The Society of St Vincent de Paul is now spending more than the Department of Social Protection on helping people to meet the cost of ‘exceptional needs’, including rent deposits, household appliances, health-related travel costs, funerals and household bills.
The Department of Social Protection’s expenditure on Exceptional Needs Payments has fallen from over €80 million in 2008 to just over €30 million in 2014. Government provided only €29 million for the scheme in 2015. This reduction in expenditure occurred at a time of increasing need, with poverty and deprivation rates increasing significantly between 2008 and 2014. The Society of St Vincent de Paul is now spending in excess of €40 million per annum on direct assistance to households, often helping families with the kinds of items that were previously accessed through the Exceptional Needs Payment (ENP) scheme.
Exceptional Needs Payments are designed to help people on low incomes to meet essential, once-off expenditure which they cannot meet out of their weekly income. The number of these payments being made each year is falling, withjust over 107,000 payments made by the Department of Social Protection in 2014 compared with almost 133,000 in 2013.
The Exceptional Needs Payment scheme is a vital safety net, and for many it is a last resort. One of the strengths of the scheme is that staff administering the payments can use their discretion and knowledge of a household’s circumstances and needs when deciding whether or not an Exceptional Needs Payment should be made.
In spite of this, SVP members on the ground report that it has become more difficult for people in need to access Exceptional Needs Payments. As a result SVP is now helping more people with the cost of furniture, household appliances and travel to hospital appointments. We are also receiving more referrals from professionals like social workers when ENPs are refused. SVP members feel that the Community Welfare Officers (now known as representatives of the Department of Social Protection) would previously have provided help with these items, but due to cutbacks, are less likely to do so. This has resulted in hardship for struggling households, leaving many with no option but to turn to SVP for assistance, to go into debt, or to go without basic essentials.
SVP members are mindful of the pressures that front line staff of the Department of Social Protection are under, particularly when there is a great deal of downward pressure on budgets for demand led schemes such as the ENP scheme. The closure of local offices disbursing ENPs has also been highlighted by SVP members as problematic for some of the people we assist, particularly those in rural areas.
At a time of increasing need and a great deal of pressure on household budgets, SVP is concerned that the reduction in Government spending on Exceptional Needs Payments has been achieved by imposing further hardship on individuals and families on low incomes. SVP would like to see a bigger budget allocated for the Exceptional Needs Payment scheme. This is a demand-led scheme which assists people with exceptional and essential expenses, many of which mirror the issues that people request assistance from SVP with. As such, yearly reductions in its budget allocation will only result in hardship for people on low incomes.
The Social Justice team will continue to raise this issue with the Department of Social Protection so that we can work to protect the safety nets and schemes of last resort that are available to the people we assist.