Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 158)



  140. Could I ask you just one further question; who actually appoints you, Sir Richard?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) The Secretary of State for Social Security.

  141. That is interesting, because you are actually appointed to a job which reviews the activities of the Department of the person who appointed you; do you consider that there is a Human Rights Act issue there, under Article 6?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Yes. I am sure there is a human rights issue there. I think there are quite a lot of other examples of bodies like ours where that is the case, and people make these relationships work. But, clearly, it is an issue of principle.

  142. Has your Department carried out any sort of review of the implications of that Act, in relation to your role?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Yes, we have. The issue of the precise position of our independence is one part of that, we are constituted as an independent statutory body, and, as I say, I think that is respected by the Department, and we can make that work; but, in principle, there is an issue about independence. There is also an issue about oral hearings, because all of our work is dealt with on the papers, now that, of course, brings speed and efficiency and lower cost, but it does not offer the opportunity of someone to state their case in front of the Inspector.[21]

  143. Are you considering changes?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) We have worked up ways in which we could change that but we are not actively considering changes. There are some disadvantages, of course, if one went for oral hearings, it would slow the process down a lot, it would increase the cost of it quite a bit, it is not necessarily an open and shut case, I think, but we have done the contingency work; we could do that, if that became necessary.

  Mr Thomas: Can I say, that is a very diplomatic answer. Thank you very much for struggling with what perhaps is a difficult issue for you. Thank you.

Mr King

  144. Elaine Kempson has said that the one plus with the new system is its simplicity. Do you agree with that?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) I do agree, broadly, with that, yes. There are some pluses to the new Budgeting Loans scheme, which are to do with simplicity, ease of use, AN easier form, much less intrusive questioning, all of those things are pluses. But I think that there are some minuses, which I tried to identify, which are very much to do with the level of indebtedness, the inability of any of us, I think, to explain to the applicant quite what is going on and how this system is working, and certainly we have been critical about the letters that go out to people, and I know the Department are doing some work to try to put that right, I hope that will be put right, but it is very dense, some of the stuff that goes out.

  145. Do you think that the system should be changed to avoid having to put in three separate forms?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) I will ask Pauline, in a moment, because she is familiar with the system before 1999. In principle, yes, but I guess that once you did that you would end up with a more complicated form, you might lose some of the advantages of the Budgeting Loan form, make it more complicated.

  146. Can I ask what different information is necessary in order to be considered for the three different forms?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) The Community Care Grant, particularly, there are five specific qualifying conditions for Community Care Grant, which have largely to do with either resettling in the community or remaining in the community, as opposed to going into residential care, and so there is a lot of information that would be required to substantiate that, but it is not applicable to Budgeting Loans, for example. But Pauline might want to comment.
  (Ms Adey) Because the qualifying conditions are very different, the Budgeting Loans scheme is a very simple formulaic approach to set criteria, how many people are in the family and how long have you been on benefit, and what is your Social Fund debt, really, that is the extent of that questioning.

  147. So you know all those answers before you ask the questions?
  (Ms Adey) The Community Care Grant form is much more complicated, it talks all about the sort of community care needs, health needs, all those sorts of things; and, again, the crisis loan is about emergency, disaster, what risks to health and safety exist. So, because the qualifying conditions are very different, either you have three separate forms, which are simpler, or you combine it and ask a lot of questions of everyone. So I think it is swings and roundabouts, really, the simplicity. If you are targeted at the right type of application then probably the separate forms are better, if you get the right advice.

  148. I certainly do not want to encourage you to give out any more 31-page forms for things, I think things are complicated enough. But I think that it really should not be beyond your wit and wisdom to have one form, or if somebody applies for a Community Care Grant they would automatically be considered for the others, without having to fill in another form, because you have really got plenty of information, if you have gone for the top tier, have you not?
  (Ms Greenshields) That was pretty much the situation before the scheme changed, and there was a dual application form for Community Care Grants and Budgeting Loans. There was always a separate form for crisis loans, and I think there are issues and advantages and disadvantages both ways. We do sometimes see the occasional case where the application is for a Budgeting Loan, and the applicant has volunteered information about the circumstances, which indicates to us that a grant might be appropriate. But, given the changes in the legislation, the inspector has no power to consider a grant, the way things are at the moment. We do not have any figures on that, it is something we come across occasionally, when we are dealing with cases.

  149. Sir Richard, you say in your written evidence that you believe that people who apply for Social Fund do not always get the best advice from your staff. Can you give us some indication as to what you meant by that?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Yes. That is an issue which I think is quite long-standing. We get a lot of feedback, from particularly representative organisations, that applicants are given advice that does not lead them to ask for an independent review, and I have had this from Benefits Agency staff as well, who acknowledge that, but say that they are doing it in a context of just trying not to raise expectations, trying to say to people, `Well, look, you're not going to qualify, really it is not worth doing.' Now our position must be that people must have access to our Independent Review Service, and one of the things that we have suggested, I think, is that it might be better if they applied directly to us rather than through the Benefits Agency. We talked to Mr Thomas about independence. If there is an issue, it is the extent to which we are perceived as genuinely independent, and funnelling everything through the Benefits Agency does not help with that, I think.[22]

  150. If these people are all turned away, it is very difficult for you to review them, where they exist?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) I am not, for a moment, suggesting everybody is turned away, that is not the position, but we do pick up some anecdotal evidence that Benefits Agency staff sometimes try to advise people that there is not any prospect in pursuing their appeal, and therefore it is not worth doing.

  151. How do you explain the drop in the applications for Community Care Grants, from 1.1 million to some 643,000 between two years; that is interesting, is it not?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) It is interesting, I cannot explain it. I do not know if either of my colleagues can.
  (Ms Adey) I think probably the Department of Social Security might be in a better position to answer that question. But one of the things that occurred to us, in analysing these figures, was that the figures used to be counted as dual applications, the Community Care Grant and Budgeting Loans applications, and now they are all counted separately, and some of the drop may be connected with that, but really the Department might be better equipped to answer that question.

  152. I know that my colleagues on the Committee would share my concern that, if people have not been allowed the opportunity actually to make an application, that is a denial of natural justice for those people, and it is a very serious charge against the Agency?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) They are relatively clear about the terms. I am not saying that people are being denied a chance to make an application to the Fund; what we have picked up and what I am reporting is that there is some suggestion that they are not always advised of their rights about access to our independent review.

  153. How confident are you that people who are actually given a decision when they apply to the Social Fund, that the information that they get back actually makes them feel that they have been properly considered and they feel they understand the reasons for the decision?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) We are critical of the letters of explanation that go out, and, as I say, I am well aware the Department have responded to that and are doing some work to try to improve that situation, and I hope that will yield some good results. I am perfectly confident that the applicants receive always the leaflet about our service and the form that they would need to apply, there is a thing that goes out with the decisions, I have no problems about that. But I think what does happen sometimes is that people are told that, "It's not really worth pursuing, you've already had it reviewed in the Benefits Agency and why do you want it reviewed again?" kind of thing, and that is what we must guard against.

  154. It is very worrying, it is a change of culture you are after, is it not, really?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Yes, and it has not come out in the evidence so far, but we do meet each of the areas around the country once a year and feed back this sort of information to them, and, indeed, we feed back any sorts of issues that arise from the way in which they are operating the scheme as against the kind of national best practice, national average.

Mrs Humble

  155. In summing up, I was going to ask you about why you think you have overturned such a high proportion of awards that were turned down, and also why you see so few people, but I think you have actually answered that, in your recent answers to my colleagues. But, given your earlier statement about the lack of advice that claimants may get from the Benefits Agency, do you think that claimants who have access to independent advice are more likely to come to you and then succeed in having a previous refusal overturned then actually access money?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) We have got a little bit of evidence, we need to do some more work on this, but some 10 to 15 per cent of the people who come to us have somebody representing them or helping them with it, and I think, in the last 12 months, or so, we do think that they have a slightly better prospect of the decision being changed, when they get to us, I am sure that representation will help. One of the things though that has not come out is that we do find, when we are dealing with them at our level, quite a lot of the changes are made on the basis actually of getting more information and spending a bit more time, I think. We are perhaps not under the same kind of pressure that the Benefits Agency are, we are able to pull together the information that is necessary to make a decent decision, and I think, sometimes, some of the early decisions, at the first stage, are made without all the information that ought to be there.

  156. So, to sum up, your opportunity to tell us in what ways you think that the Social Fund can be improved, and you have already covered some to do with transparency and better communication at the Benefits Agency for claimants, but then, equally, in looking at what sort of information is available for cases; but would you urge more money into the system, and in what other ways can it be improved?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) I think that you have summarised most of the points that we would make. I think that there is a problem in relation to the budget and how that impacts on the payment of high priority, and there may not be a huge problem, in money terms, but it is something that gives us concern. We think it is distorting, we think it is preventing the scheme actually meeting the objectives it is set out for, that is really what we are after, is trying to make sure that everybody gets a fair opportunity and gets their case handled as quickly and reasonably as possible.


  157. Presumably, it is early days for you, as an individual, but are you pretty confident that, if you came to some firm conclusions about recommendations you would like the Department to take on board, you would get at least a fair hearing on that? And there may not be reasons for giving you everything that you would really, really want, but are you confident that you have got already a listening ear available to you at the Department, on the areas, the like of which we have been discussing this morning, that cause you some concern?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) Yes; it is early days for me. My predecessor clearly made the Department aware of many of the issues that are in the written evidence. We have structures set up for us to feed back to the Department and to the Benefits Agency and we use those robustly. I have no concerns about getting a fair hearing. As to whether things will change, I will tell you in a little while.

  158. Is there anything else that you think that the Committee should be looking at, in the course of the short inquiry we have just started?
  (Sir Richard Tilt) No. We have offered one or two things that we will give you, during the course of the evidence. We would be very happy, if you have other things that you want some evidence on, or some data, to give you as good a service as we can, and turn stuff round very quickly for you.

  Chairman: That is very kind of you; we appreciate that very much. And thank you very much for your appearance this morning.

21   See Ev. p40. Back

22   See Ev. p40. Back

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