NEW figures show the number of people applying for emergency welfare assistance in Wirral has dropped significantly since the town hall became responsible for its administration.

A high-level report to council cabinet this week admits the reduction is “not easy to explain” but states a switch from cash payments to vouchers may be partly behind it.

The review gives an update on the impact of Government benefit reforms which last year abolished “crisis loans” and replaced them with discretionary “Local Welfare Assistance.”

Administration of emergency welfare switched from the Department of Works of Pensions to the local authority last April, and in the first nine months Wirral received around 5,550 applications for support.

This is compared to more than 12,880 to the DWP for the same period in 2011.

Data for 2012 is not available, but by the end of February this year the number had risen to 7,308 - still far lower than had been anticipated, although the monthly sum given out has increased from around £4,000 to £24,000.

And at the same time there has been a "massive" increase in demand for food bank vouchers.

Wirral was provided with £1,345,925 to fund emergency awards, but has only spent £561,913 so far.

The report, by the council’s head of business processes, says: “This significant reduction in numbers of applications is not easy to explain, given the increasingly difficult economic situation and the impact of the welfare reforms.

“It is evident that a non-cash system has proven to be not as attractive to a number of previous applicants, alongside the more robust checking and verification process the authority undertakes that better identifies real need as well as alternative options.”

The document says many people still may be unaware they can claim emergency help after the new procedure’s “low-key” launch.

It states there have been very few applications from older people “who may be struggling financially but are unaware of the scheme.”

The majority of applications are from people out of work “while we know many low-paid employees also find it difficult to make financial ends meet.”

The cash-strapped council will soon face a difficult decision as grant funding for the local welfare scheme is only guaranteed until 2015.

Town halls will be under no legal obligation to proceed with it beyond that date, and the Government says they can choose to divert the money into other corporate projects.

The ruling cabinet will be asked to decide whether it wishes to set up its own emergency welfare system and if so, how it will pay for it.

Council leader Cllr Phil Davies said: “I am very, very sympathetic to the idea of setting up our own scheme in some form or another.

“We’re looking at the option of a credit union, which could be a much better way of helping people in need.

“The Government will end the emergency funding next year, which is extremely reckless. They’re cutting the safety net from under some of our most vulnerable people.

“The obvious consequence of that is it will push them into the hands of the loan sharks.”