A review into Durham County Council’s Welfare Assistance Scheme will be heard by councillors when they meet next week.
Members of the council’s Cabinet will also be asked to approve proposed changes to the accessibility and availability of the scheme, including allowing provisions for nappies, baby milk, hygiene packs and utility costs, and to agree to the scheme’s budget allocation.
The scheme was first introduced in 2013 when the central government’s Conservative-Lib Dem coalition abolished the crisis loan and community care grant aspects of benefits, and replaced these with local welfare schemes.
Durham County Council is one of the few local authorities to have made no budget reductions in this area and continues to invest £1million in its welfare assistance programme.
The scheme currently consists of two elements: the Daily Living Expenses and Settlement Grant payments. The Daily Living Expenses payment is designed to help households whose circumstances change unexpectedly, and is designed to assist those in financial emergencies for up to seven days.
On the other hand, the Settlement Grant is designed to help residents stay in their home, or move back into housing after living in supported or unsettled accommodation. This can include help towards beds and bedding, furniture, kitchen equipment and white goods.
The proposed changes for 2018/19 include adding a £20 paypoint cash-out voucher to enable people to purchase nappies and baby milk for their families, and the provision of £10 ‘hygiene packs’, to allow for the purchase of toiletries and sanitary products.
The proposals also include restructuring the allowance provided for utility costs, by taking into account household composition, and facilitating low-cost loans for replacement white goods such as refrigerators and washing machines through the NEFirst credit union.
“We see it as absolutely vital that we continue to protect the vulnerable in our communities from poverty.”
Cllr Jane Brown, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for social inclusion, said: “Since we took over the direct administration of the Welfare Assistance Scheme in 2015, benefits totalling £1.32million have been given to 3,964 of our residents.
“We see it as absolutely vital that we continue to protect the vulnerable in our communities from poverty.
“Whilst this is a great achievement, we felt that due to ongoing welfare reforms a review of the scheme would be timely.
“This review concluded that the scheme is performing exceptionally well and benefits from consistent decision making and sound governance arrangements.
“The review also highlighted the need for us to provide sanitary products, baby milk and nappies, which are necessary essentials for County Durham women and families.
“Finally, we are immensely proud that this scheme provides the same offer throughout the County, thus avoiding the ‘Postcode Lottery’ we see all too often throughout the country.”
In September 2017 the Centre for Responsible Credit published a report into the impact of the Coalition Government’s decision to abolish crisis loans and community care grants and its replacement of these with ‘local welfare schemes’.
It found that the policy, adopted in 2013/14, resulted in widespread cuts to the support that households receive when they experience a financial emergency or need help to live independently.
It also found that Durham County Council is one of the few local authorities to have maintained a Welfare Assistance Scheme in line with the policy it adopted in 2013 following the creation of the local welfare schemes.
As well as providing support payments to vulnerable households, members of Durham County Council’s cabinet are also being asked to approve budgetary allocations.
This includes providing £140,000 to Area Action Partnerships (£10,000 for each AAP) to help tackle poverty in their communities, a £50,000 grant to Durham Foodbank and a £10,000 annual allocation to NEFirst Credit Union to underwrite low-cost loan facilities.
Durham County Council’s Cabinet meeting takes place in Committee Room 2 at County Hall, Durham on Wednesday 14 March at 10am. The full agenda and reports pack is available at the council website.