The Scottish Welfare Fund – an alternative to emergency food aid

We know that the best way to help someone who is left with no money for food is to give them money. It means people can choose when, where and how they access their food. That’s why the Scottish Welfare Fund is one of the most important ways of helping someone who has no money for food.

It’s not perfect: there’s an application form to fill in, an administrative period, and rules for who can and cannot receive money. So, on the face of it, it might seem like a food bank referral is a simpler, faster response. But when you look closely, the Scottish Welfare Fund has many advantages over a food bank parcel, on top of the benefits of a cash based response.

What is the Scottish Welfare Fund?

The Scottish Welfare Fund is administered by each local authority in Scotland.

There are two kinds of grants available from the Scottish Welfare Fund: crisis grants and community care grants. To be eligible, you must have a low income or not be able to access your money. Both are grants and do not need to be repaid.
Community care grants are not typically used to provide emergency living expenses (e.g. food and utilities). These grants are often for things like furniture, white goods, clothes or money.

Crisis grants are available to people who need living expenses as a result of an emergency, such as having no money for food, or disaster, such as a fire or flood. They must be paid in cash or “cash equivalent” (e.g. PayPoint, voucher that can be used at a number of outlets, bank transfer, etc.).

A better alternative to emergency food aid

On top of a cash based response, the Scottish Welfare Fund is a better alternative to food aid because many food banks face even greater limitations on their service.

1. Opening times

Scottish Welfare Fund grants are typically only available during regular business hours. This means people who find themselves in crisis in the evenings and weekends will be unable to access payments immediately.

Like the Scottish Welfare Fund, many food banks are only open during regular working times on weekdays. Others are only open even less frequently: one or two days per week or only in the morning or afternoon. There are food banks that are open on weekends, but this varies from area to area.

Also, many food banks require individuals to go to a referring agency to get a voucher before they can receive a food parcel. These agencies are typically only open during business hours. So, not only are individuals limited to the opening hours of the food bank, they are limited by the opening times of the referring agencies.

2. Application process

Crisis grants must be applied for. Local authorities are required to provide at least three methods of applying. Online and phone applications are often promoted by local authorities as they are easiest to administer, but people facing income crisis may not have access to these methods. You should be able to put in a claim at a local authority office, but may face barriers to doing so (e.g. travel costs or mobility issues) and not all local authorities offer this service.

As we’ve said, many food banks don’t allow you to simply show up and receive a parcel. Instead, you have to go to a referring agency where you will be assessed and given a voucher. You then need to go to the food bank to receive your parcel. This process may be well intentioned but it can be a difficult, especially for people who don’t know they need a voucher and go directly to a food bank.

This two-step process makes it even more expensive for people who have far to travel to reach a referral agency and a food bank.

3. Decision making time

The Scottish Welfare Fund guidance states local authorities must make a decision by the end of the business day (defined as 9am – 4:45pm) after the day in which the application and all necessary information is received. If an application is received after 4:45pm it is treated as being received the following business day.

This means you could make an application for a crisis grant at 5pm on a Monday and the local authority would be within the allowed timeframe if it made a decision on 4:45pm on the following Wednesday. If the local authority needs to gather more information, or if an application is made on a Friday, a decision can take even longer.

When it comes to turn around, food banks may appear to have the advantage. People can typically receive a food parcel the same day they request one, so long as they are able to attend both the referring agency and food bank on the same day.

However, getting help from the Scottish Welfare Fund can actually be just as quick; with the latest stats showing that two thirds of crisis grants were made on the same day as the application, and nearly all of them (98%) were made within two working days.

4. Application limits

Local authorities only have so much money they can distribute so there are limits to the number of crisis grants you can receive in a given period. The general rule is that you can only receive three crisis grants in a rolling twelve month period.

Local authorities do have discretion to pay a fourth or subsequent award in exceptional circumstances, and many do, but they don’t have to.

Local authorities also don’t have to consider an application if it is made for the same items or services within 28 days of a similar application if there has been no change of circumstances. Arguably, requesting money for food within this time period is not the same item (it is different food after all) but the decision rests with each local authority.

Like crisis grants, many food banks limit the number of times an individual can access their service in a certain timeframe. Each food bank sets its own rules but many follow the principle that no more than three parcels should be given in six months. But, like the Scottish Welfare Fund, many food banks will give beyond this limit in exceptional circumstances.

5. Award limits

Most food banks only provide enough food for three days. Crisis grants, on the other hand, should be awarded to last you until your next expected payment. If you’re receiving Universal Credit, this could be an entire month.

Official data shows the average crisis grant award in Scotland was £78 between July and September of 2017, although it does not show how many days this award was supposed to last. While the limitations initially appear similar, crisis grants are typically more generous and should last you much longer.

Cash, rights, food

The fact that a crisis grant is a cash based response is the most important difference between the Scottish Welfare Fund and food banks. Getting money gives you a much greater choice to decide how much and what kind of food you eat. Also, it allows you to buy more than food. Crisis grants can be awarded for fuel, clothes and other necessities. In this way the Scottish Welfare Fund can provide more help to someone facing income crisis than a food bank ever could.

But more than that, the Scottish Welfare Fund is the same or better when it comes to ease of access, the application process, limits on applications and the value of what you actually receive.

Food banks are an excellent example of communities coming together to fill a gap in support our governments should be providing. But the Scottish Welfare Fund is an example of an excellent government service that may be underutilised. No one should be referred to a food bank without first being told about the Scottish Welfare Fund. There is room for improvement in how the Scottish Welfare Fund operates, but by getting money into people’s pockets, it is the best way to stop people facing hunger.

Author: David Hilber, Project Officer