Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



Ms Buck

  180. Just starting with the points that you made very powerfully about the way you felt you were treated by staff. Do you feel that some of that is coming from a perception that people who are applying are, almost by definition, fraudulent?
  (Ms Mackenzie) Definitely, definitely. I feel very degraded by the system.
  (Ms von Ruhland) On one occasion, I inadvertently swore and I was picked up for doing that and I was told, "We do not deal with people who are going to get aggressive", or whatever. I said, "If you were on this side of the glass, you would understand why people swear. You have no idea about the way we are treated".

  181. Why do you think that is?
  (Ms Mackenzie) My daughter is applying now for the same reasons. She has fled a domestic incident. She was put before officials who get angry with her. She has a four month-old baby. Imagine having a baby when you are living on benefit. It is degrading. She was told that she could not access the Social Fund for the same reasons that I was told; that she had to wait those 26 weeks. She was also informed by letter that even if they gave her a Social Fund loan, she could not meet the repayments. She is now going down the same road that I went down. She has been to Provident or Greenleys. They are encouraging her.

  182. I am interested to know if you think there is a lot of fraud?
  (Ms Mackenzie) No. I think if there is any fraud, I would want to know why. Do people have to defraud the system? Is it because of them not getting enough anyway to start off?
  (Ms von Ruhland) Even if you are an honest person, you find yourself in a situation where you are forced to be dishonest because you are so hard-up. I had a strange situation because I was waiting nine months to get any Income Support because the forms were lost and they would not admit that they had lost them. Effectively, I did not count and I had to get drugs. So I would go along to the chemist for a prescription and would tick the Income Support box because I could not afford those drugs. I knew, at the time, that I was defrauding the Government. Now, you have to show your book but fortunately, it was before that. I could just squeeze through the gap in that legislation at that point. So they would give me the drugs. I would say, "I am sorry, I have not got any proof", and they would say, "Bring it next time", so they would give me the drugs but I knew I was defrauding the Government. I was put in that awful situation. I mentioned it to my doctors and they said, "Well, with your condition, it would make a great news story". That was the situation. I was effectively stealing those drugs but I needed them.

  183. Listening to you, I also get a very strong sense that you felt very much out on your own when you were doing this. Did none of you use or know about Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Family Services Unit, domestic violence support? Were they not there or were they not available to you?
  (Ms Mackenzie) Perhaps in the domestic violence situation, my situation was quite difficult because it was not just domestic violence. It was child abuse, which brought in a lot of legal professionals and nobody could help me in the circumstances I was placed under because I was a home-owner and I was in part-time employment. So it fell through. It meant that I lost my job because of the pressure and strain. I was on very low income. Because I was on low income, somebody would look at my case individually. With domestic violence, if it is a Friday night, you have had it. It is a free-phone number but you cannot access any help over the weekend. When you are faced with a situation at ten, eleven or twelve o'clock at night, there is nobody you can turn to. There is no voice at the end of the number; it is an answering machine. It is very impersonal. The help is not there.
  (Ms Moxon) Because of the culture of non-information, particularly from the Benefits Agency and the Job Centre, you are actually cheated, if you like, from the other side of the desk because you are in a desperate situation and simply unable to find out about these things. You have a lot of other rubble dropping on you at the same time. I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau to try and get the Housing Benefit situation sorted out. I was told, "You must be nice and polite to these people because if you antagonise them, the situation will get even worse". When you are desperate, you do not want to hear that. You want to fight and you want someone to fight for you. I actually found out that the local council had been cheating people as far as Housing Benefit and the payment of it was concerned for the previous 10 years. That was considered quite acceptable because when you are in this situation, you are nothing.

  184. You said that you asked for £1,500. Were you given proper reasons for that refusal?
  (Ms Forest) No, just that you are not entitled to it.

  185. Did you ask for that to be explained further or were you punch-drunk?
  (Ms Forest) I was punch drunk. I was in a dire situation. I was not able to think properly. It was not for luxuries. It was to have a bed or a cooker.

  186. But would you say that the whole process was one based on your rights? Did it start with someone explaining what your rights were or the position in relation to a review?
  (Ms Mackenzie) I do not think I was fully informed what my rights were, no, and I think it was only through the law centre, they helped quite a lot. Eventually, I went to them and said, "This is what I have been given. This is what happened". They were appalled and they appealed the decisions and wrote away. It was only through the law centre that I managed to access proper benefits.

  Ms Buck: Imagine that Archy is your fairy godfather and he is giving you one wish, what would it be?


  187. What would have been the one single thing, in your situation, that would have been most helpful to you?
  (Ms Mackenzie) My own personal situation, it would have been to stop the 26 weeks waiting period and maybe to change the criteria for the Community Care Grant.

  188. Catherine, if you could change one thing, what would it be?
  (Ms von Ruhland) It is proper administration of the benefits system. I had to wait nine months. Staff lost letters and people would not admit to it.

  189. So unexplained delay was what did it for you?
  (Ms von Ruhland) Yes.

  190. Sally, what would you change?
  (Ms Moxon) Changes to the totally inadequate level of benefits. If you have sufficient money, you can get yourself out of the situation.

  191. And Liz, what would you change?
  (Ms Forest) The grant system has to be looked at, you know, grants and loans as well.

  Chairman: We have got about ten minutes left and there are some areas in relation to debt and the other agencies involved with that which we would like to ask you about.

Mr Dismore

  192. If you have got a loan, how easy is it to take it up?
  (Ms Forest) The money is deducted from you so whether it is easy or not, it is deducted. I am disabled so I get £52 to live on and then you get £22 for your disability so that is £74. But they forget that you have got electricity, £13.15 electricity, £8.65 gas is deducted, £2.65 council tax, then £6.75 Social Fund, so apart from the Social Fund, we have got other things that we need to live on. So basically, I am down to £43 per week from £74 so I am well below what the law says I must have to live on. Whether it is easy or not, it is taken away.

  193. Do people ask you whether you have other debts apart from those in relation to the Social Fund?
  (Ms Mackenzie) That is what stopped me from getting any Social Fund money. My form was before 1999. The form asked, "What debts do you have?" and I was honest enough and I put down what my debts are. My debts, because of the mortgage and because I had home improvement loans and debts, were £70,000 to £80,000. My house was £50,000. We had only been in the house for three years. There was the endowment mortgage. They never seemed to come down. They were just always there. I put all those down, quoted exactly what it was that I owed money for and that was one of the reasons I was turned down. My benefits were all going on debt. I went to the law centre again for help and they managed to write to everybody and say that I could not possibly pay anything at all in the hope that one of the companies would make me bankrupt. The bank came and spoke to me and said that they would not make me bankrupt because they could not recover the losses. So I am sitting there now, waiting for somebody to make me bankrupt or for somebody to come and try and get the money. I started going to college. I thought, "I have got to do something to get out of the hole that I am in". When I was there, the money lender came to college and knocked on the door and said she wanted to speak to me. She is always in my face. If I go to the post office, she is outside. If I go to college, she is there. I reported it to the college who dealt with it. They asked her to leave. She was actually doing a course. She was advising lots of people who are single parents and on benefits and giving them loans. It was very easy for her to come in. There were lots of single women who were trying to make their lives better but all the time, she was offering them money. If you cannot get money from the Social Fund or from benefits, you are going to take the money from wherever you can get it.

  194. Going back to the question of loans, you were saying how much money you have got to pay out. Do you know you can get loans rescheduled?
  (Ms Mackenzie) No, I do not think that they have ever told me that. That was the amount they were going to take and that was it. I am not a fighting person so when I am told things, I usually just accept it because these people are the people who know.

  195. I was going to ask you how easy it is to get the loans rescheduled but if you did not know you could do that, you cannot answer that question. You have been talking about money lenders and so forth. If you are refused a Social Fund loan, what sort of other sources of borrowing would you try to access, apart from the money lenders?
  (Ms Mackenzie) Provident.

  Mr Dismore: What is that? Is it something particularly Scottish, Glaswegian?

  Chairman: No, it is UK-wide.
  (Ms Mackenzie) It is maybe called a different name here. It was something from many years ago when you could get a cheque for £50 and you paid it back with interest. Provident is something that the lower class people in Glasgow used years ago. My grandmother used to get it to buy us toys.

  It was a way of living. You lived off the Provident. But they have now become more advanced and you can get cash instead of cheques. They come round the doors. You used to have to go to them or you went through a family member who had a Provident representative calling and you would say, "Can you get me a cheque?" You would pay that back. It is quite cheap but the interest is quite high. But they have started now to come round the doors. A couple of weeks ago, someone came and said, "Are you interested in Provident?" I said, "No, no thank you. I cannot afford it". She went on and on and I said that I did not want it. Eventually I said, "I am bankrupt", and she said, "We can work ways round that". I said, "No thanks". I did not want it. She then asked me to tell her where the houses were with young families in the close. She goes round the places where people are mostly in poverty or in the benefits trap.

  196. Are there any other sources of borrowing that you might think about using?
  (Ms Forest) There is a credit union but to get into that, you have to save initially, for 13 weeks. I tried to do £1 a week but I did miss. You can get loans off them but you have to have money paid into them as well. Apart from that, there is the Provident.

  197. What about mail order credit and that sort of thing?
  (Ms Mackenzie) Yes, it is too easy to buy things by mail order because you just do not realise that the debt is going up and up. You maybe buy new shoes or boots and think, "I will just get this. It is only a bit a week", but then it mounts up. It is too easy to get into debt. Catalogues is a big thing for me because I was encouraged with catalogues because if you have no money, they are always having these offers like "Buy now, pay March" and you think, "That would be a good idea. I will get that new", but by the time March comes, you need so many things because perhaps your daughter is growing out of her shoes and clothes.

  198. Are people more likely to turn to those methods of credit or mail order if they have been refused a Social Fund loan?
  (Ms Forest) I think they will go to the Social Fund first and the chances are that they will not get what they needed anyway so then they will go to the Provident.

  199. My last question is that when you are applying for a loan, it tends to be a very bureaucratic process, based on a formula. Would you prefer to be able to go and argue your case face to face with someone who has a bit more discretion? Do you think that that would be fairer than what we have now, which is a more formula-based system?
  (Ms Forest) We need more discretion and you should be able to argue your case. Years ago, when you applied for a loan or a grant, you had to itemise everything and how much it was. Now, they just ask you for an amount which could be anything. If I had been able to argue my case and say, "I need this. This is for a bed and a cooker", I think I would have been listened to more.
  (Ms Mackenzie) I believe that if I had been able to go face to face with the worker in my case, I do not believe that the law would have allowed that person to grant me any more because the rules were there. At the end of the day, they are still applying the rules and regulations that are laid down.

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