Memorandum submitted by Mike Rowe, Nottingham
Trent University (SF 32)
This paper presents a summary of evidence emerging
from a recent programme of research. Evidence suggests that the
discretionary Social Fund remains as problematic today as it was
when first introduced. Social Fund Officers themselves describe
a system that fails to direct assistance to those most in need.
As such, after more than a decade in operation, it is still not
possible to say whether the Social Fund is fulfilling its purpose,
except in so far as it has contained expenditure within a cash
1. This memorandum is submitted in response
to the Social Security Committee's request for evidence on the
Social Fund. In particular, the memorandum will address two of
the key issues identified by the committee: the role of the Social
Fund; and how it works in practice.
2. From the outset, the discretionary Social
Fund has been controversial. The extension of discretion, requirement
to repay loans, removal of rights to an independent appeal and,
perhaps most significantly, the introduction of cash limits have
ensured that the scheme continues to be the subject of scrutiny
by politicians and academics.
3. The evidence presented in this paper
draws upon the findings emerging from an ongoing research project
examining accountability, both as a concept and in practice. In
the course of this work, I undertook some detailed case study
work examining the discretionary Social Fund. In addition to the
literature on the Social Fund, in the course of this research,
I interviewed a range of people concerned with the policy, management
and delivery of the Social Fund. I also spoke to leading authorities,
welfare rights advisers, advocates and campaigning organisations.
It is this material and these conversations that this paper seeks
to capture in summary form.
4. It should be noted that the bulk of this
research was conducted during 1998. As such, it predates the policy
change that occurred in April 1999. However, much of the material
retains its relevance in that it concerns the manner in which
discretion is exercised in the administration of Community Care
Grants and Crisis Loans, and the way in which Social Fund Officers
manage the competing demands of financial constraints, management
targets and the needs of applicants.
5. A number of studies were conducted in
the early years of the operation of the Social Fund. These suggested
that the way in which discretion was exercised varied, from case
to case, from office to office and from month to month, in ways
that could not readily be justified or understood. At the time,
the government evaded any responsibility to account for these
variations (see Rowe, 1998) and little further research has been
done in the intervening years. While conducted as part of a study
of the concept of accountability, my own research suggests variations
remain a key characteristic of the Social Fund.
6. Social Fund Officers in three Benefits
Agency districts described very similar application and decision-making
processes. Each described the need to consider directions and
guidance in the light of the evidence presented in an application
form. They suggested that the key to the way in which discretion
is exercised is the quality of information presented by applicants.
The more information that is available, the easier it is to decide
on a case.
7. This having been said, Social Fund Officers
suggested that more experienced and knowledgeable applicants were
able to manipulate the process by presenting false evidence that
would be difficult to challenge. With resource pressures and clearance
time targets to meet, challenging the evidence is not a viable
option. Hence, many loans and grants are awarded in cases where
there may be reason to doubt the evidence.
8. On the other hand, applicants unaware
of the system and perhaps reluctant to reveal what might be highly
personal information in support of a claim for assistance may
not receive the assistance they need. Unable to devote time to
uncover this information, Social Fund Officers expressed the frustration
of knowing they must refuse to make an award to a person that
needs help. This frustration was aggravated by the way in which
the forms, and particular questions on those forms, actually tended
to prompt misleading responses.
9. Throughout my work, the value of quality
information was emphasised. Social Fund Review Officers stated
that, in review interviews, they were able to see the applicant,
to ask questions and to obtain information that application forms
could not. Social Fund Inspectors suggested that, in many cases,
they changed decisions on the basis of further information rather
than as a result of procedural or other errors. Advocates and
advisers told similar stories. Indeed, the process of review appears
almost as a continuation of the initial application. Social Fund
Officers suggested that, if they had any doubts about a case,
they would refuse an award and allow the applicant to seek a review
rather than take time to make a thorough decision. If an applicant
didn't persist to the review stage, that was an indication that
their need was not as pressing as another.
10. Describing the experience of aiding
clients with applications to the Social Fund, a number of welfare
rights advisers elaborated on these impressions, suggesting the
importance of persistence. They describe a series of barriers
and hurdles intended to deter applicants and to protect the cash
limited budget from unnecessary demands. The barriers take a number
of forms. Welfare rights advisers described local unofficial obstacles.
They recounted tales of security guards and receptionists asserting
that the applicant would be wasting their time trying to get a
grant. They referred to offices refusing to accept Crisis Loan
claims after 3pm on Fridays because it would take too long to
deal with and might eat into the Social Fund Officer's weekend.
DSS policy officials confirmed that this unofficial local policy
was not unknown. Others described examples of offices introducing
new rules as a way of weeding out certain types of application.
Some refused to make more than one Crisis Loan award in any six
month period for lost/stolen/not received girocheques. Such policies
have been uncovered at review by Social Fund Inspectors.
11. Advocates were highly critical of the
decisions made, suggesting they were sometimes irrational. By
way of illustration, the following is an extract from an interview
with a welfare rights adviser:
"One I've got, which is ongoing, which
is someone paying his hospital fare to go and visit their daughter.
This has been going on for eighteen months now, and they have
to apply every three months. I think I've done five reviews so
far. I think only two of the awards were all right. Each person
makes a different award and decides for this three months it's
all right for mum and dad to go four nights a week. Then the next
person decides, no, only dad needs to go one night a week, or
mum two nights a week. Same case. Nothing's changed, and you never
know what decision you are going to get out of it. The last time,
they refused it on the grounds that they're asking for an excessive
amount of money, that it wasn't reasonable. And they were asking
for the amount of a weekly travel card. I can't really work out
how that would be unreasonable, because that's the cheapest way
of getting there. It's just one example."
There are a number of illuminating elements
about this one story. From the perspective of the claimant, and
of the advocate, the variations in decisions appear irrational.
Indeed, the advocate believes that there was one "right"
award. The problem is that different Social Fund Officers fail
to come to that answer. The review process becomes a means of
getting that "right" award. This perspective on the
Social Fund argues that, because the circumstances of the applicant
have not changed, the decision reached should be the same. However,
other factors may have changed, particularly the state of the
budget and the priorities being met on each occasion. It is quite
conceivable that, from the perspective of Social Fund Officers,
each of the different decisions appear to be "right"
in light of this changing context.
12. The nature of discretion is exposed
in this one account. The potential for variation in the treatment
of the same case is clear because we are able to compare a number
of applications for the same item from the same couple. It also
throws up a number of dilemmas and questions. The two different
perspectives on the series of applications are nowhere reflected
in official accounts of the Social Fund. Statistical data presents
the number of applications, number of awards and average amounts
awarded. Such a summary would suggest consistency rather than
variation, in effect presenting a misleading, if not actually
false, picture of the Social Fund.
13. Furthermore, an applicant, making just
one approach to the Social Fund, would receive one decision. Without
any form of comparator, how is that applicant to understand the
decision made? Publicly available information provides no basis
on which to understand any single decision. If the couple, in
the quote presented above, made just one application, would they
be in a position to understand whether the decision was "right"?
Not surprisingly, the response of individuals refused assistance
for items can be incomprehension.
14. Government publications do not present
a very clear picture of the purpose of the discretionary Social
Fund. The Secretary of State's Annual Report for the Social Fund
does not mention a purpose at all (DSS, 2000a). The Departmental
Annual Report provides a brief and rather misleading definition
(DSS, 2000b, p.135). Only in the Social Fund Guide (DSS, 2000c)
is there some indication of the different elements within the
Social Fund and their particular purpose.
15. Perhaps the purpose of the Social Fund
is most clearly spelt out in a National Audit Office study:
"The Government's key objectives for the
Social Fund are:
(a) to support the Government's economic
objectives by containing expenditure within the Social Fund budget;
(b) to handle the arrangements in a way that
does not prejudice the efficiency of the main Income Support scheme
(which replaced Supplementary Benefit);
(c) to concentrate attention and help on
those applicants facing greatest difficulties in managing on their
(d) to enable a more varied response to inescapable
need than could be achieved under the previous rules; and
(e) to break new ground in the field of community
care." (National Audit Office, 1991, para. 1.5)
16. On the basis of the research I have
conducted, of which only a broad overview has been presented above,
we must question whether the Social Fund has achieved many of
these objectives. Certainly, rather than being flexible and responsive
to those most in need, my work suggests the Social Fund is rigid
and unresponsive, presenting barriers to applicants and bound
by targets and rules that hinder its effectiveness. It is only
the first two objectives for which there might be clear evidence
of success. In handling one-off expenses separately, the Social
Fund has not impinged upon Income Support. And, by its very nature,
the Social Fund has contained costs. The cash limit ensures that.
Moreover, in recent years the emphasis on two key financial targets
(remaining within the cash limit and loan recoveries) has increased.
They are the only key Social Fund indicators reported by the Secretary
of State, underlining the central importance of controlling costs
in the very purpose of the Social Fund.
Department of Social Security (2000a), Annual
Report by the Secretary of State for Social Security on the Social
Fund, 1999/00, London: The Stationery Office.
Department of Social Security (2000b), Social
Security Departmental Report. The Government's Expenditure Plans,
2000/01-2001/02, London: The Stationery Office.
Department of Social Security (2000c), A
Guide to the Social Fund, Leeds: DSS Communications.
National Audit Office (1991), The Social
Fund, London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
Rowe, M. (1998), "Accountability for Discretion:
the Social Fund", International Institute of Administrative
Sciences Conference, Paris, September.
Nottingham Business School