Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100
WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2001
100. So, in effect, there is quite a lot of
discretion in the local district as to what is or is not a high
priority, so, effectively, they can say, "We are meeting
the high priority needs," simply by saying that needs which,
objectively, with the best will in the world, might be considered
high priority, in fact, are just redesignated?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Yes; well, it is a discretionary
scheme, and the discretion is operated first at the decision-maker,
then at review within the Benefits Agency and then by ourselves
at the independent stage.
101. Then is the answer simply to put more money
in the scheme, or are there more fundamental problems, that money
would not sort out?
(Sir Richard Tilt) It strikes us, I think, that the
scheme is under great pressure because of the amount of money
that is available, and that some of the problems we are talking
about do derive from just the quantum of the money. It depends
which scheme you are talking about. On the Budgeting Loans front,
we would certainly like to see some changes in relation to the
way existing debt is counted and handled; that seems to us to
rule out quite a lot of people at an early stage.
102. At the risk of asking a very naive question
about your role within the whole structure, when you overturn
a decision, and you are overturning a lot of them, what happens,
does it go back to that district, and do you require them to make
the payment, and, if so, out of what budget, especially if it
is one of these districts that is spent up?
(Sir Richard Tilt) That is a good question. Yes, it
goes back and is paid from the same original budget. But, of course,
although we have given you percentages of the number that we are
overturning, we are only dealing with quite a small percentage
of the total number of cases, so the impact, in budget terms,
will not be huge, I think, from the decisions that we make.
103. If they are spent up, there is not the
money for the local district to pay out?
(Sir Richard Tilt) I understand the point, but it
is not spent up, it is profiled, is it not, there is a kind of
running profile across the year, that people are trying to not
exceed; now the decisions that we make and change will change,
at local level, the position slightly. But it runs across the
whole year, there is a scheme for providing some additional allocations
in year, from time to time. But it is a perfectly right question,
it is very tight.
104. Pauline Adey said that almost anything
could qualify, in theory at least, would that include things like,
say, clothes for a job interview, or maybe for a family wedding,
or something like that?
(Ms Adey) Certainly, clothing may qualify; clothing
would be unlikely to qualify simply for a job interview, it would
depend on the nature, extent and urgency of the need for the Community
105. And who would decide? It is obvious that
one could end up with a situation where someone has come out of
prison, or been a drug addict who has been rehabilitated, and
so on. For that person, it might be very, very important, but
not for everyone. Who exercises the discretion, in that instance?
(Ms Adey) Discretion starts, certainly in Community
Care Grants, at the first line, when the person presents themselves
at the local Benefits Agency and makes an application, so the
decision-maker will use discretion to decide that case, from the
off. What I would say is though, that there is a series of hurdles,
if you like, eligibility and qualification, that the person would
have to get through first. So if someone presented, for example,
and just said, "I want a suit to go to a wedding," there
would have to be particularly unusual circumstances for that to
qualify for a Community Care Grant, because the Secretary of State's
direction that sets out the rules for a Community Care Grant is
quite stringent, and it is unlikely that that kind of need would
even pass the qualifying hurdle. And it is only when they pass
the qualifying hurdle that they then can compete for the money.
Really, that is where the budget starts to come into the equation.
106. So, in practice, although in theory anything
can qualify, there is a series of hurdles, which mean that that
is not true, and especially in a limited fund and a capped fund?
(Ms Adey) Given that the Fund is attempting to meet
Community Care needs, it is possible that someone would have a
need for something, for example, a television set, if they are
housebound and they are disabled and ill, it might be very important
for them, but for a fit, healthy individual it would not have
the same kind of meaning. So that is what I meant by flexibility;
in theory, it could meet those needs.
107. Just looking a little bit more at your
role here, presumably, one would see this as a sort of national
benchmark, and that you are all operatingpresumably, you
talk amongst yourselves about where things are going, and so forth?
(Sir Richard Tilt) The Independent Review Service
is one service, based in Birmingham, and one of the key bits of
my role is to try to encourage consistency and provide advice
to the inspectors who are working to achieve that end.
108. Is that advice fed back out to the districts,
so that they know where you are coming from; presumably, there
is no sort of record, or are there formal reports of your decisions
that are promulgated?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Individual decisions, of course,
go back to the district where they are made, but we publish, three
or four times a year, a digest of decisions and best practice
advice, if you like, so that people are well aware of the trend
of decisions that we are making.
109. But are they generally available? We have,
through the National Insurance Commission, found similar information
locked in a basement with "The Way of the Tiger" written
on the Door?
(Sir Richard Tilt) It depends whom you mean they are
available to. They are certainly available to social security
and Benefits Agency staff, and seem to be well received by them.
110. Can they be seen by claimants?
(Sir Richard Tilt) No.
(Ms Greenshields) We do actually send them to every
Benefits Agency office in the country.
111. But they are not available to claimants?
(Sir Richard Tilt) We send them to local rights organisations.
No, there is not a great stack of them waiting for claimants to
(Ms Adey) We issue around 5,000 of those digests each
issue; we do that three or four times a year, and they go in equal
measure to the DSS side and to the applicants' advisers, but we
do not send them habitually to individual applicants.
112. Is there a geographical trend to the cases
that you uphold that is linked to the budgets of the districts
concerned. For example, the 16 that have run out of money, are
you going to be turning over decisions there much more frequently,
for example, than in districts where they are not quite so strapped?
(Ms Adey) There is a link, but, in actual fact, the
link is probably the opposite of the one you are suggesting. Where
the districts are presenting evidence that they are in dire straits
with their budget, the inspector has to take that into account,
that is part of the decision-making process, in every case. So
the inspector is more likely to confirm the decision from the
district which has been very honest and open about the level they
are meeting. Where we are overturning decisions, and it is one
of the reasons that explains the high substitution rate, is where
districts are saying they are meeting all of their high priorities
and their evidence supports that, but in reality they are not
meeting all their high priorities. When the case gets to the inspector,
the inspector will go on the evidence, and invariably pay the
high priorities. So those are the ones that are getting overturned.
Mr Dismore: So, effectively, you are institutionalising
the postcode lottery?
113. You are reinforcing it?
(Sir Richard Tilt) In those ways, yes.
114. You are reinforcing the postcode lottery,
because there is no sort of central pool of money that you can
refer people to, and say, `Well, they've run out of money, it's
not fair;' so you can have two applicants, with exactly the same
case, from different parts of the country, one will get the money
and one will not?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Yes, that is possible.
(Ms Adey) What I would say is that it is very rare
to get exactly the same case.
115. That is just as well; surely, that is contrary
to natural justice?
(Sir Richard Tilt) I think it is set within the scheme
that allows for those differential budgets to be set across the
116. Are you saying to me that that is set out
in regulations, that that loop that you have just described is
clearly set out and established in regulations?
(Sir Richard Tilt) That is my understanding, yes.
(Ms Adey) The structure that the law allows is that
the Secretary of State allocates budgets to districts, it is not
one national budget, the Secretary of State carves up the cake,
and the money is allocated to the individual districts; and there
are then responsibilities on the area decision-maker to give advice
as to the level of need that can be met in that area. So, in terms
of allocating the money, the districts cannot reallocate the money,
even if they find that district A is better off than district
117. So you cannot vire from one district to
(Ms Adey) The districts cannot do that, no.
118. The Secretary of State can?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Yes.
119. So what that would mean, presumably, is,
if one district had been making its decisions on the basis that
it was going to be short of cash by the end of the year, and another
district was making decisions on the basis that it was going to
be alright at the end of the year, then halfway through the year
there is a levelling-up process, all the decisions made in the
generous district earlier on could have been made differently
if it had been at the other half of the year?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Yes, I think that is fair. It does
lead to inconsistencies, that is one of the points that we are
18 See Ev. p40. Back