me jump through any more hoops, I just won’t bother.”
We have worked with a number of local authorities to design effective local support schemes. These involve:
– Setting sensible and flexible criteria for DHP award decisions
– Financial assessment
– Priority cases
– Other policy considerations.
The real strengths in this framework are its flexibility and the ability to reach consistent and justifiable decisions, without fettering discretion.
A conditional Council Tax support scheme
We were asked to work with one local authority to design a Council Tax reduction scheme that promoted work. We quickly found that improved work incentives within Council Tax support would have little impact. Any positive impact would be dwarfed by poor work incentives within nationally administered benefits such as JSA.
This particular local authority did have a sound approach to providing local support, but was struggling to get people to engage in taking up the training and employment support that was available.
We helped them to design a scheme that:
- Targeted people that were able to find work, while protecting those that were less able. We analysed their Housing Benefit data to identify people with low, medium and high barriers to work.
- Encouraged engagement from people, effectively by introducing conditionality. Those that receive Council Tax support, and are deemed to have low barriers to work, have to engage with council services in six months, or see their Council Tax support fall.
- Provided personalised support – which is critical to this approach being effective. Local authorities are able to take a broader definition of progress.
It is critical that local schemes are tailored to local circumstances. Using conditionality to encourage people to engage where support is limited, hard to access or of poor quality would be difficult to justify.
Devan Ghelani can be contacted at 0786 356 0677 or firstname.lastname@example.org.