Charity for social workers in need struggling to meet demand as cost of living crisis bites

Social Workers' Benevolent Trust already forced to restrict maximum grant to practitioners as BASW members say they fear they will struggle to pay bills.

Photo: Fotolia/3D_Generator

The UK’s only charity providing grants to social workers in financial distress is struggling to meet a spike in applications due to the cost of living crisis.

The Social Workers’ Benevolent Trust (SWBT) has had to lower its maximum grant from £500 to £450 due to limited resources and rising demand, and fears having to further restrict support.

“We haven’t said no yet,” said co-chair Susan Roxburgh. “But we’re very worried that we may well have to be tougher in all ways.”

Her warnings come as a survey by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW)’s Professional Social Work magazine found that 43% of social workers feared struggling to pay their bills this winter (see box).

Record number of applications

From October 2019 to September 2020 and the same period in 2020-21, which covered the Covid lockdowns, SWBT received 196 and 174 applications, respectively. However, it has already received 246 applications in 2021-22, with one month still to go.

The charity gave out £72,930 in grants in 2020-21, approving 160 of 174 applications, but is on course to spend over £100,000 in 2021-22. Applicants must be qualified social workers, not have received a SWBT grant in the previous year and be in financial hardship, which includes consideration of whether they have any savings or their income is greater than their outgoings.

In 2020-21, three-quarters of applications referenced debts.

Struggles with debt

One social worker, Noel, had his hours reduced during lockdown and subsequently came down with long Covid while faced with a high rent that did not include electricity bills.

With his savings completely gone and his outgoings higher than his income, the trust awarded him a grant to help with his debts.

Another practitioner, Barbara, had to reduce her hours to cope with her disability. During the same period, her husband, Bob, also disabled, was left unable to work due to an operation.

The couple quickly fell into debt with their rent and utilities. Barbara applied to the SWBT to help ease their debt, and fund repairs to the couple’s car, so once Bob was recovered he could return to work.

Though the charity awarded Barbara its maximum grant, Roxburgh said: “The trust is unable to meet the worrying amount of debt accrued in examples such as this and many others.

Social workers expect to use food banks

Professional Social Work’s survey, answered by 242 BASW members, found that 20% were expecting to use a food bank soon, while 9% already had.

“To hear of social workers being forced to use food banks shows how deeply poverty and governmental neglect has penetrated,” said chief executive Ruth Allen, who wrote to new prime minister Liz Truss to highlight the urgency of the situation.

The survey results were released before Truss announced the government’s package to support households and businesses with spiraling energy bills today.

John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, added: “Many social workers are already advising that there is just not enough in the ‘money pot’ to heat their homes and pay mortgages, which is totally unacceptable.”

Social workers also raised serious concerns about the risks to vulnerable adults and children from the crisis, echoing the results of a recent Community Care survey of practitioners.

The PSW research found that:

  • 95% strongly agreed that vulnerable people may die this winter due to the crisis
  • 95% strongly agreed that domestic violence would increase.
  • 75% strongly agreed that more children would come into care.
  • 55% strongly agreed that caseloads would become unmanageable.

“This winter thousands of children and adults will be cold in their own homes and that simply is not acceptable in 2022,” added McGowan. “The time for talking is over. We need real action from government.”

SWBT’s council of trustees meets six times a year to consider and approve grants.

“We try to make a difference by what we give,” said Roxburgh. “And so sometimes we see that we could pay, for example, some rent to stop the person being made homeless. Or, we might see that they’ve got a credit card debt that, if they reduced it, would stop any further action being taken against them for that period of time.”

“We may have to be tougher in all ways”

Su Roxburgh, SWBT

Pictured: Su Roxburgh, co-chair of the Social Workers Benevolent Trust (SWBT) / Credit: SWBT

Despite lowering the maximum grant to £450, SWBT continues to receive applications requesting amounts from £2,000 to £10,000, said Roxburgh

Currently, whenever it cannot provide financial aid itself, SWBT offers financial advice and redirects social workers to other potential sources of assistance listed on its website.

“An example is a woman who went to live in Spain and became seriously ill,” said Roxburgh. “She couldn’t get the treatment in Spain that she could have gotten back here, so her friends were trying to repatriate her.

“We couldn’t provide the money she required, but there is a repatriation scheme that we found for her.”

However, in some cases, social workers have reapplied to SWBT without taking the financial advice initially provided. Up until now, the charity has considered such repeat applications if the situation was dire, but it may not in future if the social worker hasn’t sought alternative assistance.

“We don’t like saying things like this, but we might have to say, ‘until you’ve sought this advice, we can’t help’,” added Roxburgh. “We haven’t made that decision yet as a charity, but I can see us maybe needing to go down that road.”

To avoid such measures, the charity, set up in 1971 with BASW’s help, has put out an urgent call for donors.

Currently, SWBT is funded through investments in shares, BASW, through which it receives £3 from each member’s annual subscription, and through individual donors.

Addressing potential donors, Roxburgh said: “The message I’d like to get across is these are your colleagues, your friends, social workers, just like you, who are suffering financial hardship. And we need you to help them.”

If you are affected by the cost of living crisis, SWBT’s contact details are available on their website.

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