Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 255 - 259)




  255. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Can I open the public session of evidence. The Committee is inquiring into the Social Fund, and we are very pleased to welcome representatives from the Local Government Association, who have obviously got a front-line role in how the various aspects of the Social Fund work. We have with us this morning Mr Duncan Tree, who is a Policy Officer of the LGA, Mr Neil Bateman, who is Joint Commissioning Manager, Suffolk County Council and Suffolk Health Authority Welfare Rights Unit, Mr Terry Patterson, Welfare Rights Adviser for Manchester City Council, and Alaster Calder, who is the Head of Surrey Welfare Rights Unit. Gentlemen, you are all very welcome. We are grateful that the Association has already submitted what is quite a full and helpful written memorandum, but, Duncan, I wonder if you could just set the context for this morning's session by saying just a little bit about what the LGA's current position is, and then we will go into some areas of questions which my colleagues would like to address to you?

  (Mr Tree) Thank you, Chairman. The LGA represents all local authorities in England, and, through our sister organisation, the Welsh Local Government Association in Wales. Local authorities as our written memorandum makes clear, have a significant interest in the operation of the Fund, primarily by virtue of their statutory duties in relation to the provision of social care services to children, families and vulnerable adults. Local authorities, at the time of the introduction of the Social Fund, in 1988, were, I think it is safe to say, uniformly opposed to its introduction, as were the then existing Local Authority Associations which represented authorities with social care responsibilities, ie the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. Both those Associations produced guidance for local authorities, which, in essence, suggested that they take a line of determined advocacy in relation to the operation of the Fund at a local level, and suggested and advised local authority staff not to compromise core social care duties, or the social work role, by becoming involved in decisions about the merits of individual Social Fund claims. The LGA's written evidence is a reflection of more than 13 years' experience of the operation of the Fund at a local level. I am fortunate to have accompanying me today three colleagues who have been welfare rights managers and welfare rights workers in local authorities since the Fund's inception, and who therefore have a wealth of experience in the effect of the Fund both on vulnerable clients, the poorest members of the communities that local authorities provide services to, and, indeed, the resources of local authority social services departments; it has become increasingly shown that people who have been refused assistance from the Social Fund invariably seek assistance, as a last resort, from statutory social services.

  256. That is very clear, and it comes as no surprise that you underscore what you make clear in your memorandum, that all the way back, since 1988, people in your position, in the Local Government Association and social care agencies, have always been very sceptical about how the Social Fund has been able to be used to help the client group that you seek to serve. But, if there were two or three things that you could identify as the key items that are preventing a more constructive relationship at your own local levels, have you got any suggestions as to what they might be? The Committee organised a local visit and we were talking to some of Citizens' Advice Bureaux and other welfare rights advisers. You can only be struck with total admiration for the intrepid way that these people go away, fighting their way through, it seems to us, the rules and regulations as they currently stand. What are the two or three things that most prevent a more constructive relationship between your operation and the Social Fund, as it currently exists at the moment?
  (Mr Bateman) Yes; thank you. I think that the three big devils, so to speak, would be the preponderance of loans as a mechanism for delivery of income maintenance (and the overwhelming majority of Social Fund discretionary payments are, of course, in the form of loans), which do have a very serious effect on poor people's living standards. This in turn, can accentuate the need for social care services. And, certainly, vulnerable families' positions will be made a lot worse by being in debt to the state. The second big devil is the cash-limited budget, and, at that, a very low cash-limited budget. I am sure the Committee are familiar with the history of the Social Fund and how the budget limits came about. The third devil would be what I would describe as the unclear appeal or review rights, and I think the fact that I used the phrase `appeal or review' probably illustrates the fact that the process is unclear; and that adds to a great sense of social exclusion amongst applicants to the Fund, and a great deal of uncertainty about whether or not somebody is going to actually successfully obtain payment, if they have been refused.

  257. And, if we were looking for suggestions for change, these would be the three main areas that you would like us to consider addressing, is that right?
  (Mr Bateman) Yes, Mr Chairman.

  258. Is there a liaison improvement that we could make? These are policy issues and are intrinsic to the way that the Social Fund has been constructed, but are there any better processes or management systems that you think we could look at as well, just to try to improve the liaison? Because we get the impression really that it is not as sweet as it might be; is that your experience?
  (Mr Patterson) I would state a fourth thing, perhaps, which is the narrow scope of grants. The grant system works to force people down narrow channels, to have a hope of getting a grant. In fact, there is a continuum of support needs for anyone going through resettlement or rehousing, but whenever it comes to something like a need for one-off payments, like furniture items, it is pretty across the board; so to have to go down these narrow channels makes the operation of the scheme extremely difficult. About the liaison arrangements, there is no real map or audit of need, I have not seen anything convincingly done to show what is needed out there by way of one-off payments, and that is clearly lacking. And often when there is liaison to get some local improvements, which does happen, local improvements are made, but because the system is against the staff trying to implement the scheme there is a lack of confidence, it is not carried through, and then even the turnover of staff trying to operate the scheme adds to difficulties; you are back to square one. If you extend the channels slightly for people to have access to grants, for a particular client group, that might operate locally for a small period, but then, the budget runs out, we are back to square one.

  259. That is helpful. Drawing on your own experience, in your own localities, what effect actually does the operation of the Social Fund have on your work, is it wholly negative, how does it affect the work that you do?
  (Mr Bateman) It is almost wholly negative, because, particularly social work staff, with whom we have a lot of contact, can find themselves spending an inordinate amount of time negotiating the process. Also, picking up the consequences of people who have found themselves taking on Social Fund loans, and obviously the repayments tend to be, in terms of weekly repayments, often far greater than that offered even by the more extortionate end of the commercial market. In terms of liaison, really just to pick up the point that you asked earlier, there is effective liaison in many localities, but it is within the limitations of the terms of reference of the Fund. Certainly, one of the things that strikes me, in terms of management processes which could be improved, is the need for Benefits Agency staff generally to have a much, much greater awareness of poverty and how that affects people, and the role of social care agencies as well. I think there is a lot of work that could be done there to improve matters. But, having said that, ultimately, there seem to be such severe difficulties with the Fund that it is kind of, colloquially, often nicknamed the Anti-Social Fund; but until that has changed there is only so much that effective liaison can achieve.
  (Mr Tree) Can I raise a point there, and it is the issue of complementarity. If the Social Fund is meant to be complementary with other statutory duties that local authorities deliver locally, i.e. community care, then we see that as a difficult circle to square, if you like, essentially because, if for example local authorities, having assessed a need for a service under the NHS and Community Care Act, then refused to provide that service then they would be, effectively, breaking the law. But, of course, we have a cash-limited system for the Social Fund, so an individual may meet the eligibility criteria but then be denied a service on the basis that there is no money in the budget. Now, clearly, if local authorities behaved in that way, we would be in all sorts of trouble. The difficulties with the Fund are particularly relevant in those circumstances when we look at hospital discharge arrangements, and that can cause real problems over the winter period when local authorities are trying to move people out of hospital quickly.

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