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Editorial: a hardship scheme for the working poor

On Thursday, Shetland Charitable Trust will meet to discuss abolishing its financial hardship scheme, the seemingly short-lived successor to the Christmas grant paid to pensioners since 1976. Though only overhauled earlier this year, it is now the trust management’s view that the scheme is impractical to administer.

A brief report (item 3) sent to trustees states that “the government sets benefits at a level to ensure that individuals have a minimum standard of living”. Which is true, in theory.

But by coincidence that document dropped into the email inbox on the same day a cross-party Westminster report entitled ‘Feeding Britain’ bemoaned the prevalence of food banks and sanctions against welfare claimants.

And the buoyant Shetland economy isn’t a buffer for everyone in these times of zero hours contracts, low job security and savage spending cuts.

Research from the SIC’s Emma Perring shows more than a third of isles households live in fuel poverty, and almost 1,500 homes spend more than a fifth of their income on heating their homes.

Speak to the redoubtable Angela Nunn at the Salvation Army about the hundreds of food parcels she and volunteers package up locally every year and it is clear plenty face genuine hardship. Some are pensioners; many are in low paid and/or part time work.

That is precisely why the old Christmas grant to pensioner households needed reforming. But it is also why it would seem more sensible to open the SCT hardship scheme to the working poor, not close it on the grounds that administering the scheme is too tricky.

In March last year the trust abruptly pulled the plug on the troubled youth drop-in centre at Lerwick’s Market Cross. It was probably the right decision, though it was shoddily handled.

Trust chairman Bobby Hunter insisted then that it was not a financial decision. Yet nearly two years on there is little sign of fresh means being found to support our young people.

Are we, then, to assume that the £157,000 to be saved if trustees back the report on Thursday will, too, be banked?

While much criticism directed at the trust in recent years has been from those unhappy about its investment in Viking Energy, wind farm supporters and opponents alike ought to be concerned about elements of how the trust has been managed and operated since its governance was reformed in 2012.

It is astonishing that this two page report – which finds room for the “financial implications” – omits any mention of the potential impact its removal might have on the elderly; fails to note rising demand for the local food bank, and neglects to draw on the expert opinions of anyone from Shetland’s voluntary sector.

When proposing to do away with a scheme that has existed for 38 years in one form or another, the trust ought to make a better fist of explaining its rationale than a callous couple of sides of A4.

Trustees may ultimately decide to end the hardship scheme, but they should only do so if there is a clear plan spelling out how the money saved will then be targeted at those in greatest need.

Shetland News