Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260
WEDNESDAY 28 FEBRUARY 2001
260. Have you found that sometimes Social Fund
claimants are looking to social services departments to make up
the difference, if they are not actually given their loans or
their grants? You have mentioned discharge arrangements and community
care clients but there are also families with children, and social
services departments, I understand, still have a residual responsibility,
and can, in certain circumstances, provide financial aid. Are
you finding that claimants are coming to social services departments
to make up that difference, and how serious a problem is it?
(Mr Calder) Can I say something about that? It is
not just the question of topping up a payment from the Social
Fund, actually it may be fully replacing it, when people are actually
turned down. And the interesting thing is that social services
making payments is that, Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 only
stresses that payment should be made in exceptional circumstances,
and I think the introduction of the Social Fund has actually made
payments under Section 17 normal rather than exceptional, because
of the problems that we have just outlined.
261. Do you have any financial statistics on
that, is there any analysis that the LGA has done on how much
is actually spent on Section 17 grants?
(Mr Tree) The old ACC/AMA-funded,
local government Anti-Poverty Unit, which became subsumed within
did, in fact, undertake research, about five years ago, which
showed a positive correlation between Social Fund refusal rates
in certain areas and the increase in claims made for assistance
from Section 17 budgets, under the Children Act.
262. But you have not got any up-to-date statistics?
(Mr Tree) No; but we know of authorities that have
set aside monies, particularly in terms of their community care
duties, because of the high refusal rates for Social Fund Community
Care Grants, to facilitate early hospital discharge.
263. Did Mr Patterson want to add to that?
(Mr Patterson) I was just going to go back to the
effect on advisers, but also the effect on claimants; the system
does demoralise claimants. It cannot be right to have a refusal
rate of two in three for Community Care Grants, after 13 years
of operation, and for that system still to be in place. The refusal
rate was previously four in five. It demoralises particular groups,
the message goes into groups as well, refugee communities, young
people, groups who are not getting an equal share of what is available.
They have not got much chance, in fact, demoralisation sets in.
So it makes it very hard to operate that sort of a system.
264. I want to pursue the issue of Community
Care Grants. When Community Care Grants were first set up, there
were great ambitions that it would actually advance the Care in
the Community principles; do you think that has actually happened,
that the Community Care Grants have actually made a difference,
in terms of making community care a reality?
(Mr Bateman) Yes, certainly, that is the case historically,
that it was put forward that the Social Fund would complement
community care provision; indeed, I think that phrase is actually
built into the guidance. A cynic would say that it was perhaps
a way of trying to ease the transition of a controversial change.
The only thing, effectively, that Community Care Grants have in
common with community care is the name, the majority of people
who have to apply are people who are poor, they are not people
who have a need for social care or community care services. And
I think the devils we spoke about earlier, in relation to the
Social Fund, undermine the delivery of community care services,
because if a person actually does require a community care service,
perhaps resettlement from long-stay hospital, for example, often
you find, if you do get a Community Care Grant, it is just not
sufficient actually to kit out a home to any kind of basic level,
you are talking about grants of perhaps £300, £400,
what can one buy with that? Even if it is second-hand.
265. So, really, what you are saying to us is,
because of all these devils that you mentioned, that the community
care and the Social Fund are really incompatible?
(Mr Bateman) Absolutely. Indeed, we would emphasise,
as was said in our Memorandum of Evidence, that the Fund actually
undermines the community care and social care objectives of local
authorities because of the huge gaps that it leaves and the inconsistency
and uncertainties associated with it.
266. The eligibility criteria, as it exists
at the moment, do you feel that the criteria are appropriate,
for eligibility for Community Care Grants?
(Mr Bateman) Our view would be that they are far too
narrow and they contribute to the very high refusal rate. It surely
cannot be right that, a family living in long-term poverty, whose
cooker ceases to work and has to be replaced, that is not regarded
as a community care need. I cannot think of a situation that is
more compelling; but yet those people will frequently be refused,
unless you can somehow add in other factors, which, in itself,
the process of adding in other factors, about perhaps matters
such as family stress, difficult family relationships, is actually
quite a demeaning process for claimants.
267. It sounds to me as if you are saying that
there is scope for extending eligibility. To whom would you extend
that eligibility, other than the case you gave there, of long-term
(Mr Bateman) I think, the problem is, they need to
be drawn much, much broader. The statement from the Child Poverty
Action Group I think has got some very commendable ideas in it,
in terms of having perhaps a more automated system. We do have
the Winter Fuel Payment system, which is now automated; so there
are precedents in the social security system. And, certainly,
some system like that could well ease a lot of the day-to-day
demand for Community Care Grants; and, indeed, Budgeting Loans,
simple replacement of worn-out items, and payment of some form
of milestone payments. And then perhaps there needs to be a much
broader framework, again, not with a cash limit, or, if there
is a cash limit, it certainly has to be much more realistically
set, at a much higher level, around issues like resettlement and
people having to move home, perhaps because of domestic violence,
or people whose lives mean that their circumstances change and
they have a need for a significant amount of money in order to
set themselves up with basic dignity.
268. So is it a view across all of you that
an increased budget would certainly ease the problems and maybe
start to iron out some of the inconsistencies, which must take
place from area to area because of a lack of money?
(Mr Calder) And a firm regulatory base, I think, too,
because, it is interesting, the Chairman said, right at the beginning,
he had met staff who struggled with the regulations; the trouble
is, it is not regulations, most of the time, it is struggling
with guidance. And advisers love to struggle with regulations,
because that is their bread and butter, that is what they get
off on, unfortunately. But it does give a clearer base on which
to argue with the Social Fund, and to establish entitlement, and
if you have got a proper appeals mechanism that backs that up,
that underpins any increase in cash, if you have got fairly broad
terms about the objectives of what you want Community Care Grants
(Mr Patterson) You have had Professor Gary Craig's
framework, where he explained the kind of money that we are talking
about, and, remember, the starting-point in 1988 was £400
million a year being paid out in grants, single payments, as they
were. We have now reached the grand total of £100 million.
The shortfall is massive, and we have not got a proper audit of
need for basic items. I think it is a major lacking, personally.
269. Do you think we are putting social security
staff in an impossible position, in terms of attempting to balance
the demand against the budget? Do you think that there is a case
for transferring the Social Fund from social security to social
(Mr Tree) The previous Local Authority Associations
took the view, in 1988, that that would not be a helpful move,
and, in fact, resisted very strongly any suggestion that they
should become involved in the administration of the Fund, and
there are a number of reasons for that, and I know colleagues
would like to add to those. But, I think, in the first instance,
the Associations took the view that the involvement of social
services, or social workers, in judgements about the merits of
a particular claim, would severely compromise some core social
work, social care values, of advocacy, advice, support and representation.
And relationships that are built upon trust can be very easily
undermined, if a client assumes that you are also going to be
involved in making a judgement about whether they can have a hundred
quid for the gas-cooker that is in the second-hand shop, down
the road. So I think that was one of the criteria on which the
previous Local Authority Associations objected. If, however, and
bear in mind that 13 years have passed since the Fund's introduction,
there was a substantive proposal that local authorities should
have a more proactive role in the management and administration
of the Social Fund, then we would
270. I was particularly thinking of Community
(Mr Tree) Even in relation to Community Care Grants
I think we would have to put that to our politicians; but, as
Officers, we would be advising them that the reasons for the opposition
in 1988 still remained very much the same, in our view, as Officers.
271. Right; so you are saying the poisoned chalice
should remain with the Department of Social Security?
(Mr Tree) I think we prefer to see it as a case about
a national social security system remaining a national social
security system, that was governed according to nationally-determined
eligibility criteria and rights of appeal.
272. I find that a rather peculiar position
that you have just put forward, because local authorities (of
which I am a great supporter, I have been a member of one for
20 years, before I came here), take the view that locally you
know much more about the circumstances of people and what local
circumstances are. And what you are saying is, you would rather
not have the power to decide who gets grants and who does not
get grants. And yet we are all sitting around here, probably going
to produce a report that will criticise the Benefits Agency and
the Government for not doing the job better. And yet local authorities
claim sometimes that they can do the job better, because they
are local, and you do not want that responsibility?
(Mr Tree) Before Neil comes in on that point, can
I say that we would not think, in the first instance, that you
solve the problems of this part of the national system by devolving
it; it would have been far more helpful, in the first instance,
I think, to look at why there are problems in the national system
and therefore resolve it. Secondly, I think that local government
is not about income maintenance; that, for the last 50, 60 years,
has been deemed to be a role of the centre and in particular,
a reaction to the idiosyncrasies of the Poor Law, which the national
system, of course, replaced.
273. I am not talking about administering a
national system locally, although it would be that, what I am
talking about is, in social services, you have social workers
who know very much better than Benefits Agency people the circumstances
that your clients, to use the phrase, are living in, and how serious
the need is, and I would have thought they were better able to
judge. I know it is making a difficult judgement, but I would
have thought, given the line that I know local authorities push
normally, it would have been better for you to make the decisions
than national agencies?
(Mr Bateman) Shall I perhaps deal with the arguments
against, I think, what would really amount to moving the misery
around, if Community Care Grants were simply transferred to local
authorities. And I speak not only as a very experienced welfare
rights adviser and manager but also as someone who is a qualified
social worker, who has practised as a social worker, actually
in the City of Liverpool, which is probably still the poorest
city in this country. I think, with localisation of social security,
you have only got to look at the United States to see what the
effects of localising means-tested provision results in, and it
is not a system, I think, we would want to copy over here. It
has huge gaps in it, and some very, very visible evidence of the
failures of that occur in the US. I think the next point is that,
as we said earlier, most Community Care Grant applicants and recipients
are not social services customers, and need not be. They are people
who are poor, they are not people who need social workers. By
transferring it to social services departments, you would have
to provide social work to people who do not need it, who would
feel stigmatised by that. People would have fears that, if they
discussed their poverty, perhaps their children might be removed,
or something similar, people do have those fears. I think there
are also issues around economies of scale and economics here.
The Benefits Agency, whatever criticisms one may have of it, being
actually well placed in terms of things like unit costs, economies
of expertise and turning policy into practice on a national level,
are far better placed to deal with that effectively than local
authorities, which are often small organisations. There are lots
of practical problems as well. For example, what would you do
about IT links? There would have to be money spent on IT links
so that social workers could verify people's income; the auditors
would require us to do that, we could not just sort of simply
accept people's word for it, I am afraid. If the money is to be
spent, are there better ways of spending it? I suggest there are,
rather than going to local authorities for this extra IT.
274. Can I just follow up on Doug's point. Duncan
gave a compelling reason why social services departments should
not take on this responsibility; but it need not be social services
departments. Local authorities currently administer Housing Benefit,
they currently administer various education grants and free school
meals, and whatever. If it were not in a social services department,
would you look at it rather more sympathetically? And it could
be the administration of a national scheme, it need not be a local
scheme, but looked at in the same way as local authorities deal
with those sorts of monies?
(Mr Tree) In the first instance, as I say, you would
be asking local government to act as an agent for central government,
in that respect.
275. Which it does, in Housing Benefit?
(Mr Tree) Well, that is another avenue that ...
276. We have done a report on that,
I will not raise the matter again.
(Mr Tree) Absolutely; but I think some
hard work would have to be done to convince the leaders of local
authorities, chief executives and finance managers about the merits
of assuming responsibility for what currently is a cash-limited
pot of money and all that entails, especially in terms of appeals.
277. I have no doubt about the veracity of that
statement. I do not want to get hung up on this, but it is a very
important issue. Neil mentioned comparisons with the USA; well,
this Committee has travelled in Europe, places like Amsterdam,
where local authorities, actually, very efficiently, look after
exactly this kind of service. You may say it is better resourced,
and maybe it is, maybe that is the key. I do not have a crystal
ball, any more than anybody else in this room, but I have to tell
you that, if you look at the disaggregation of the functions of
the Department of Social Security that are currently in the public
domain, and you ask yourself where, in this little algorithm,
or flow-chart, does the Social Fund lie, the answer is, nowhere
naturally. And so, if I were the next Minister for Social Security,
which you never know, if we are fantasising, at the moment, you
would give some thought, would you not, where you decide where
to put the little circle that says Social Fund. You would hover,
for a moment, over local governments, would you not? Have you
done any thinking, we know your position, your position is quite
clear and you are defending it robustly, but are you doing any
current thinking about the day after the next election, when,
as we all know, Whitehall can be thrown in the air, and some of
it may land on you, and you may not like it, if you are not prepared
(Mr Tree) I think it would be extremely unhelpful
to premise reform of the Social Fund on a discussion about which
is the appropriate tier of Government to administer the Fund.
The problems inherent with the Social Fund are its cash-limited
nature, the fact that it prioritises and asks individual Social
Fund Officers to make value judgements about the merits of a particular
case. There are difficulties in terms of the Benefits Agency's
administration of the Fund, but surely they can be resolved in
terms of training, in terms of regulations and in terms of guidance.
And, of course, local government has significant experience of
handling transferred, cash-limited, sums of money from the Department
of Social Security, and significant experience of what happens
when the money runs out; some have observed that that has not
been a pleasant experience, particularly in relation to some aspects
of the funding of community care, and the expression `poisoned
chalice' does indeed come to mind.
278. I understand that, and you mount a robust
defence, and do not think that we are suggesting any of this.
But, if you turn that all round the other way, since you provoke
me, surely there must be a set of guidelines and regulations and
proper funding within which you could work and make Social Fund,
or equivalent, a positive experience for community care in local
government, could you not?
(Mr Bateman) Local authorities excel at providing
services; when it comes to income maintenance, for the sorts of
reasons we discussed earlier, it is much more of a challenge.
If I could just refer back to the European dimension, which you
mentioned, and the role of local authorities there, let us not
forget that both the Scandinavian and continental models of social
security are much more based on far, far higher levels of insurance-based
benefits, so the means-tested element of social security is actually
a comparatively minor part of overall provision, certainly a lot,
lot less than in this country; what we have got in this country,
of course, is this kind of addiction to means-testing. So that
makes a big difference, in terms of scale. And I think the issue
really is, without fundamental reform of the Social Fund, all
that would happen, by transferring it to local authorities, would
be simply moving the misery around, indeed, it would probably
make the misery a lot, lot worse.
279. I have only got one, really, Mr Chairman,
and it is this. Your Association, Mr Tree, is very concerned about
the manner in which funeral payments are provided under the Social
Fund. Could you tell us, what is the basis of those concerns,
and how you see the system could be improved, and I would be particularly
interested to know, from the people who have got direct experience
of the welfare rights service, whether you can provide us with
any examples of difficult decisions, hardship created by the way
in which the system operates at present?
(Mr Patterson) I will answer that, if I may. There
are two big concerns with funeral payments. One is the amount,
and we have not covered that in our submission, but I know you
are taking some evidence later, so we will not worry about that
one. The other part is the scope, and that is what we have highlighted;
63 per cent of people who apply for funeral payments now are successful,
the rest are refused. There is something going on there that is
strange, because it was 90 per cent of people that were paid,
just going back six years. It is a set of restrictions that have
been brought in. In the scope of eligibility it asks "Is
it reasonable for you to take responsibility for a funeral?"
But, in fact, there are three sets of restrictions, in recent
years, meaning that there is a strict hierarchy behind that, and
that strict hierarchy has not been explained to people and does
not make sense to folk. So a single parent, for example, whose
child dies: if her ex-partner is living elsewhere and is traceable
and is not on a qualifying benefit, she will not get a payment,
and that just seems an injustice; it is not understood, it is
not perceived to be fair. There has been research on funeral payments
and some of the consequences. Mark Drakeford, from the University
of Wales, has summarised the issues, in terms of what is needed,
and his view certainly is to broaden eligibility, to bring more
Again, before this last set of restrictions, we had this flexibility
to work in a commonsense way with who should take responsibility
for a funeral. He also did conclude that passing it across to
local authorities would not be the right thing to do, for all
sorts of reasons, historical notions about associations with paupers'
graves, and all that stuff. There are some good efforts from local
authorities in this residual role, but it is not the place to
look for change, it is really with some improvements within the
scheme. The big issue then becomes shortfalls. Either people are
refused, or have limited amounts. The average Social Fund funeral
payment is about £866. The average cost of a funeral in the
UK, the last figure I saw, was £1,600. Now, okay, for people
who apply for payments, perhaps they get funerals at slightly
below the average rate, I do not know.
1 Association of County Councils/Association of Metropolitan
Improvement and Development Agency. Back
Social Security Committee's 6th Report, Session 1999-2000. Back
Note by Witness: If she has to pay for a funeral for her child
who has died. Back
Funerals, Poverty and Social Exclusion. A Report from the
National Local Government Forum Against Poverty in Wales, by Mark
Drakeford, University of Wales, College of Cardiff, July 1997. Back