A welfare scheme set up to provide emergency support to families struggling to make ends meet could collapse due to funding problems, a charity has claimed.

Data from Church Action on Poverty shows funding for Southend’s Local Welfare Assistance scheme, which provides help to some of the borough’s poorest families often due to delays and sanctions on benefits, has fallen by 63 per cent in just five years.

The charity says this is causing thousands of people to be pushed further into poverty or forced into using foodbanks and other charities.

It has also found that at least 28 councils have closed the scheme entirely.

Zoey Smith Co-founder of One Love Soup Kitchen in Southend said for some, losing emergency support could leave families living on the streets.

“This would probably prevent homelessness for some people if there were in an emergency situation and it could improve living conditions for others,” she said.

“With Universal Credit becoming widespread it is also all the more important to have this kind of support. It is not a good system and a lot of people who come to the soup kitchen and use foodbanks have said it hasn’t helped them at all.”

She added: “While I have only been working with the homeless since 2017, there is no doubt that there has been a huge, huge increase in poverty in Southend.”

Last month the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, admitted there had been “challenges” with the introduction of the Universal Credit benefits system and it has contributed to an increase in people having “difficulty accessing their money early”.

The current system has been in place since 2013 when the Government told local authorities they would have to create Local Welfare Assistance Schemes to replace a central government fund. This came after the Government had already slashed funding from £330million in 2010 to £178million in 2013.

With councils now having to fund the scheme, Church Action on Poverty found in 2017 that the budget across England is now just £46.6million.

The charity is now urging the Government to make it a statutory duty for councils to ensure they can provide grants, loans and support to people in times of need and they should not have the choice to abolish the scheme. They are also calling on the Government to provide funding.

John Lamb, leader of the council, says: “At Southend, we introduced the essential living fund (ELF) in 2013 to ease exceptional financial pressures on people and families, in direct response to the closure of the crisis loans and community care grants by Government.

“The ELF fund was designed to be flexible and each case is carefully considered on its own merits, in terms of urgency and what is needed, so no two cases are the same.

"The ELF budget for 2019/20 is £225,000 and is funded from within the council budget, as no direct funding for this purpose comes from Government anymore.

"ELF is seen as a necessary service in Southend and we hope to be able to run the scheme for our residents in need for many years to come, from our own council funding.”