Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 88 - 99)




  88. Ladies and gentlemen, can we welcome Sir Richard Tilt, who is the Social Fund Commissioner, of only two months' standing, fresh and new to the fray; you are very welcome. Together with and supported by, this morning, Pauline Adey, who is the Independent Review Service Manager, and Ann Greenshields, who is the Aide to the Social Fund Commissioner. Sir Richard, perhaps you would like to make just a very brief opening statement, just to set the context, and then we have got some areas of questioning that we would like to pursue?

  (Sir Richard Tilt) Thank you very much indeed. Yes, we are very grateful for the opportunity to give oral evidence, and my two colleagues, I should say, are both experienced Social Fund inspectors, in their own right, apart from the jobs that they do now. In the written evidence, we have explained the role of the Independent Review Service and the sort of work that we are doing, and I am not going to go over all of that, you can ask us questions if you want to. What we have to say is very much rooted in our experience of handling cases which are coming to us for review. We operate within the ambit of the Social Fund. We are here, I think, to try to make sure that the objectives of the Social Fund for supporting the poorest members of society, providing some financial flexibility through the Budgeting Loans scheme, to make sure that those kinds of objectives are met as closely as possible. And you will see, from our written evidence, that we have concerns in some areas that the Social Fund could operate better if some of those things were changed and put right, and that is very much the sort of thrust of our evidence. So supporting overall Government objectives, but believing that the scheme could do better than it is doing at the moment. In terms of the new Budgeting Loans scheme, to recognise some of the things that have been said already, about improved access, easier forms to fill in, less intrusive questioning, all of those things are clear advantages of the new Budgeting Loans scheme. But against that there are some disadvantages, in terms of a perceived reduction in the amount of discretion that is there, an inability to assess urgency and immediate need, and some rather poor communication to applicants of the reasons for refusal. We support very much the comments that have been made about the `double the debt' issue, which you will be very familiar with. And what we think we are seeing is an effect on our workload with a shift towards review applicants coming on Community Care Grants and crisis loans, and a much smaller workload for us on Budgeting Loans, because I think people have picked up that there is really not a lot of discretion to be exercised at our level on the Budgeting Loans scheme. You will put questions to us. I end with just two caveats. Obviously, we see one end of the system, we deal with 30,000 cases a year, that is only 1 per cent, or less than 1 per cent, of the total, and they are, of course, people who are aggrieved. Nonetheless, we think that is a substantial piece of evidence on which to base the sorts of comments that we are making. And, secondly, you alluded to the fact, of course, that I am new in my appointment, so my comments are based very much on first impressions and to identifying some things that give me concern and that we want to be looking at over this coming year.

  Chairman: Of course. Thank you, that is very helpful.

Mr Dismore

  89. Can I start with a question on statistics. I am going to talk about Community Care Grants, in particular. There seems to be a significant variation between the last financial year and the April to December figures for 2000; is there a reason for that?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) We do not know for certain what the reason is yet. We are conscious of that change, and I just alluded to it a moment ago. We think people are probably turning to Community Care Grants a little more than they were, we are certainly conscious, from some of the casework decisions that we see, that there has been, because of the cap, the cash-limiting, there are a number of decisions where we think the decision on priority has not been made correctly, and so we are changing, I think, an increasing number of those decisions, because we are going back to the basics and saying, "This person does qualify, and they are high priority."
  (Ms Adey) Certainly, we are seeing a higher proportion of the applications rejected at the review stage in the Benefits Agency; this year, so far, we have seen almost 34 per cent of those cases that are rejected at that review stage. And we do think this is playing into this equation, but we are not yet certain of all the things, and the Commissioner has raised that as one of his early concerns. So we will be looking at it.

  90. In 1999/2000, you were confirming about two-thirds of the awards, and now you are confirming rather less than half, so that does seem a significant difference?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) We are well aware of that, but at this stage I think it is largely conjecture as to what is the reason for that, and I have suggested some of the possible reasons for it; a similar pattern on crisis loans as well.

  91. But that was particularly with reference to Community Care Grants. Sticking with Community Care Grants, most people have been refused because they were not eligible or because their needs were considered not to be of sufficient priority. To what extent do you think the figures conceal the role of local budgets in actually making the decisions?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Our impression, from the casework we see, is that clearly there are cases where, at local level, on CCG, people have not been put through Direction Four in the way that we think they should be, and we cannot prove that, but we suspect that that has to do with the pressures on local Social Fund managers and the budget, and those, of course, are a lot of the decisions that we are changing. There is a similar problem on high and medium priority, and the use of this term, in some parts of the country, of paying only the highest of the high, which, again, we do not recognise, and if something is high priority then we say that it should be paid.[16]

  92. You have identified 16 Benefits Agency districts where, effectively, they have run out of money, not to put too fine a point on it. Which are they?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) I cannot tell you off the top of my head, I am sure we can let you have the information that we have got. I think the number has actually risen slightly since we prepared the information; but we can certainly let you have the detail of it, but I could not tell you off the top of my head.[17]

Ms Buck

  93. Do you know what the characteristics of the areas are, are they inner cities, are they rural areas?
  (Ms Adey) Not necessarily.

  94. There is no pattern, in terms of the characteristics?
  (Ms Adey) No.

Mr Dismore

  95. What does that actually mean, in practice, for the people who live in those areas?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) It means that you are not getting consistency across the country, which it seems to me should be one of the objectives of the scheme, and, certainly, from our point of view, is one of the things we would want to support and try to spread, which is why we raise it.

  96. So you have got a postcode lottery as to whether you get the money or not, apart from the eligibility criterion?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Yes; and, as I think you are aware, those priorities can also shift in the year as well, so they can go up and down. There are a tiny number of districts that are paying any medium priority, there are just a handful, but that is very small indeed.

  97. The other ones say that they can meet all the high priority cases, but you are somewhat sceptical about that?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) I think the problem that we have identified, in some cases, is that this is exercising pressure on the decision-maker which will lead them to come to a wrong conclusion on Direction Four, particularly, in relation to Community Care Grants; nobody checks those.

  98. What types of needs classed as medium and low priority are not being met, effectively? I think what you are saying is, if they have medium or low priority they are not going to get the money, virtually anywhere?
  (Ms Greenshields) That is absolutely true, yes.

  99. What sort of needs are those?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Do you want to give some examples?
  (Ms Adey) They are not linked to items, so it is not a need such as a cooker or a bed. The Secretary of State gives guidance to decision-makers to marshall these needs into high, medium and low priorities, and, by and large, that is done by way of the extent to which they will meet the intention of the Community Care Grant. So you have a qualifying condition and then the priority is linked to the degree and extent to which it will meet that condition. So, in theory, at least, any item could be paid as a Community Care Grant; in practice, it is very often still only the top few items, cookers and beds, and, where budget pressures exist, often reduced items, such as mini-cookers and those sorts of things, so that usually is delineated in the districts.
  (Sir Richard Tilt) I think, fridges are quite often excluded or put into medium priority; some elements of clothing, that one might have thought were quite high priority, sometimes get pushed into medium priority.

16   See Ev. p39. Back

17   See Ev. pp39 and 40. Back

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