Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Stockton on Tees Borough Council Social Services Department (SF 29)


Comments on how it works:

  This response is the result of a questionnaire distributed to local government Social Services staff. This provides a snap shot of recent experience from the caring professions. Those asked to complete or respond have direct experience of acting on behalf of Social Fund applicants.

    —  The overall experience is negative.

    —  The process of application is fundamentally flawed as it is both discriminatory and discretionary.

    —  The process of considering applications and the review process is too lengthy. The forms are too complex for the targeted client group.

    —  Refusal of both grants and loans is more common than success. When awards are made these are never for the full amount requested. Where an award is made only the cheapest and poorest quality essential items are affordable.

    —  The existing cash limited budget is totally inadequate and has been for years.

    —  Both the internal review and inspector review are considered to be unfair and deny fundamental rights as detailed in the Human Rights Act (HRA) and European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to those who need the protection of these rights greater than any other segment of our communities.

    —  The administration of the Social Fund budget does not correlate with local government administration boundaries.

Comments on how it could be improved:

    —  Replace discretion with rights.

    —  Speed up, simplify and extend both the application and decision making process.

    —  Ensure translators and interpreters are available where the application form is provided.

    —  Extend entitlement to include the recently disabled who become unemployed and the disabled who are job searching.

    —  Extend the role of the Social Fund to match savings made by applicants (£ for £) using the post office national bank.

    —  Change the administrative base of the Social Fund to reflect local government administration.


  1.  The observations contained in this brief report on the operation of the Social Fund (both the discretionary and the non-discretionary) are based upon:

    (a)  the direct experience of local government officers advising and representing individuals since the inception of the fund, and

    (b)  the abandonment of the right to additional requirements payments and single payments under non contributory means tested regulations.

  2.  To ensure that the knowledge and experience of Social Service professionals was identified and acknowledged a simple questionnaire was distributed to many colleagues (over 40) in Stockton on Tees Borough Council Social Services department identified from our records as having advised their customers and clients. Although the resulting returns were limited this is probably the combined result of the Social Security Select Committee initiating the inquiry requests over the Xmas period and a reflection of the pressures client based personal social services are currently experiencing.

    (a)  The comments included in this brief report are thus from those acting on behalf of those in poverty and these comments have been a result of a questionnaire that has concentrated on detailed qualitative response rather than quantity.

    (b)  Representations have been received from occupational therapists, qualified social workers, senior social work practitioners, social workers for the blind, social workers for the deaf, welfare rights officers, ethnic minority workers and specialist social workers.

  3.  Most of the applicants (this term is specifically used as claimant can only be used in terms of an individual exercising their statutory rights) advised are those who have applied for budgeting or crisis loans and community care grants. Much of Stockton on Tees Borough Council Welfare Rights Services representation and advice is with people in impoverished circumstances whose last option is to apply to the Social Fund (discretionary schemes or means-tested awards).

    (a)  The overall experience of the Social Fund discretionary scheme for both grants and loans is that of negativity. Regardless of the client group the general feeling is that persons with clear needs, even when meeting both the regulatory criteria and guidance, are both discouraged from applying and refused.

    (b)  A relatively simple example dealt with on the 17/01/01 of a severely physically disabled man with a family of four being refused a budgeting loan for a bed. He was never advised about a community care grant and only by chance did he find out. He asked the local DSS in Stockton on Tees about a CCG and was advised there was very little chance of him being awarded a CCG and was not offered a SF300 to claim.

    (c)  Examples from all areas of disability, both mental and physical, are quoted in the responses received, clearly showing the difficulties that those in greatest need experience excessive difficulty in progressing in the application process. Only one example is given , in our responses, where no problems are experienced and this is from a service provider dealing with clients who have severe learning difficulties.

    (d)  The overwhelming reasons given for refusal of a grant has been that there has not been enough monies. Even when a grant has been awarded only a part of the monies requested have been awarded. The practice of only awarding monies for the cheapest items available is not only demeaning for the applicant, denying them any consumer choice, but also results in very poor quality, shoddy goods or secondhand goods having to be purchased. The goods purchased thus do not last long enough and the applicant may be faced with a repeat application for a replacement item before the regulations permit. The question again to be asked is whether it is reasonable in our society for the poorest, the most at risk and those with disabilities to live with the poorest quality essential items.

  4.  The review process is considered by most professionals to be almost mandatory if an award is wanted.

    (a)  The process for all parties is time consuming with one example given of 3 weeks delay for "emergency grant application". The time taken for a decision, where an application form is provided, (this is not always forthcoming when the claimant is in crisis or may meet the criteria for a community care grant) is considered by a range of workers representing applicants to be too long. This is compounded by the delays resulting from the local internal review and Inspector Review.

    (b)  As it is an internal process welfare rights officers with extensive experience of representation at independent tribunals consider Social Fund reviews to be fundamentally flawed. The reviews are considered unfair and welfare rights officers due to negligible success from attendance at oral internal review meeting may only represent in written representations in certain individual extenuating circumstances.

    (c)  Where English is not the first language the responses indicate that there has never been a situation where an interpreter has been available. This applies to Chinese, Punjabi, Urdu, Gujerati, Bengali and Hindi speaking communities.

    (d)  Where people are deaf or hearing impaired there are fundamental problems with communication. The instances used as examples show that deaf people cannot access or respond to the process when required.

    (e)  The subsequent Inspector Review process is commented upon by welfare rights workers as too long a process where rarely the result is in favour of the claimant and once again is not considered to be independent.

  5.  The HRA and the ECHR article 6 may not appear at this stage in the development of English law to apply to the Social Fund Inspector role as the awards are discretionary. But it strikes welfare workers as fundamentally unfair that it is those in greatest need, (those who apply for the discretionary elements of the Social Fund) who find that they are doubly disabled through their rights to an independent tribunal being denied. This appears to be very rough justice.

    (a)  Moreover where the Inspector Review could be subject to challenge the options are very limited as the route to a higher court, a Judicial Review, requires not only commitment but in the individual circumstance experienced some monies are required to start the process. The applicants don't have the monies.

    (b)  Claimants submit to the second review often for a small sum of monies.

    (c)  Fundamentally the restrictions placed on the Social Fund discretionary element disposes of any true assessment of individual need. It is the state of the budget that determines finally whether to make an award or not. For the applicant it is a game of chance. From the figures provided (for the last two years ) by Teesside District Benefits Agency, the Social Fund budget has always only been able to meet those applying for the community care grants who have highest priority. Why is it that the administration of benefits to the poorest operates within an administrative structure that does not reflect either the community served or the boundaries of local government administration?


  1.  Replace discretionary entitlement with entitlement based on rights.

  2.  The decision making process must be speeded up. Crisis loan applications should not be discouraged. Crisis loans applications should be dealt with there and then. Community Care Grant applications should be decided on receipt of application within 24 hours. If the Social Services Department is the appointee for the applicant then there should be automatic entitlement to grants and neither crisis or budgeting loans should be awarded.

  3.  Make the process of application easier for all applicants. Ensure that those who have communication difficulties are identified at the outset and the process adopted accordingly. e.g. individual attention with someone who can communicate in relevant sign language or acceptance of oral claim from blind or VIP people.

  4.  Ensure that translators are available in the relevant language requested. This should not be a problem where there exists long established communities. Similarly coordination with Social Services regarding refugees should prevent translation problems.

  5.  The existing entitlement for all the grants and loans should be extended to include people who have recently lost their job due to disability or are unable to achieve employment due to disability. The effect this has on the entire family should be identified and taken fully into account.

  6.  Extend the role of the Social Fund beyond the administration of benefits and permit each District to create and encourage savings for people on low incomes, by matching money saved, pound for pound, and employ the proposed national bank with the Post Office.

  7.  Change the administration boundary of the Social Fund to be coterminous with local government boundaries. This would speed up the process of applications as the budget, the administration and the awards would be for both a recognisable community, for a smaller population and improve working links with local government.

Tom Lamb

Welfare Rights

January 2001

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