Examination of witnesses (Questions 180
WEDNESDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2001
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
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
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
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
(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.
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
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
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
(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
(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.