Charity’s concern as Portsmouth was one of the first councils to scrap ‘crisis cash’

A CHARITY is calling for action after it was revealed Portsmouth council was one of the first authorities in England to scrap 'vital' funds for the city's poorest residents in crisis.

Saturday, 30th March 2019, 3:26 pm
Updated Monday, 1st April 2019, 2:02 pm
Broken gas boilers were among the problems about which people could apply to the now-defunct welfare fund in Portsmouth

Portsmouth's Local Welfare Authority Scheme was cut in 2015 after only two years, in which time more than 3,800 people applied for aid.

Although funding has decreased across all councils, 85 per cent of them are still running.

Cash from the scheme was allocated to residents in crisis situations such as having broken boilers, house fires, flooding and benefit payment problems.

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For Niall Cooper, the director of Church Action on Poverty that submitted Freedom of Information requests on all schemes, this was worrying. 'Existing support schemes need to be maintained and strengthened, but many funds have closed altogether, including in Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight, and several areas in the south west,' he said.

'These vital lifelines should be restored and adequately funded, and we need government and councils to work together so that can happen.'

Each top-tier authority set up its own scheme in 2013 after the government abolished the system of emergency grants and loans provided through the social fund, essentially reducing national funding from £330m in 2010/11 to £178m in 2013/14.

Portsmouth was allocated £726,196 at this time.

Mr Cooper added: 'A compassionate society ensures people can access help in times of crisis. That’s what the social fund was there for: to help people stay afloat in turbulent times. The lifeline has been allowed to disintegrate, meaning people in sudden need are swept deeper into poverty.'

Although 3,811 Portsmouth residents applied for funding from the scheme while it was running, only 76 were approved.

The council's member for resources, Councillor Jeanette Smith, explained why the scheme had been dropped. 'The government changed the local welfare fund and it was absorbed into the council's settlement grant, which wasn't ring fenced,' she said.

'We've made it our priority to make sure help is available for those who need it most, since 2015/16 approximately £170,000 worth of grants have provided furniture, white goods and fuel payments.'

But she was hopeful that the city's new support hub, the Hive, would help those in need.

She said: 'Our work with through the Hive is essential to help identify pockets of funding elsewhere and we also provide support to help people manage debt and hardship.

'We are committed to supporting the most vulnerable in the city and understand the hardship facing residents who need urgent help.

'Ultimately though we need the government to step-up and show they share our concerns that people need help and provide adequate funding.'

Of the 153 councils that responded to FOI requests spending on local welfare was reduced by an average of 72 per cent between 2013/14 and 2017/18.

Combined they spent £46m on local welfare last year, compared with a national budget of £172m in 2013/14.

How do nearby authorities compare?

Hampshire County Council

Hampshire County Council no longer provides any direct fund. It instead allocates funds to other local organisations, but these grants were also cut heavily in 2017/18.

Amount allocated by government in 2013/14: £1,596,296

Isle of Wight Council

Isle of Wight Council closed its fund at the end of 2015/16.

Amount allocated by government in 2013/14: £417,018

Southampton City Council

Southampton City Council still runs the scheme. Available funding in 2018/19 was 72 per cent lower than in 2013/14.

Amount allocated by government in 2013/14: 2013/14 £654,232

Amount allocated by government in 2018/19: £185,000