It may or may not be a fitting tribute to the former Prime Minister that her final month marked the end of the welfare state, and a return to pre-Beveridge models of charity provision for the poor.
At the end of March, the Social Fund was scrapped. This is a pot of money administered by the Department for Work and Pensions, which, among other things, provided crisis loans. If you were in emergency need for the essentials of life - food, fuel, basic home equipment, appliances for cooking and heating, or access to travel for essential journeys - the Social Fund could help. In 2011-12, just over 150,000 applications for crisis loans were made, and just over £15m was loaned under the scheme.
This has all gone. Here in Somerset, there is now a 'Local Assistance Scheme', so that if you run out of money to pay for essentials, support is put in place. What's the support? A referral to the local Citizens Advice Bureau (a charity), who themselves aren't too keen on the new system. In turn, the CAB will refer you on to another charity:
- if you need food, 'referral to a local food bank' (charity)
- if you need essential furniture or appliances 'referral to a furniture recycling charity' (a charity)
- if you need basic cooking or heating equipment 'referral to a white good recycling charity' (a charity)
In other words, this whole section of the Welfare State is now history. Anyone in need of crisis provision is referred to local charities, and rather than being given loans, people will be given food parcels or recycled/second hand goods.
The provision of this safety net is therefore entirely dependent on the charitable sector. My grasp of political history may be rather basic, but I thought the welfare state was supposed to provide this sort of safety net, so that people didn't have to rely on charity? The Social Fund itself dates back to 1948, when it was called 'Exceptional Needs Payments'.
It's a remarkable and sobering about-turn: Margaret Thatcher claimed there was 'no such thing as society' as she tried to roll back the state. The Coalition is trying the same trick again, but depending on their being such a thing as society, Big or small, to fill the gaps in welfare provision. New Labour tried to make the charitable sector a dependent arm of the state by plying them with conditional grants. Now the grants have gone (and some of the charities that came to depend on them), but the demands keep on rising. If this is the way things are going, there is going to have to be a massive change in our attitudes to charity, and the amount we give.