Monday, 7 April 2014

Fighting for the Fund

Over the last year West Sussex County Council has been locally administering the Local Welfare Assistance Fund, not known to many but greatly appreciated by those in receipt of this grant.

So what exactly is the Fund? Hopefully, most people will never need to call upon it, but it has proved a real life saver to many.

The fund helps people when they are going through a really tough patch in their lives and who may only need a very small amount of help to help them get back on their feet.

We were allocated £1.24 million and we administer this through our Local Assistance Network.

Often people in these dire situations have no savings and very limited or no credit and may well have debts they are trying to clear.

Without it there is a very real risk that families in dire circumstances may be forced to seek help from loan sharks.

Through the Local Assistance Network, West Sussex has set up a network of voluntary and community groups who are able to meet urgent need by providing assistance in kind, such as furniture, vouchers for food banks or other household essentials.

Take the case of Tom (not his real name) who has been through alcohol rehabilitation and support from the Stonepillow Charity. When he applied for a grant he was living in Stonepillow’s supported accommodation and was in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance.

Prior to entering rehabilitation, he was in the British Navy for many years. As part of rebuilding his life, Tom started to look for employment. Due to the nature of his skills, he was looking at companies out of the local area. He was offered an interview at a company in Essex.

Stonepillow supported Tom by providing a travel warrant to his job interview and another travel warrant to start employment when he successfully received a job offer. So a small amount of money has given self-esteem back to a man who has beaten his drink problem allowing him back to work and getting control of his life once again.

In another example; James and Kim and their young child were awarded a flat through a Housing Association. Although James is working 40 hours a week he is on a low wage, which is topped up with some benefits - child tax credit, child benefit and working tax credit.

There’s not a lot left at the end of each month, and from this income the couple had to pay a deposit for the property and will be paying monthly rent. To help them avoid falling into debt, Stonepillow helped them set up their new home with a washing machine, wardrobe, armchairs and a chest of drawers.

I could cite many other examples where a relatively small amount of money in kind has made a very large difference to people who are in pretty dire circumstances but are now back on their feet and financially and economically independent.

So I have to admit to being dismayed by the news that the Government is withdrawing this fund, leaving councils, such as West Sussex County Council, facing a potentially difficult decision as to where to find the added costs of helping out families who find themselves in crisis situations.

Fellow councillors and I have been so concerned by this news that we will hopefully be debating this issue following a Notice of Motion being put to the next Full Council meeting on April 11.

We had set up exactly what the Government wanted us to set up and we know it has helped people who needed help at the most vulnerable point in their lives and for whom there will be no other options other than loan sharks who will charge extortionate rates of interest, which could possibly push people back.

It means we will have some unpalatable choices ahead of us in deciding where in our budget the £1.24m sum will come from in future years.

As I have mentioned in many of my blogs over the years, we are very supportive of the Government’s drive to reduce the public debt in the Country, and have certainly done our share in delivering savings.

We are now on the next phase of delivering more than £100 million in savings – and losing this grant is going to be a further considerable burden.

However, it’s not just the burden on our own resources that concerns me. Helping people get back on their feet, building their confidence so they become self-reliant, economically dependent and can look after themselves in the future has to be the right way forward.

For a relatively small amount so much can be achieved and represents real value for money.

This is why we are pressing the Government to revisit its decision, why I am lobbying our local MPs to bring this up in Parliament and why we are supporting the Local Government Association for central funding to continue.

This is a cut too far and I can assure you that over the next few months we at WSCC along with other authorities will not be letting this issue lie dormant. We will continue to raise it at every possible instance.

I am also calling on all of you to help us. So please write to your local MPs and make your views known.

This is a campaign we cannot afford to lose.

Best wishes,

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