The Scottish Welfare Fund, which the Scottish Government claims is there to help people who need it most, has failed to act as a safety net for thousands of families facing financial crisis during the pandemic, a Ferret investigation has found.
Children’s charities such as Aberlour, One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), are calling for urgent action to ensure cash support is available for families throughout the “long, hard winter” during which Covid-19 restrictions are likely to be on-going.
Campaigners claim the fund is currently a “postcode lottery” with information and access, success rates and amounts granted, varying wildly across the country.
The Scottish Government invested an additional £45m in the Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF) at the start of the pandemic. However, charities claim they have had to step in and support thousands of families, many of whom have been unable to access the fund.
Ten per cent of over 2,000 people supported by Aberlour’s urgent assistance fund told the charity unprompted they had already been refused help by the fund. The charity anticipates the true number will be far higher.
In the last six months Aberlour has spent £500k on grants to cover basics such as food, pre-pay power cards, white goods, children’s clothing, beds and bedding. It expects that £200k remaining in the fund will run out by the end of the year. In the same time period OPFS reported a 250 per cent increase on demand for its services.
Concerns about the Scottish Welfare Fund have been growing since August when calls for action were made by the Poverty and Inequality Commission.
Its analysis of Scottish Government data from April and May this year showed that refusal rates for the community care part of the grant – used to fund essential household goods like beds and washing machines – were as high as 69 per cent.
In Aberdeenshire only 31 per cent of community care grants were successful in April and May. In Edinburgh it was 32 per cent and in Glasgow it was 36 per cent. However, in Aberdeen City nine out of ten community care applications were granted.
Success rates for crisis grants – used for basics such as food and heating – had higher rates but still varied dramatically, with only 42 per cent of requests granted in South Lanarkshire, and 89 per cent in West Dunbartonshire.
The level of the grants was hugely divergent, especially in terms of the community care grant awarded. While awards of the crisis payment increased by 77%, the community care part of the fund decreased, leaving the overall spend £1.1m less than that during the same period in 2019.
In Glasgow, the average community care payment was just £146 while in the Scottish Borders people were awarded £915 on average. Average crisis grants ranged from £132 in Clackmannanshire, to just £62 in South Ayrshire.
Scottish Government data from September shows expenditure on community care grants rising, while spending on crisis grants fall in the same period.
But charities say little has improved in recent months, with families still seeking “lifeline” support on a daily basis.
Anti-poverty organisations are now calling for guidance to be urgently issued to all local authorities to improve access to the fund.
They say the application process should be simplified, with transparent decision-making, and minimum and maximum grant amounts made clear, to give people certainty about what they should expect to receive. Cash should be granted, they say, allowing people to buy what they need, rather than goods being provided on a no-choice basis.
Aberlour chief executive SallyAnn Kelly told The Ferret she was deeply frustrated that repeated offers to work with the Scottish Government, to ensure the money was better distributed, had gone unheeded.
She added: “There are many voices now speaking to the Scottish Government here. This is a fantastic fund. It has such huge potential but actually it’s falling short, and it’s falling short across a range of measures.
“We’re asking the government to work with us on addressing that and I have to be honest and say that I have been quite frustrated that the offers we have made to work alongside government to hone this fund and make it as good as it can be have not been listened to.”
Charity workers on the frontline said that even when applications are successeful awards could be paltry. In one case, a single parent with two children who had spent her Universal Credit advance, was awarded less than £30 to last three weeks.
Others said there were concerns about data protection. Aberlour is currently investigating a report from one support worker applying on behalf of a family.
The charity was contacted by the Scottish Welfare Fund, which had been able to access the family’s social work records, and was questioning the application on that basis.
One Parent Families Scotland said cash payments would offer people more flexibility. Workers reported having funds for bunk beds refused for families with just one bedroom, although single beds would be funded, or requests for double beds refused for single people.
Others felt stigmatised by the fact that household goods – such as couches – were standard Scottish Welfare Fund issue.
But Kelly stressed that families applying often had nowhere else to turn. “We get a lot of people coming to us who are in a highly distressed state,” she said. “We have women who have fled violence, families who have been living on benefits for a long time.
“Around 70 per cent of families that are living in poverty in Scotland are working but in low paid jobs. We’ve had a lot of families coming to us when the furlough scheme came in either because they weren’t included, or who were on minimum wage and who couldn’t survive on 80 per cent of their wage.
“We’ve also had families who have no recourse of public funds, who aren’t eligible for the fund. The word ‘lifeline’ comes up time and time again.”
Families in crisis
Tracey from Glasgow – not her real name because she was forced to flee an abusive relationship last year with her teenage daughter – said authorities often failed to understand how hard it was for people to ask for help when at a low ebb. “I was so broken at that point I just didn’t know where to turn,” she said. “I had just given up, I think.”
She was unable to work due to the trauma she had undergone and had just £400, so the family stayed with her mother before managing to find a private let several months later. They moved in but had no furniture or household goods.
“It was a shell, she said. “And I had absolutely nothing.” Friends helped by donating a double bed, which she and her 16-year-old both slept in.
Someone suggested she speak to OPFS, which helped her apply to the Scottish Welfare Fund for essentials such as a couch, another bed and pots and pans. But after waiting 10 weeks, the application was refused.
“I never got a single thing and so I just had to struggle on and I tell you it wasn’t easy,” she said. “I was devastated when I heard. I’d always worked, paid my taxes, fallen on hard times now and I didn’t realise that there would be absolutely no help.”
Eventually OPFS obtained some alternative funding to help her and she borrowed money from her mother for second-hand furniture. But she is worried for others who may find themselves struggling this winter. “Not a lot of people have that fall-back,” she added.
OPFS’s Anne Baldock, who supported Tracey, claimed she was “shocked” by the level of poverty facing families she was assisting.
She added: “I really worry about those parents who haven’t got the support of an advisor to ensure they get help. In the end it’s the children who suffer too and that just can’t be right.”
Satwat Rehman, the charity’s chief executive, added: “We should learn the lessons from the first lockdown and ensure we are better prepared to support families through a long hard winter during this pandemic.
“Single parents have been severely impacted by the crisis in terms of finances, support and their health and wellbeing. We know that security and predictability of income and support are critical in these times.
“We would recommend a cash first approach to SWF to support families to ensure families can buy the goods that best suit their family and living conditions.”
Bill Scott, chair for the Poverty and Inequality Commission, said it was concerned that critical issues about accessing the fund had not been rectified.
“Unless these fundamental issues are addressed we fear that the much needed financial help that should be available to families will not reach them during what is likely to be a very difficult winter,” he added.
The Poverty Alliance agreed the lack of access was “a very real issue”, claiming many of its members have continued to report problems.
Rhoda Grant MSP, Labour spokesperson on poverty, said that difficulties people were having in accessing the fund were “unacceptable”.
She added: “Last week, data released by the Scottish Government highlighted that, between April and June of this year the fund’s expenditure was down by £1million on the same period last year, despite the fact that these months spanned some of the hardest of the pandemic for many families.
“The publication cited ‘lower demand’ as one of the reasons for the decrease, but now it seems that insufficient government oversight, management and promotion of the fund may also be to blame.
“A second wave of the virus is upon us and the Scottish Government must act with urgency to ensure that funds reach those who need them most. At the start of what will be one of the hardest winters ever for too many families, it is vital that the Scottish Government gets this right.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said that “more applications were received, more were decided, and more than two thirds were accepted”.
They added: “This bears out we were right to significantly increase investment in the Scottish Welfare Fund, making £57.5 million available to local authorities to support those in need.”
Additional funding of £20m to tackle financial insecurity has also been made available to local authorities they claimed, adding: “Statutory guidance already encourages local authorities to ensure that people in need are aware of the support that the authority can provide through the Welfare Fund and other services.”
This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.
Header image thanks to iStock/Train_Arrival