Covid-19 impact on Highland households and businesses fuels calls for extra help and reform of Scottish Welfare Fund
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THE impact of Covid-19 on social security within the Highlands has been flagged at the Scottish Parliament.
Figures suggest the economy of the Highlands and Islands could decrease by as much as £2.6bn in 2020 and that more than 40 per cent of households have witnessed a drop in income since the pandemic.
A meeting of Holyrood's Social Security Committee saw invitations go out ito local authority officers and third-sector organisations to provide evidence of the impact of coronavirus.
Sheila McKandie, head of revenues and business support, represented Highland Council at the inquiry.
The meeting was designed to consider social security as a whole within Scotland. The possibility of undertaking a full review of eligibility for the Scottish Welfare Fund, a scheme which has been in place since April 2013, was also discussed.
During this discussion, it was noted that the Scottish Welfare Fund provides financial assistance for those in crisis and to support settled living.
The committee sought views about access to the fund for the increasing number of individuals and families who have lost employment and are just outwith the qualifying criteria for the scheme.Members of the committee also discussed potential expansion of the scheme which would have eligibility criteria adjusted to enable assistance to be provided before people reach crisis point.
The officers attending the committee on behalf of their local authorities and third-sector organisations indicated that they would be in favour of having the eligibility criteria for Scottish Welfare Fund reformed, with many keen to see its second iteration deliver increased flexibility, in addition to discretion to tailor eligibly to meet local needs and requirements.
Covid-19, within the Highland community, has had a particularly devastating financial impact to many citizens.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) report that:
• unemployment increased faster in the region than the rest of Scotland and;
• the economy of the Highlands and Islands could decrease by as much as £2.6bn in 2020 due to the impact of Covid-19 on businesses and jobs.
"While the financial impact of the pandemic has been felt across the country, the statistics show that Highland has been hit particularly hard and it’s so important that these local difficulties and challenges are fed back to Scottish Parliament for consideration to protect the welfare of our local people.” - council leader Margaret Davidson
In July, a poll by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation of 2000 Scottish households demonstrated the financial strain the economic impact of lockdown has been placing on people in different housing tenures, and in various areas of the country. Key findings of the survey included:
•Almost a third of households across Scotland reported a drop in income since March 2020. In the Highlands and Islands this increased to 44 per cent;
• Almost half of renters who have experienced a drop-in income since March were worried about their ability to pay rent (47 per cent); and
• Households that saw a decline in income were at the same time more likely to face extra costs than those whose incomes had stayed the same or increased.
In recognition of the limited support currently available to home-owners, discussion was had about the possibility of expanding the Discretionary Housing Payment scheme so that it is no longer restricted to only those in receipt of Housing Benefit or Universal Credit.
One such expansion which was put forward for consideration was taking the existing support for mortgage interest loan – which is repayable – and instead administering this as a grant which individuals would not need to repay.
Cllr Margaret Davidson, leader of Highland Council, said:“I am pleased that Highland Council has been given the opportunity to contribute towards this very relevant discussion and put forward the very unique challenges which our communities face.
"While the financial impact of the pandemic has been felt across the country, the statistics show that Highland has been hit particularly hard and it’s so important that these local difficulties and challenges are fed back to Scottish Parliament for consideration to protect the welfare of our local people.”