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Trustees agree Xmas grant overhaul

SHETLAND’S popular Christmas grant scheme, which has paid out millions of pounds to pensioners and disabled folk in the isles for the past three decades, is to close.

Instead Shetland Charitable Trust is to find new ways to target financial help at the most vulnerable island residents, such as young families struggling with poverty.

In the meantime the budget for paying out £300 grants this Christmas has been cut by three quarters from £361,800 to £100,000. Trustees were told this should be enough to cover demand.

The trust itself insists the object of the changes is not to save money, and the budget could be increased if trustees see the need.

Meeting on Thursday, trustees acknowledged the existing Christmas grant scheme is unfair in that some people who receive it are better off than younger, able-bodied folk living on the breadline.

Trustee and Shetland South councillor Allison Duncan sees change as an attack on pensioners.

Trustee Allison Duncan only won the support of two others – Andrea Manson and Amanda Westlake – when he tried to preserve the status quo for the next 12 months.

Duncan argued the trust was discriminating against the old and disabled who were facing huge rises in their electricity bills on one of Europe’s lowest state pensions.

“I see this as an attack on our senior citizens,” he said.

A recent review of the scheme involving Shetland Islands Council’s social work department and the local branch of the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) found it was not reaching the most needy.

It has also proved extremely difficult for the trust to administer as the government refuses to pass on information about benefits claimants.

How the new system will work remains unclear, but the trust will work out the details with the council and CAB, with the SIC probably taking on the administration.

SCT vice chairman Jonathan Wills said the changes were unavoidable.

Trust vice chairman Jonathan Wills said as soon as that work was complete a letter would be sent to all current recipients.

He stressed the trust should be the last resort of the most vulnerable in society, and won general agreement that the government were “falling down on the job” of looking after the poor.

He added that the trust would try to make more money available and would encourage people to apply for social assistance grants.

“I would be delighted if we could spend more money,” he said.

“We are certainly not the first resort for the needy, but we are willing to be that last resort, and hopefully in the future when we have more money from our wind farm investment we will be able to be more generous.”

Trustee Malcolm Bell said it was clear that there are other people than pensioners and the disabled who are being severely affected by the economic downturn and the changes to the UK’s welfare system.

Betty Fullerton added that this could be one way to reduce inequality in Shetland, adding: “Just being older doesn’t give you a right to receive this money.”

The trust has already been forced to scale back its grant scheme by the Inland Revenue, which used to pay out £1 million every Christmas to every pensioner or disabled islander.

It still pays £15,000 a year in tax because the 329 disabled recipients are not means-tested.

The 817 pensioners who apply for and receive the grant self-declare that they are on benefits, with the tax authorities accepting a sample test of around 80 folk as proof.