A means-tested £300 Christmas grant paid out to hundreds of pensioners and disabled people is unlikely to continue beyond December in its present form, according to Shetland Charitable Trust vice-chairman Jonathan Wills.
His remark came as trustees uniformly backed a report from SCT chief executive Ann Black suggesting the grant should be dished out to everyone who qualified last year – provided they can prove their circumstances have not changed.
A £432,000 budget remains in place to cover this year’s grant, which has been paid in one form or another since the trust’s inception in 1976. Trustees yesterday morning agreed to commission a review examining “ways of spending the money differently”.
Similarly to an unpopular move resulting in the closure of Shetland Youth Information Services (SYIS) in February, trust chairman Bobby Hunter stressed the latest proposal is not about cost-cutting.
Ms Black’s report stated that the scheme was “not necessarily targeting the correct client group”. Recent studies show that the worst deprivation in Shetland is “not necessarily exclusively among pensioners or the disabled”.
Pensioners receiving pension credit, council tax benefit or housing benefit are eligible. Disabled applicants receiving means-tested benefits have been able to “self-certify” that they qualify for the Christmas grant.
But with the UK welfare system undergoing a major overhaul, trust staff are finding it increasingly costly and time-consuming to determine who is and is not eligible.
Ms Black described administering the scheme as “very cumbersome”, taking up “a great deal” of staff time. Admin costs in 2012 were estimated to be £13,000.
Her report stated: “This is likely to increase, as trust staff do not have expertise in the benefit system, which is changing rapidly. Shetland Islands Council’s benefits staff, who have previously been helpful, have indicated that they do not have the capacity to provide the level of support which they have given in previous years.”
The scheme is to be closed to new applicants while the review considers “ways in which the trust’s resources could be better targeted towards areas of need in which the trust can legally assist”.
Mr Hunter said: “There is no suggestion whatsoever that we’re going to do away with this amount of money. It’s not a savings exercise. What we’re doing is evaluating the existing scheme and seeing if there’s a better way of doing it.”
Asked how he envisioned a rebooted scheme operating, Mr Hunter said it was “an open book”. “We’re looking to target the money at needy folk, be they young, old, disabled.”
Dr Wills told this newspaper the Christmas grant had become “extremely expensive and complicated to administer”.
“I can’t see it [the existing Christmas grant] surviving in the long term. I don’t see any way of doing it without paying very large sums to George Osborne,” he said. “The charitable trust does not exist to support the Inland Revenue, so we need to use the money in a way that benefits those most in need.
“We can no longer rely on government or council staff to provide accurate details of who qualifies and who doesn’t. We’re going to have to look, with regret, at other ways of spending it.”
The grant became means-tested in 2009 to avoid paying a hefty tax bill. That came after the Inland Revenue indicated that if money was being handed out to the well-off, in addition to the needy, the scheme was not eligible for charitable tax relief.
Dr Wills said “ignoramuses” on the comments section of this newspaper’s website were “already saying we’re very bad people”. But he is confident the “population at large understands why we have to do this”.
He is open to ideas from the community for how the £432,000 budget could be better spent from 2014 onwards. Dr Wills has already heard suggestions that some of the money could go on children or young adults with additional support needs (ASN), or on more youth work.
Speaking during yesterday’s trust meeting in Islesburgh, appointed trustee Ian Kinniburgh had reservations about how the SCT could “sit in judgement about whose need is greater than others’”.
“That becomes quite a subjective decision,” he said, “so we need to be very careful about how we do that. Although the DWP is changing, people in receipt of benefits will presumably be fairly readily able to prove they are in receipt. There must be some kind of simply-gathered proof that would meet, for instance, HMRC’s criteria.”
Mr Kinniburgh added that regardless of how any revamped scheme was administered, it would come at a cost. Mr Hunter said Mr Kinniburgh’s concerns were “valid”, and he pledged the review would seek to “create a methodology of being fair and equitable”.