Emergency poverty fund ‘underutilised during pandemic’

Just 15% of the Scottish Welfare Fund's budget was used between April and June, report finds.

A fund from the Scottish Government set up to address acute poverty has been underutilised during the pandemic, poverty advisers have claimed.

The Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF) offers grants to people in need and is administered through local authorities.

Community care grants are issued to people to allow them to continue to live in their community, while crisis grants are often smaller and used to cover immediate emergency costs.

In a new report from the Poverty and Inequality Commission (PIC), the group says that just 15% of the total budget of the fund – £8.6m – was used between April and June.

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Proportionally, the fund should have paid out 25% of its funding – the equivalent of £14.4m – during the same period.

The spending of the fund during lockdown was also £1.1m lower than the same period in 2019.

The report accepted that some of the fund may have been held back by local authorities to cope with any second wave of coronavirus or to combat the economic fallout of the pandemic.

But it added: “In the three months at the epicentre of the biggest public health crisis in over a century, it does not seem right that the money allocated to the Scottish Welfare Fund is not being used to maximum benefit.”

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The Scottish Government boosted money for the fund in response to the pandemic, with an extra £45m made available in March, more than doubling its previous £35.5m budget.

PIC chairman Bill Scott said the effect of the pandemic on those with low incomes was “drastic”, adding: “We know that local authority staff have been committed and worked diligently through a challenging time to meet the needs of vulnerable people.

“Yet, the SWF remains underutilised, to the detriment of those who need access to its funding the most.”

Mr Scott said that local authorities were not advertising the fund enough to those in need, saying: “It is unacceptable that the Scottish Welfare Fund is not being promoted properly and that known barriers to accessing this vital support still exist.

“People must know where to go for financial assistance and then receive necessary funding easily and with dignity.

“Our report raises a number of issues about the SWF that we will seek to resolve with the Scottish Government with the utmost urgency.”

Local authority body Cosla said it was “disappointed” the PIC did not approach them during its analysis “to better understand the experience and challenges of delivering the Fund during the pandemic”.

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Councillor Kelly Parry, the community wellbeing spokesman at Cosla, said: “However, we welcome the observations and any opportunity to work with the Commission and the Scottish Government to strengthen local approaches whilst retaining local discretion to meet unique local needs.”

The commission called on the Scottish Government to provide more money to councils to raise awareness of the funds and aid administration, as well as setting a minimum payment amount and bringing in a code of standards to be followed by local authorities on how it publicises the benefit.

The report also suggested improvements should be made to the monitoring of the SWF.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We more than doubled the Scottish Welfare Fund to £80m this year to ensure there is additional financial support to people coping with the economic impacts of coronavirus. It is then administered and distributed by local authorities.

“It is important that awareness of the fund is high so that as many people as possible who need the support are able to access it when they need it.

“We thank the Poverty and Inequality Commission for their recommendations, which we will consider.”