Row blows up over Durham County Council's welfare budget

A row has blown up over Durham County Council's spending of the Welfare Assistance Scheme cash it was given by the Government

Councillor Owen Temple of Durham County Council's Liberal Democrats
Councillor Owen Temple of Durham County Council's Liberal Democrats

A council has come under fire for spending cash aimed at people in crisis on “pet projects”.

Durham County Council was handed almost £2m by the Government to help some of the area’s poorest and most vulnerable people as they struggle to cope with changes to the benefit system.

The money came as the Department for Work Pensions scrapped crisis loans, but it has emerged just a small portion of the Welfare Assistance Scheme cash – around £300,000 – has gone to individuals in need.

Around £640,000 will go into community projects and a scheme to help people find work or set up their own business, but the council said demand for the cash has been extremely low.

Liberal Democrat group leader Amanda Hopgood said the Labour-dominated council was “heartless” and that the money should be spent directly on individuals.

She said: “They are quick to condemn any change in welfare benefit rules nationally, claiming to speak for the poor and destitute, but as soon as they are provided with the cash to distribute to vulnerable people in this county they choose to spend it on themselves.”

The scheme will cease in 2015 when the Government funding runs out and the Journal understands demand for the cash is rising as benefit cuts continue to bite.

Lib Dem councillor Owen Temple added: “We’re disappointed that future funding will be discontinued after next year, but that was all the more reason not to spend this money on other schemes but to fund Welfare Assistance for as long as possible whilst the economy recovers and we are better able to find the money locally.”

Roger Goodes, head of policy and communications, Durham County Council, said: “The level of demand for the council’s welfare assistance scheme has not been as high as we had anticipated, which is a common picture across the region.

“However we are committed to using all of the funding available to help those affected by welfare changes and we are working closely with partners and agencies to make sure that happens.

“We have invested £140,000 into grass root projects in recognition of the successful local schemes already established through our Area Action Partnerships.

“These include welfare reform champions and others which have provided support on learning and skills, budgeting and money management directly to local residents.

“A further £500,000 will help young people get into work or start their own business.

“We have a targeted programme of communications to raise awareness of this support and any underspend will be used to continue to support residents affected after the government’s funding comes to an end at the end of March 2015.”

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