Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2001
140. Could I ask you just one further question;
who actually appoints you, Sir Richard?
(Sir Richard Tilt) The Secretary of State for Social
141. That is interesting, because you are actually
appointed to a job which reviews the activities of the Department
of the person who appointed you; do you consider that there is
a Human Rights Act issue there, under Article 6?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Yes. I am sure there is a human
rights issue there. I think there are quite a lot of other examples
of bodies like ours where that is the case, and people make these
relationships work. But, clearly, it is an issue of principle.
142. Has your Department carried out any sort
of review of the implications of that Act, in relation to your
(Sir Richard Tilt) Yes, we have. The issue of the
precise position of our independence is one part of that, we are
constituted as an independent statutory body, and, as I say, I
think that is respected by the Department, and we can make that
work; but, in principle, there is an issue about independence.
There is also an issue about oral hearings, because all of our
work is dealt with on the papers, now that, of course, brings
speed and efficiency and lower cost, but it does not offer the
opportunity of someone to state their case in front of the Inspector.
143. Are you considering changes?
(Sir Richard Tilt) We have worked up ways in which
we could change that but we are not actively considering changes.
There are some disadvantages, of course, if one went for oral
hearings, it would slow the process down a lot, it would increase
the cost of it quite a bit, it is not necessarily an open and
shut case, I think, but we have done the contingency work; we
could do that, if that became necessary.
Mr Thomas: Can I say, that is a very diplomatic
answer. Thank you very much for struggling with what perhaps is
a difficult issue for you. Thank you.
144. Elaine Kempson has said that the one plus
with the new system is its simplicity. Do you agree with that?
(Sir Richard Tilt) I do agree, broadly, with that,
yes. There are some pluses to the new Budgeting Loans scheme,
which are to do with simplicity, ease of use, AN easier form,
much less intrusive questioning, all of those things are pluses.
But I think that there are some minuses, which I tried to identify,
which are very much to do with the level of indebtedness, the
inability of any of us, I think, to explain to the applicant quite
what is going on and how this system is working, and certainly
we have been critical about the letters that go out to people,
and I know the Department are doing some work to try to put that
right, I hope that will be put right, but it is very dense, some
of the stuff that goes out.
145. Do you think that the system should be
changed to avoid having to put in three separate forms?
(Sir Richard Tilt) I will ask Pauline, in a moment,
because she is familiar with the system before 1999. In principle,
yes, but I guess that once you did that you would end up with
a more complicated form, you might lose some of the advantages
of the Budgeting Loan form, make it more complicated.
146. Can I ask what different information is
necessary in order to be considered for the three different forms?
(Sir Richard Tilt) The Community Care Grant, particularly,
there are five specific qualifying conditions for Community Care
Grant, which have largely to do with either resettling in the
community or remaining in the community, as opposed to going into
residential care, and so there is a lot of information that would
be required to substantiate that, but it is not applicable to
Budgeting Loans, for example. But Pauline might want to comment.
(Ms Adey) Because the qualifying conditions are very
different, the Budgeting Loans scheme is a very simple formulaic
approach to set criteria, how many people are in the family and
how long have you been on benefit, and what is your Social Fund
debt, really, that is the extent of that questioning.
147. So you know all those answers before you
ask the questions?
(Ms Adey) The Community Care Grant form is much more
complicated, it talks all about the sort of community care needs,
health needs, all those sorts of things; and, again, the crisis
loan is about emergency, disaster, what risks to health and safety
exist. So, because the qualifying conditions are very different,
either you have three separate forms, which are simpler, or you
combine it and ask a lot of questions of everyone. So I think
it is swings and roundabouts, really, the simplicity. If you are
targeted at the right type of application then probably the separate
forms are better, if you get the right advice.
148. I certainly do not want to encourage you
to give out any more 31-page forms for things, I think things
are complicated enough. But I think that it really should not
be beyond your wit and wisdom to have one form, or if somebody
applies for a Community Care Grant they would automatically be
considered for the others, without having to fill in another form,
because you have really got plenty of information, if you have
gone for the top tier, have you not?
(Ms Greenshields) That was pretty much the situation
before the scheme changed, and there was a dual application form
for Community Care Grants and Budgeting Loans. There was always
a separate form for crisis loans, and I think there are issues
and advantages and disadvantages both ways. We do sometimes see
the occasional case where the application is for a Budgeting Loan,
and the applicant has volunteered information about the circumstances,
which indicates to us that a grant might be appropriate. But,
given the changes in the legislation, the inspector has no power
to consider a grant, the way things are at the moment. We do not
have any figures on that, it is something we come across occasionally,
when we are dealing with cases.
149. Sir Richard, you say in your written evidence
that you believe that people who apply for Social Fund do not
always get the best advice from your staff. Can you give us some
indication as to what you meant by that?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Yes. That is an issue which I think
is quite long-standing. We get a lot of feedback, from particularly
representative organisations, that applicants are given advice
that does not lead them to ask for an independent review, and
I have had this from Benefits Agency staff as well, who acknowledge
that, but say that they are doing it in a context of just trying
not to raise expectations, trying to say to people, `Well, look,
you're not going to qualify, really it is not worth doing.' Now
our position must be that people must have access to our Independent
Review Service, and one of the things that we have suggested,
I think, is that it might be better if they applied directly to
us rather than through the Benefits Agency. We talked to Mr Thomas
about independence. If there is an issue, it is the extent to
which we are perceived as genuinely independent, and funnelling
everything through the Benefits Agency does not help with that,
150. If these people are all turned away, it
is very difficult for you to review them, where they exist?
(Sir Richard Tilt) I am not, for a moment, suggesting
everybody is turned away, that is not the position, but we do
pick up some anecdotal evidence that Benefits Agency staff sometimes
try to advise people that there is not any prospect in pursuing
their appeal, and therefore it is not worth doing.
151. How do you explain the drop in the applications
for Community Care Grants, from 1.1 million to some 643,000 between
two years; that is interesting, is it not?
(Sir Richard Tilt) It is interesting, I cannot explain
it. I do not know if either of my colleagues can.
(Ms Adey) I think probably the Department of Social
Security might be in a better position to answer that question.
But one of the things that occurred to us, in analysing these
figures, was that the figures used to be counted as dual applications,
the Community Care Grant and Budgeting Loans applications, and
now they are all counted separately, and some of the drop may
be connected with that, but really the Department might be better
equipped to answer that question.
152. I know that my colleagues on the Committee
would share my concern that, if people have not been allowed the
opportunity actually to make an application, that is a denial
of natural justice for those people, and it is a very serious
charge against the Agency?
(Sir Richard Tilt) They are relatively clear about
the terms. I am not saying that people are being denied a chance
to make an application to the Fund; what we have picked up and
what I am reporting is that there is some suggestion that they
are not always advised of their rights about access to our independent
153. How confident are you that people who are
actually given a decision when they apply to the Social Fund,
that the information that they get back actually makes them feel
that they have been properly considered and they feel they understand
the reasons for the decision?
(Sir Richard Tilt) We are critical of the letters
of explanation that go out, and, as I say, I am well aware the
Department have responded to that and are doing some work to try
to improve that situation, and I hope that will yield some good
results. I am perfectly confident that the applicants receive
always the leaflet about our service and the form that they would
need to apply, there is a thing that goes out with the decisions,
I have no problems about that. But I think what does happen sometimes
is that people are told that, "It's not really worth pursuing,
you've already had it reviewed in the Benefits Agency and why
do you want it reviewed again?" kind of thing, and that is
what we must guard against.
154. It is very worrying, it is a change of
culture you are after, is it not, really?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Yes, and it has not come out in
the evidence so far, but we do meet each of the areas around the
country once a year and feed back this sort of information to
them, and, indeed, we feed back any sorts of issues that arise
from the way in which they are operating the scheme as against
the kind of national best practice, national average.
155. In summing up, I was going to ask you about
why you think you have overturned such a high proportion of awards
that were turned down, and also why you see so few people, but
I think you have actually answered that, in your recent answers
to my colleagues. But, given your earlier statement about the
lack of advice that claimants may get from the Benefits Agency,
do you think that claimants who have access to independent advice
are more likely to come to you and then succeed in having a previous
refusal overturned then actually access money?
(Sir Richard Tilt) We have got a little bit of evidence,
we need to do some more work on this, but some 10 to 15 per cent
of the people who come to us have somebody representing them or
helping them with it, and I think, in the last 12 months, or so,
we do think that they have a slightly better prospect of the decision
being changed, when they get to us, I am sure that representation
will help. One of the things though that has not come out is that
we do find, when we are dealing with them at our level, quite
a lot of the changes are made on the basis actually of getting
more information and spending a bit more time, I think. We are
perhaps not under the same kind of pressure that the Benefits
Agency are, we are able to pull together the information that
is necessary to make a decent decision, and I think, sometimes,
some of the early decisions, at the first stage, are made without
all the information that ought to be there.
156. So, to sum up, your opportunity to tell
us in what ways you think that the Social Fund can be improved,
and you have already covered some to do with transparency and
better communication at the Benefits Agency for claimants, but
then, equally, in looking at what sort of information is available
for cases; but would you urge more money into the system, and
in what other ways can it be improved?
(Sir Richard Tilt) I think that you have summarised
most of the points that we would make. I think that there is a
problem in relation to the budget and how that impacts on the
payment of high priority, and there may not be a huge problem,
in money terms, but it is something that gives us concern. We
think it is distorting, we think it is preventing the scheme actually
meeting the objectives it is set out for, that is really what
we are after, is trying to make sure that everybody gets a fair
opportunity and gets their case handled as quickly and reasonably
157. Presumably, it is early days for you, as
an individual, but are you pretty confident that, if you came
to some firm conclusions about recommendations you would like
the Department to take on board, you would get at least a fair
hearing on that? And there may not be reasons for giving you everything
that you would really, really want, but are you confident that
you have got already a listening ear available to you at the Department,
on the areas, the like of which we have been discussing this morning,
that cause you some concern?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Yes; it is early days for me. My
predecessor clearly made the Department aware of many of the issues
that are in the written evidence. We have structures set up for
us to feed back to the Department and to the Benefits Agency and
we use those robustly. I have no concerns about getting a fair
hearing. As to whether things will change, I will tell you in
a little while.
158. Is there anything else that you think that
the Committee should be looking at, in the course of the short
inquiry we have just started?
(Sir Richard Tilt) No. We have offered one or two
things that we will give you, during the course of the evidence.
We would be very happy, if you have other things that you want
some evidence on, or some data, to give you as good a service
as we can, and turn stuff round very quickly for you.
Chairman: That is very kind of you; we appreciate
that very much. And thank you very much for your appearance this
21 See Ev. p40. Back
See Ev. p40. Back