Whose hands will end up on the money?

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Sweeping changes to the benefits system will have a dramatic impact on the lives of hundreds of the district’s residents.

Scotland’s welfare bill has soared to £15.5 billion and cuts to the budget which critics warn will be inevitable as a result of the Welfare Reform Act, the biggest ever shake-up of social security payouts, will leave the most vulnerable confused, scared and desperate.

The UK Government intends to dismantle the system and replace it with a Universal Credit covering a huge range of entitlement for working age people including working and child tax credits, income support and housing benefit.

Community care grants and crisis loans are also being abolished under the new arrangements to create a package of dramatic change which will start to gain momentum from early next year and be paid through the Scottish Community Support Fund.

The budget for Scotland is expected to be around £25 million a year with Falkirk Council’s share around £845,000.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is already fighting his corner and resisting pressure from Chancellor George Osborne to re-think the scale of further cuts to the welfare budget but set a determined course to deliver the Universal Credit scheme to replace all out-of-work benefits and ensure work always pays.

While that is going on at Westminster, Falkirk Council is already working on ways to not only deliver support under the terms of the new legislation but protect its citizens most likely to be affected.

Key to their plan is to be ready to deliver the Scottish Community Support Fund which will transfer the responsibility for care grants and loans funding to councils from next April. It is expected some of the most ‘at risk’ people across the district who will depend on the fund will likely include:

 Single people with chaotic lifestyles

 Disabled people

 Lone parents

 Homeless

 Older people

 Carers

The council is taking notice of the changes and proposals as they emerge from national discussions so it is ready to take informed decisions locally as to what its approach will be when the time comes to protecting those most in need. It is committed to delivering the Scottish Community Care Support Fund efficiently, effectively and on time but concedes the pressure is on to deliver.

It is expected to be ready to provide a face-to-face service for new Universal Credit benefit claimants by October 2013, but a report from the Department of Work and Pensions, which highlights issues around how claimants or clients will access their credits, the support many will need to complete the paperwork to be ready for the switch and the inevitable need for council staff to work with agencies like Job Centre Plus to ensure people claim the Universal Credit online and get support to do that in advance is still being considered.

Another issue the council has to grasp is, while it will be expected to embrace the challenge of ensuring every claimant continues to receive all the financial help they are entitled to under the new system it will have to do it with less money than before.

Because the Housing Benefit administration grant currently provided by the DWP will be reduced next October before being phased out completely and Council Tax Benefit is also being abolished from next April, the council will lose out on two administration grants, reported to be worth up to £1 million a year.

Officers continue to pore over the paperwork and fine print the Welfare Reform Act will need them to address and are expected to bring their initial proposals for the way ahead to the council in November.