Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Social Fund Commissioner (SF 24A)

Question 91

  We need to correct the final sentence of the response to this question. Where an office is meeting only the "highest of high priorities" and this is supported by budgetary evidence, Inspectors are more likely to confirm decisions. However, neither the Secretary of State's directions nor guidance make any reference to "highest of high priorities". This raises some issues about current practice that we intend to investigate.

Question 92

  The following is a list of the District Offices who as far as the IRS is aware have given guidance to decision-makers that the grants budget can meet only the "highest of the high priorities".
Birmingham North West
Bristol South
Cardiff West and Vale
Eastern Valleys
Gwyneddigion Maldym
Liverpool North
Mercia Operations West
Mid Glamorgan
North Cheshire
Solent and Forest
South Cheshire
South Devon
Surrey Group
West Sussex
West Wales

  The guidance to decision-makers in most other Districts is that the grants budget can meet high priorities. However, IRS casework suggests that this is not what happens in practice. Inspectors regularly see cases that are deemed not to meet the qualifying conditions of Direction four when clearly the conditions are met; or needs that are given medium or low priority when the need is high priority. Although not conclusive, the indications are that it is pressures on the budget that drives such decisions. In cases of this type Inspectors will substitute a decision and award the high priority needs. This point is explained in paragraph 18 of our written submission and in the transcript in response to question 112.

Question 100

  Although the decision on priority is discretionary, the discretion must be exercised reasonably. The practice of re-designating priority because of budget pressures would not constitute a reasonable exercise of discretion if the evidence shows that the needs are high priority. Priority has to be decided on the basis of the applicant's circumstances and with particular regard to the nature, extent and urgency of the need. The budget is not a relevant factor in deciding priority. Only after priority has been decided should the decision-maker have regard to the state of the budget to decide whether it can meet the level of priority assigned to the applicant's needs.

Question 112

  The final sentence is not complete. The point that we wished to make here is as follows:

  Given that there are many more offices that say they can meet all high priorities than there are who say they can only meet the highest of high priorities, the greater pool of cases and consequently substitutions arise from the former.

Question 129

  R v Secretary of State for Social Services and Social Fund Inspector, ex p. Stitt, Sherwin and Roberts (February 21, 1990), D.C. pp. 16-22 and 23-28.

  The challenge in the Roberts case concerned the Secretary of State's guidance given for the purpose of controlling and managing the budget allocation. The primary legislation made the budget no more than a relevant consideration. However, its consideration was subject to the Secretary of State' directions and guidance. The Secretary of State had not issued any directions about the budget. But he had issued guidance.

  The Courts made it clear that directions are binding but guidance is not. Guidance is to be taken into account and cannot compel a particular decision. The guidance was declared unlawful as it was written in the mandatory language of direction rather than in the language of guidance.

  Following the judgment, the primary legislation was amended to give the Secretary of State an express power to issue directions with respect to the control and management of the budgets. Under this power the Secretary of State issued directions 40-42 which require that the budget must not be exceeded.

Question 142

  Although the IRS is not actively considering changes to introduce oral hearings, it is actively seeking to improve the paper system to enable greater understanding and more effective participation in the review process.The improvements involve sending the applicant a list of the facts upon which the Inspector's decision will be based and an explanation of the important issues to be decided. At the same time the Inspector will ask questions to elicit other relevant information and invite the applicant to comment on the facts and provide any additional information he considers to be relevant.

Questions 148 and 149

  We would like to clarify a couple of points here:

    —  The Commissioner as the head of the Independent Review Service for the Social Fund appoints Social Fund Inspectors to conduct independent reviews of decisions made at the Benefits Agency.

    —  The DSS designs and issues application forms and it is their staff who give advice to social fund applicants and not the Commissioner's staff.

Ann Greenshields

for Sir Richard Tilt, Social Fund Commissioner

22 February 2001

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