THE WIDOW of a civil engineer, Mrs Philomena Leach, is settling in the new house given to her by the ICE.
Leach applied to the ICE's Benevolent Fund because she wanted to move back to the UK to be near her family after living in South Africa where her late husband John worked before he died of cancer.
Having shown NCE around her cheerfully furnished home at the Benevolent Fund's estate at Haywards Heath, she says: 'I lived in South Africa for such a long time, but it was becoming more dangerous. It's also nice to have family and friends to visit. Without this place I wouldn't have been able to come back to live in the UK because of the poor exchange rate.'
Leach dismisses the idea that she has accepted charity. Gesturing towards the Benevolent Fund's picturesque estate of 17 houses and 16 flats, established in 1938, she says: 'I feel like this is partly my estate.
'When my husband paid his subscription he always used to throw some extra into the pot, saying we might need it one day.'
Leach was one of 254 people helped last year by £300,000 of grants from the £13M fund, most of which is tied up in secure investments.
Administrative secretary Linda McCarthy, who runs the fund, is sending out an upbeat message. The fund, she says, is in an excellent state after a series of large bequests, and the Institution is ready to help more civil engineers and their dependants who sometimes run into financial trouble, especially those working overseas.
She says: 'A lot of expat ICE members find difficulty when they retire. Inflation has been known to rocket in certain countries and they can suddenly find their pensions are worthless and no money is left. We have some beneficiaries who have no income other than our grant.'
Some engineers and their dependents contact the fund in need of a lifeline; in other cases the fund contacts the engineer. When the ICE's membership department phoned errant members who had not renewed their subscriptions this year, the financial difficulties of some civil engineers came to light and the Benevolent Fund wrote to them.
McCarthy says: 'The Institution sent letters asking why members hadn't paid their subscription and found out that a lot of them had fallen on hard times.
We write to members saying: 'We understand you are having problems: can we help you out'? We are here, and we are ready to help more people but we need to find them. If members know of anyone who is struggling, ill or redundant, give us a call and we will drop them a line.'
The fund will not materially help people who have not first explored state benefits. But McCarthy, an expert on DSS issues, runs an unofficial information and advice service along with deputy secretary Janet Cowley. Much of their time is spent on the telephone telling engineers and their families about benefits such as the one-off £1,000 DSS payment to help cover the cost of a funeral, or the Council Tax rebate if you suddenly becoming a single occupant of your house.
'The DSS is not obstructive but it often does not give people enough information,' says McCarthy. 'We're not licensed to give financial advice but we can point people in the right direction.'
She recently noticed a mistake in the calculation of a member's incapacity benefit and helped to recover £3,000 that was owing.
Her knowledge of the UK benefit system extends overseas. She says: 'I recently helped a widow in Zimbabwe with no income at all following her husband's death. We told her that she was entitled to have a state pension sent out to her as the wife of a UK subject.'
McCarthy helped trace the woman's birth certificate in South Africa, which was needed to confirm the pension.
McCarthy has also helped civil engineers' widows unable to obtain their husband's money. 'It's surprising how often the wife can't actually get to the money. In some cases it may have been put into offshore accounts for tax purposes. Once the money is traced it can then be difficult for the wives to gain power of attorney, and they have to survive on no income through this period.'