Steve Burgess highlights a new source of assistance for people in desperate need and hopes for how it might evolve.
Next week sees the start of April and the usual flood of new programmes for the new financial year. For some of these the April fools day start is appropriate – for example the much-hated bedroom tax, against which Greens have played a leading role on the Council. Much less heralded is the start of the Scottish Welfare Fund , the replacement for the UK Social Fund and yet it will have an even more immediate impact than the bedroom tax.
Two weeks ago, at Full Council, I took the opportunity to ask the Council Leader to share with me regret at how late the Scottish Government has been at setting up the Scottish Welfare Fund, which is, in effect transfer of responsibility for community care grants and crisis loans from the DWP, a UK department. To its credit, the Scottish Government has topped up the funding received from DWP but it has dismally failed to get arrangements properly in place even though it has known about the transfer for 18 months. As a result councils have been left scrabbling around to make local arrangements so that something is in place by next week.
Why does this matter? Well, this part of the Social Fund (community care grants and crisis loans) is what keeps some families’ heads just above water: with access to furniture and white goods or emergency help with food or fuel. If the arrangements fail vulnerable people will feel it and we’ll know about it from day one.
In principle, local authorities are well-placed to administer the new arrangements more effectively than the DWP. But our aspirations should be so much more than simply “doing administering the funds as badly it as the DWP”. Councils could oversee a process where the new fund was simply one of a number of services which is offered to people most struggling, leading to a sort of welfare hub. So our staff would not simply be distributors of grants or goods but a conduit through to, for example, money advice or energy saving advice, or credit unions and furniture re-use projects, or food banks for those whose need was most immediate. Our aim should be to ensure that no-one who comes for a service leaves empty-handed.
In that way a Scottish Welfare Fund could become a Scottish Welfare Hub and that is what the Green councillors group will be looking to see happen over the next two years.