How can we help? Reforming financial assistance in local government

I was born and raised in Hackney. I have been a teaching assistant, nursery nurse, an assistant headteacher, a councillor, and now Deputy Mayor of our borough. I have seen how Hackney and our communities were empowered under a Labour Government, and I have seen how they have been systematically undermined, broken down and left exposed by successive Tory Governments. Left to fight for their very survival.

The consequences of Tory austerity

Sadly we know that this is not a unique experience, and that communities across the country are feeling the effect of harsh policy choices made by this Government. For Hackney, it has created a stark reality where one in three households are living in poverty after housing costs, which accounts for almost half of the children living in the borough. Around 40% of Hackney’s secondary school pupils and 30% of primary school pupils are claiming free school meals. There are just over 3,500 children living in temporary accommodation, enough to fill eight primary schools, and there is now a culture of in-work poverty. 

At a time when our residents, businesses and community organisations need us most, local authorities have been ruthlessly stripped of our resilience. Over a decade of brutal cuts have left local authorities, and public services more widely, reaching to the bottom of our coffers to deliver for the people we serve. At Hackney Council, we have seen a 41% cut in Government funding since 2010.

Nevertheless, we persist. We continue to innovate, transform and create new ways of delivering better services for our residents.

Local innovation delivers results

Hackney Council has been doing a lot of work to investigate how we can better support our communities through the cost of living crisis, particularly through financial assistance and benefits uptake. Last year this led to the creation of the Hackney Money Hub, a single point of access enabling residents to more easily receive the benefits and financial support they are entitled to.

The Money Hub has seen great results, with £1.4million being delivered to 900 people within the team’s first year of operation – an average of £1,500 of new income per person per year.

On the Money Hub’s one year anniversary last month, a key reflection from team members was around the challenge of overcoming low trust and stigma related to the welfare system and receiving financial support. Money Hub tries to overcome this at a community level by meeting those residents who our data indicates are most likely to have low uptake of benefits, in the places and spaces they spend time. The Money Hub team has one to one, in depth conversations with residents about what support they may be entitled to at community centres, lunch clubs, GPs and places of worship. In doing so the team improves understanding of the system, emphasises that supporting people is the very purpose of the welfare state and demonstrates that the Council is actively listening to residents and responding to their needs. We are always seeking to improve, and we know more can be done.

The team also reflected that a major learning curve has been combating stigma within the Council as an institution. Shifting their own mindset and that of other officers within the Council towards proactively seeking ways to meet residents’ needs,  has made a massive difference to service delivery. It must be noted that blame cannot be placed on individual officers. The adversarial culture within the welfare system has been fostered by top-down Government diktats which have squeezed budgets and placed ever higher hurdles in front of accessing support for the people who need it most. Hackney’s Money Hub has shown how the adversarial set up of the welfare system needn’t be the case. A move to a user-centred approach has instead created a win-win system which improves the lives of our residents.

This new way of working has led to better outcomes for residents and the Council, with more money being delivered directly to residents and less officer and resident time completing endless, repetitive forms. If we’re serious about helping our communities, public services need to overcome the culture advanced by Tory austerity and shift our mindset: making it harder for people to access support by putting barriers up in the name of reducing demand, does not make it easier for institutions nor does it effectively manage demand. It drives distrust and perpetuates a failing system. We need to push back on welfare stigma and work with residents from the ground up.

Only a Labour Government can deliver for local people

However, local authorities are just about keeping our heads above water and we cannot do this alone. Government policy must avoid adding layers of bureaucracy which fail to deliver on the outcomes desired at every level. We also need to recognise that financial support through welfare support is just one element of a broader system that needs a new approach. Innovation at a local level alone, although it can deliver great value to residents, will not solve the myriad of crises in housing, temporary accommodation, the NHS, social care and the climate crisis to name but a few. All of which are affecting people’s lives today.

We need a national Labour government which takes a holistic view of how the public sector interacts with these crises, focuses on what outcomes we are trying to deliver and places people’s experiences at the heart of service and policy design.


To read more about the work of local councils, see Community safety – How Barnet has responded to local issues over conflict in the Middle East.