A council department that provides urgent grants to vulnerable people facing a disaster or emergency was left with just one member of staff during a peak holiday period.
That meant long delays for people who needed support from the Scottish Welfare Fund – but a councillor’s plea to employ extra staff to support the team of six was rejected at a meeting of Falkirk Council.
Grangemouth councillor Allyson Black said she was “disgusted” that her motion to use council reserves to pay for two members of staff for the next two years was rejected, with the SNP administration instead promising a review.
Ms Black’s fear, she told the meeting, was that the situation could happen again in winter months, when delays could cause real hardship.
“My concern is that this service is for very vulnerable people to help them get basic essentials to live,” she said.
“I worry that if this happened in the winter you could have people without anything to cook on or without heating.
“We’re talking about families with a disabled child, moving into a home with no carpets, we’re talking about essentials such as cookers or beds!” she said. “A progress report in December just doesn’t cut it.
“I don’t like to be dramatic but with no food and no heating people could actually die!
“How do you cook a hot meal if you don’t have a cooker, how do you wash your children’s school clothes if you don’t have access to a washing machine?
“Our staff are hard working and passionate about making a difference but we need to take away the worry of being under-resourced – it’s time to look at this again and ensure that we are looking after those who need our help most.”
The Scottish Government fund, which is administered locally by Falkirk Council, gives two types of support.
Crisis grants can be paid to people on a low-income affected by emergencies such as fire or flooding and these were not affected by the lack of staff.
But it also gives out community care grants which help vulnerable people “maintain their home in the face of exceptional pressure”, and these were badly delayed.
Now moves are afoot to cut the team further to just 4.5 FTE, which Ms Black says is “neither realistic or achievable”.
In the first quarter of this year, the team dealt with 600 claims for community grants and 160-170 community grants, while they were also responsible for processing 5000 claims for school clothing grants, said Ms Black.
“They are working under extreme pressure and having one member of staff is not acceptable – we need to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
But her motion asking council to agree to £67,000 to pay for another two FTE advisors for the next two years was refused by 14 votes to ten.
The leading SNP group instead asked the Director of Corporate and Housing Services to bring a progress report in relation to the social welfare fund to the December meeting of the council’s executive.
SNP housing spokesperson Gordon Hughes said it was true that the team had been reduced to one person, with two people off sick and others on annual leave, but other staff were being trained to fill in to ensure there was no repeat of the situation.
He said hiring an extra two members of staff for two years would be “an industrial relations nightmare” and accused the Labour group of trying to “suspend Falkirk Council rules”.
Council leader Cecil Meiklejohn said there was no doubt that the introduction of Universal Credit had had a massive impact on many people and the number of people applying for grants was “an indictment of our current benefits system”.
She said the team had now recognised the problem and taken steps to avoid it happening again and staff were being better trained to ensure claims were processed quickly.
She said a report would allow them to take a decision with more information.
Councillor Fiona Collie agreed that she was not against the motion but would like more information before making the decision and she felt a review was the right way forward.
Speaking after the meeting, Ms Black said: “I am absolutely disgusted by the response of councillors.
“I will keep campaigning for better services for our citizens. We can’t be complacent with people’s lives.”