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Budget 2021: What do social workers need to know?

Kerri Prince, BASW UK Public and Political Affairs Lead, analyses the Autumn Budget and Spending Review

A spending statement by the Chancellor such as the budget is a political event. Chancellors must decide what they’re going to spend more money on, and also what they’re going to spend less money on. It isn’t just about what makes economic sense – but also what makes political sense for the Chancellor and their party. After all, to stay in Government, you need to keep winning elections. And a budget that goes down well with the public is key to winning those elections. 

The impact of the pandemic 

The past 18 months have been incredibly challenging for social work and social care. Social workers quickly had to adapt with unclear guidance to a new way of working. Virtual visits became the norm, it was more difficult to carry out assessments and reviews and coping with stressful situations in isolation had severely impacted the mental health of social workers. 

There were fears about how lockdown made it more dangerous for victims of domestic violence. That isolation would be a confusing and difficult time for people with disabilities and other complex needs. Being away from school and their peers, that child development and learning would be limited. The pandemic has been hard, and social workers saw firsthand the impact it had on those who used social work services. 

Devolution

It is important to remember devolution when we are talking about spending decisions made by the UK Government. Most taxes are collected by the UK Government, and the Barnett formula then returns the money collected from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland back to those devolved governments so that they can spend the money how they see fit. 

When the Chancellor announces spending on a particular project in England on a devolved matter such as health and social care, they are talking about just England. The equivalent funding will be given back to the devolved nations so that they retain control and responsibility over their health and social care systems. 

Universal Credit 

Much speculation before the budget was around whether the Chancellor would announce anything to address poverty and Universal Credit. As expected, he announced that the Universal Credit taper rate would drop from 63p to 55p. This means that for every £1 that someone earns from employment when on Universal Credit, they will now lose 55p of their Universal Credit rather than 63p.

This is a step in the right direction, but it is not good enough. Only weeks ago, the Chancellor cut £20 per week from Universal Credit and the change to the taper rate does not replace that. It also fails to recognise that there shouldn’t be in-work poverty. If wages need to be supplemented with benefits, are wages high enough? 

The change to the taper rate also does nothing to those who cannot work due to a disability, those on legacy benefits, or people who are long-term out of work. The Chancellor will say that changing the taper rate is an incentive to work but fails to recognise that it is not that simple. Social workers will know all too well about the realities of people’s lives that can stop them from being able to work. This means that children in households where nobody works are no better off. 

The detail of the Chancellor’s budget also shows that the Treasury is expecting local authorities to raise their council tax to pay for the demand on local services. This also comes back to the political question. Many councils will have their elections in May, and an increase in council tax could damage the incumbent’s reputation and harm their chances of getting re-elected. So local authority leaders will be torn between electoral advantage, or ensuring services have the money that they need.

Mental health, child poverty and social care overlooked 

In other parts of his speech, the Chancellor announced changes to duties on alcohol. This is what I’d consider a distraction. The Chancellor spent as much time talking about alcohol than he did about Universal Credit. The price of prosecco will drop slightly, in what the Chancellor calls ‘righting a wrong’. It is disappointing that this is what the Government have decided is a priority. Not mental health, not child poverty, not social care – but the cost of alcohol. 

Although much of the focus of the Chancellor’s statement was on the budget, it was also the spending review that publishes departmental budgets. Spending on healthcare in England will increase by £4.2bn by the end of this Parliament, and local government will be given £4.8bn of new grant funding for social care over the next 3 years. This appears to be partly driven by the health and social care levy which the Treasury has passed onto the Department for Health and Social Care in the form of higher spending. This is simply not enough money to address the problems facing social care. It will force councils to make tough decisions, and staff will be under an immense amount of pressure. The Chancellor announced that there will be £200m for a ‘supporting families programme’, but the detail of this scheme will be important.

In addition to what the Chancellor did say, it’s important to note what he didn’t say. There was no mention of mental health in his hour-long statement, which is inexcusable after an incredibly difficult 18 months. A budget statement clarifies the Government’s priorities, and it seems that mental health is not a priority for this UK Government. 

Like with all budgets, there is some positive news. Grant funding for local authorities to help fund social care is welcome, but it simply doesn’t go far enough. A reduction of the taper rate on Universal Credit is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t do enough to alleviate poverty especially amongst those who cannot work. BASW will continue to make our members voice heard and push this Government to do better for those who use social work services.