Local authorities in London witnessed a 219% spike in demand for emergency welfare support during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, new analysis by London Councils has found.
London Councils said the figures prove that Universal Credit has not provided enough support for Londoners during the pandemic (picture: Getty)
Between March and June this year, London boroughs received 23,398 applications for local welfare assistance, which is separate from Universal Credit or other welfare provided by the government, compared to 8,005 in the same period last year.
During the first four months of the pandemic, councils in London paid out £2.3m in local welfare support, a 160% increase from the £857,500 paid out between March and June last year.
The type of support being provided varied by council, but usually consisted of one-off emergency payments, for example to cover reconnecting fuel supplies for families or travel expenses for people returning from hospital.
London Councils said the figures prove that Universal Credit has not provided enough support for Londoners during the pandemic and is urging the government to improve the benefit system.
It is also calling on the government to restore funding for local welfare assistance, to which the government used to commit £178m a year before it stopped in 2015/16.
London Councils’ analysis found that boroughs have topped up their local welfare assistance budgets by a total of £4.3m this year so far.
The demand for local welfare comes despite a number of changes made by the government to the welfare system at the start of the pandemic, including increasing the Local Housing Allowance rate to cover the cheapest third of rents in a local area and boosting the Universal Credit standard allowance by £20 a week.
Muhammed Butt, executive member for welfare, empowerment and inclusion at London Councils and leader of Brent Council, said: “The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has brought severe financial hardship to many Londoners and an enormous surge in people approaching their local borough for help.
“A second wave of the virus means that economic pressures are bound to get worse. London boroughs will continue helping our residents as best we can and local welfare assistance schemes are a real lifeline.
“Even a modest amount of financial aid provided by a council can help a resident avoid spiralling debts, homelessness, and other situations likely to lead to larger costs to the public purse.
“These figures demonstrate that councils are an essential part of the welfare safety net – but they also show that Universal Credit isn’t enough to support households facing financial crisis.
“We urgently need the government to improve Universal Credit and to restore councils’ funding for local welfare assistance.
“These measures are crucial for helping struggling Londoners. Without a more effective welfare response to the pandemic, boroughs fear the coming months will only bring an increase in financial hardship and further spikes in poverty and homelessness.”
A government spokesperson said: “We have responded to the extraordinary challenges presented by the pandemic with an enormous package of support, including the unprecedented furlough and self-employment schemes – at a cost of £53bn – to protect more than 12m jobs and injected an extra £9.3billlion into the welfare safety net.
“We are also providing councils in England with a total of £6.4 billion in support, including £4.6 billion of un-ringfenced grants recognising councils are best placed to decide how to meet the major COVID-19 service pressures in their local area. We’ve also given councils an additional £63million to help families in financial difficulties with targeted interventions.
“Anyone worried about losing their home and not having anywhere else to go should speak to their local council, which has a duty in law to help prevent homelessness.”