Help on hand via vouchers

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COUNCIL bosses are looking to avoid making cash payments to people in need of help and instead offer support through topping up utility credit cards and providing vouchers for clothing.

Hartlepool Borough Council’s cabinet committee has agreed plans for a new local welfare support scheme aimed at helping thousands of people in their hour of need.

From April, the responsibility of helping some people with general living expenses is being transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to the council.

But grant funding for 2013-14 has been confirmed as £532,270 – £70,000 lower than the actual amount of money the DWP spent in Hartlepool in 2011-12.

The idea is to provide a more “targeted approach” for those most in need and people will be assessed as either in crisis, or non crisis, depending on their circumstances, with people in crisis for example classed as those in need of help after flooding, a gas explosion or house fire.

Non-crisis are those leaving accommodation where they have received “significant and substantial care” and supervision - such as prison, a detention centre, hospital or a care home – and need help to find somewhere to live in the community.

From April, the council says it will look to avoid making cash payments but will instead:

l Directly top-up gas and electricity credit onto prepayment meter keys and cards;

l Organise re-connection of utilities via payment direct to the gas or electricity supplier;

l Signpost people to foodbanks or provide supermarket vouchers for emergency food;

l Provide emergency clothing via a voucher or prepaid card through the nominated supplier, Primark, in Middleton Grange Shopping Centre.

The aim is to provide a more “targeted approach” than the current set-up.

John Morton, the council’s assistant chief finance officer, said: “We anticipate that the council’s arrangements will enable support to be provided to more vulnerable individuals than the DWP was able to.”

Speaking at the cabinet meeting, Mayor Stuart Drummond said the council had to offer the “very best support” with the available resources and said he believed this system did that.

The move to transfer responsibility for some elements of the DWP’s discretionary social fund to councils will see the current community care grants and crisis loans for general living expenses, which are currently funded direct from the DWP, replaced.

Community care grants are non-repayable grants to people who receive means tested income benefit to move back into the community, for example those released from prison or hospital.

Crisis loans are interest free loans to meet short term need in an emergency and are currently open to anybody.

In 2011-12, the DWP discretionary social fund payments in Hartlepool totalled £601,900, with £211,400 on crisis loans and £390,500 on community care grants to 6,670 applicants.

Hartlepool Council will receive £112,473 towards the administration of the new scheme, £87,000 of which will help pay for four full-time members of staff, who are likely to be staff redeployed from within the council’s benefit department.

Mr Morton added the scheme would create “significant challenges” given the high volume of applications but said it was important that requests are dealt with “fairly, effectively, professionally and with empathy”.

l Mayor on Wednesday: Page 31