Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 295)



  280. So, if I can just interrupt and draw this a bit further, what you are saying is, you are very concerned about the scope of eligibility for this benefit, but if it is agreed that benefit should be provided to certain categories, albeit a decreasing category, numerically, at the very least it should be a proper benefit, actually covering the actual cost, and you are saying it is not?
  (Mr Patterson) People are left with major shortfalls or with nothing, and it just adds to the spiral of debt, at a very upsetting time. Inflexible and insensitive, I would describe it as. There are many other layers to it. For example, there are strict rules and there is guidance to say that some costs can be allowed if they are because of a religious practice, or a religious requirement, but not if they are a custom. And there are rules then, of course, if someone is buried outside the UK. If they are buried within Europe there might be some scope, under a test case, from 1997, for people to have costs paid. But, generally, for many of our ethnic minority communities, elsewhere, they cannot get even the costs of religious observance in this country, because the final funeral will take place, say, in Pakistan, and they certainly do not get equal treatment. It seems to be an unfairness that people cannot bury their dead in their country of origin. There is no scope for that for people outside the European Union.

  281. Thank you very much for that.
  (Mr Bateman) Can I perhaps just give an example of the sort of harshness of the way that the system has become parsimonious. A couple of years ago, I acted as an advocate for a woman whose young son had died, following a long illness, and he was particularly keen on football, I think it was Arsenal, actually, and she wanted to have a floral tribute in the shape of a football, in Arsenal colours, and this was refused; and you get into this kind of really mean, nasty sort of territory. And there are some quite imaginative schemes that have been around. Clearly, I can understand the anxiety that the Treasury perhaps have, that, if you had a sort of totally unregulated funeral grant system, funeral directors might pump up the cost of funerals; but it ought to be possible to devise a model, `value for money', `funeral with dignity' scheme, where we do not get into that type of degrading behaviour.

  Mr Thomas: Thank you very much for that.

Dr Naysmith

  282. I wanted to ask a couple of questions about the administration of the Social Fund. We have already covered quite a lot of it already, but previous witnesses to this Committee, and yourself this morning, have hinted that the administration varies from area to area. And I just wonder, given your geographical spread over the whole country, whether you have got any evidence that this happens, and would you like to say anything about it, the fact that, depending on where you live, you can get a different result from the Social Fund for a similar application?
  (Mr Calder) On the issue about priorities, I am not sure how far that is inconsistent across the country, because my knowledge is sketchy, but I would suspect that most local offices are working to only high priority cases; so I think that perhaps reduces the lack of consistency somewhat. I think the issue then is who defines what high priority is, and you may get quite a different treatment there. The consistencies are probably less of a problem than the actual hardship caused by the number of refusals, I think, and some of the quite strange decisions that come out, about why people have actually been refused help.

  283. So, basically, you are saying that there is not really much inconsistency, because only the really serious cases are getting any money at all, is that, more or less, what you are saying, and where it would be deemed to be really serious, no matter where you are?
  (Mr Calder) Only high priority cases, as determined by Social Fund Officers, that may vary.
  (Mr Patterson) I think that is right, that the money does run out, and we have got examples from around the country where the money has run out, on occasions.

  284. That is a slightly different question, is it not?
  (Mr Patterson) It is a slightly different issue, but it affects the decision-making process, and the whole arbitration between priorities, which local Officers do. I know that you have had evidence from the Commissioner, and he is going to identify for you the particular areas where the money has run out. Liverpool's money ran out last year, you may know. We could go round and chart that quite easily, and I am sure the Department could do that for you as well.

  285. Is there any evidence, in your view, that Crisis Loans actually mask inefficient administration of basic income benefits?
  (Mr Bateman) Yes; and, indeed, the actual system of paying large numbers of claimants in arrear can mean that you have got claimants going in hock to the state at the start of their time on benefit, which surely cannot be a good thing, and certainly is not a good thing in terms of actually trying to get them off benefit, in line with the Government's objectives.

  286. It is not ideal, obviously, but surely it is helpful in being able to get people over crises?
  (Mr Bateman) Yes, you will always need some bailing-out system, but, ideally, the rules for the claims and payments regulations ought to be amended so that there is not the need to do that as often as occurs at the moment. And I know that that is one of the big concerns of Social Fund Officers, a lot of their time is spent bailing out inefficiencies elsewhere in the system.

  287. That is interesting.
  (Mr Patterson) Another thing to say is that the claiming process involves verification of identification and National Insurance numbers to be allocated,. The classic problem is, an asylum-seeker gets status, there are then huge delays to get those National Insurance numbers, just the interviews for them so that you can put your evidence to the staff in the first place, and they will not give the Crisis Loan in the meantime. And then people come back to social services, of course, and it is each department being played off, to get evidence from one another so that you can try to intervene, and it is very, very difficult, particularly for single people.

  288. Could I just ask, finally, what is the situation in terms of social security staff establishing relationships with social services staff; is it good, in most places, or is there a problem there?
  (Mr Bateman) It varies considerably, I think.
  (Mr Calder) I have worked in a help centre which is a busy help centre, in social services, 250 yards down the road from the Benefits Agency Social Fund, and you get a constant interplay of clients. And it would be easy, I suppose, to portray Social Fund Officers as villains, and social services staff as the good guys, or whatever, but I got the feeling that it was a struggle, and it was a struggle sometimes, that staff on both sides actually shared the same difficulties of trying to run a cash-limited system, but the system actually put them on different sides of the fence. And the reason why we put in our submission at the end and stressed the original aims of the Social Fund was that it was complementary, between the state social security system and local authorities, that it was supposed to be a partnership; and the problem is that the problems we have outlined with the Social Fund at the moment do not enable that partnership to exist. And it can be a constant daily struggle of people to be to'ing and fro'ing and social services resisting an income maintenance role, Social Fund Officers having to cope with discretion.

  289. In Bristol, we are piloting a scheme at the moment, where at the housing office we have social services staff and Benefits Agency staff working in the same building, and that seems to be leading to lots of good things; but it is still only a pilot?
  (Mr Calder) Yes. Also I meant to say, right at the beginning, about liaison, too, it is to put in a good word for the Independent Review Service, because I think that has done, actually, a lot of good work on the ground, in arranging workshops. It has extended its remit quite significantly, because I think it picked up pretty quickly that, at the Crisis Loan end, decisions rarely get challenged, because the crisis usually ends, and somebody cannot be bothered to use the review process to challenge that; and, therefore, the Independent Review Service was not actually being able to look at quality control of Crisis Loan decisions. And they have set up, and I have attended, some useful workshops between social services staff and Benefits Agency's, and they have actually broken down a number of barriers within the constraints of the system, and they have done some good work there.


  290. We heard from a Benefits Agency official last week that in the old days, under the old Supplementary Benefit system, people were almost getting to the stage where they were being sent to Benefits Agency offices with a checklist of everything that you could get, a bed, a fridge, a cooker, and it was beginning to mushroom out of control. The Committee obviously has to weigh the evidence, and your evidence is very compelling, in your oral evidence and in your written evidence, but where does the financial question end, I mean, nobody has got blank cheques. I think it was Terry Patterson who said at the beginning, and rightly so, that we are now talking about £100 million, where it was £400 million not that long ago, so the trend is maybe wrong, but is there a right figure? If I am the Chancellor of the Exchequer, how much do you want me to mark in for my Budget, on 7 March, to deal adequately with the need, without getting to a situation where you are opening the floodgates to potential abuse?
  (Mr Tree) Can we apply that criterion to Winter Fuel Payments?

  291. Admittedly, it is £1,200 million, it certainly has not materialised out of nowhere. Do you mean, they found the money for that so they can find the money to properly fund the Social Fund?
  (Mr Tree) Some may take the view that it is, that this is rather odd, that it sits uneasily with another part of the social security system, where your means are vigorously assessed, you are required to jump through various hoops to qualify for a loan, for an essential item; yet, on the other hand, regardless of your means, you will receive an additional £200 over the winter period, whether you are Al Fayed or a pensioner on Income Support.

  292. With respect, that is a very interesting answer to a completely separate question. What I am asking you is, if you were asking us, if we are trying to take a view on this, and I do not know if it is possible, maybe the answer is that this is not a knowable figure, but you have got a public purse that you have to have some regard to, in your professional work, facing need that is unmet, where is the balance point; is it possible to say? Let us go back to £400 million, or is it £800 million, how do you measure, how do the policy-makers in central government meet this need without opening floodgates, which would mean that the taxpayer was being taken, potentially, for a ride?
  (Mr Bateman) You cannot fix it without increasing expenditure, I think that has to be said. But the sorts of models that have been put forward, around some system of automatic grant payment at key milestones, or on a regular basis to replace the worn-out items, might be one way of managing the expenditure. I can see that, clearly, the Treasury would want to have some kind of cap on other elements of some grant system, and I suppose it is a matter of trying to quantify that for the residual elements that would be required, sort of, people having to move home, for example, or the people being discharged from hospital, and hopefully some joined-up thinking will enlighten the quantification of how much is required.
  (Mr Tree) I think, one of the problems with the current system is that, we have not got anywhere near an adequate quantification of need, because the current system militates against us actually establishing how much need there is out there.

  293. And you think that this is a quantification that can be done, with social science experts and statistics, and so on?
  (Mr Tree) Local authority social services departments are required to undertake fairly sophisticated surveys, in terms of analysing a need for community care services, preventative services, etc., etc.

  294. So it is possible; the answer is that it is possible?
  (Mr Tree) I would have thought, yes; to quote a hackneyed phrase, it is hardly rocket science, is it?

Ms Buck

  295. Just following the line of questioning, is it also possible - and I think `need' is clearly one of the legs of the stool—but is it also possible to get an agreed checklist of basic items that society recognises are essential for any family: is there the will to do that, and do you think that is possible? And could that then work alongside a discretionary element, or would that introduce an element of rough justice, because it could not possibly be sufficiently flexible to meet the complex needs of different families, and you have to end up having two schemes running alongside each other; or would having a core checklist, that consists of a cooker, or a fridge, beds for everybody, be sufficient?
  (Mr Calder) Yes; and I think it would be considerably less than the old single payment system. There is a danger in trying to undermine a case for an increase in grants by caricaturing the old single payments. A number of those needs anyway are met, Duncan has mentioned Winter Fuel Payments, and to some extent they have supplemented heating additions. I think the other thing too is joined-up thinking, that there have been quite substantial rates in increases for children in the basic rates of benefit. And one of the problems, in terms of demand on single payments, in the past, has been the inadequacy of the Income Support rates, they are still inadequate, in our view, but, effectively, they are controlling some of the demand. And the problem is, if you take that into account, you might very well be able to come to a reasonable figure; our concerns about the Social Fund are it has not been taken into account, it seems to me, in the Government's Welfare Reform agenda.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, we are out of time. Can I say that that has been both fascinating, interesting and helpful, and thank you very much both for your written submissions and your evidence this morning. Thank you very much indeed.

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