The Benefits Manager delivered a verbal update on the Household Support Fund which included the following:
· 59.61% of the original budget has been spent and what remains should be sufficient until the scheme ends, depending on demand over the next two months;
· Use has been made of other funding sources and help available including food banks and the Citizens Advice Energy Relief scheme;
· Data shows that in the household make-up category, single parents are the highest group applying for help, with single people who do not have children the second highest group;
· In terms of housing status, residents living in social and council housing are the highest group requesting help;
· In respect to employment status, the majority of those applying to the Fund are unemployed. Of those who are in employment, there is a close split between part-time, full-time and self-employed residents;
· Of the applications made, 16.29% required more in-depth work by the Financial Resilience team, down from 44% of applications in November. The majority of these cases made initial contact due to being unable to afford food and energy costs;
· The Fund has been promoted by the Communications team in regular press releases;
· Regular updates have been provided to Devon County Council on usage of the Fund and to discuss wider poverty issues;
· Learnings have been fed back to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) policy team concerning what East Devon DC would like to see from any future scheme, if funding is granted after the Housing Support Fund scheme closes in March.
The Chair thanked the Benefits Manager for her report. She was pleased to add that the Council had been approached by the District Council Network as one of only seven district councils being asked to work collaboratively. The Benefits Manager explained this was to look at the underlying reasons for poverty and what could be done to identify and resolve them.
The Strategic Lead Housing, Health and Environment commented that research had indicated that very few district level local authorities had a Poverty Strategy; Devon County Council had been enthusiastic about East Devon DC adopting one and were keen to share the good practice with other districts within Devon and beyond.
The Chair commented that officers and Members should be extremely proud to be recognised in this context.
In further discussion, the following points were made:
· A Member sought to better understand the underlying reasons for people needing help with energy and food costs, as referred to in the Benefit Manager’s report. The Benefit Manager stated that reasons included mental health struggles, low educational achievement and skills, and poor life chances, and a focus for the team was in signposting people to the right support to help them out of poverty;
· In response to a Member’s question, the Benefits Manager stated that she would endeavour to provide a breakdown for the next meeting of the numbers of male and female single people and single parents accessing the Housing Support Fund. The Member expressed concern that women might be disproportionately affected by problems of furlough and unemployment;
· A Member asked if there was any indication of what support might be available after the Housing Support Fund ends in March. The Benefits Manager stated that it was not known what would be available through the DWP. She added that the Benefits team were continuing conversations with Devon County Council to explore what preventative work could be done, going forward, rather than focusing only on emergency support;
· In response to a Member’s question, the Benefits Manager stated that supermarket vouchers had been distributed to families of children eligible for free school meals covering the Christmas holiday period but it was not known how many families had used them;
· Concern was raised about the time it takes to provide support when people contact the emergency telephone number. The Benefits Manager assured the Panel that emergency financial support was reaching people within 3-4 days of their call, and sometimes sooner. There were some cases requiring more in-depth work which took additional time, but emergency financial support was still provided in the interim;
· The Panel considered how they could address wider issues around poverty including by lobbying central government, talking with MPs, and encouraging local GPs to do more social prescribing;
· Comment was made that the Council had done very well with joined-up thinking in recognising the range of measures that were needed as part of the solution to poverty.
The Chair thanked the Benefits Manager for her report.