The Conservative leader of Derbyshire County Council (DCC) has defended a controversial decision not to renew funding for a specialist advice service for unemployed people.
Councillor Barry Lewis said the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers' Centre (DUWC) 'does not deliver a properly county-wide service'.
Coun Anne Western, leader of the Labour group on DCC, and Chesterfield Labour MP Toby Perkins both raised a number of concerns.
In January, DCC announced its funding for DUWC would not continue after March 31.
This online petition - which has so far been signed by more than 2,000 people - was later started urging DCC to reinstate the £92,000 of funding to DUWC 'so we can continue to provide a benefits advice and tribunal representation service for some of the most disadvantaged people in Derbyshire'.
Coun Barry Lewis: 'We are funding the services people most need'
Coun Lewis said: "The contract comes to an end on March 31. It isn't a 'cut' - they were on a contract that ceases on that date.
"There are many advice services, including the council's own welfare rights team. It is entirely appropriate that when we consider how to best use taxpayers' resources that we look at fairness and equity of those services, which includes ensuring there isn't duplication and that the service is delivered county-wide. DUWC does not deliver a properly county-wide service.
"We still continue to fund and work closely with Citizens Advice and the Derbyshire Law Centre and other related services and we spend about £4million a year on financial inclusion.
"We are funding the services people most need which Labour cut when in power, such as for maintaining our highways and delivering children’s services rather than their political allies."
Coun Anne Western: 'Put up or shut up'
Coun Western said: "DUWC has been commissioned by DCC to work with Citizens Advice and other agencies to support people, most of them with health conditions, at tribunals. This work has been funded from public health budgets. It is somewhat concerning that Coun Lewis appears not to understand that public health funding is ring-fenced by the Government and cannot be spent on road maintenance or anything other than public health activity.
"It is also worrying that he doesn't understand the value of the work DUWC undertakes, bringing much-needed income into the county for the poorest people in our communities, which is then spent in the local economy. In future when the Citizens Advice staff working in GP's surgeries, libraries and elsewhere need to refer someone on for tribunal support, there will be no-one there to refer to. At a time when the much-criticised Universal Credit is being rolled out across Derbyshire, these cuts are callous in the extreme. Coun Lewis uses the excuse that the service is not county-wide - but many community organisations that DCC funds are not county-wide. Are they all at risk?
"As for his jibe about 'political allies', is Coun Lewis inferring that council officers allowed public money to be spent for political purposes? That would be a serious allegation for which he would need to provide evidence and I challenge him to put up or shut up. Conservative politicians such as Mansfield's MP Ben Bradley have found that making untrue claims is both embarrassing and costly."
Toby Perkins MP: 'Running a council the size of Derbyshire is not a game'
Mr Perkins said: "I think the thousands of people who have relied on DUWC for help when they were at their lowest ebb will be disgusted that Coun Lewis so glibly dismisses the widespread concern about the impact of his ceasing funding to them.
"DCC's letter to DUWC claimed that the cut was due to the council having 'a more corporate strategy’. When I asked the council what this new strategy was, they admitted that they hadn't yet got one. So they have decided to cut the service before they have started to think what the replacement might be. This is a shambolic way to run a council and betrays the fact that this cut was a political gesture made without a thought for people on the breadline who rely upon the support of DUWC.
"Benefit cuts have pushed many people across Derbyshire into the hands of loan sharks, on to the streets through homelessness or off to the food banks. Providing support to ensure that where decisions are unfair they can be legally challenged is a vital service that actually gets more money into the north Derbyshire economy. Coun Lewis and his colleagues need to realise that running a council the size of Derbyshire is not a game - this is people’s lives and livelihoods we are talking about. I hope the council urgently reviews this decision and either replaces the funding or puts in place a serious strategy to help people access help."
Coun Lewis responded: "I'd have thought that the priority of the Chesterfield MP would be to spend time speaking to his leader who is betraying the people of north Derbyshire on Brexit."
That comment came after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn backed the UK being in a permanent customs union with the EU in a speech on Monday setting out his approach to Brexit.
Call to continue funding
According to DUWC, thousands of Derbyshire residents use the service, which has offices throughout the county.
Colin Hampton, co-ordinator of DUWC, said: "Many organisations that refer their members and service users to us have been shocked and appalled by the callous decision of the Tory council.
"We have had many generous donations from service users and supporters with over £12,750 donated through the centre's web page.
"We have been truly humbled by the level of support we have received.
"It has put a spring in our step, improved morale and we are more determined than ever to keep going through these difficulties.
"DUWC is calling on the county council to commit to fund the centres past March this year and urge people concerned to write to DCC or contact their local county councillor."