At First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood today (16th January), Highlands and Islands Labour MSP David Stewart, questioned Nicola Sturgeon about a compelling situation in Moray where benefits staff face having to deny desperately-poor families emergency cash handouts from the Scottish Government-funded Welfare Support Fund amid concerns it could run out.
Money from the fund is handed out to claimants to reduce the impact of universal credit delays.
However, a surge in demand has now prompted staff to warn the money needs to be prioritised to the most urgent cases. All at a time when benefits staff say the number of people presenting as feeling suicidal due to money problems has peaked.
Speaking in chamber, Mr Stewart, who is also Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Eradication of Poverty and Social Inequality, said “The First Minister will be well aware of the concerns expressed this week by the leader of Moray Council who said there was a severe cash shortfall in his council’s Scottish Welfare Fund. Front line benefits support staff say there has been a rise in the number of people feeling suicidal and of those with acute mental health and drug issues. Does the First Minister share my concerns and what comfort can she give to the hard-pressed front-line staff in Moray and the highly vulnerable people they serve?”
Mrs Sturgeon said it was true her government’s welfare fund was under pressure in many parts of the country, but she said this issue would be considered while the new budget for 2020-2021 was being drawn up.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Stewart said: “It could soon be unbelievably difficult for these front-line benefits support staff in Moray who will effectively be working with one hand behind their backs. They will be torn between having to protect the cash that is left in this dwindling fund and making sure families get the extra bit of money they need to warm their homes and put food in the cupboards.
“It is the poorest who are being hit hardest by continuing austerity and the SNP government has a duty to use every possible method to protect them. I will be keeping a close eye on next month’s budget to check that the First Minister has delivered.”