The Northern Echo has been looking at the changing nature of poverty in the North-East, speaking to people with personal experience, to show the human stories behind the statistics.

This has been a joint piece of work in conjunction with Church Action on Poverty, a social justice charity based in Salford, Manchester, but working across the UK.

Interviews for this project were carried out by Gavin Aitchison, the charity’s media unit coordinator, who was previously a journalist at The Northern Echo’s sister paper, The Press in York.

Researchers from Joseph Rowntree Foundation, based in York, also supported this work, providing detailed statistics broken down by region, showing variations in pay levels, unemployment and job availability.

CRISIS support in the North-East has been slashed and is now a postcode lottery for thousands of residents in need of urgent help, an investigation by a poverty charity and The Northern Echo has found.

Council-run emergency funds in some areas have been virtually eliminated, and provision varies widely. The eligibility criteria differ and some councils are using underspends to offset other areas of their work, prompting claims they are not providing the support required.

One North-East mother said she applied to her council for help after waiting eight months without receiving her benefits, but said: “I was told that when I was only getting child benefit support for the girls, that did not constitute crisis. The crisis support that is there is not working properly.”

Councils had to set up Local Welfare Assistance Schemes (LWAS) in 2013 when the Government abolished Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants, but Government funding ended in 2015.

The schemes are meant to provide emergency short-term help to people in sudden crisis such as after an injury, house fire or benefit delay, or support in resettling. Many councils originally provided cash, but almost all now issue vouchers, such as for food or utilities, or make direct payments to suppliers.

Councils across the North-East have received more than 130,000 applications in the past four and a half years, including more than 30,000 last year, but national charity Church Action on Poverty and The Northern Echo used the Freedom of Information Act to study the size and nature of the LWAS in each council area and found vast differences.

The Northern Echo: CRISIS: Many families are being supported by foodbanks Picture: CHURCH ACTION ON POVERTY

CRISIS: Many families are being supported by foodbanks Picture: CHURCH ACTION ON POVERTY

In South Tyneside, the annual budget was £532,700 four years ago, but is now £188,000. From April to September this year, 1,100 applications for help have been rejected and only 465 approved.

In Sunderland, the budget has fallen from £1.2m in 2013/14 and 2014/15 to just £250,000 in each of the past three years, but more than two thirds of applications this financial year have been successful, with 631 approvals and 281 rejections.

In Middlesbrough, the council's budget has fallen from £954,042 to £160,000 in the same time, but consistently more than 70 per cent of applications have been granted.

The authority said its system worked well but could do more, if it had more Government funding. A spokesman said it expected increased need for crisis support once Universal Credit is rolled out in the town next July, and said: "This will be closely monitored to ensure the needs of Middlesbrough residents in crisis situations continue to be met."

The proportion of requests granted by Hartlepool Borough Council has steadily increased in recent years, to 74 per cent so far in 2017/18.

Durham County Council’s annual LWAS budget has fallen only from £1.3m to £1m, and about two thirds of applications are approved. The fund is now overseen by the council’s poverty action steering group.

Northumberland County Council, by contrast, has spent less than half its total budget since 2013/14. In the past four and a half years, it has received 22,695 applications for help, and has granted 6,404. It now returns any underspends to the council's general budget, and does not record the reasons for rejected applications.

South Tyneside has similarly redirected funds. Other councils, including Redcar and Cleveland, ringfence underspends for the same work the next year, but in September the Centre For Responsible Credit said the Redcar and Cleveland scheme and Newcastle’s were among ten nationally that were now so low they were on the brink of closure.

In Stockton, the budget was £208,196 four years ago, and rose to £239,000 the next year, but has been £167,000 each year since. For the first two years, most applications were approved, but since 2015 a clear majority have been refused.

Some councils use parts of their fund indirectly, helping to support food banks or community-based projects.

There are also major discrepancies in the criteria councils apply. In North Tyneside, applicants can receive direct help only if they have children in the household or an adult with "a significant vulnerability and/or health needs". North Yorkshire County Council, however, has eligibility including helping individuals recently released from prison, people with a drug or alcohol dependency, and people with mental health problems. The county council has retained a higher budget than many councils, reducing from £968,919 in 2013/14 to £713,000 last year.

Damon Gibbons, director of the Centre For Responsible Credit, said: “The decline in local welfare support in recent years has been dramatic. This is increasing levels of destitution, with many individuals no longer able to obtain support in a crisis.

“It is also counter-productive for local authorities to cut back on spending, as this increases demand for high-cost statutory services such as homelessness and housing support and social care. Local authorities need to urgently review their approach, and ensure that small-sum preventative grants remain available in order to reduce pressure on these other areas of their budgets as well as on local health and voluntary sector provision.”

The Northern Echo: 'SCANDALOUS': Phil McGrath, chief executive of The Cedarwood Trust community organisation in North Shields and vice chairman of Church Action on Poverty

'SCANDALOUS': Phil McGrath, chief executive of The Cedarwood Trust community organisation in North Shields and vice chairman of Church Action on Poverty

Phil McGrath, chief executive of The Cedarwood Trust community organisation in North Shields and vice chairman of Church Action on Poverty, said: “It’s scandalous that people are being denied help when it is available.

“The Government must put funding in place to allow local authorities to address hardship, but it’s equally incumbent on councils to use the money they have to help people and to prevent destitution.

“It’s doubly shocking that in times of austerity, the funds that are there are not being used to reduce the personal crises affecting so many people.

“Local provision in the North-East, as in other parts of the country, is threadbare in places and completely inconsistent. Government and councils should work together to sort this mess out.”

Phillip Edwards, a member of the North East Child Poverty Commission, and strategy and implementation director at the Institute of Local Governance at Durham University, said: "We have moved from an entitlement-based system to one which now increasingly relies on informal provision like charities and food banks.

"There is no consistency across the country – all local authorities have different schemes. Some seem to operate better than others, but it's no longer cash anywhere; people get vouchers or tokens. It's a very different way of treating people."

The Department for Work and Pensions was asked to comment on the findings of the investigation, but did not respond.

A spokeswoman for Northumberland County Council said its scheme sought to address short term needs but also tackle underlying problems, working with wider support networks and services to help people become better equipped to manage in the long-term.

When applicants do not meet the criteria, they are directed to other organisations or services such as food banks, she said.

  • Darlington Borough Council failed to respond to requests for information, but the 11 other councils in the region provided details.

The Northern Echo:

Church Action on Poverty is a social justice charity (UK charity 1079986) dedicated to tackling the root causes of poverty in the UK and to amplifying the voice of people with first-hand experience of the issues.

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Tomorrow: People across the region share their stories of hardship, and we reveal the facts and figures behind this research.