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Groups highlight welfare underspend

Charities have welcomed £9.2 million of Scottish Government grants given to people in need but noted a significant underspend in the scheme and a high number of refusals.

More than 35,000 households have been helped by the Scottish Welfare Fund during its first six months of operation, official figures show.

However, local authorities spent just over half (55%) the amount they were projected to spend with signs of a £7.3 million underspend.

The fund was launched by the Scottish Government on April 1 last year to replace community care grants and crisis loans, which were abolished by the UK Government under its welfare reform programme.

Some 48,900 applications were made for the new Scottish crisis grants, allocated for emergencies such as running out of money, losing money or facing an unexpected expense, and more than two thirds (68%) were accepted.

A further 19,502 Scottish community care applications, for items like carpets, fridges and washing machines, were made in the first six months and just over three fifths (61%) were successful.

People who had spent all of their benefits and income were the biggest identifiable recipients of crisis grants (19%), while around one in 20 said they had lost money and a similar number had an unexpected expense.

The biggest identifiable reason for community care grants was to help people stay in their preferred community (23%), followed by exceptional pressure on families (15%).

No information was supplied to explain either crisis or community grant awards in nearly a tenth of cases, while in more than two thirds of cases the reason given was "other".

The vast majority of applicants (86%) were not classed as vulnerable, a class which includes the aged and disabled.

Local authorities had been profiled to spend £16.5 million in the first six months but only £9.2 million was spent by September 2013, and informal returns suggest a similar monthly underspend continued until at least the end of the year.

Martin Crewe, director of Barnardo's Scotland, said: "Worryingly, our services are seeing increasing numbers of families in severe poverty, struggling to meet their basic needs. For these people, the Scottish Welfare Fund can provide a crucial lifeline, in moments of severe crisis.

"However, it is concerning that these figures still show that many millions of pounds are going unspent.

"Sadly we know, through the work of our services and through things like the marked increase in demand for foodbanks, that there are too many vulnerable people out there who could be making use of this lifeline, but who are not accessing it."

Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, said: "It is good news that more than 35,000 of Scotland's most vulnerable and struggling households, including 8,000 families with children, have been helped by the fund in its first six months. We also welcome that the Scottish Government topped up the fund so that more people can be helped."

But he added: "An area for concern is the high number of refusals for some types of grant. We need to investigate further why this is happening and ensure public and advice agencies get accurate guidance on application criteria so they can give informed advice on accessing the fund."

Welfare Minister Margaret Burgess said: "It is heart-breaking to see the impacts of welfare reforms laid bare, with people coming forward for help to buy everything from food to shoes to beds.

"This is the first report into how the Scottish Welfare Fund is being used and shows that demand for grants is increasing.

"These figures show over £18 million has now been claimed and we are expecting that to increase further as awareness of the fund grows. Today's report also highlights that there are still some variations between councils and we are working with them to ensure that is improved.

"It is absolutely imperative that vulnerable people in Scotland are protected and cared for during these tough economic times."

Labour welfare spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: "These figures are disappointing as they show that not enough is being done to ensure that money is getting to those most in need.

"A year ago, Nicola Sturgeon told everyone who raised concerns about how funds would get into the hands of our most vulnerable people, that everything would be fine and not to worry.

"We now know that less than a third of the money has been distributed, yet we're now half-way through the year. People need to know that money is available and the Scottish Government needs to ensure that publicity is in place to raise awareness.

"Thousands of families are in need of vital financial assistance. The Scottish Government, instead of celebrating the little that has been done, should be concentrating on what more it has to do. But as ever when it comes to welfare, the SNP wants control over all welfare but when given the opportunity, fail to get the money out the door and into the pockets of those in most need."

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