Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter to Chairman from Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council (SF 14)

1.   Inquiry into the Social Fund

  1.1  Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council is pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the inquiry into the Social Fund. Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council has provided advice and assistance to residents since 1988. Enquiries about the Social Fund form a large part of the enquiries dealt with by our Advice Centres. The following comments arise from the operation of the Social Fund as experienced by residents in Blackburn with Darwen.

2.   Fixed Budget

  2.1  There is a fixed local budget for the Social Fund. It is for the Social Fund Officer to ensure that the decisions made remain within the budget set for the local office. As a result of this it is possible for two claimants to have identical circumstances but to have a different award due to the constraints of the budget at the time of the decision.

  2.2  The budget is also fixed for each local Benefits Agency (BA) office. This means that again two claimants living in different local office catchment areas with identical circumstances can have different awards due simply to the budget.

  2.3  This gives rise to situations where individuals can suffer hardship apparently as a result of budgetary constraints rather than the merit of their claim. We have concerns that this may be contrary to Article 14 read in conjunction with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

  2.4  We have a number of examples of this situation arising in practice. Although there is a review mechanism, the merits of a case would not in practice be considered where the office had reached its budgetary ceiling.

  2.5  We do find that applicants who seek advice are more likely to be successful in obtaining an award. This gives rise to concerns that BA staff are not always able to dedicate the time required to advise applicants of their entitlements.

3.   Size of the Award

  3.1  Due to the fact the Social Fund is cash-limited, the size of any award is limited to ensure that the budget is spread to as large a number of claimants as possible. This does mean that some items are given such a low priority that effectively no award is ever made for these items, examples of these would be carpets, curtains, sofa, decorating items. At the worst extreme we represented a woman suffering from severe mental health issues whose doctor recommended that her health would be significantly improved by any improvements to her lifestyle. In this case we were unable to secure funds to allow her to re-decorate her property which was in extremely poor order.

  3.2  In addition, the amount awarded for some items is for a reconditioned/second hand item (eg cooker). This can lead to repeat requests for the same items by claimants at a later stage.

4.   Discretionary System

  4.1  The fact that the Social Fund is discretionary in large parts does lead to different decisions being made by different Social Fund officers. The Secretary of State has issued Directions and Guidance to try and ensure that decisions are consistent, but it is in the nature of any discretionary system that decisions will be different depending on the person making the decision.

  4.2  It would be helpful to have additional training and making decisions widely available if the present system is to continue.

5.   Recovery of Loan

  5.1  Any loan is recovered by deduction from on-going benefit. This has the result of reducing a person's benefit significantly below that which Parliament has determined is needed for the claimant in their circumstances. The standard rates are:

    —  15 per cent from Income Support/Jobseeker's Allowance application amount less housing costs; or

Cllr Maureen Bateson

Executive Member

Citizens Rights and Consumer Affairs Portfolio

15 January 2001

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