Vulnerable people struggle to access UK household support fund

Exclusive: £1bn scheme beset by problems, with councils struggling to find workable payment methods

Vulnerable people are struggling to access food vouchers and cash grants introduced under a government scheme to help with the cost of living crisis.

The £1bn household support fund (HSF) has been beset by problems, with councils stuck trying to figure out workable payment methods to help those in acute need of financial support.

Ministers launched the HSF last autumn, initially pledging £500m and instructing local councils to distribute the money among poorer households in order to help with food, clothing and utility costs. The fund was later doubled in May and extended until the end of September.

David, 31, a social worker from Liverpool, is one of a number of people who told the Guardian Community of their experience of applying for the small government cash grants.

In February, David received a £60 grant from his council for gas and electricity in the form of a paper voucher and the instruction to redeem it at a shop with a PayPoint.

“I was unable to cash this in, despite visiting over 10 local PayPoint registered shops, all independent corner shops,” he said. “I was told to come back later, that the manager needed to authorise it, that the ‘system’ was down, I got a wide variety of excuses.

“In the end I threw the voucher away. It was incredibly frustrating.”

Nicola, who lives in the borough of Westminster and is on universal credit due to chronic illness, successfully accessed two HSF grants herself worth £150 each, and has helped various other people from her local constituency of Westminster north navigate what appears to be a Kafkaesque application and redemption process she described as “a nightmare”.

“The government has come up with this convoluted, chaotic system by giving the money to local authorities, which eat into the fund, then individually disseminate the money in different ways as they see fit. It’s a total postcode lottery,” she said.

“In Westminster borough, you have to apply to the Citizens Advice Bureau for household support fund vouchers. During the first cycle, the application process was cumbersome, but you could self-refer and even apply without a national insurance number. By the second round, it had got completely bogged down in administrative hurdles. Now, there isn’t even a form to fill in, you have to phone Citizens Advice or be referred by a food bank or charity.”

Nicola spent hours on the phone calling advice hotlines to apply for cash vouchers she and people from about 20 households she was assisting were entitled to. “You have to jump through so many hoops and you’re exhausting yourself to get these tiny payments because you’re desperate. It took eight or nine weeks to get the vouchers,” she said.

But problems did not stop there. “Westminster borough only issues Sainsbury’s vouchers, which do not help with electricity or gas bills, and you can’t buy infant formula,” she said.

She added: “Then there were lots of cases where Sainsbury’s staff didn’t recognise the vouchers people brought into stores, and some people just don’t have the social capital to argue their case.

“These many layers of bureaucracy – it’s ideological, to make it harder for people.”

A spokesperson for Sainsbury’s said the company was not aware of any customer complaints or issues with its gift cards being redeemed in store.

PayPoint said its network disburses up to 210,000 emergency fund vouchers at a value of £16m a week, and claimed that 97% of participating retailers have successfully processed a redemption payment. The company was however unable to share the overall redemption rate of cash vouchers across its network, saying this was sensitive client information.

“When a council launches a new cash out scheme, all retailers within the area receive an email containing samples of the vouchers and a text message alerting them to an anticipated increase in customers,” the company said, adding that it provides retailers with cash floats and cash safes upon request.

In the “occasional instance” where a retailer refuses to process a payout, the company said, typically due to a lack of funds in store, consumers could visit another PayPoint location at “minimal inconvenience”.

Sign up to First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am BST

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions declined to comment on household support fund vouchers, and referred to local authorities “who are responsible for the distribution of the HSF in their local area”.

Cllr David Boothroyd, Westminster city council’s cabinet member for finance and council reform, said nearly 2,000 local households had been helped with these vouchers since the scheme launched.

“As with any scheme where there has been overwhelming demand, a small number of problems were raised. In most cases these were resolved, and we are working closely with CAB to extend their service,” he added.

“We are not aware of any complaints about Sainsbury’s staff but would be happy to investigate.”


Jedidajah Otte

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Snow warning for south-east England as icy snap likely to trigger cold weather payments
Fuel poverty charity urges government to provide more support for ‘those at greatest peril’

Jamie Grierson

09, Dec, 2022 @3:11 PM

Article image
All families on universal credit should get free school meals, says ex-children’s tsar
Anne Longfield says poverty hasn’t been tackled well enough, as teaching unions in England urge chancellor to expand free meals

Tobi Thomas

31, May, 2022 @7:46 AM

Article image
One in 12 UK children now in families hit by two-child benefit limit
DWP data shows 1.3m children affected by limit as research shows risk of long-lasting harm increasing due to cost of living crisis

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

14, Jul, 2022 @4:16 PM

Article image
Millions will be worse off after below-inflation universal credit rise, say experts
Analysis finds 9 million low income families will be £500 a year poorer on average from April

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

24, Feb, 2022 @12:13 PM

Article image
‘It’s dehumanising, horrible’: the food bank volunteer living on the breadline
Ben says he is ‘fairly privileged’, as for many it is no longer a question of heating or eating because they cannot afford either

Patrick Butler Social affairs editor

26, Feb, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
Two-child policy has made UK families poorer, finds report
Exclusive: research shows benefits cut has barely changed fertility rates and pushed thousands of British families deeper into poverty

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

06, Apr, 2022 @7:50 AM

Article image
‘I’m so overwhelmed’: a cost of living crisis diary from north-east England
A Tyneside mother on turning her life around, strict budgeting – and not having enough food for her children’s friends

As told to Heather Stewart

23, Dec, 2022 @2:00 AM

Article image
Losing energy support will mean ‘fuel poverty for more than 7m’ in UK
A new report calls for targeted help for those who will no longer qualify from changes next spring

Miles Brignall

30, Nov, 2022 @10:00 PM

Article image
1m UK adults ‘go entire day without food’ in cost of living crisis
Study finds one in 10 households report food insecurity while people with serious disabilities five times more at risk

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

07, Feb, 2022 @2:20 PM

Article image
Digitisation of food vouchers for UK families left them hungry and desperate
Analysis: in a botched upgrade the fruit and veg Healthy Start scheme turned away numerous eligible low-income families

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

12, Jun, 2022 @4:25 PM