My colleague Juliette Tarrant just won't take no for an answer. We have been waiting for some time for the outcome of the housing benefit review for supported housing. When we asked the DWP for a date when this would be published we were informed that there was no intention to publish the outcome at this stage. In response Juliette promptly made a request under the Freedom of Information Act and shortly afterwards a big box with copies of all of the responses was duly delivered to our office. It then fell to me to go through the responses. Don't worry though - I enjoy it and the responses were quite illuminating. Interestingly, no agency raised the obvious issue that the most practical approach to achieving a budget neutral solution is to cut the cost of finance. However, many respondents said that any cut in funding would adversely affect or even lead to the closure of their facilities; and almost without exception there was a recognition that a one size fits all approach is unsuitable for all but those with ordinary housing needs.
Many respondents pointed to the savings that social services achieve by utilising supported accommodation and the likely consequences on other budget areas by any disruption to its provision. The overwhelming message was to carry out any change with great care and with great consideration. So perhaps my initial outrage at another working party was misplaced. However, time is short and if we are to allow for full transitional protection through the reform then we had better start now.
One key issue that emerged from the responses is the need for a recognition of individuality, especially in the area of specialist supported accommodation. The phrase "one size fits all" finds itself into many responses. So who should make this decision and therefore have the budget?
The obvious answer to this is Social Services. They already carry out an assessment of need under the NHS and Community Care Act and this includes an assessment with regard to a person's accommodation. They present the findings of their assessment to a funding panel which then decides on the allocation of the budget for the care package. It seems most straight forward to add the allocation of a supported accommodation to top up this already existent process. No new officers would have to be appointed and no new departments set up. The administration of the process would certainly achieve the governments objectives of a cost neutral solution.
Social Services have the most to gain from the proper operation of the top up since it allows them to achieve savings against more costly care solutions. One respondent actually cited this as an unhealthy conflict of interests. However, the overall saving is to the public purse and therefore no conflict can be allowed to exist.
The current system creates conflict. In two tier authorities the social services department is in the county council making decisions that have to be paid for by district councils through the housing benefit schemes. In some areas this causes great conflict. By giving the social services department the budget and the responsibility we actually join up budgetary activity in a way that facilitates both the delivery of service and continues to provide a major cost saving to the state.
It would create certain challenges and these would need to be addressed by the working party in fairly short order. These include ensuring the budgetary framework was large enough, based on the current HB spend over LHA and securely, permanently ring fenced. Additionally the current housing benefit scheme gives a claimant a right of appeal to a tribunal that can overturn the local authorities decision and this right should be extended into the operation of this budget.
Finally, nearly all of the respondents want any change to be carried out with care and for robust transitional arrangements to be put in place to ensure that people's accommodation is not put at risk. This takes time. However, many local authorities are repatriating people placed out of area and wish to do so into supported housing. The drive for this is, in part, to achieve the required cuts to their budgets. Over the next two years this will result in the commissioning of further accommodation and it is therefore vital that the working party move quickly to ensure that the financial arrangements are put in place to properly support it.
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