From the social fund to local welfare assistance: Central–local government relations and ‘special expenses’

DOI10.1177/0952076714529140
Publication Date01 October 2014
Date01 October 2014
AuthorChris Grover
SubjectArticles
Public Policy and Administration
2014, Vol. 29(4) 313–330
!The Author(s) 2014
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DOI: 10.1177/0952076714529140
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Article
From the social fund to
local welfare assistance:
Central–local government
relations and ‘special
expenses’
Chris Grover
Lancaster University, Bowland North, Lancaster, UK
Abstract
In Britain since the 1930s social assistance recipients have in certain circumstances been
able to claim ‘exceptional expenses’ in addition to their weekly benefit income. From the
1940s these were administered by its central government. However, in April 2013 the
then incarnation of such payments (the discretionary Social Fund) was partly replaced by
locally administered Local Welfare Assistance. Drawing upon material held in files at
Britain’s National Archives and central government documents framing the development
of Local WelfareAssistance, this paper examines how concerns raised in the 1980s meant
it was not possible to then transfer responsibility for ‘exceptional expenses’ from central
to local government. The paper explores those concerns and how in contemporary
Britain they are no longer deemed to be problematic because of the Coalition govern-
ment’s emphasis upon localism and because of changing local government views on the
possibility of delivering a mainstream social assistance function.
Keywords
Central government, poverty, special expenses, local government, social security, poor
relief
Introduction
Since the 1930s it has been possible for the income poorest people in Britain to
claim payments in addition to their social assistance entitlement for ‘exceptional
expenses’ (those needs held to be difficult to budget for out of weekly benefit
income). From the late 1940s these payments were administered by Britain’s central
Corresponding author:
Chris Grover, Lancaster University Bowland North, Lancaster LA5 8DQ, UK.
Email: c.grover@lancaster.ac.uk
government. However, from April 2013 the Coalition government there replaced
the existing payments administered through the discretionary elements of the Social
Fund partly by ‘benefit advances’ that remain under the control of central govern-
ment and Local Welfare Assistance (LWA) that is administered at the local level
(by higher tier local authorities (LAs) in England and the devolved administrations
of Scotland and Wales).
In the longer term history of poverty relief in Britain and in contemporary
schemes from around the world (see Bergmark and Minas, 2006, on Sweden;
Leung, 2006, on China; Overbye et al., 2006 on Norway; Deacon, 2000, on
Eastern European countries), the idea of local governments and institutions
having an important role in social assistance is not new. However, in Britain while
LAs have had an indirect role in relieving poverty (for example, through school meal
and school uniform provision) it has been the case in the post-WWII period that
social assistance for everyday expenses (‘normal requirements’) and for ‘exceptional
expenses’ have been the province of central government. As recently as the 1980s
when Britain last underwent a major review of social security policy (the Fowler
Reviews) the idea of local government being responsible for any element of social
assistance policy, beyond housing costs, was not contemplated. The Fowler Reviews
specifically considered the moving of responsibility for the payment of ‘exceptional
expenses’ from central to local government. The proposition was rejected.
Drawing upon files held at Britain’s National Archives and more recent official
documents outlining the development of LWA, this paper considers the shift in
position from the Fowler Reviews that problematised the delivery of ‘exceptional
expenses’ at a local level to one where such delivery is seen as being desirable. The
paper is divided into four sections. The ‘Central and local government, poor relief
and social assistance’ section briefly puts the consideration of ‘exceptional
expenses’ during the Fowler Reviews in a historical perspective. ‘The Fowler
Reviews and rejecting localised “exceptional expenses”’ section focuses upon dis-
cussions of the Fowler Reviews’ Supplementary Benefit Review Team (SBRT)
regarding the possibility of localising responsibility for ‘exceptional expenses’
and the reasons why such a move was not taken forward in the 1980s. The follow-
ing section, ‘Introducing LWA’, considers the ways in which those concerns have
been overcome in contemporary policy, leading to the introduction of LWA. The
conclusion argues that viewed in the longue dure
´e of ‘exceptional expenses’ and
social assistance LWA represents a further step to what Hill (1989) describes as a
division in central–local responsibilities in social assistance policy where central
government retains responsibilities for easy-to-administer needs, while LAs are left
to provide for complex and administratively difficult-to-deal with needs.
Central and local government, poor relief and social
assistance
The relief of poverty in Britain has often involved tense relationships between
central and local forms of government for many years. Hill (1989: 18), for example,
314 Public Policy and Administration 29(4)

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