Cost of living crisis: push to ensure Lancashire pensioners are claiming all their benefits as part of support package for vulnerable groups
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Lancashire County Council has agreed to invest £348,000 in a scheme designed to improve the uptake of pensioner allowances by providing specialist support to district authorities and Citizens Advice to boost their capacity to engage with those who may be unaware that they are missing out.
The authority’s cabinet approved the initiative earlier this month as part of a raft of local measures which it is hoped will help ease the burden faced by households across the county this winter. Disability benefit claimants will also get extra assistance.
Cabinet members were told that without Lancashire-specific action to complement national programmes of support, there was a “realistic possibility of…excess winter deaths, widening inequalities and reduced productivity in the local economy”.
The benefits uptake scheme will be developed over the course of the next six weeks and will run for two years. Failure to claim entitlements was highlighted as being a particular problem amongst older age groups.
Amongst the over-75s in Lancashire, it is estimated that around 7,500 low-income residents who are eligible for Pension Credit are not claiming it - that is almost 1 in 3 of those entitled to do so.
If only 10 percent of that group were contacted and advised to take up the £60 of weekly benefit that they were currently forgoing, a total of £2.3m of income would be generated for some of the county’s hardest-pressed pensioners. Such intervention may also serve to point them towards other benefits for which they may be in line, like carer’s allowance or council tax support.
Separately, £170,000 will go into providing additional advocacy support for disability benefit claimants to help with form-filling and appeals.
Together, the two benefit initiatives account for more than half of an £896,000 investment - from existing budgets - in cost of living schemes for the winter head. In addition, there will be:
***132,000 for the “Under One Roof” project, which provides people in immediate need with essential household items like crockery and bedding. The cash will also fund a “pastoral care key worker”;
***£87,000 for the substance misuse service to support recovering addicts with food vouchers to reduce the risk of their recovery being derailed by hardship;
***£84,000 to provide targeted support and information to residents through the county council’s libraries;
***£75,000 for a scheme to increase the capacity for referring people for specialist fuel debt advice.
County council leader Phillippa Williamson told the meeting where the package of measures was agreed that the cost of living challenge was going to evolve over a “prolonged period of time” - possibly up to a year.
“I think the first key sign of that will be the extra demand on services from councils…but also from the NHS during this period.”.
“We need to ensure that this first phase of delivery is effective whilst also working with local stakeholders and district councils to monitor the progress and effectiveness of all these measures that are being put in place,” County Cllr Williamson added.
Cabinet also approved the establishment of a £72,000 fund to support organisations willing to open up their premises as so-called “warm hubs” and which will be able to bid for up to £500 to assist them. The county council has already committed to using its network of 64 libraries for that purpose.
A cross-party task group set up to give effect to a county council motion calling for the creation of warm spaces - which residents could use as places of sanctuary to escape cold homes - had recommended that £200,000 be put into a pot to support the third-party provision of such a service.
However, deputy county council leader Alan Vincent said that he would instead review the situation after four weeks of the hubs being operational to see “how many people are actually using [them] and whether or not we have enough resource…to keep it going for the rest of the winter” - and then do his best to make more money available if it were needed. He also warned of the need for organisations to co-ordinate their efforts in order to avoid duplication of locally-available hubs on some days and a dearth of them on others.
Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali welcomed the measures, but stressed that “local solutions” would be required as “everywhere is going to be very different”
He also sought - and was given - confirmation that parish councils would be able access the funding to provide warm hubs in recognition of the fact that they might have access to venues that may be better suited to the service than a library.
The county council has also recently established a cost of living information hub on its website, which provides details of warm hubs in each district as well other support that is available.
Cabinet member for health and wellbeing Michael Green told his colleagues that “no single measure” would address the needs that people were likely to have.
Meanwhile, cabinet heard that Lancashire’s latest £9.6m share of the government’s extended household support fund would be distributed to district authorities “on the basis of need”. That will be a repeat of the mechanism used for the allocation of the second round of funding from that pot earlier this year and in contrast to round one, which was shared out based on a per-head-of-population calculation.
Preston, Lancaster and Burnley were the three biggest beneficiaries of the scheme under the needs-based formula, cabinet members were told.
The county council had previously agreed to double its usual allocation to Lancashire's affordable warmth scheme to £1m - assisting with energy efficiency support such as boiler and insulation measures - and to grant £180,000 to community food projects in its patch.