Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440 - 448)



  440. Can I also ask about ethnicity, because a lot of the statistics are not broken down by the ethnicity of the applicant groups, which does raise a question as to whether or not you can check whether there are fair initiative procedures in relation the one ethnic group or another, and whether people may be discriminated against. Do you not think it would be useful to have the ethnicity monitored?
  (Angela Eagle) I am never against collecting figures on ethnicity to ensure that our systems are appropriate. I will write to you about it.[14] I would have to be persuaded that the cost of collecting this kind of information justifies any benefits that could come out of it. I have not, again, had any evidence of systematic racism or racism in the way in which the Social Fund works, which is over and above the kind of comments you get about the system itself.

  441. I will give you a hypothetical problem, I do not know whether it exists or not, supposing you have somebody from a traditional, white, protestant, Anglo-Saxon background and he is faced with an application for a particular item from somebody from an ethnic community, which is important given the cultural requirement of that community, but which may be missed by the person who is making that decision and, therefore, it would be given a lower priority than would apply to the circumstances of that individual.
  (Angela Eagle) If it is a budgeting loan what it is for should not be relevant at all in terms of how that system works. If it is a Community Care Grant then Direction 4 applies. If it is a crisis loan then it would have to be an emergency. I am not sure how your hypothetical situation may pan out in the way the system works. I am not against doing work to ensure that we are not discriminating against the ethnic minorities but, as I said earlier, I would have to be convinced that the amount of money and costs that we would be taking on in being able to come up with some robust figures in this respect for the Social Fund alone, rather than as part of more general work that the Department might be doing, would be worth the effort.

  442. The last point I want to make is that for certain types of claimants who are clearly going to be on long term benefit, for example those with disabilities or single parents with young children, would it not be better, instead of putting them through the whole of the Social Fund arrangements, to look at the level of benefit to enable them to budget themselves properly for these one off payments for household equipments so they do not have to go through the whole stigma of making Social Fund applications?
  (Angela Eagle) I do not accept that lone parents are automatically going to be on benefits for a long time. I think that was the case in previous eras but it is actually an aim of this Government via the New Deal and the Working Families Tax Credit, and all of the extra help with child care, to try to deal with and assist lone parents off benefits, so I do not accept the premise of your question. You can always look at introducing extra grants. If you do, then that can have a beneficial effect in one area, in that the people who get the grant benefit from it, but it can also mean there is less money in other areas for loans, or whatever, to ensure that other needs are met. There is always that choice. We have talked about the old system, which was mainly grant based, and the defects that that had, which were considerable. What you are suggesting is a slight move back to that. There is always a change that you can have in the balance.

  443. What I am trying to do is to recognise the realities that there are particular groups. In fact there are lone parents who are on benefit for a long time, and people with severe disabilities are going to be on benefit for a long time. It is simply a question of recognising the realities that there are always going to be some people for whom work is not an option.
  (Angela Eagle) Not necessarily lone parents.

  444. The object is to concentrate help on those who need it, who cannot provide for themselves through work. In that context, bearing in mind they are always going to be clients of the Social Fund, would it not be best to look at the benefits level they receive to enable them to budget for those things that they are always going to need to buy.
  (Angela Eagle) I would say that we have done already by some of the increases we have made in the income related benefits, the premiums for those with disabilities and those with children, I mentioned some of those in my opening statement. Yes, you have to find a balance. The Social Fund is not always the best place through which to offer this extra assistance.


  445. Mental illness was something that struck me from some of the evidence we have had. Coming from my constituency background, visiting North Kensington was a general education for me in all sorts of ways. It struck me very forcibly the difficulties that even professional advisers have with claimants suffering mental illness. It is difficult to make provisions specifically for individual groups, but I certainly think that some thought needs to be given to issues of that kind, I guess covered by the disability point.
  (Angela Eagle) I think there is some interesting work being done in the ONE pilot, with advocacy for people with mental illness to make sure they can access the system in a more appropriate manner. It is always difficult for a system which relies on people making applications if they are mentally ill, for them to be able to get round the system in a way we were talking about earlier. Being able to offer that assistance into the system and advocacy throughout it is an important thing. I do not accept that people with mental illness do not have the possibility of working either, neither would some of the advocacy and charities that have that aspiration. We have to work on that aspect, but we also have to ensure that people who have mental illness problems can access the help that is there for them in an appropriate way and are not just left to their own devices to try and find their way around the system.

  446. Can I ask you one or two questions about the wider future picture. You said earlier, and it was important that we take a careful note that you are still considering where the Social Fund eventually resides within the structure. You mentioned yourself in relation to some of the questions that Doug Naysmith was asking about the PAT and the Social Exclusion Agenda that there is a lot of thinking being given to all of that. You just wonder, is this not a very important opportunity where there is reconstruction in some of the Department, there are some very good ideas, for example Professor Craig's ideas. He actually said he gave up. He had all of these ideas in 1992—maybe in 1992 trying to get any progress out of Social Fund, maybe any sensible person would give up—and he thought he had some fresh thinking, he had some blue sky thoughts about how you fundamentally and radically reform the system, leaving aside the amounts of money you put into it. You cannot help thinking to yourself, maybe this is an opportunity to do some of that. What you are suggesting, and we do not want to diminish it, because it is a difficult situation and there certainly have been improvements and we would want to recognise all of that. There is, as Karen Buck said, a huge dysfunction between the experience and the policy making in our short inquiry so far. Maybe the real answer is that you have not had the time, because there are a lot of other departmental changes going on as well. If that is true that is a perfectly reasonable answer and we are not critical about that. Are you really seizing the moment to see what reconstruction in the long-term could be made of some of these issues, getting the balance changed for grants, and all of that? Is there not a chance for change?
  (Angela Eagle) I do not think we have closed the door on any of this. We have made some reforms, which I have talked about today, right at the beginning of the first Parliament, particularly for budgeting loans, which I think have been beneficial, we are putting some more money in. At the same time we have developed an enormous change programme for the welfare system as a whole which ranges across and which the Social Fund will fit into. It is not going to be left to be thought about afterwards, it has to go with the modernisation I was talking about. That does not mean to say that at some time in the future we might not want to have a more fundamental look at how it works. I, for one, would always be open to ideas about how to get the balance right between grants and loans and what might be done to help those that are really at the very bottom of the pile with the Social Fund, particularly the discretionary part of the Social Fund. It is a difficult area of policy. It is not easy to see what the absolutely Utopian, best design of the system would be. I do not think we have one. I do not think we have ever had a system that has met all of the needs. I do not think we have had a system which has always been fair in the way it allocates money, whether it be grants or loans, to those who are needy at the bottom of the pile. I would not want to close the door at all on fundamental reform in the future.

  447. Professor Craig should not give up hope altogether?
  (Angela Eagle) I do not think he should, he could send me his work.

  448. I think he may. He gave a very compelling piece of evidence to the Committee. You could actually separate it into three separate stands, some of which was life grants, and matters of that kind. No one is arguing there has been an institutional change of a fundamental kind in the last four years, we are not criticising you for not having done anything. You can only do so much in a given period of time. If you are seriously saying to us you might be willing to look in the future at some of these ideas we would like to help to contribute to producing some of the ideas and maybe log into the system, based on things like professor Craig's work. The worry is that three days after polling day, whenever that may be, the day may dawn when the Prime Minister may say, "We are going to do all this, the Department is going to change in this way", and you find that the Social Fund gets left out almost as an afterthought. I hear what you say and I believe it, I am sure you are genuine about it, but the process and the momentum may work to such an extent that you are left tagging on what you have at the moment to a system. You might end up with three social funds. We need to get some more confidence that some more coherent thought was actually given to some of these issues and to be confident that it is all going to be sorted in a way that will help the people that the system is designed to help.
  (Angela Eagle) As I said earlier, I am always open to ideas about how we could do what we do better. One of the undoubted, obvious elements in any idea I have seen to date is they would all cost a lot more money. You can raise that argument, but we certainly could not make change of that sort without finding the money from somewhere. I would welcome discussion on what the correct balance between grant and loans is, whether there is a correct balance and whether we have it right. I think these issues are all very difficult and I think looking back at the way the old system works does reveal that a totally grant-based system was not any fairer and did not really work either, when you look at the way that it distributed money, 80 per cent of the grants going to 17 per cent of the available recipients. There is something not right about that either.

  Chairman: I understand. There is a degree of concern out there, which I am sure our report will reflect. I hope the recommendations we do come forward with will be considered as a positive attempt to try and change things, accepting the difficulties and the previous history, and all of the rest of it. It has been very helpful this morning. Thank you very much for the written evidence as well. Thank you very much for your appearance this morning.

14   See Ev p. 153.

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