Fife councillors have launched a scathing attack on the UK Government over welfare reform amid fears people could starve while waiting for payments.
In an impassioned address to Fife Council’s community and housing services committee, Labour councillor Neil Crooks said: “The point of this is to fill the coffers of the UK Government while people are starving on the streets.
“Somebody needs to do something about it and the people who need to do something about it are sitting in Westminster.”
Mr Crooks slammed rich people who had avoided paying tax through offshore investments.
“There are ways of getting millions of pounds into this country and it’s not by taking off the poorest in our society,” he added.
Universal Credit will be rolled out next month, leaving low income families cash strapped just before Christmas.
Fife Council has described the impending impact of welfare reform as “catastrophic”.
The changes are expected to have far-reaching consequences including mounting local authority rent arrears.
One of the key drawbacks for new claimants is the six-week wait for the first payment to be processed.
“We need to look at every possible avenue open to us to make sure that people don’t starve while waiting six weeks for payments,” said Mr Crooks.
“This sickens me to the pit of my stomach.”
A wide range of measures is being introduced across Fife to help people plunged into poverty by welfare reform. These include training welfare support assistants and offering people help with basic education and digital skills.
Committee convener Judy Hamilton said: “Once again we, as a local authority, are acting as a buffer for our people from a government who are supposed to have the best interests of our people at heart.”
Mrs Hamilton described the payment delay as an “absolute disgrace”.
The Labour councillor said: “They’ve got this built-in time delay of 42 days, which is outrageous, but it’s built into the system, without any administrative errors.
“Twenty-five per cent of people don’t get the right money even after 42 days.”
She added making a single payment to a household could mean people subjected to financial abuse could be left poorer.
“We’re getting reports from Women’s Aid about the single payment to the household,” she said.
“For a household where there is financial abuse, that is a very difficult position to put people into.”
The policy and coordination committee has been asked to mitigate the impacts of welfare reform through crisis grants and discretionary housing payments.
Rent arrears and demand for help expected to rocket
Fife Council warned that a “worst case scenario” could see the authority’s rent arrears reach £5.6 million.
An estimated nine out of 10 council tenants in Fife who receive Universal Credit – a total of 765 – have racked up increased rent arrears as a result of welfare reform – an increase amounting to £340,000.
A council report revealed that following the rollout of Universal Credit, arrears could run into millions.
Community manager Janice Laird said the council is taking steps to prevent people spiralling into debt.
“Funding to mitigate welfare reform is well targeted at some of Fife’s poorest families,” she said.
Citizens Advice and Rights Fife (CARF) is braced for a deluge of calls as families struggle in the run up to Christmas and beyond.
Norma Philpott from CARF said demand for the service is expected to rocket 60%.
“Obviously the board of CARF will have to decide what to do with that potential demand.
“Credit has to go to our volunteers for the work that they do because it’s becoming increasingly complex and challenging.”
Crisis grants available for people in dire straits
Crisis grants are available for people who need emergency help to cover the cost of essentials such as food, fuel and nappies.
To ensure crisis grants are processed in time, the council has taken the step of restricting its helpline opening hours from 9am to 2.30pm instead of 11am to 4.30am.
Customer service manager Diarmuid Cotter said the move would give staff more time to process payments.
“Staff have fairly heavy administrative load. We’re trying to maximise the resources we have.”
Conservative councillor Linda Holt accused the council of taking a “wait and see attitude”.
She said: “There’s a six week wait and over Christmas that will lead in a spike in demand for crisis grants.
“You’re now saying you’re going to make it even harder for them to access that at a time when the demand is going to be even greater.
“I think we should be moving straight to the second solution and putting more staff on.”
But Labour’s Linda Erskine responded: “We wouldn’t be in this mess if central government hadn’t done this to us.
“Our staff have limited resources. I suggest you go back and ask the Westminster Government to start funding us properly so we can start dealing with it.”