Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Maternity Alliance (SF 43)



  The Maternity Alliance is an independent national organisation which works to end inequality and promote the well-being of pregnant women, new parents and their babies. We believe that there is no justification for a system which permits applications to the discretionary Social Fund for essential household equipment, furniture and clothing for any qualifying person except a newborn baby, for whom the consequences of inadequate clothing and equipment may be far more serious than for other members of society. Parents of newborn babies who lack essential items not covered by the Sure Start Maternity Grant should have equal access to the discretionary Fund.

1.   The effect of the status quo on mothers living in poverty

  1.1  The Maternity Alliance Information Service answers approximately 11,000 enquiries a year on maternity rights and benefits. Only a small proportion of these concern the Social Fund but the situation of the individual women concerned is usually desperate. Those receiving means-tested benefits for a prolonged period are often not able to budget adequately to buy the minimum essentials to keep a new baby warm, dry and safe, particularly as an estimated one in three pregnancies is unplanned. The Sure Start Maternity Grant still leaves a significant shortfall in meeting necessary expenses. The automatic denial of the chance of an interest-free loan from the Social Fund puts these women under extreme pressure.

  1.2  Some may have family or friends from whom they can borrow clothes and equipment or money to buy them, but many do not. A joint Maternity Alliance/ health visitors survey of mothers on low incomes found that one in six had been unable to borrow clothes or equipment and had not received a single gift for the baby.

  1.3  There are very few sources of charitable assistance to help pregnant women or new parents living in poverty to buy necessities for the baby.

  1.4  A significant number of pregnant women living in poverty are therefore in a position where they have no alternative but to borrow money to buy what is needed for the baby. Evidence from calls to the Maternity Alliance Information Service indicates that when denied access to the discretionary Social Fund, they may instead borrow money from a "loan shark" at exorbitant rates of interest.

  1.5  Alternatively a pregnant woman dependent on Income Support or income-based Jobseeker's Allowance may try to save up by cutting back on what is usually the only elastic item in the household budget—her own food. The links between inadequate maternal nutrition, babies born at low birthweight and consequent lifelong health problems are well documented.

  1.6  Examples of hardship caused by lack of access to the discretionary Social Fund include:

    —  Ms A, aged 40, who did not find out she was pregnant until the sixth month due to medical misdiagnosis. She was living on Income Support and had no time to save up for what she needed to buy. Her only option after being turned down by the discretionary Social Fund was to go to a loan shark.

    —  Ms B, who was living on Income Support, was lent a cot and other equipment by a friend. Shortly before she was due to have the baby her friend unexpectedly asked for everything back, leaving Ms B with no time to budget for baby items, nor to shop around for second hand bargains.

    —  Ms C, a disabled mother, whose Sure Start Maternity Grant did not cover the cost of suitably adapted babycare equipment.

2.   The contribution of the State

  2.1  While there is no doubt that the Sure Start Maternity Grant is greatly valued by those who receive it, the expenses associated with the arrival of a new baby are much higher than £300, particularly if it is a first baby. It costs at least £570 to buy all the items considered necessary by the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association (CPHVA). The recent (and very welcome) increases in the Sure Start Maternity Grant therefore mean that it now meets just over half the cost of newborn essentials, still leaving a significant shortfall.

  2.2  Changing the rules to permit access to the discretionary Fund for items now classed as "maternity expenses" would not lead to double provision, since by definition a mother would only apply to the discretionary Fund for items other than those she had bought with the Sure Start Maternity Grant.

3.   Cost implications

  3.1  Ending the exclusion of loans and grants for items classed "maternity expenses" would not involve an increase in government expenditure, since the discretionary Social Fund is cash limited. It may be presumed that any increase in pressure on the Social Fund budget would be slight, because there is no evidence of any significant decrease in pressure on the budget since the guidance changed in 1995 to exclude these items.

4.   Impact of change

  4.1  There are no statistics available on how many applications for loans or grants for items classed as maternity expenses were received or how many were successful prior to the 1995 change in guidance. It is therefore difficult to estimate how many people would be affected by a legislative change, but it is clear that the positive impact on individual pregnant women dependent on means-tested benefits with no other source of financial help would be considerable. Over a quarter of babies are born into families poor enough to qualify for the Sure Start Maternity Grant.

  4.2  On the other hand it must be recognised that because the discretionary Fund operates within a fixed budget, other applicants whose needs were deemed to be less urgent might be disadvantaged by such a change. However, this would simply create a level playing field between applications for essential items for a baby and those for other essential items. It would remain the responsibility of the relevant officials to determine which individual applications were successful within the budgetary constraints, taking account of the availability of the Sure Start Maternity Grant.

5.   Background

  5.1  Loans and grants from the discretionary Social Fund were available for items classed as "maternity expenses" prior to August 1995 when the Social Fund Guidance was changed to clarify that these items were excluded. The exclusion was upheld when challenged by judicial review in 1997 (R v Social Fund Inspectors ex parte Harper).

  5.2  Department of Social Security evidence to the Winterton Health Committee in 1991 described the discretionary Social Fund as a safety net for the most vulnerable of socially isolated mothers such as care leavers, who had no support from family or friends and found the Maternity Payment (as it was then) inadequate to meet their babies' needs. Under Secretary of State Susan Maunsell told the committee that " (i)f a mother had no other source of help there would be a possibility of a loan or even of a community care grant from the social fund which would be cash limited. " (Health Committee Second Report, Maternity Services, Volume II, Minutes of Evidence, p457, para 1148).

  5.3  It is this safety net that was removed in 1995 and we believe that it is essential for the welfare of the babies born to parents who do not have the resources to keep them warm, dry and safe, that this safety net be restored.

Jenny McLeish

Social Policy Officer

6 February 2001

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