Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280
WEDNESDAY 28 FEBRUARY 2001
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.
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
(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
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
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
(Mr Tree) I would have thought, yes; to quote a hackneyed
phrase, it is hardly rocket science, is it?
295. Just following the line of questioning,
is it also possible - and I think `need' is clearly one of the
legs of the stoolbut 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.