Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. So, in effect, there is quite a lot of discretion in the local district as to what is or is not a high priority, so, effectively, they can say, "We are meeting the high priority needs," simply by saying that needs which, objectively, with the best will in the world, might be considered high priority, in fact, are just redesignated?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Yes; well, it is a discretionary scheme, and the discretion is operated first at the decision-maker, then at review within the Benefits Agency and then by ourselves at the independent stage.

  101. Then is the answer simply to put more money in the scheme, or are there more fundamental problems, that money would not sort out?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) It strikes us, I think, that the scheme is under great pressure because of the amount of money that is available, and that some of the problems we are talking about do derive from just the quantum of the money. It depends which scheme you are talking about. On the Budgeting Loans front, we would certainly like to see some changes in relation to the way existing debt is counted and handled; that seems to us to rule out quite a lot of people at an early stage.

Mrs Humble

  102. At the risk of asking a very naive question about your role within the whole structure, when you overturn a decision, and you are overturning a lot of them, what happens, does it go back to that district, and do you require them to make the payment, and, if so, out of what budget, especially if it is one of these districts that is spent up?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) That is a good question. Yes, it goes back and is paid from the same original budget. But, of course, although we have given you percentages of the number that we are overturning, we are only dealing with quite a small percentage of the total number of cases, so the impact, in budget terms, will not be huge, I think, from the decisions that we make.

  103. If they are spent up, there is not the money for the local district to pay out?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) I understand the point, but it is not spent up, it is profiled, is it not, there is a kind of running profile across the year, that people are trying to not exceed; now the decisions that we make and change will change, at local level, the position slightly. But it runs across the whole year, there is a scheme for providing some additional allocations in year, from time to time. But it is a perfectly right question, it is very tight.

Mr King

  104. Pauline Adey said that almost anything could qualify, in theory at least, would that include things like, say, clothes for a job interview, or maybe for a family wedding, or something like that?
  (Ms Adey) Certainly, clothing may qualify; clothing would be unlikely to qualify simply for a job interview, it would depend on the nature, extent and urgency of the need for the Community Care Grant.

  105. And who would decide? It is obvious that one could end up with a situation where someone has come out of prison, or been a drug addict who has been rehabilitated, and so on. For that person, it might be very, very important, but not for everyone. Who exercises the discretion, in that instance?
  (Ms Adey) Discretion starts, certainly in Community Care Grants, at the first line, when the person presents themselves at the local Benefits Agency and makes an application, so the decision-maker will use discretion to decide that case, from the off. What I would say is though, that there is a series of hurdles, if you like, eligibility and qualification, that the person would have to get through first. So if someone presented, for example, and just said, "I want a suit to go to a wedding," there would have to be particularly unusual circumstances for that to qualify for a Community Care Grant, because the Secretary of State's direction that sets out the rules for a Community Care Grant is quite stringent, and it is unlikely that that kind of need would even pass the qualifying hurdle. And it is only when they pass the qualifying hurdle that they then can compete for the money. Really, that is where the budget starts to come into the equation.

  106. So, in practice, although in theory anything can qualify, there is a series of hurdles, which mean that that is not true, and especially in a limited fund and a capped fund?
  (Ms Adey) Given that the Fund is attempting to meet Community Care needs, it is possible that someone would have a need for something, for example, a television set, if they are housebound and they are disabled and ill, it might be very important for them, but for a fit, healthy individual it would not have the same kind of meaning. So that is what I meant by flexibility; in theory, it could meet those needs.

Mr Dismore

  107. Just looking a little bit more at your role here, presumably, one would see this as a sort of national benchmark, and that you are all operating—presumably, you talk amongst yourselves about where things are going, and so forth?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) The Independent Review Service is one service, based in Birmingham, and one of the key bits of my role is to try to encourage consistency and provide advice to the inspectors who are working to achieve that end.

  108. Is that advice fed back out to the districts, so that they know where you are coming from; presumably, there is no sort of record, or are there formal reports of your decisions that are promulgated?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Individual decisions, of course, go back to the district where they are made, but we publish, three or four times a year, a digest of decisions and best practice advice, if you like, so that people are well aware of the trend of decisions that we are making.

  109. But are they generally available? We have, through the National Insurance Commission, found similar information locked in a basement with "The Way of the Tiger" written on the Door?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) It depends whom you mean they are available to. They are certainly available to social security and Benefits Agency staff, and seem to be well received by them.

  110. Can they be seen by claimants?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) No.
  (Ms Greenshields) We do actually send them to every Benefits Agency office in the country.

  111. But they are not available to claimants?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) We send them to local rights organisations. No, there is not a great stack of them waiting for claimants to pick up.
  (Ms Adey) We issue around 5,000 of those digests each issue; we do that three or four times a year, and they go in equal measure to the DSS side and to the applicants' advisers, but we do not send them habitually to individual applicants.

  112. Is there a geographical trend to the cases that you uphold that is linked to the budgets of the districts concerned. For example, the 16 that have run out of money, are you going to be turning over decisions there much more frequently, for example, than in districts where they are not quite so strapped?
  (Ms Adey) There is a link, but, in actual fact, the link is probably the opposite of the one you are suggesting. Where the districts are presenting evidence that they are in dire straits with their budget, the inspector has to take that into account, that is part of the decision-making process, in every case. So the inspector is more likely to confirm the decision from the district which has been very honest and open about the level they are meeting. Where we are overturning decisions, and it is one of the reasons that explains the high substitution rate, is where districts are saying they are meeting all of their high priorities and their evidence supports that, but in reality they are not meeting all their high priorities. When the case gets to the inspector, the inspector will go on the evidence, and invariably pay the high priorities. So those are the ones that are getting overturned.[18]

  Mr Dismore: So, effectively, you are institutionalising the postcode lottery?


  113. You are reinforcing it?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) In those ways, yes.

Mr Dismore

  114. You are reinforcing the postcode lottery, because there is no sort of central pool of money that you can refer people to, and say, `Well, they've run out of money, it's not fair;' so you can have two applicants, with exactly the same case, from different parts of the country, one will get the money and one will not?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Yes, that is possible.
  (Ms Adey) What I would say is that it is very rare to get exactly the same case.


  115. That is just as well; surely, that is contrary to natural justice?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) I think it is set within the scheme that allows for those differential budgets to be set across the country.

  116. Are you saying to me that that is set out in regulations, that that loop that you have just described is clearly set out and established in regulations?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) That is my understanding, yes.
  (Ms Adey) The structure that the law allows is that the Secretary of State allocates budgets to districts, it is not one national budget, the Secretary of State carves up the cake, and the money is allocated to the individual districts; and there are then responsibilities on the area decision-maker to give advice as to the level of need that can be met in that area. So, in terms of allocating the money, the districts cannot reallocate the money, even if they find that district A is better off than district B.

Mr Dismore

  117. So you cannot vire from one district to another?
  (Ms Adey) The districts cannot do that, no.

  118. The Secretary of State can?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Yes.

  119. So what that would mean, presumably, is, if one district had been making its decisions on the basis that it was going to be short of cash by the end of the year, and another district was making decisions on the basis that it was going to be alright at the end of the year, then halfway through the year there is a levelling-up process, all the decisions made in the generous district earlier on could have been made differently if it had been at the other half of the year?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Yes, I think that is fair. It does lead to inconsistencies, that is one of the points that we are making.

18   See Ev. p40. Back

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