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
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
Citizens Rights and Consumer Affairs Portfolio
15 January 2001