Words: Richard Beecham, local democracy reporter
A fierce debate took place between councillors over the reasons for people suffering from poverty or mental health issues buying alcohol.
Coun Ann Blackburn (Green, Farnley & Wortley) told the committee that the council should be careful when handing over cash to those suffering from financial problems, warning some people may turn to drink.
She was met with a fierce response from Coun Kayleigh Brooks (Lab, Little London & Woodhouse) who said many people on the brink of suicide who were not able to get proper support, often see alcohol as a lifeline.
The comments were made when the council’s Environment Scrutiny Board was discussing plans to reform the authority’s Local Welfare Support Scheme, which offers those in an emergency short-term support such as food hampers/vouchers, fuel vouchers, white goods, furniture and flooring.
A report into the issue outlined that a pilot scheme for cash grants was started by the service last month.
Coun Ann Blackburn said:
“I would ask that when we refer people to outside groups to try and help them get the problem sorted out, that we do ask that group to report back to the council how it’s gone on and if, in fact, it has helped them.
“About giving people cash, you just have to be careful with this. I am not saying that everybody is going to rush out and go to the local off-licence or shop, but where we can provide cards or something else, then at least we know that the money goes where it’s supposed to go.
“I don’t want to say ‘everybody’s this, everybody’s that’, because they’re not, but I know in some of my local shops that a lot of people go in and are buying drink. Whether it’s necessary or not, I don’t know.
“When we provide things, we should make sure it goes to where it is supposed to be for. If we can help people to then move on.
“There needs to be a case there where we need to see if we can help people move on from there, if it becomes an ongoing issue – we need to get reports back from where they have been referred to see if it has helped them.”
Coun Kayleigh Brooks (Lab) asked: “You don’t understand why people buy drink?”
Coun Blackburn responded that Coun Brooks had misunderstood her comment and that she understood pressures people were under.
Coun Brooks continued: “It is necessary for people to buy drink if it means they are not going to hang themselves, if they are not able to access support.
“This is what we are trying to sort out, isn’t it? So don’t judge people who are in difficult positions.”
Coun Blackburn later said: “What I want to know is when people go into the scheme, has it benefited them? We want to know has it benefited them and would they have been better being referred to another group out there?
“We need to use the right people and, if not, we need to refer elsewhere.”
Council officers have called for a review into the service, and warned some are in such financial hardship that they are asking for help multiple times.
The report states: “The scheme, in its current form, requires improvement as the short-term support provided to customers in financial crisis often results in customers re-presenting for further support.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has put further pressures on low-income households and the most vulnerable in our society and has also pushed many more households into financial uncertainty, hardship, to seek support and advice, and to claim benefits.
“A review of the scheme is needed in order to provide better support to customers in-need over the short, medium and long-term and to ultimately reduce dependency on local welfare support across the city, whether through Leeds City Council, our partner advice services or third sector organisations.”
It added that demand for help from the scheme was likely to increase in the coming months due to the end of furlough, the removal of the Universal Credit uplift and rising costs of energy.