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Christmas grants to be overhauled

SHETLAND’S popular Christmas grant scheme for the elderly and disabled is to be completely revised and may target a different group of islanders, while accepting no new applicants in the meantime.

The £220 million Shetland Charitable Trust has paid out grants every yuletide to pensioners since its inception in 1976, later including disabled people.

Eventually the grants bill topped £1 million with beneficiaries receiving around £300 each.

However from 2009 the trust means-tested the grant to avoid paying tax, after the Inland Revenue insisted grants paid to well off people could not be deemed charitable.

However the trust now believes the grants are not targeting the islands’ most deprived people, some of whom may not be disabled or pensioners.

It is also struggling with the UK government’s benefits reforms, which are changing the definition of who is disabled.

Furthermore it says administering the grant is cumbersome and costly at £13,000 a year, with the bill likely to increase as the benefits system keeps changing.

Finally, as a result of public spending cuts and data protection the trust no longer receives help from Shetland Islands Council or the Department of Work and Pensions to find out who is disabled.

On Thursday trustees agreed to set up a working group to re-examine the entire Christmas grant system.

They also agreed to freeze the budget for grants at last year’s £432,000 and accept no new applicants.

Trustee and health board chairman Ian Kinniburgh said he was worried trustees would end up deciding who was most in need.

Trust chairman Bobby Hunter denied this, adding that the reform of the grant system was “a completely open book”.

“You can’t have a group of people sitting down and saying who should and who should not get money. That’s not going to happen,” he said.

However vice chairman Jonathan Wills said the trustees would end up having to apply their own subjective judgment on cases.

He said the tax bill would grow and the trust did not have the resources to identify which disabled people were eligible for grants.

“I would be delighted if we could continue to do this, but personally I don’t think we can resolve this and we will need a totally different system,” he said.