Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 333)



Ms Buck

  320. Could I just ask you, just generally, or Beth, I think, more specifically, have you costed the package that you are proposing in your evidence, the different grant regime? We have seen that familiar slow smile.
  (Ms Lakhani) I think that is, actually, a difficult thing to do, because one is looking not just at the cost to the Government now but the impact on families at a later date. There is, again, and I have it here but I will not rustle around and get it, abundant evidence that families that live on very low incomes may have children of low birth weight, that in turn results in problems with chronic illnesses later in life.

  321. So it is the opportunity issue, for a start?
  (Ms Lakhani) It is the opportunity issue, yes. So you have got costs which may be met by other parts of Government because you do not invest in families at an earlier stage.

  322. Is there any way that anyone could cost what you are proposing?
  (Ms Lakhani) Yes; it would be possible to cost a number of the options, I imagine it could be done.
  (Mr Barton) We have not tried to put a cost on it, because, frankly, we do not have enough information to do so, and really that is one reason why we feel that it is high time that a thorough public review was actually held of what the options are in this field. Our feeling is that it is absolutely clear there is not enough money going in, but we would suggest that the Government really needs to look at what it can achieve by different forms of expenditure in this area, because, basically, there is frightfully little information about the whole operation and effects of the Social Fund at the moment.
  (Ms Dent) Could I just add one sentence and say that I think we would be very pleased to contribute evidence that we have towards what we think are essential needs, what child development life-stage payments would be, but what we really do not have is the information about the overall numbers of children, and so forth, at the ages, and that is information held by officials. But, I think, speaking on behalf of us all, we would be very happy to work with them on the criteria, which they could then cost on their data.


  323. That is an offer that we may make to the Minister, on your behalf.
  (Ms Dent) Thank you.

Ms Buck

  324. If I may put one last question. Looking at seven on the list,[23] many of the grant payments should be viewed as an interim measure until the Government has abolished poverty; now this has in it the seeds of something that made me very worried. It is a sort of sunset clause, of which I know the Chairman is inordinately fond. Honestly, is there ever going to be a time when we are on the sunlit uplands, where the rivers flow with milk and honey, and we can say poverty is gone and we do not need to worry about crisis; and, if not, are you not storing up a large hostage to fortune by saying that?

  (Ms Lakhani) I think you have to look at expenditure on different groups in society as a whole, and say can you justify this expenditure on this particular group that has a particularly low income; and are there ways of, I heard the end of a discussion where you were talking about how do you control it. If you have a minimum income standard, a minimum income standard as an objective can be both a combination of objective assessments and subjective assessments, involving what society thinks, at large, are essentials for people to have, and those combined can produce figures which, it is thought, is a necessary figure on which people can live. That would be an objective. At the same time, you have the level of benefit rates, which we know the Government is gradually increasing, and they are moving towards, hopefully, those minimum income standards, but there are no Government-recognised minimum income standards as yet. And we would, again, think that if you are looking at this issue comprehensively then this would be one way of taking it forward, if the Government were to do what, in fact, the European Union has suggested, that states do have a minimum income standard. But this minimum income standard itself is not a fixed and final figure, it reflects what people believe are essentials. We believe, now, that people should have a fridge, or a washing-machine, but a hundred years ago they did not exist, or people did not think that certain standards of living were essential. So times change, and expectations change, and what is accepted as reasonable and decent change.

  325. I am not sure if that gets you off the hook though, because that is a good argument for the minimum standard, which is something we have discussed, and I think we will come back to you on this, but it does not solve the problem; because, I think, following your logic, there would be a peak based around this grants package that you are proposing, but then, as we move towards a minimum standard setting and a more generous level of benefits that allow people to budget realistically, and so forth, that would decline. I am just anxious that there is a realistic assessment of risk, in all of this, that there are always going to be occasions, under any circumstance, and with any minimum standard, when disaster can strike?
  (Mr Barton) I would think that there will always be such situations, there will always be situations where families break up, in very difficult circumstances, leaving one half of the family with no furniture, etc., people will always lose money and have it stolen and have other, flooding crises, I suppose, various crises in their lives. So, even with a much improved, regular payments system, which I am sure all of us sitting here would like to see, there still will be, I think, a need for a system which helps people to cope with the financial implications of those sorts of situations.
  (Ms Dent) Could I just add to that, because, I think, as a grant-making charity, we have an interesting perspective, going back sort of pre the changes, in the eighties. If we look at then what we were funding, clearly, we were still getting a number of applicants for essential items. They were mainly people who were falling through the safety-net, and there will always be people who have got exceptional needs and they do not fit within the criteria, you can never set a system that will prescribe for that. So we have always had a residual funding responsibility, or we have taken it upon ourselves to do this. But what we were then funding a lot more of than we do now, was things that improve the quality of children's lives, and which no system would ever see as essential. So that could be anything, from, say, music lessons for exceptionally gifted children, right through to a kid who is going off the rails and their social worker will say, "If we could only give this kid a computer and lessons, this will really channel his energies into something more constructive." It is that sort of thing, which now forms under 5 per cent of the sort of work we are doing. And, I think, speaking on behalf of all charitable trusts, we would like to get back to that system, where we are funding things that will improve the quality of life and will never be essential items.


  326. Why do you not do it all then?
  (Ms Dent) We could just do it, but why could we not do it, or why do we not? Well, we have these debates, from time to time, actually, but then we say, well, how can you be putting a computer and music lessons into a child's life when they have got no curtains, they are sharing their beds with three other brothers and sisters, and they do not have a fridge, they do not have a cooker for hot meals. And that is a problem.

  327. Sorry, I did not make that question clear. Why do you not do the whole Social Fund, why does not the charitable world—
  (Ms Dent) So we go back to the days of the Poor Law? I do not think so.

  Chairman: Well, if the earlier witnesses, from the Local Government Association, were saying, "Well, we can't do it because we're supposed to be on the client's side," and all the rest of it, the charitable world does not have that defence available to it. Why do we not just give you a big suitcase full of money and say, "Do it the way that you think is best"?

Ms Buck

  328. Is George Bush right?
  (Ms Dent) I could not possibly comment.


  329. It is certainly a serious question?
  (Ms Dent) Yes, I understand. I think there are two issues that the charitable sector would face. Firstly, it is very large sums of money, and, as Gareth Thomas already said, we are funding a very small number of people overall. I think there is an issue about whether charities set up to do a national scheme of this size, and I have to say I do not think that we are. I also do not think it is our role to take on a function, of what I think is the state's within this country. I think it is a state responsibility to run Income Support. And the third thing is, there is not enough money in the system, so I do not think that either the Local Government Association or ourselves would ever recommend taking it on, because there is not enough money to fund needs.

  330. So I could tempt you with big sums of money?
  (Ms Dent) I would hate to turn down big sums of money, you are quite right, but, I think, on this occasion, I would; thank you.

Mr Thomas

  331. If you take that argument to its logical conclusion, there is no point in even you performing the modest role that you do at the moment; that is an argument for not having any private charitable involvement in the system at all, and surely you cannot be advocating that?
  (Ms Dent) I wish we were able to spend our money on something which was not essential items, and I think that is the issue.


  332. We understand that.
  (Ms Lakhani) I think it is the state's responsibility to provide the necessary financial support, and that is CPAG's belief. And, if you were to return to the regime of people relying on charities for these lump-sum payments, you would be emphasising, yet again, that this is a group apart, that these are not part of society, you would be socially excluding them by saying, "Well, we're not going to provide for you through the national system, we're going to provide for you in this particular way, through charitable payments." And, again, taking that to its logical conclusion, the whole system could be run privately, or the NHS could be run privately, and we think those things are the responsibility of the state, and that families will benefit. Families have responsibilities but they have rights, too, and, to carry out those rights, they need the state to finance them properly.

  333. So do I take it that, just finally, if the functions of the Department of Social Security are being currently reconsidered, where do you think the responsibility for the administration of the Social Fund should fall, in future, if there is to be a reconfiguration in the Department? Would you leave it where it is, subject to the suggested improvements that we have been talking about earlier, or is there a cleverer way of accommodating that within the system of central government, or, indeed, would your life be easier if your colleagues in local government took the challenge of this poisoned chalice?
  (Mr Barton) I think that we would agree that it is certainly a Government responsibility to find the money for these essential needs that people have. Although I think we have reported a lot of situations where people are not very happy with the experiences they have had with the Department of Social Security, I think they do actually think that is the place they should go, that is the place that deals with their money problems. And so, I think, on those grounds, we would probably think that a better performing DSS would be an appropriate place to provide this. The only place we think that there may be a case for looking at the question, without saying that we have a particular answer we would see, is that, if there was a sort of expanded Budgeting Loans scheme, which worked very much on absolutely objective criteria, there might be a case for some independent agency actually running such a scheme; we think it might be worth looking at it, if the role was changing, but there would be pros and cons then, I think.
  (Ms Dent) Could I just add though, you did talk to the Local Government Association about this, and they said that they would recommend to their politicians that it would be turned down if offered. And I think that their track record, in fact, of administering large sums of money, like Housing Benefit, has not been very successful. And even if they privatised it, there are so many authorities where it is a far less than satisfactory performance, and many people are suffering, I think, as a result of that and being made homeless, so it is a problem. But I think, also, I would just want to reaffirm that a lot of the problems that we are having with the Social Fund are actually because it is inadequately funded. It is not, necessarily, because of huge great areas of inefficiency, and I think that is the point that I would want to make.
  (Ms Lakhani) Just on the question of reorganisation of the DSS and DfEE, maybe, and the Working Age Agency, and so forth, and the development of Personal Advisers, I think that is a possible area for development, and also the introduction, this is only going to help families with children, but the introduction of the Integrated Child Credit could be a mechanism for passporting, so that you do not have this cut-off between people in and out of work. And one of the problems has been, should payments, or some payments, not necessarily all payments, be accessible to people on other benefits; so I think that is another way of looking at it. And I think maybe the purpose of the benefit, the purpose of the payment, may also influence which Department of State delivers it.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for your appearance this morning, it has been very useful and very helpful to the Committee; thank you very much for coming.

23   See Ev. p.87. Back

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