The following post is from a colleague in the Scottish Welfare Fund Team, based within New City House.

The Scottish Welfare Fund – Challenge Your Assumptions

Years ago, I worked in Tesco on the checkouts for a couple of weeks over Christmas. As yet another laden trolley approached I asked the lady if she was having the family over for dinner. “No dear” she said. “I’ve been up at the hospice with my husband all week. He’s passed away now. I’m having my family back after the funeral.”

I learned from that experience. It’s easy to make assumptions.

Working on the Scottish Welfare Fund challenges your assumptions. We assume that most people have a home, an income and essentials like a bed to sleep in at night.

For a substantial number of people, sadly this is not the case.

I have been with the Welfare Fund from the start and during that time I’ve realised that the issues that our customers deal with – poverty, health, homelessness, health and family breakdown – make some of their lives close to unbearable. This reflects in the huge incidence of mental health issues that applicants report to us. It is rare to find an application where the applicant does not suffer from anxiety and depression. Often people tell us that they are suicidal.

My assumption that our customers, amongst the most vulnerable people in society, would be dealt with fairly and compassionately by government was also challenged. Benefit issues are arguably the main reason people find themselves in crisis. Work Capability Assessments for employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants, for example, can cause a huge amount of stress to individuals who are already ill. A claimant can lose their income the same day if they fail an assessment. They can appeal but find themselves without income unless they know they can apply for Jobseekers Allowance in the meantime. Often people struggle on for weeks going short of food and fuel before contacting us.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Sanctions are a huge issue with people being denied benefit for weeks or months at a time. Claimants are eligible for hardship payments but many are not aware of how to access them, so may be without heat, light or food before they get in touch. Older people are particularly reluctant to contact us. One gentleman was in a council premises when he collapsed. He was taken to hospital and was found to be suffering from pneumonia as a result of not heating his house for months over the winter because he had been sanctioned.

Further Welfare Reform changes such as the benefit cap and reductions in disability benefits will only make this situation worse.

The Scottish Welfare Fund provides a safety net for vulnerable people on low incomes through the provision of Community Care Grants and Crisis Grants.  The Scottish Welfare Fund is a national scheme, underpinned by law and delivered on behalf of the Scottish Government by all local councils. More information is available here