The extent to which councils have been caught up or caught out by ministers’ massive shake-up of the social security system has been tricky to determine.
There are some obvious consequences and measures to ease the pain and councils have offered support where they can.
The judicious use of hardship funds such as discretionary housing payments is but one way authorities can keep residents from falling into financial distress.
But like any wide-ranging reform, the revamp of social security has and will create risks of harm for residents that are unforeseen.
This week we reveal one unsurprising and one risky conclusion from two of the councils that have helped ministers pinpoint the potential flaws in their most ambitious aspect of welfare reform.
No one will be shocked to discover Wigan and Oldham MBCs have taught Whitehall a thing or two about how to implement the new universal credit payments in a safe and secure fashion.
While officials originally envisioned little role for local authorities in the roll-out of the credit, ministers now concede councils’ skills and nous are essential to the system’s success.
The welfare reform minister himself, Lord Freud, admits his department underwent a “cultural shift” after seeing the benefits of responding to feedback from local authorities.
Greater Manchester’s bid for extra control over welfare should be drawn up with caution
The more risky conclusion arrived at by Wigan and Oldham is that they and their counterparts should get greater control of the social security safety net.
Despite their travails as universal credit pioneers, they rightly believe councils know best the needs and frailties of their residents.
Given this understanding, they should advise when benefit sanctions are lifted.
And councils’ grasp of the local business landscape makes them well-positioned to find unemployed residents ‘voluntarily’ work, as a condition of receiving benefits.
As part of the respected Greater Manchester Combined Authority deal, such proposals for devolution of responsibility for welfare will be taken more seriously than most.
Increasing control of a service so ripe for improvement is a sensible way of managing the risks of reforms to residents.
Success in their bid would, however, leave authorities sharing the responsibility for supporting – or withdrawing support – from residents with a government set on shrinking the resources of the welfare state.
As our lead story reveals this week, councils are being increasingly forced to subsidise the cost of temporary accommodation as a result of the perpetual housing crisis and benefit cuts.
But while gutsy and well-reasoned, Greater Manchester’s bid for extra control over the welfare state should be drawn up with caution.
Advising a government on how best to implement a controversial reform is one thing.
Taking local responsibility for what is increasingly and inaccurately described as a national social security safety net is something entirely different.