Council urged to speed up payments of the winter fuel support scheme
Anthony Lewis, local democracy reporter
Merthyr Tydfil council has paid £200 winter fuel payments to only around half of less-well-off households that applied – while neighbouring councils have paid nearly all of theirs.
The opposition group on Merthyr Tydfil Council has called on the authority to speed up payments of the fuel support scheme in the area.
Labour said only 44 per cent of applications for the £200 fuel support scheme payments have been paid, although the independent group said it was slightly higher than this.
Under the Welsh Government’s scheme, eligible households can get £200 from their local council to help with crippling increases in fuel costs and applications opened at the end of September 2022.
Labour said that the council is planning to make payments between now and March 2023, despite guidance from the Welsh Government that payments to eligible households should be made in a timely manner.
The opposition Labour group said that the latest figures it had from the council showed that of 7,500 applications received, 3,304 had been paid and Labour has compared this to neighbouring local authorities including RCT and Caerphilly, which have both paid over 95% of applications.
Leader of the Welsh Labour group on the council Councillor Darren Roberts said: “With the cost of energy skyrocketing, many of our residents face a worrying winter. The £200 payment from Welsh Government will be a big help in tackling the Conservative government’s cost-of-living crisis, but it is taking too long for Merthyr Tydfil Council to make the payment.
“This cost-of-living crisis was made in Downing Street and paid for by working people. But the Independent-led Merthyr Tydfil Council are adding to peoples’ worry by dragging their feet in making payments to families in need.
“Neighbouring councils have rightly prioritised paying £200 from their civic centre to peoples’ pockets as quickly as possible with payment rates of 95% to 99% for eligible residents who’ve applied, compared to 44% in Merthyr Tydfil. Why the Independent-led council cannot do the same here in Merthyr Tydfil is simply baffling.
“With each day that passes, residents are suffering. The Independent-led council should stop twiddling their thumbs and ensure payments are made as a matter of urgency.”
Deputy leader of the Welsh labour group on Councillor Clive Jones, added: “The country is in the grips of the worst cost-of-living crises we’ve ever seen.
“It beggars belief that the Independent-led council would even consider making residents wait until March for this essential support from the Welsh Government.
“They must urgently take action to speed up payments. Residents will not forgive them if they don’t.”
The Labour group said it is seeing first-hand the ripple effect that the “poor administration” of Winter Fuel Support Scheme has caused.
It said that residents are reaching out daily for help and are “very frustrated by the lack of urgency” in getting this money out when it is so desperately needed whilst we’re in the midst the biggest cost of living crisis in generations.
But Councillor Geraint Thomas, the independent leader of the council, hit back saying: “Firstly, I would like to say that I am deeply disappointed that members of the Labour group have taken the decision to attack council staff in this way.
“Staff that have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to ensure our residents have received the support they need and are entitled to, and who continue to work additional hours to deliver complex schemes in a timely manner to those that need them.
“The Winter Fuel Support Scheme is being administered by Merthyr Tydfil CBC strictly in accordance with Welsh Government guidance, which states:
“That local authorities open the scheme for applications from the 26 September 2022.
“That payments are provided to eligible households in a timely manner and payments should be made as soon as applications are deemed eligible.
“That authorities make every effort to issue payments to eligible households by the 31 March 2023.
“At Merthyr Tydfil CBC the scheme was opened on 26 September 2022 and since then a dedicated small team of highly competent staff have been working on the applications as quickly as is practicably possible.
“It should be noted that the scheme is being administered in addition to other daily workloads, which means that applications are being assessed both during and outside of normal working hours, with staff working evenings and weekends to ensure payments reach people as soon as possible.
“To date 7,711 applications have been received; 856 applications have been deemed ineligible and 3,985 to be eligible.
“100% of all applications that have been deemed eligible have been paid.
“I would like to reassure residents that all remaining eligible applications will continue to be worked on as quickly as possible.”
Cllr Thomas continued: “The scheme is being administered by staff who’s daily duties involve helping some of the most financially vulnerable residents in Merthyr Tydfil, so they are acutely aware of the need for these payments.
“These are the same staff that, in addition to the above have already processed 23,586 payments (£3.5m) for the £150 Cost of Living Support Scheme; 1,763 payments (£1,101,750) for the Self-isolation Support Scheme; 4,707 payments (£941,400) for the 2021/22 Winter Fuel Support Scheme; and 864 payments (£432,000) for the Unpaid Carers Support Scheme. That’s a total of over 30,000 payments with a value of almost £6m.
“In the last two years those staff have also processed 3,902 payments – an incredible £22,417,500 – in Covid Business Rates grants.
“Comparing Merthyr Tydfil to other local authorities without context is meaningless given the size and resource differences between every one of the 22 Welsh Authorities; and comments such as ‘dragging of feet, twiddling of thumbs, poor administration’ are so far away from the reality of the situation and serve one purpose only; to severely impact staff morale.
“Staff across the authority are working diligently to support all residents through this Cost of Living crisis, not only through administering these very important payments but through partnership working with local businesses and charities to coordinate the packages of support available.
“We have developed a ‘One Stop Shop’ on the council’s website where all the Cost of Living support information can be found in one place, and a Cost of Living special edition of Contact Newspaper will be delivered to all households from 19th December, so that residents will have information on the support that is available to them delivered through their letterboxes.
“It is so important that that we pull together to support our communities over the coming months, so I am disheartened to see that the Labour group has taken this stance rather than get behind our staff to support them.”
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