MORE people are ‘massively struggling’ to pay their bills in Wigan as the cost of living crisis continues to wreak havoc on finances.

Wigan Council’s welfare team says it has seen a massive surge in people coming to them for support across the borough. The figure has risen from 70 people a week pre-Covid up to 800 every week at the moment.

The Government has provided Wigan Council with £5,636,469 through the Household Support Fund (HSF) to help those struggling to pay energy, food and water bills. 

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No guarantee of extra funding a cause of concern

That funding is to last between April 2023 and March 2024 but there is no guarantee it will continue – although it has been continued since its inception in 2021.

A large proportion of this goes towards providing free school meals for children through means testing and helping those in council tax arrears, the Confident Council Scrutiny Committee heard.

Those supported by the welfare team are offered cash from the HSF via the council in order to help pay bills and reduce those costs for all – it is not just those in dire straits. The council offers support for budget management and is using a targeted approach to help people before they get in too deep financially.

Statistics show that between April 2022 and March 2023, the number of people accessing the HSF per month has increased from 1,128 to 3,443, while the Local Welfare Support Team processed 3,389 additional awards in April and May 2023, more than double the period in the previous financial year.

Cost of living crisis 'not going away'

Jo Mitchell, Assistant Director Customer Experience and Support, said: “The main focus has been for families with children of all ages, pensioners, unpaid carers, care leavers and disabled people. We want to help with ongoing living costs of high energy, food and water bills.

“We have seen it and that cost of living crisis is not going away. When it comes to food that interest is at 19 per cent. Our residents are massively struggling with those costs. 

“Continuing to adopt the cash first approach which is recognised by many bodies. Cash is the preferred method for most low income families. 

“This allows residents to use the support that works for them. Giving vouchers doesn’t give the families the choice of where to go in the community.”

Wigan Town Hall heard how there is no way to measure how the cash is used, but there is a cap on people using the welfare support. For example, someone could not get cash for bills twice a week without investigation from the support team.

The council chamber was told how there is an increased reliance on food banks and pantries, with an approach of promoting food waste reduction through food pantries something the council was credited for. 

The committee also heard how the council is looking to use Customer Insight data which targets people who could potentially get into financial issues at an earlier stage. The welfare team is currently working on further ways to mitigate in case the HSF is discontinued by the Government.