Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 159 - 179)




  159. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I open the public session of evidence. The Committee this morning is continuing its consideration of the inquiry into the Social Fund. We have something of an innovation, this morning with guests whom we are delighted to welcome from various parts of the United Kingdom. Some have come very long distances to tell us something about their own experience, having been users of the Social Fund. We are particularly grateful that they have been able to do that and we are deeply grateful to Church Action on Poverty for being able to organise that. The Committee has access to all sorts of heavy professional , academic and other policy advice but we sometimes struggle to have access to individuals who have been through the process at first-hand and the experience of such individuals is essential to us if we are to make the most of what we consider to be quite an important report in the course of our work as a departmental Select Committee. So I am delighted to welcome Liz Mackenzie, Catherine von Ruhland, Sally Moxon and Liz Forest. Ladies, we have one or two questions in areas which we would like to investigate with you but it would be very helpful, at the beginning, if you could help us as to what kind of experiences you have had of the Social Fund and what kind of people use it and how it helps them or does not help them. That is what the Committee wants to find out something about in the course of this inquiry. Liz Mackenzie, can I invite you to say a few words about what your experience has been and then perhaps I will ask the rest of your colleagues to do the same.

  (Mrs Mackenzie) My personal experience of the Social Fund has not been a good experience. I had very extreme circumstances that threw me onto benefits. My husband had lost his job to start off with. He had worked for so many years. Then the marriage broke down. I was in part-time work. I could not access any kind of help at all because I was in part-time work. We had to wait 13 weeks before we could access the benefit that my husband first went on because of the circumstances surrounding him losing his job. We had a mortgage. We had all sorts of debt. We had bank loans; we had Provident cheques; we had everything, money lenders. We had to go to these people because we had to wait 26 weeks to access the Social Fund and to access any kind of help with endowments. That has really got us into quite a bit of debt. My husband was quite violent. He had abused myself and my children. I pressed charges and he got a jail sentence. He got the easy option out. I was left with all the debts, all the worry. Again, I had to go back into the system, make a new claim and start afresh, wait 26 weeks before I got any more help. I still had all the debts mounting up. I had to go back to the money lenders and ask for more money. The people that I did go to were not very helpful, putting on a lot of pressure: "You have to pay us. You have to pay us reduced amounts". How could I pay reduced amounts when I was not getting the proper benefit that I should have been getting until this 26-week period came round? It got so bad that my house was repossessed at Christmas time.

  160. You were an owner-occupier?
  (Mrs Mackenzie) Yes, I was an owner-occupier.

  161. Your house was repossessed?
  (Mrs Mackenzie) Yes, the house was repossessed because I could not meet the mortgage requirements. I went along to the bank, explained the circumstances and was told that they would halve the mortgage repayments, put the interest up. But it still was not any help because I was still on benefit. I lost my job through the depression that I was under and the pressure. It was only a part-time job. I was getting £30 a week. But because I was claiming benefit, the benefits were taken back off again and I was only allowed £10 a week, so that just threw me even deeper into debt. It was really bad. The only option for people who are on benefit is to turn to money lenders or to people like Provident. They are always turning up at the door and saying, "Please take this". They are there all the time. You know, they say, "Top it up. You can get more. You can get cash now". There is a lot of pressure put on people who cannot access the help that they need. I could not access the Social Fund. I could not get the things that I needed. To make it worse, when the house was repossessed and I was given a council house, when I tried to get help for that, for removal costs and new carpets, things that I could not survive without help, I was told that I could not get that help because I had to wait the 26 weeks.

  162. What constitutes your household at the moment? Do you have dependent children?
  (Mrs Mackenzie) At that time, I had two children in the house. I have three children. One had been in emergency accommodation because of the situation with her father and we were waiting to go to court. I had two other daughters who stayed with me, one who had special needs and was on disability benefit. It really did not make any difference what the size of the family was. The rules were just that tight that I could not possibly access the help that I needed.

  163. I want to come back and draw some lessons from your experiences and that is a very powerful opening statement. Thank you very much, Liz. The question that we will be asking you to address is how we can change things for the better. But let us move to Catherine and ask her for a short snap-shot of her experience.
  (Miss von Ruhland) My experience is slightly different because I have not been a Social Fund beneficiary but I have had experience of it in the sense of being unable to access it. I was evicted from my home about two years ago and so I applied for housing. I am a single person but I also have a health condition and I was on a low income and I was eligible to be housed. I spent three months in bed and breakfast accommodation in Bayswater and then I was offered a studio flat, where I still live, in Hanworth, West London. I signed a tenancy agreement. I had seen the flat but for some reason, I think my brain just works this way, if it sees something it cannot deal with, it does not deal with it, it just ignores it, and it did not click that there was neither an oven nor a fridge in the kitchen, even though there were great big spaces between the cabinets. I thought they were hidden somewhere. So it was only after I signed the tenancy agreement that I found that these things were not available, which shocked me. Also, for medical reasons, I have to have regular injections which have to be kept in the fridge, so I just could not live there. I had to have a fridge there. So I refused to move in until there was a fridge and I went back to the bed and breakfast accommodation. At that point, also, it was mentioned that if I refused accommodation, I could lose my housing opportunity. But I got the fridge because of my medical condition. I got it for free. I realised then that I could not possibly afford an oven and so I wangled it because I also have diabetes which is not insulin-controlled but controlled by diet so I stretched that and said, "I need good cooking facilities", so an oven was provided. I do not know whether I would have used the Social Fund at that point if it had been offered. I found it quite appalling that those basic amenities were not provided for people on low incomes. But also, I did not have any furniture and at that point, it was suggested that I apply for a Social Fund loan. It just so happened that as I had sent in the forms and everything for Income Support, I was not actually getting anything at that point. It took me nine months to get any money. Fortunately, my parents were very generous and helped me out, otherwise, I would have been penniless. So because I was not getting any income, effectively, I was not eligible for the Social Fund. So what happened was that I was allowed a grant of £80 to select furniture from the local furniture store. I feel that I have been incredibly fortunate. What strikes me is that these things were provided to me free and if they can be provided to me free, then why not for other people in really extreme circumstances because the alternative seems incredibly appalling?

  164. Are you a single person household?
  (Miss von Ruhland) Yes.

Mrs Humble

  165. Who provided the fridge? You said that was provided for you?
  (Miss von Ruhland) I think it was the council. They were the people I dealt with. I phoned up after I signed the tenancy agreement, it was Richmond Council. I said, "There is no fridge". I just pushed the point that I was not going to move in. I do not know. They suddenly provided me with this brand new fridge.


  166. It did not come from the Social Fund?
  (Ms von Ruhland) Not that I am aware of. No, I did not get any money. The thing is, I would have accepted second-hand.

  167. Thank you very much. Sally, could you give us some background as to your experience?
  (Miss Moxon) I am a single person household as well. Like most people, when I came up against the Social Fund, I was in an extreme condition. I have now come up against it twice. The first time, I had signed on unemployed and I did not realise that I was going to have to wait two months for any money to come through. Because my unemployment benefit was delayed two months, my Housing Benefit was delayed two months as well, so that put me in danger of being homeless. Towards the end of that two months, I was starving. I had no money at all. It was only because my animals were beginning to starve as well that I thought, "I must do something". I went up to social services, because I could get no help from the Job Centre. Social services said immediately, "You must have a crisis loan". They phoned the Benefits Agency which administer the Social Fund. The Benefits Agency said immediately no, because I was a single person, I could not have any money as I was not entitled to it.

  168. You had no dependent children in the household?
  (Ms Moxon) No.

  169. You were a single person household?
  (Ms Moxon) The Social Services said, "That is illegal. You cannot refuse money to somebody because they are single. They tried twice more. The answer was still "No". They got on to the welfare helpline. They tried three times that afternoon. I was sitting there; I was starving; and there were these phone calls going on. It did not matter that it was against the law. It was an arbitrary decision. They said "No". Eventually, the welfare helpline said, "This is ridiculous". They tried again and the Benefits Agency said, "Okay, so long as she comes to our offices she can apply in person". That would have meant travelling to the next town, Ipswich. I had no money for fares. At this point, I was told by social services that the Job Centre had travel vouchers. To cut a long story short, I was sent between the Job Centre and social services three times. They Job Centre said that it did not have the travel vouchers. Eventually, these were found at the Job Centre and none of the staff knew about that, except the person at the top. The funny thing about that was that in order to be able to use the travel voucher, the Benefits Agency had to give permission to the Job Centre to issue one and they refused permission.

Dr Naysmith

  170. How long ago was this, roughly? When did it take place?
  (Ms Moxon) The first time was about three or four years ago. That put me very deep into the poverty trap and it takes a long, long time to get out of it. It does not matter how skilled or able you are, when you are in it, it is just so difficult to get out. The second time I came up against them is that I have fairly recently had a note from the Benefits Agency telling me that they have started deducting money from my Jobseeker's Allowance. This happened immediately. I had no chance to appeal against it. They say I owed them £200. I did not. But this harks back to a situation two and a half years previously where I was called into their offices. They said they wanted to make sure that I had all the benefits I was entitled to. It was just so unrealistic. It is a misnomer for, "We have got something on you and we are going to pin you down". So I was called to their offices and this is just to show you how their administration carries on. I was made to wait 20 minutes. I was then called to a numbered office. The office was shut. I had to wait until the lock clunked back. I then went into the office and sat down and there was nobody in there. After a while, somebody entered from the outside, behind a very thick glass screen. At the end of the interrogation, and it was an interrogation, not an interview, I understood why the thick glass screen was there. A very young cock-of-the-walk swanned in, threw himself into a chair and stared at me. The whole process was intended to intimidate. He obviously wanted me to speak first. He kept staring and I stared back and eventually he said, "Who are you?" He then demanded proof of who I was. He then demanded to know what I was doing on a certain date two-and-a-half years ago. Now nobody, under those circumstances, could possibly remember. For about half an hour he shouted, barracked, slammed his hands on the table and he would not say what he was trying to get at. This, again, is part of the whole system. They do not give you information because they do not want you to be able to orientate yourself. Eventually, he admitted that he would find it difficult to remember two-and-a-half years previously. He would not tell me what it was about. It was like something out of Kafka. He then said, "I have evidence that you carried out work for the county council and were paid when you were still claiming benefits", and I said, "I think this has to be expenses because I would not have earned money and not stated that". What actually happened at the time was that I helped the county council with an anti-poverty fair and handled just one part of it for them. I had to co-ordinate an awful lot of people. My telephone bill was paid and my other expenses were paid. But they put it through as a low salary, at a level to cover my expenses because they had previously had trouble with the Benefits Agency in giving expenses to somebody who was claiming benefits.


  171. Is that kind of incident typical of the kind of treatment and ethos that you find in the application process
  (Ms Moxon) Yes, it is very bad. Other people come across this. The whole thing is set up to intimidate and make you feel like nothing.

Dr Naysmith

  172. Was this an interview you were invited to?
  (Ms Moxon) Oh yes.

  173. And it started with the person asking you who you were?
  (Ms Moxon) Yes.

  174. But you had turned up and they had written the letter?
  (Ms Moxon) Yes, and I was also told if I wished to appeal against any decision or against that behaviour, I would have to appeal through that particular person and it was obvious that it would have got absolutely nowhere.


  175. Liz, can you tell us about your experience?
  (Ms Forest) My experience was, my son is 15 years-old. We had left my home through domestic violence. We spent some time in a homeless hostel. We were then given a furnished flat. It was the top flat, 19 storeys up. The lift only goes to 18. We had to walk up a flight of stairs. It is a haven for drug addicts and alcoholics. We were terrified to leave the house. Through this, I suffered ill health. So when the chance came to get another house, it was unfurnished but it was out of there so I took it. I jumped at it. I applied for a grant to the Benefits Agency. I asked for £1,500 because there was nothing in the house. When I left my home, we did not even have any clothes. My husband had a bonfire of everything. I asked for £1,500 to set up a house. I thought that was reasonable for a fridge, cooker. I was told, "You are not entitled to a grant but we will give you a loan", and they gave me a loan of £525. That was all. How is it possible to buy beds for myself and my son, a cooker, a seat to sit on, just bare essentials in the house, for £525? It was impossible. I went round cancer care shops, second-hand shops but even then, we struggled. We moved into the house. But how is it possible that they can justify giving me a loan and then ask you for £7 or £8 a week off your benefit when they are already giving you a very low benefit anyway? The law says, "You must have this level" but then they deduct money for essentials. I think that really, we should change the grant system. They must give you grants for things that are essential and not ask you to pay the money back. People that are in the poverty trap and cannot afford to buy these things, these are big things that you only buy once every 10, 15 or 20 years. It is not every-day things we are asking for. So they should be grants, definitely, and not a loan.

  Chairman: Thank you, that is very helpful.

Mrs Winterton

  176. It has been my experience that people often do not know what benefits are available to them. They are very confused about what grants, benefits and loans are available. I wonder if you could comment briefly on whether you yourselves, or the people that you know, know that they are eligible for grants or loans and how to claim. A couple of you have described the kind of treatment that you have received when being interviewed by the Benefits Agency. Perhaps those who have not commented will tell us whether they found the application forms easy to fill in or was it extremely difficult. How did the Benefits Agency staff deal with you? Sally Moxon has already described how they dealt with her. In fact, how were you treated as people when you applied for the Social Fund? Also, and Sally mentioned this too but the others have not, how far did you have to travel to apply for grants and loans, because, of course, that is quite a difficulty because you have virtually no money? Could you touch very briefly on those issues?
  (Ms Mackenzie) The simple answer to that is no, you are not told. When you go to an office to make a claim, you are under a lot of stress. You are worried about where the next penny is coming from, how you are going to feed your kids. You are so panicky about getting the money. Filling in forms is easy. You tick boxes. You put the form in. It is so easy. But you are still not getting your full entitlement. It may be a long time later before you actually sit down and you have to seek the help. In my own situation, I did not know I was entitled to Disability Living Allowance for my daughter. I did not know I was entitled to carer's allowance. I did not know that that boosted up my benefits.

  177. Nobody gave you that information?
  (Ms Mackenzie) At my interview, when I went along, I told them, "I have a daughter who is ill. She spends most of her life in hospital. She has a serious illness". I told them and I was not given any information about what benefits I should have claimed. I just did not get that information. I was not told what my benefits rights were. It was just, "Fill in the form. We will see about getting your benefit". At first, it was very, very low and I struggled.

  178. Did you have to travel very far to the local offices?
  (Ms Mackenzie) Yes, I did have to travel quite far. It was about three miles which is not far, probably, compared to what some other people have travelled but if you have no money, you are travelling away down. One instance I had, I presented myself at the front desk. I was given a number. I sat in the queue until my number came up. I went to the booth, explained the story again; I was asked to sit; came back; explained again; sat down; went to the cubicle; and then I was told, "There is an emergency payment to see you over the weekend", probably £10, I cannot really remember offhand how much it was but I know it was quite low. Then I had to wait a few weeks before I got any benefit and any benefit was better than no benefit. You do not question. The law says, "This is what you need to live", and you would expect that they would have checked your circumstances and made sure that you are on the right benefit, but that is not done.
  (Ms von Ruhland) I have not received the Social Fund. I do not know where to go for it and also, in a sense, it never crossed my mind before it was mentioned.
  (Ms Forest) I had to travel the same distance as Liz. I found the forms really quite easy to fill in. I do not think that that was too hard. But then again, I think they are very intimidating. You are in a very vulnerable position. You are usually distressed. Usually you are upset and up to here with life. You feel you are always in the wrong. You are very intimidated. They do not come across as real people. They do not accept that your situation is probably the most distressing thing in your life, and yet they are just putting it down on paper. They are very hard-hearted. They just do not consider the people on the other side of the desk.

  179. May I ask two short questions which are really joined together? Why do you believe that grants or loans from the Social Fund are refused and do you believe that the rules which decide who gets grants and loans are applied consistently and fairly? You have almost answered that question but could you perhaps run through that very quickly?
  (Ms Forest) Definitely not. It depends what area you live in or what time of day, whether you get a grant or a loan or how much you get. It is their discretion and it just depends on how good a mood the person is in that you are speaking to. There are no set rules or a set criteria. They do not do that. I mean I got £525. Another person could go to another office with the same story and get the grant. The person will tell you, "You are not entitled to a grant but we will get you this loan. It is very easy". They say, "You can appeal". They always tell you that. But an appeal could take six weeks. I am in a house which does not even have a bed. How can I go for six weeks without anything? I had to be able to buy a cooker. The first thing that is wrong is that it makes the people who are really desperate wait too long. It puts them in an even more desperate situation.

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