At a meeting on Tuesday (14th May) East Sussex County Council voted unanimously to write to the Government to protest about its decision to stop providing money for the hardship fund.
The £1.2 million East Sussex Support Scheme provides emergency help for low-income families who suffer financial crisis as a result of domestic violence, ill-health or natural disaster such as flooding.
But East Sussex County Council (ESCC) has told CrowboroughLife that just over 20 per cent of the hardship fund went unspent last year.
The discretionary Scheme was set-up after April 2013 by ESCC, when the old, nationally administered Social Fund was “localised” as part of the Welfare Reform Act.
Help for families in crisis:
The hardship fund provides support to East Sussex residents who face emergency situations or need help to live independently in the community. No cash payments are made by the scheme, but goods and services are provided. Food, gas and electricity vouchers, baby items, essential furniture and white goods, clothing and emergency travel are provided. And through a partnership with Wealden District Council, help is also given to families to pay rent in advance and rent deposits.
The Chief Executive of Wealden Citizens Advice, Caroline Mack told CrowboroughLife, their three bureaux made many referrals to the Discretionary East Sussex Support Scheme in 2013/14 to help people cope with the crises they faced:
Without the help of this scheme it will be extremely difficult if not impossible for people to get the deposits for accommodation, pay rent in advance and access all the other excellent help this service provides for people in the greatest need.
The scheme enables people to get the correct practical help quickly where there may be no other alternative.
During the discussion on Tuesday (13th May), Councillor David Elkin, Lead Cabinet Member for Resources, said last year the scheme helped over 1400 families “on the edge” in East Sussex. On average that works out about £850 per household given assistance.
Click on the image below to view the Council’s discussion on 13th May:
ESCC writing to the Government in protest:
Councillors decided unanimously that the Leader of the Council should write to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government asking for the decision to be reconsidered. The Council is also asking for the support of local MPs and wants voluntary sector organisations to jointly lobby the Government.
With the money gone, East Sussex County Council would either have to divert money from other sources if it wished to keep an East Sussex scheme. With no statutory duty for local authorities to provide a hardship fund, council could decide to stop providing assistance.
Underspend in 2013/14:
In 2013/14, East Sussex County Council received £1,202,184 from the Government. But just over 20 per cent of the money went unspent.
ESCC had just over 1,900 applications. Of these, 513 were not awarded items, but received advice about other solutions to the situation.
The Council told CrowboroughLife £240,508 was unspent in 2013/14.
Concerning the underspend, a spokesperson for ESCC said:
We ran the scheme as a pilot last year as the Government could not provide up-to-date figures on the demand we could expect when we took over from the Social Fund. We also expected Universal Credit to start in October, so held back on some awards earlier in the year.
We are taking on board the lessons learned last year to ensure the fund is fully utilised this year.
The underspend has been carried forward by the Council for use in the Scheme this year. With the allocation from Government of £1,184,695 for 2014/15 and the underspend last year this makes a total pot of £1,425,203 this financial year.
To ensure that the process of applying for and receiving the items is as simple and responsive as possible, the scheme works with partners in the voluntary and community sector such as citizens advice, children’s centres, housing associations, food banks, and furniture re-use charities.
The Government abolished the Social Fund in April 2013, instead choosing to give cash to East Sussex and other authorities to establish their own fund. However it emerged before Christmas, that the £180 million Local Welfare Provision Grant, which councils use to fund emergency support would be scrapped from April next year. The Government has always claimed the Social Fund was ineffectively targeted, and that councils were best placed to judge how much to allocate to crisis welfare in their communities, and that no guarantees were ever made for funding beyond 2013/14.
Are you one of the 1400 households which have been helped with food vouchers, furniture or rent deposits? Or do you have views on whether hardship grants are the right approach?