The Community Care Grant - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-40)


20 NOVEMBER 2010

Q1   Chair: Welcome to you both. Thank you very much for agreeing to come and give evidence to us, and also for the note that you prepared for us, which we found very useful. We hope we won't keep you too long, because we will then have a session with the officials at DWP, who are responsible for administering the scheme. We couldn't resist the opportunity of trying to pick your brains and hear a little bit from your experience. I want to ask you a very broad question to start: from where you sit in considering the appeals, what do you think works well with the scheme and what do you think doesn't work so well?

Karamjit Singh: Thank you for the invitation. We must remember that the scheme has now been operating for some 22 years since the inception of the Social Fund. What works well is that it is very accessible. We are talking here of a group of people who are among the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. In terms of people's ability to seek redress fairly quickly, it's something that this scheme was intended to do. The other interesting thing about this scheme is that, according to our figures, something like 85% of the applications that come to us are from people who are representing themselves. Only 15% or so are represented by third parties. I think that is something that works well. Perhaps it would be invidious of me to compare us with other grievance mechanisms, but it seems to me that we are very effective, certainly in terms of cost and our ability to turn cases around. If you look at other grievance mechanisms, their unit costs and the time they take are probably much greater.

  What doesn't work so well? I've come into this and had just under a year here. One of the things that struck me when going round and talking to people externally, is that there are obviously issues about the extent to which there is awareness of the process. To some extent, I think one can understand that, when you're talking about a group here who clearly are not comfortable with navigating bureaucratic processes. The question is how you ensure you have systems and decision making, which are very clear and understood, so that people are aware of their rights. The other issue, if you think about the State of the Nation report, which was published earlier this year, is multiple disadvantages. If you look at the client group, which comes through this process, they very often have one or more of those disadvantages. That raises questions of what kind of assistance some of those individuals could get from other quarters. In the past, for example, I have chaired a mental health trust and worked in local government. There are questions here, particularly as we operate in a wider context of pressures on public finances. One has to think about whether some of that assistance could come from elsewhere.

Q2   Chair: To pursue you on that issue, you're saying that this is one of a number of pots of money for people who are on the edge and in dire need, and that we could be more efficient if we tried to draw them together.

Karamjit Singh: I'm not sure about pots of money, because I'm not qualified to comment on that aspect. I read some of the cases regularly myself, and it seems to me that you see, for example, occupational therapists, social workers, GPs sending in notes, and support workers from voluntary groups who are involved with those practices. It seems to me there is an issue about whether one can actually make sure that that kind of assistance is available. The other question that arises here is whether the assistance of local charitable foundations—there are some—can be utilised. There may well be other pots of money available, but we have to remember that the social fund is unique in the sense that we are talking here about one­off grants. We are not talking about ongoing money. These are one­off grants to meet an emergency situation. Very often it might be a question of someone coming out of care or wanting to remain in the community. It may well be a question, for example, of someone going into a new tenancy and an unfurnished flat. It requires a fairly rapid decision and response.

Q3   Chair: If it was in your power to say that you'd change three things about the scheme, what would your top priorities be?

Karamjit Singh: That's an interesting question, and I hope you don't mind if I just expand a little bit on that. We mustn't forget that this scheme has a legal framework behind it. Therefore, that means you must go through a series of steps. You must look at issues like eligibility. You must look at whether the Secretary of State's directions are met. You then have to look at issues like prioritising in terms of the need, and then the question of resources. I think that that certainly comes out in the report, which you've been considering, and in the reports that the Public Accounts Committee and also the Work and Pensions Committee have considered in the past. I think there are a number of issues, which I would rate firstly around the question of: how does one ensure there is awareness among the underrepresented?

Q4   Chair: Is this particularly pensioners?

Karamjit Singh: Pensioners and minority ethnic communities are two that are picked up. Clearly, this is an ongoing saga; it is not new. Effective targeting is one issue. Secondly, one should recognise that decision making in the context of the social fund has been in the context of a very large Department, the DWP—I'm coming in very much as a newcomer, who's dealt with many areas of the public sector in the past but certainly not this one—where there are a lot of benefits. Therefore, there are questions about the expertise that people need to develop, and training. I have to say that I think that the Department, quite rightly from what I can see, certainly over the last few months, has focused on training as a priority in trying to deal with raising the quality of the decision making. I think that's very important in terms of sensitising people.

Q5   Chair: Just expand on that a bit: where it's poor, what's wrong?

Karamjit Singh: If you look at the Secretary of State's annual reports, and also my annual report and that of my predecessors, there are what I think are quite high proportions of cases, where the decision is substituted at the internal review stage and then it's substituted at the stage it comes to my office. In everyone's interest, we would surely want the right decision first time in an ideal world, while recognising that, if people have a grievance, clearly you want to try to ensure that that is addressed as much as possible internally, before it comes to us. You have an effective triage system, if you like, with people thinking about eligibility.

The third area is somewhat sensitive, because it has come up again in many reports and it's addressed in the most recent NAO report. It is the question of the budgets. It seems to me that one of the issues we have here is whether one continues with a discretionary system of decision making, which is clearly cash limited. This is the whole purpose behind the social fund. If one is to continue with that, the question is whether it should be reviewed at regular intervals in terms of looking at patterns of applications from different parts of the country, for example? I say "sensitive" because inevitably once you get into that kind of process, some areas may gain and some may not be beneficiaries. I certainly know that my predecessors have suggested—perhaps it's a somewhat crude approach to start off with—that one might want to look at the total amount of applications in any given year, and divide the Community Care Grant sum by that, as it were, so you have a fixed amount per application, and you allocate that to each of the 23 budget areas that currently exist. That has certainly been put forward. It seems to me that that might be one way of at least trying to put a transparent formula on the table.

There are two aspects that I want to very quickly describe on this. We have held a series of seminars with external groups—we are unable to do so at present, but we have done so in the past. We have tried to ensure that welfare rights advisers and other groups dealing with applicants actually understand how the directions and the decision­making process work, so that they can put in focused applications. That's what the purpose of that is. It's quite interesting how, every time, the refrain that seems to come up is that people assume or say, "Well, if we were in a different part of the country—we know this because we talk to other welfare rights groups—we think our opportunity of getting a successful application through would be much greater." In a discretionary system, and in a system whereby you have a process that is about the concept of each individual case being unique, and therefore you must go through this thinking process of looking at those needs, the need to promote confidence in it is important and to ensure that people feel there is at least some kind of process, which is responsive to what's going on.

That leads me to my final point. If the social fund is to continue—and of course there is a wider framework of welfare reform and qualifying benefits; if they change, there may be issues about the social fund, and we're not here to talk about policy—one of the key things is how one promotes confidence in the social fund's operation, so that people feel there is equity of treatment. I'm sorry it's been a long answer.

Q6   Chair: No, that's very interesting. Does Pauline Adey want to add anything to those initial observations?

Pauline Adey: In relation to the budget inequities that the Commissioner raised, of course, we see the whole of England, Scotland and Wales from our operation in Birmingham. At the moment, we have a situation whereby seven budget areas can meet only the most compelling high priorities at the lowest prices. We have three other areas that can meet all high priorities at the lowest prices, another seven areas that can meet all high priorities at lower prices, and six further areas where all high priorities with no restrictions can be met. Where you live can make a difference. The Decision Makers in those areas have to have regard to that budget. They can't say, "Well, my neighbour has more money so I can pay this case."

Q7   Chair: Do you get more appeals from areas that have less money?

Pauline Adey: We get high activity from those areas, yes.

Q8   Chair: Could you actually correlate the level of appeals to the level of funding?

Pauline Adey: To some extent, because more people in those areas where the money is tight can be completely refused or limited in what they can have, either in the number of items they can have, or the amounts they can have for those items.

Q9   Chair: When you consider an appeal, do you have to have regard to the budget that is available in that area?

Pauline Adey: Exactly.

Q10   Chair: The appeals mechanism does too?

Pauline Adey: Yes.

Q11   Austin Mitchell: Just to follow up on that, without going to your list, which I'd like to do later. Your predecessor in 2008-09 mentioned the issue of distribution of a grant budget. Now, presumably it's distributed on the basis of historic need. I just wonder which areas need more funding and, before you answer that, can I just tell you, you spell Grimsby, G-r-i-m-s-b-y?

Karamjit Singh: When I talked a little bit about sensitivities, I think one of the issues, inevitably, is that, if I may say so, you and your colleagues quite naturally will be concerned about the local communities that you represent. That's clearly a very important factor. However, if you have a cash­limited scheme, should the process of allocating the different budgets be done transparently, so that people understand the criteria—not only the people administering the system and people like yourselves, who may well be interested because of your constituents, but also the people who are likely to apply and the people who may actually represent them? I hope that the answer to that is yes. On historic need, the context surely is—to bring it back to the wider context—that we are in a changing society. Let me give you one example.

From some of the cases I read, one sees people who are refugees and asylum seekers receiving the right to remain. You see applications from support workers trying to move them on into the context of supported accommodation. You might take the view that that is clearly an aspect of our changing society, certainly over the last few years. The question is that, if they meet the eligibility criteria—and I'm assuming they meet the eligibility criteria and then the qualification criteria, i.e. Direction 4 of the Secretary of State's directions—there may be particular communities where that change is occurring. In the same way, if we think of pensioners, the demography of certain communities surely changes over time.

Q12   Austin Mitchell: It could be that this recession has a different impact and in different areas to the last. There's a need to keep constantly revising these allocations.

Karamjit Singh: May I come back on that? I had thought about that. It's interesting that, if we look at the last three years, there were 543,000 applications in 2007­08 for Community Care Grants. There were 588,000 the year after, and 640,000 in the year after that, in 2010. That reflects through, both in terms of those going through the internal review process—the increases are there—and also in terms of the numbers coming to us. They've gone from 17,000 in 2007­08, up to 29,500. Why is that happening? That's against a context of no increase in the funding during that period. Clearly, an increased number of people are on the qualifying benefits. That may well be linked to the recession. The increased numbers coming through the system surely must raise the question of whether one ought to have a mechanism that looks at redistribution, perhaps on a more regular basis.

Q13   Chair: Were you saying that you thought it was wrong that asylum seekers should access this money?

Karamjit Singh: I'm sorry, no, I wasn't saying that at all. What I was saying was that we have people who apply for that funding, but they can apply only once they have status to remain in the country. The point I'm making is that here is a relatively new group of claimants who are emerging. I gave that as an example in terms of changing demography.

Q14   Nick Smith: Mr Singh, to answer the point you make, this Committee and the NAO love data. If you have any further information about regional breakdowns, criteria for decision making and different client groups, we'd love to see it, because it would help our reports and consideration of them. Please give us more information. I did try to see where the money was distributed across the country by region, but I couldn't see it in the NAO report. If you have that information for the future, it would be good to see which money goes where, to which different client groups, please.

I was going to come back to your point, however, about some groups that you say don't get a fair deal and don't get a reasonable share of the money you disburse. You talked in particular about pensioners and sometimes BME groups. It occurred to me that pensioners might not come to you for this sort of grant, if it's primarily distributed through Jobcentres. There's a whole thing about client groups and access to Decision Makers, which perhaps needs to be borne in mind for the future. I'm less sure about BME groups but, if we had information about need, perhaps that would allow us to think about the structures for distributing resources.

Karamjit Singh: I think the broader point I was making there was that, when you have something like the social fund, which is there clearly to assist poor and vulnerable communities—I remember reading one report that talked about one in four households having no savings and about one in five having very low levels of income; I'm assuming, therefore, that there are groups, such as pensioners and BME communities, which may be overrepresented—it seems to me that you have to look beyond the statistics and really ask yourself why people are not applying. The current figures, in the Secretary of State's report, seem to be that about 9% to 10% of the applicants tend to be pensioners.

There are two very interesting pieces of work. There was a piece of work undertaken in Gateshead in 2007, before I was appointed, where we did a collaborative partnership with the DWP, Jobcentre Plus and local community groups, which really tried to focus on raising knowledge and awareness of the social fund. It actually increased the number of applications, but one of the things it did raise, therefore, was how people learn about this. Clearly there is the question: if you're receiving a pension, why would you think of going to a Jobcentre in order to find out about the social fund? There are issues of how one makes groups like that aware. There was also a very interesting piece of research that Bristol University did some years ago, where they asked pensioners about their views on applying for the social fund, and issues arose such as their reluctance—their perception, for example, that they're entitled to a pension but didn't feel that they ought to apply for these one-off grants. There was this concern that there were also psychological inhibitions around people's perceptions of applying for the social fund.

Q15   Mrs McGuire: I think that the phrase that you used was, "There was an assumption about pensioners." Can I ask why you think that pensioners actually need to have more access to the social fund than other groups in society, given that the last statistic that I saw indicated that pensioners were no more likely to be poor than other groups in society? I'm interested in why we focus on pensioners, when that may not actually be the reality. I'm being a bit of a devil's advocate here, because I don't want all the pensioners' groups to write to me, but I just think I need to unpick that a wee bit.

Karamjit Singh: Can I make two points on that? One of the reasons why I focused on pensioners in this session is because the NAO report talks about it. My understanding was that you were interested in the themes arising in the report and that's why I focused on it. Also, when I started doing some research on it, it seemed to be a recurrent theme. That's one of the reasons why I've raised it.

Mrs McGuire: I will ask the NAO people afterwards, then.

Karamjit Singh: One of the other issues is that there are also obviously other groups. You're right; there are other groups. I think the State of the Nation report makes it clear, for example, that lone parents with children also have a very high association with various degrees of disadvantage. We can see that in terms of the applications that come through to us through the review process. I certainly wouldn't want to give you the impression, and I apologise if I have, that actually I'm singling out just this group and excluding others, but I'm just giving that as an example.

The other issue is we have to think in terms of the demographics. We are an ageing society. I don't have the economic data to hand, and it may well be that pensioners as a group are perhaps relatively more affluent than the population as a whole. I don't have that information to hand. I think one of the issues, which the Gateshead work shows, is that there appears to be certainly a gap there.

There are two broader questions that come out of this, and they come of any casework allocation process. The first is: are all the people who are eligible applying? Quite rightly, that's one of the issues that's raised in the NAO report because, if you're talking about value for money and making that money most effective, that's important. The other question is the triage issue, which is perhaps more of a process question. The question is: do you actually have applications coming through the process that really stand very little chance? If I may whet your appetite with another statistic, if you look at the Secretary of State's last report, it tells you that 68% of the pensioners who applied to the social fund were excluded because they did not meet the direction. Interestingly, it also tells you that, if you look at the unemployed who applied, 92% of them were excluded because they did not meet the Secretary of State's direction. There are issues here about the applications that are being made and the extent of information or lack of it that people have about the criteria in the social fund.

Q16   Mrs McGuire: There is obviously an interest in raising awareness, but do you have any feel for how many of the applicants who are currently turned down meet the eligibility criteria, and are really being refused on the basis of a judgment by a Decision Maker? In other words, when you go through the objective assessment, they tick all the boxes, but those who meet the criteria still have to be judged by an individual person making a judgment. Do you have any feel for how many? The reason I'm asking the question is I'm wondering whether we will create a demand that we cannot meet by raising awareness, which I think most of us would like to see happen.

Karamjit Singh: May I come back at it on the basis of our casework experience, and how we are required to operate? We are required to operate a process that looks at, first, whether individuals have a qualifying benefit. Then it looks at eligibility and the qualifying process, which is really a question of: assuming people have the appropriate benefit, do they meet what is basically set out in Direction 4? In other words, is this an application from someone who is in care, is this an application from someone who is committing—

Q17   Chair: I think Anne is asking a pretty simple question. If we raise awareness, are we going to run out of money?

Mrs McGuire: Are we going to run out of money sooner than we run out of money at the moment? A significant number of the hundreds of thousands who do not receive any help from the fund must qualify in that objective-assessment, box­ticking exercise, as you've already indicated, but there comes a point when an individual Decision Maker has to balance a budget with the number of priority cases he or she has in front of them.

Karamjit Singh: Forgive me. One of the reasons why I was trying to go through the process was, first, to say that this has to be an objective process. It is governed by legal principles. If people apply because they become more aware of it, the question, it seems to me, that one might want to look at, is about the eligibility criteria that are used. That's one issue. The other issue that one might want to look at is the redistribution of the budget.

Q18   Chair: Around the country?

Karamjit Singh: Yes.

Q19   Chair: Pauline, would you like to add anything to that?

Pauline Adey: There are a couple of questions I'd like to pick up on. One of the reasons why the concern about pensioners arose in the first place was that the Community Care Grant rules, the directions and the delegated legislation, are about care in the community. Two key elements of that are helping people come out of care, such as hospitals, and helping them not to go into care, such as residential care homes. It's about disabled, sick, frail and fragile people. One can see that, as people age, that is a likely situation that they will face. As a consequence, it seemed incongruous that only 9% of the money went to pensioners, when let's say almost 50% went to families under exceptional pressure.

What would happen, if you raised awareness with pensioners and made them have an informed awareness—not just, "Look, everyone can apply for this," but an informed awareness—is that the money would be redistributed. That is true. Our experience of pensioner cases is that a small amount of money can actually make quite a big difference. To give you a very graphic example of that, let us imagine someone elderly who has mobility problems and has a threadbare carpet. You can replace it now and they will be fine or you can wait until they break their hip and go into hospital. For a few hundred pounds you can make quite a lot of difference. Many of the young families, when they come to the fund, tend to have bigger awards. In a high proportion of the cases we see, young families are looking to furnish a whole house. A lot of money might go in furnishing a whole house; a relatively small amount might help an elderly person to stay in their home, even perhaps for a few months, but the overall cost to the public purse is reduced, potentially, because of that. This is where the concern came from initially.

Mrs McGuire: Thank you, that was a very helpful full explanation.

Q20   Jackie Doyle-Price: The NAO report suggests that, by shifting provision away from cash grants to providing the goods directly against agreed lists, we'd get the money to go further. What would be your attitude to that?

Karamjit Singh: Our view, and I made these comments earlier this year in my response the Social Fund Reform Green Paper, is that we would support that. It is about making the money go further. The other interesting thing for us is that we have the feedback from voluntary sector organisations and organisations that do casework, saying to us that, yes, they think this is the way forward. Let's think about individuals here. The point we are making is that, for some individuals, there is the possibility that, if you give them a cash payment, they will quite naturally want to make it go further. People may have received a grant for a brand new item but they might, for example, buy a second­hand item. We support the proposal and we certainly know there are voluntary organisations out there—

Q21   Chair: You don't want to go back to the old voucher system. This is more the family fund scheme.

Karamjit Singh: Yes.

Q22   Joseph Johnson: I just wanted to look at how you ration the resources in this cash­limited scheme. I was very struck, looking at the pattern of annual applications, that it doesn't seem to zoom up during what was the worst recession in 70 years, nor does the number of awards that you made after review. I wondered what the explanation was for that, because I would expect more people to be seeking these emergency payouts in such circumstances. Does that suggest that there is rather a large number of people, a core group of users of this scheme, who know how to work the system?

Karamjit Singh: Can I take that last point first? If you look at page 16 of the NAO report, there is a graph that shows the number of applications people make. One of the striking issues is—that was looking at it over an eight­year period—that it seemed to show me that out of something like £800 million over a year, off the top of my head, about 8% went to people who had applied more than six or seven times. I'm not sure that that data there actually support that particular point. I think the very important point that you're raising is how we make these resources go much further. Clearly there are issues here about the point that's just been raised, in terms of using procurement processes that can do that. On your point about linking it to the recession, I said that applications over three years had gone from 543,000 to 640,000. That to me seemed a significant increase.

Q23   Joseph Johnson: I was looking at the data of Community Care Grants awards. I may have looked at the wrong figure. The peak of the boom, you might say, was 2006­07, and figure 2 shows 312,000 grants made after review, down to 293,000 in 2008­09. Maybe there's some data I'm not looking at.

Phil Gibby: Can I just chip in on that? I think that the Commissioner is actually referring to the 2009­10 data, which are just now available. If you look at the number of applications processed, we talk about 582,000 in 2008­09. It's gone up to 640,000 for 2009­10.

Q24   Chair: There is an important thing that I think Jo is saying. If you look at figure 4, on page 16, two thirds of people who make only one application get only 41% of the money.

Karamjit Singh: The point that you've raised is that there clearly are differences in people's levels of awareness. One cannot discount word of mouth; one cannot discount the fact that people don't understand that this is a discretionary scheme, which is tailored to individual circumstances. One can't discount the fact that people may well be talking to each other and saying, "Well, I've applied and I've got this grant," and someone's thinking, "Well, this is the case." How do we know that? We know from some of the discussions we've had with voluntary sector organisation representatives, because some of them come along with some perceptions, which are not clear, about how this scheme works.

Q25   Joseph Johnson: You'd also know, presumably, from a geographical distribution of where the claims are coming from.

Karamjit Singh: Yes, certainly we're aware of those applications—or the DWP or the Jobcentre are. What we receive is the requests that come through for an external review by us.

Q26   Chair: There are some concerns in the report about administrative error, which is quantified, and fraud, which is not. Pauline, from your day-to-day dealings, what are your views about all that and what do you think could be done to improve that loss?

Pauline Adey: The Inspector's review has two stages. The first stage is to see whether the early decision was reached correctly in law. If it isn't, an error is raised. That error isn't a nitpicking error; it's a substantial error. A substantial number of the cases that we see contain errors. That doesn't mean that every one of the cases that we don't see has an error, because we see only the ones that have come through two stages of review.

Q27   Chair: What proportion of errors?

Pauline Adey: It does rather depend. The overall error rate is around 50% in the Community Care Grants.

Q28   Chair: Fifty per cent.? Actual error, so their mistake about how they've read this 32­page document, is that right?

Pauline Adey: It's not necessarily an error in how they've read the document and the application form. It could be an error in interpreting the law incorrectly. More commonly, the error is around not asking the right questions of the applicant. That can mean that a genuine need has gone unmet, or it could mean a potentially fraudulent or chancy claim has not been addressed. It can fall both sides. If someone makes a statement and it's not challenged and it should have been, an award could possibly be made to someone who didn't, based on the law, deserve that award. Equally, it could be that a very needy case has been swept aside and refused. We're talking about substantial errors. To put that in context, the Department for Work and Pensions has put in place a Quality Assurance Framework, which we assisted them with, which is very rigorous. Actually, they are attempting to improve the standards of decision making, but the two biggest errors we see are failure to ask the right questions and papers that are missing. When the case comes to us, and someone says, "I want a review," we can't get all the papers, particularly the applicants' papers, from Jobcentre Plus. Again, Jobcentre Plus is putting methods in place to improve that, and I'm sure you will speak to them about it but, at the current time, that is still a problem and has been a problem for a while.

Q29   Chair: And fraud?

Pauline Adey: Our approach on fraud is that, if one looks at the evidence and makes sure that all the gaps are filled and that evidence is evaluated correctly, it flushes out those cases that are overstated and those that potentially have been understated. The National Audit Office refers to some research done some years ago, when visits were used. It found that some people had overstated their claims.

Chair: It found that 70% were wrong.

Pauline Adey: It also found that some people had understated.

Chair: Seven out of 10 were wrong.

Pauline Adey: We think a lot of that is about getting the right evidence, asking the right questions, probing when there's a probe to be made and making sure that the facts are found correctly.

Q30   Chair: What would you change?

Pauline Adey: I would say that it has to be a learning process and it isn't a quick fix.

Q31   Mr Bacon: How much do you think this is down to the judgment of the Decision Maker, as to the bona fides of the person in front of them? How much of it is stuff you can't easily put down in a rule book, but is just in the tips of your fingers or in your nostrils? You sometimes see in one's constituency surgery people who are desperate and people who are trying it on. We're all familiar with that. How much of all this is down to the Decision Maker's feel for the job?

Pauline Adey: The Decision Makers tend not to see the customer, so they're not looking at the whites of their eyes, saying, "Are you telling the truth?" They're going on paper, and generally on telephone calls and written correspondence.

Q32   Mr Bacon: The interlocutor who sees the customer is just a person in the Jobcentre. Somebody sees them at some point?

Pauline Adey: No, not generally.

Mr Bacon: Not at all? It's purely paper­based? There's no face­to­face at all?

Pauline Adey: I wouldn't say there is no face-to-face, but there is very little face­to­face.

Karamjit Singh: Can I just come back on that? The essence of this process is that it's fundamentally, in terms of its conception, trying to ensure you have a decision­making process which is very quickly trying to deal with issues that have been raised in a way that's proportionate to the resources that people are seeking. We receive very few complaints about the application form, so that clearly is a very good basis for the information that applicants can provide. We also have to recognise that there are issues such as literacy, skills, etc, in terms of people's ability to write things down. Even though staff in the Jobcentre and, indeed, our inspectors, can't see these people face­to­face, they can clearly pick the phone up, they can obviously contact individuals. The point that Mrs Adey was making was that, assuming the correct inquisitorial non­judgmental approach is applied, there is no reason why they shouldn't have sufficient information to make an informed decision.

Q33   Mr Bacon: Can you just clarify something, because I'm obviously missing part of this? I understand that the Decision Maker—capital D, capital M—is operating a paper­based process. At some point, referring to what Pauline Adey was saying earlier about "failure to ask the right questions", there must be somebody asking or failing to ask those questions. Who is that person?

Pauline Adey: The Decision Maker.

Mr Bacon: That is also paper based?

Pauline Adey: Yes.

Q34   Mr Bacon: This accounts for it. This type of bottom­end rock­face social security is absolutely essential and probably everybody would approve of it as critical, but I can't understand why it costs so much money. The thing that hit me between the eyes, when I read this report, was £19 million out of £141 million. It does say it's only £33 per claim. To put it another way, it's £57,000 per Decision Maker, which is a lot of money. Any charity that was raising £141 million and was spending £19 million of it on admin would be taken to the cleaners and excoriated in the media and in Parliament. Those costs, that £19 million, doesn't even include, as it says in paragraph 11, the cost of processing payments. It doesn't include the amortised IT costs; it doesn't include all the overheads, such as senior management oversight. I would be interested to know from the NAO, do you have a comprehensive figure of the costs? If the £19 million isn't a comprehensive figure, what is?

Phil Gibby: The £19 million is based on the standard charge­out rate plus an element for overheads of that grade or the different grades of the staff involved. You multiply that to get to the £19 million. On that basis, it has to be an approximation.

Q35   Mr Bacon: Your basic problem, according to the report, is that you don't know—you don't monitor—whether you're targeting it sufficiently. Your budget distribution process generates inequalities, which you've referred to. There's very high admin error cost, which you've referred to, and the grant funds awarded for frequently­requested items are not consistent with the lowest prices. Your response to all that is to say that it's in the nature of the discretionary scheme that there'll be variations in the way judgments will be exercised, of course, and that the alternative is to operate a scheme on a rigid, uniform basis. Have you considered the possibility that the alternative is to have much more discretion? It's in the nature of a discretionary scheme, as you say, that it's going to be like this. All administrative law works on the basis of the polarities of rules and discretion. This is very much at the discretion end of things. It's a drop in the ocean compared with the total social security budget. Shouldn't you perhaps be going on a much more discretionary basis, and having much greater variation and being more flexible in how you do things, going down a procurement route and getting more of the available money to those who need it, rather than this enormous chunk of 20 million quid that is being spent running what is really a very small scheme?

Karamjit Singh: There are two issues there. I think you're talking about the Jobcentre Plus cost, and I'm sure that those questions perhaps ought to be directed elsewhere. I'm very happy to talk about the costs of my organisation, which is an independent organisation.

Chair: That's not covered by our session.

Karamjit Singh: Right. Thank you.

Mr Bacon: I'm asking for your opinions about that ratio, because it hits you between the eyes as a problem.

Karamjit Singh: I think it would be appropriate for me to speak about my costs, rather than the Jobcentre Plus costs.

Chair: We'll have Austin then.

Karamjit Singh: You did raise, if I may, an issue about discretion.

Chair: We are just running a bit late, but go on.

Karamjit Singh: Very quickly, in theory, I think the point you make is that the Secretary of State has the power to vary the directions and the guidance if he wishes. Therefore, if he wished to bring in a new eligibility system, he could do so.

Q36   Austin Mitchell: I see that, just following this point about the costs, in 2009­10, you reviewed 25% of Community Care Grants compared with 17.5% the year before, and identified important errors in 47% of the Jobcentre Plus decisions. That's an incredible proportion, isn't it? What's going on? Is the Jobcentre becoming more lax? Is it making more mistakes? Are you becoming more vigilant? What's up?

Karamjit Singh: First, a consistent theme has always been that, with a discretionary based process, there is always this question—some of you already alluded to this—about the quality of the decision making.

Austin Mitchell: I've got discretion, but I don't make that many mistakes.

Karamjit Singh: We've already alluded to the fact that a key factor is how you use your inquisitorial approach. I'm very conscious that Jobcentre Plus is bringing in a major change programme. I've had a series of discussions. It's very clear to me that they have tried to and they are trying to clearly look at not only the training and, as Pauline Adey has mentioned, the QAF programme to assist in the quality of their decision making, they're clearly concentrating their decision making in various groups of people who are working exclusively on the social fund, and they're clearly focusing on certain sites. As Pauline has said, this is not a quick fix. What one does look to, one should look to and one should expect in the future is that actually more cases should be dealt with correctly at the first point of contact.

Q37   Stella Creasy: I have a question about the referral process. It seems to me, if one of the challenges is inappropriate applications and your data talk about customers being offered a crisis loan or other forms of access to the social fund, what evidence do you have of that actually happening? If people make an application that's not eligible, what happens next and what evidence do you have of tracking that to see how the process of dealing with some of the applications is?

Karamjit Singh: We see examples in our casework of reviews that have come all the way through where, in some cases, people ought to have been informed of the fact that there is another component to the social fund, namely a crisis loan, which might have been appropriate. There is an issue there of training individuals. Equally, on the other hand, you see cases where people's attention has been drawn to the fact they don't meet the eligibility for the Community Care Grant. They're told "crisis loan", but then you see them coming through to us and saying, "I don't want a crisis loan; I want a Community Care Grant." In other words, you've got issues around people's understanding. There is a question there of making sure that the Decision Makers are fully cognisant of the different components. Quite clearly, when they're taking a decision, if they decide that something is not eligible in terms of Community Care Grants, perhaps a crisis loan or a budgeting loan might be appropriate.

Q38   Stella Creasy: How do you suggest that happens?

Karamjit Singh: I think that comes to the quality of training and investing in the front-line Decision Makers. I think that certainly we have no reason to take a view that that isn't recognised, and a considerable amount of resources is being put into that.

Q39   Stella Creasy: That goes to Pauline's point, and I'd be interested in your views on this, Pauline, if all the decision making is paper based and there isn't interaction with the individual claimant. What we are all concerned about is that people get the right assistance and help that they are entitled to. The referral process seems to be the nub of some of this. What would you say about where that could happen in the future?

Pauline Adey: The distinct rules that surround Community Care Grants and crisis loans are very different. The Community Care Grant rules are about promoting community care in very specific ways. Many people who are in great need still don't meet those criteria, because they are very specific. If they're in great need and they have an emergency, those can automatically be considered for a crisis loan. In many cases that we see, that has happened. We don't see all the cases, so we don't know what happens on the front line but, in many cases, that does happen. There is a specific part of the law that enables that to happen. What it doesn't allow is for a budgeting loan to be considered; that has to be a separate application. If someone applies for a Community Care Grant and they don't meet the criteria, automatically the Decision Maker can consider that.

Q40   Stella Creasy: They can't say, "Actually, you don't fit these criteria. The most appropriate avenue for you to pursue would be a budgeting loan"?

Pauline Adey: They can tell the individual. I don't know how often that happens. That would be something for Jobcentre Plus to address. Certainly in my organisation that is what happens, but I can't speak for them.

Chair: We've overrun a little bit. Thank you so much for giving us all that very helpful evidence. I hope we can reflect some of the concerns that you've expressed in our final recommendations in the report. Thank you so much. We'll move now to hearing from Jobcentre Plus. Thank you.

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