Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320
WEDNESDAY 28 FEBRUARY 2001
320. Could I just ask you, just generally, or
Beth, I think, more specifically, have you costed the package
that you are proposing in your evidence, the different grant regime?
We have seen that familiar slow smile.
(Ms Lakhani) I think that is, actually, a difficult
thing to do, because one is looking not just at the cost to the
Government now but the impact on families at a later date. There
is, again, and I have it here but I will not rustle around and
get it, abundant evidence that families that live on very low
incomes may have children of low birth weight, that in turn results
in problems with chronic illnesses later in life.
321. So it is the opportunity issue, for a start?
(Ms Lakhani) It is the opportunity issue, yes. So
you have got costs which may be met by other parts of Government
because you do not invest in families at an earlier stage.
322. Is there any way that anyone could cost
what you are proposing?
(Ms Lakhani) Yes; it would be possible to cost a number
of the options, I imagine it could be done.
(Mr Barton) We have not tried to put a cost on it,
because, frankly, we do not have enough information to do so,
and really that is one reason why we feel that it is high time
that a thorough public review was actually held of what the options
are in this field. Our feeling is that it is absolutely clear
there is not enough money going in, but we would suggest that
the Government really needs to look at what it can achieve by
different forms of expenditure in this area, because, basically,
there is frightfully little information about the whole operation
and effects of the Social Fund at the moment.
(Ms Dent) Could I just add one sentence and say that
I think we would be very pleased to contribute evidence that we
have towards what we think are essential needs, what child development
life-stage payments would be, but what we really do not have is
the information about the overall numbers of children, and so
forth, at the ages, and that is information held by officials.
But, I think, speaking on behalf of us all, we would be very happy
to work with them on the criteria, which they could then cost
on their data.
323. That is an offer that we may make to the
Minister, on your behalf.
(Ms Dent) Thank you.
324. If I may put one last question. Looking
at seven on the list,
many of the grant payments should be viewed as an interim measure
until the Government has abolished poverty; now this has in it
the seeds of something that made me very worried. It is a sort
of sunset clause, of which I know the Chairman is inordinately
fond. Honestly, is there ever going to be a time when we are on
the sunlit uplands, where the rivers flow with milk and honey,
and we can say poverty is gone and we do not need to worry about
crisis; and, if not, are you not storing up a large hostage to
fortune by saying that?
(Ms Lakhani) I think you have to look
at expenditure on different groups in society as a whole, and
say can you justify this expenditure on this particular group
that has a particularly low income; and are there ways of, I heard
the end of a discussion where you were talking about how do you
control it. If you have a minimum income standard, a minimum income
standard as an objective can be both a combination of objective
assessments and subjective assessments, involving what society
thinks, at large, are essentials for people to have, and those
combined can produce figures which, it is thought, is a necessary
figure on which people can live. That would be an objective. At
the same time, you have the level of benefit rates, which we know
the Government is gradually increasing, and they are moving towards,
hopefully, those minimum income standards, but there are no Government-recognised
minimum income standards as yet. And we would, again, think that
if you are looking at this issue comprehensively then this would
be one way of taking it forward, if the Government were to do
what, in fact, the European Union has suggested, that states do
have a minimum income standard. But this minimum income standard
itself is not a fixed and final figure, it reflects what people
believe are essentials. We believe, now, that people should have
a fridge, or a washing-machine, but a hundred years ago they did
not exist, or people did not think that certain standards of living
were essential. So times change, and expectations change, and
what is accepted as reasonable and decent change.
325. I am not sure if that gets you off the
hook though, because that is a good argument for the minimum standard,
which is something we have discussed, and I think we will come
back to you on this, but it does not solve the problem; because,
I think, following your logic, there would be a peak based around
this grants package that you are proposing, but then, as we move
towards a minimum standard setting and a more generous level of
benefits that allow people to budget realistically, and so forth,
that would decline. I am just anxious that there is a realistic
assessment of risk, in all of this, that there are always going
to be occasions, under any circumstance, and with any minimum
standard, when disaster can strike?
(Mr Barton) I would think that there will always be
such situations, there will always be situations where families
break up, in very difficult circumstances, leaving one half of
the family with no furniture, etc., people will always lose money
and have it stolen and have other, flooding crises, I suppose,
various crises in their lives. So, even with a much improved,
regular payments system, which I am sure all of us sitting here
would like to see, there still will be, I think, a need for a
system which helps people to cope with the financial implications
of those sorts of situations.
(Ms Dent) Could I just add to that, because, I think,
as a grant-making charity, we have an interesting perspective,
going back sort of pre the changes, in the eighties. If we look
at then what we were funding, clearly, we were still getting a
number of applicants for essential items. They were mainly people
who were falling through the safety-net, and there will always
be people who have got exceptional needs and they do not fit within
the criteria, you can never set a system that will prescribe for
that. So we have always had a residual funding responsibility,
or we have taken it upon ourselves to do this. But what we were
then funding a lot more of than we do now, was things that improve
the quality of children's lives, and which no system would ever
see as essential. So that could be anything, from, say, music
lessons for exceptionally gifted children, right through to a
kid who is going off the rails and their social worker will say,
"If we could only give this kid a computer and lessons, this
will really channel his energies into something more constructive."
It is that sort of thing, which now forms under 5 per cent of
the sort of work we are doing. And, I think, speaking on behalf
of all charitable trusts, we would like to get back to that system,
where we are funding things that will improve the quality of life
and will never be essential items.
326. Why do you not do it all then?
(Ms Dent) We could just do it, but why could we not
do it, or why do we not? Well, we have these debates, from time
to time, actually, but then we say, well, how can you be putting
a computer and music lessons into a child's life when they have
got no curtains, they are sharing their beds with three other
brothers and sisters, and they do not have a fridge, they do not
have a cooker for hot meals. And that is a problem.
327. Sorry, I did not make that question clear.
Why do you not do the whole Social Fund, why does not the charitable
(Ms Dent) So we go back to the days of the Poor Law?
I do not think so.
Chairman: Well, if the earlier witnesses, from
the Local Government Association, were saying, "Well, we
can't do it because we're supposed to be on the client's side,"
and all the rest of it, the charitable world does not have that
defence available to it. Why do we not just give you a big suitcase
full of money and say, "Do it the way that you think is best"?
328. Is George Bush right?
(Ms Dent) I could not possibly comment.
329. It is certainly a serious question?
(Ms Dent) Yes, I understand. I think there are two
issues that the charitable sector would face. Firstly, it is very
large sums of money, and, as Gareth Thomas already said, we are
funding a very small number of people overall. I think there is
an issue about whether charities set up to do a national scheme
of this size, and I have to say I do not think that we are. I
also do not think it is our role to take on a function, of what
I think is the state's within this country. I think it is a state
responsibility to run Income Support. And the third thing is,
there is not enough money in the system, so I do not think that
either the Local Government Association or ourselves would ever
recommend taking it on, because there is not enough money to fund
330. So I could tempt you with big sums of money?
(Ms Dent) I would hate to turn down big sums of money,
you are quite right, but, I think, on this occasion, I would;
331. If you take that argument to its logical
conclusion, there is no point in even you performing the modest
role that you do at the moment; that is an argument for not having
any private charitable involvement in the system at all, and surely
you cannot be advocating that?
(Ms Dent) I wish we were able to spend our money on
something which was not essential items, and I think that is the
332. We understand that.
(Ms Lakhani) I think it is the state's responsibility
to provide the necessary financial support, and that is CPAG's
belief. And, if you were to return to the regime of people relying
on charities for these lump-sum payments, you would be emphasising,
yet again, that this is a group apart, that these are not part
of society, you would be socially excluding them by saying, "Well,
we're not going to provide for you through the national system,
we're going to provide for you in this particular way, through
charitable payments." And, again, taking that to its logical
conclusion, the whole system could be run privately, or the NHS
could be run privately, and we think those things are the responsibility
of the state, and that families will benefit. Families have responsibilities
but they have rights, too, and, to carry out those rights, they
need the state to finance them properly.
333. So do I take it that, just finally, if
the functions of the Department of Social Security are being currently
reconsidered, where do you think the responsibility for the administration
of the Social Fund should fall, in future, if there is to be a
reconfiguration in the Department? Would you leave it where it
is, subject to the suggested improvements that we have been talking
about earlier, or is there a cleverer way of accommodating that
within the system of central government, or, indeed, would your
life be easier if your colleagues in local government took the
challenge of this poisoned chalice?
(Mr Barton) I think that we would agree that it is
certainly a Government responsibility to find the money for these
essential needs that people have. Although I think we have reported
a lot of situations where people are not very happy with the experiences
they have had with the Department of Social Security, I think
they do actually think that is the place they should go, that
is the place that deals with their money problems. And so, I think,
on those grounds, we would probably think that a better performing
DSS would be an appropriate place to provide this. The only place
we think that there may be a case for looking at the question,
without saying that we have a particular answer we would see,
is that, if there was a sort of expanded Budgeting Loans scheme,
which worked very much on absolutely objective criteria, there
might be a case for some independent agency actually running such
a scheme; we think it might be worth looking at it, if the role
was changing, but there would be pros and cons then, I think.
(Ms Dent) Could I just add though, you did talk to
the Local Government Association about this, and they said that
they would recommend to their politicians that it would be turned
down if offered. And I think that their track record, in fact,
of administering large sums of money, like Housing Benefit, has
not been very successful. And even if they privatised it, there
are so many authorities where it is a far less than satisfactory
performance, and many people are suffering, I think, as a result
of that and being made homeless, so it is a problem. But I think,
also, I would just want to reaffirm that a lot of the problems
that we are having with the Social Fund are actually because it
is inadequately funded. It is not, necessarily, because of huge
great areas of inefficiency, and I think that is the point that
I would want to make.
(Ms Lakhani) Just on the question of reorganisation
of the DSS and DfEE, maybe, and the Working Age Agency, and so
forth, and the development of Personal Advisers, I think that
is a possible area for development, and also the introduction,
this is only going to help families with children, but the introduction
of the Integrated Child Credit could be a mechanism for passporting,
so that you do not have this cut-off between people in and out
of work. And one of the problems has been, should payments, or
some payments, not necessarily all payments, be accessible to
people on other benefits; so I think that is another way of looking
at it. And I think maybe the purpose of the benefit, the purpose
of the payment, may also influence which Department of State delivers
Chairman: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,
for your appearance this morning, it has been very useful and
very helpful to the Committee; thank you very much for coming.
23 See Ev. p.87. Back