Pioneering advice project helps boost low-income household budgets

Two Lothian projects that began with a midwife helping mums improve their nutrition have evolved into a support network ensuring low income families access thousands of pounds of unclaimed entitlements.

The projects in Leith and West Lothian have each had a welfare rights adviser working since March with a team of NHS Lothian, council and voluntary sector workers.

The welfare rights advisers are funded by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) as part of its Tackling Money Worries programme.

In Leith, Granton Information Centre (GIC) has provided money and welfare rights advice to 89 families referred by midwives, health visitors, Dr Bell’s Family Centre, Citadel Youth Centre, nurseries and early years centres, and working with Edinburgh Community Food.

For these families the total financial gain during 2015-16 is projected to be £404,000, or an average of £4,500 per client. The maximum financial gain for one client so far has been £15,000.

This is in addition to the support already provided to the most vulnerable families in the area (who are not included in these figures).

Citizens Advice Bureau West Lothian has been supporting families in West Lothian in a similar project, also funded by SLAB. In that project 250 clients have been referred of whom 58 have gained £300,000, an average of £5,000 per client.

Over half of those accessing support for the first time have been in work, and were not aware of their unclaimed entitlements (e.g. tax credits, benefits) and other help available (e.g. advice about debt, access to hardship funds).

The figures have been released during Challenge Poverty Week 2015 which aims to raise awareness of poverty and to highlight the great work that community organisations are doing to help those in crisis.

Graham Mackenzie, Consultant in Public Health, NHS Lothian, said the success of the advice projects illustrated the importance of the NHS and other services working with welfare rights advisers, and could be repeated in many other parts of the UK.

“This work, which started with a single midwife focusing on ensuring families were claiming food vouchers they were entitled to, has expanded into a sophisticated package of support that we are aiming to offer to hundreds of families over the coming year.

“Poverty has a huge impact on health and wellbeing, including damp housing, hunger, lack of access to healthy food, and stress and depression.

“With hundreds of thousands of pounds secured for families, and more to come, we are taking practical steps to help families tackle the consequences of poverty.”

The Lothian projects were formed following work started with Healthy Start​ food and vitamin vouchers, a UK-wide scheme designed to improve nutrition for low income families. Across the UK around a quarter of eligible families miss out on these valuable vouchers, with the number of pregnant women and children under four years old in receipt of vouchers falling over recent years. In Lothian, however, after concentrated work with NHS Lothian staff and families, the number of pregnant women in receipt of vouchers increased from 294 in March 2014 to 368 in July 2015.

The work started with simple insights from a single midwife about how to make the application process more reliable, and secure vouchers for women earlier in pregnancy.

From 10 weeks of pregnancy to the child’s fourth birthday Healthy Start vouchers are worth up to £899 in total.

With 76 more women benefitting across Lothian as a result, this work has boosted family budgets by tens of thousands of pounds; this in addition to the hundreds of thousands secured through the Tackling Money Worries work. Vouchers can be spent on fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, milk and formula feed. Vitamin vouchers are provided separately.

This work, part of the Scottish Government Early Years Collaborative, provided insights that have now been applied to much greater effect through the Lothian Tackling Money Worries projects by providing families with money and welfare rights advice.