Thousands of families in north and north-east going hungry after oil price crash

Shock figures show that the number of crisis cash applications from hard-pressed families have more than doubled in the Highlands and the north-east in the last four years.

The official data from the Scottish Welfare Fund was cited as evidence of the “very real hardships” facing a growing number of households across the northern regions.

A local MSP said the North Sea downturn would in part explain the rise in applications in the north-east – which increased by roughly double the Scottish average rate.

And the figures sparked a fresh war of words between Scottish ministers and the UK Government over the impact of controversial welfare reforms.

Since the creation of the Scottish Government fund in April 2013, a total of 275,690 families have received rewards of more than £148million.

The latest figures, published yesterday, show that between July and September last year, councils received 42,760 applications for “crisis grants”, an increase of 3% on the same quarter the previous year.

A total of 29,205 grants were awarded in the period, worth more than £2.27million.

They also reveal that 14% of the applications were due to delays in benefit payments, with the most common reasons for requiring the money being food, essential heating expenses and other living expenses.

When compared to the same quarter in 2013, the statistics show the number of grant applications has risen by above-average levels in many areas.

In the Highlands, requests for emergency financial support soared by 152%, from 405 to 1,020.

There was a 123% increase in Aberdeenshire, from 530 to 1,180, and in Aberdeen City the volume of cash bids has risen from 1,300 to 2,590, a 99% hike.

The number of applications in Moray and the Western Isles have both increased by half to 590 and 45 respectively, while Shetland’s had doubled to 40, and Orkney’s trebled to 15.

Across all of Scotland’s local authorities, there was a 59% rise over the period, with seven council areas actually experiencing a decrease in applications.

North-east Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald said: “I think these figures reflect the real pressures on employment and people’s household incomes in and around Aberdeen, particularly because of the downturn in the oil and gas industry.

“It demonstrates the real challenges that people are facing.”

Citizens Advice Scotland spokesman Rob Gowans said its branches last year gave advice on more than 5,500 issues related to crisis grants – an increase of 9% on the year before.

He added: “Our own analysis of these cases suggests that changes to the benefits system, as well as low pay, insecure work and the rising cost of living are all significant factors in these trends.”

SNP Social Security Minister Jeane Freeman said: “The Scottish Welfare Fund recognises the very real hardships that are being endured everyday by families across Scotland and is a lifeline for those struggling to get by.

“We know the impact the UK Government’s harsh welfare cuts is having on people and have repeatedly warned that the chaotic roll out of Universal Credit, particularly the in-built delay for first payment, is pushing more households into crisis.

“We will continue to do all we can to support hard pressed families and individuals and remain absolutely committed to a welfare system that treats people with respect and dignity.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “It’s misleading to link the Scottish Welfare Fund to benefit delays – the Scottish Government’s own figures show that far more grants were issued for other reasons.

“The vast majority of Universal Credit claimants are paid in full and on time and advance payments and budgeting support is available for anyone who needs extra help.

“Meanwhile, the Scottish Government now has significant welfare powers including flexibility over UC payments.”