Examination of Witnesses (Questions 88
WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2001
88. Ladies and gentlemen, can we welcome Sir
Richard Tilt, who is the Social Fund Commissioner, of only two
months' standing, fresh and new to the fray; you are very welcome.
Together with and supported by, this morning, Pauline Adey, who
is the Independent Review Service Manager, and Ann Greenshields,
who is the Aide to the Social Fund Commissioner. Sir Richard,
perhaps you would like to make just a very brief opening statement,
just to set the context, and then we have got some areas of questioning
that we would like to pursue?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Thank you very much
indeed. Yes, we are very grateful for the opportunity to give
oral evidence, and my two colleagues, I should say, are both experienced
Social Fund inspectors, in their own right, apart from the jobs
that they do now. In the written evidence, we have explained the
role of the Independent Review Service and the sort of work that
we are doing, and I am not going to go over all of that, you can
ask us questions if you want to. What we have to say is very much
rooted in our experience of handling cases which are coming to
us for review. We operate within the ambit of the Social Fund.
We are here, I think, to try to make sure that the objectives
of the Social Fund for supporting the poorest members of society,
providing some financial flexibility through the Budgeting Loans
scheme, to make sure that those kinds of objectives are met as
closely as possible. And you will see, from our written evidence,
that we have concerns in some areas that the Social Fund could
operate better if some of those things were changed and put right,
and that is very much the sort of thrust of our evidence. So supporting
overall Government objectives, but believing that the scheme could
do better than it is doing at the moment. In terms of the new
Budgeting Loans scheme, to recognise some of the things that have
been said already, about improved access, easier forms to fill
in, less intrusive questioning, all of those things are clear
advantages of the new Budgeting Loans scheme. But against that
there are some disadvantages, in terms of a perceived reduction
in the amount of discretion that is there, an inability to assess
urgency and immediate need, and some rather poor communication
to applicants of the reasons for refusal. We support very much
the comments that have been made about the `double the debt' issue,
which you will be very familiar with. And what we think we are
seeing is an effect on our workload with a shift towards review
applicants coming on Community Care Grants and crisis loans, and
a much smaller workload for us on Budgeting Loans, because I think
people have picked up that there is really not a lot of discretion
to be exercised at our level on the Budgeting Loans scheme. You
will put questions to us. I end with just two caveats. Obviously,
we see one end of the system, we deal with 30,000 cases a year,
that is only 1 per cent, or less than 1 per cent, of the total,
and they are, of course, people who are aggrieved. Nonetheless,
we think that is a substantial piece of evidence on which to base
the sorts of comments that we are making. And, secondly, you alluded
to the fact, of course, that I am new in my appointment, so my
comments are based very much on first impressions and to identifying
some things that give me concern and that we want to be looking
at over this coming year.
Chairman: Of course. Thank you, that is very
89. Can I start with a question on statistics.
I am going to talk about Community Care Grants, in particular.
There seems to be a significant variation between the last financial
year and the April to December figures for 2000; is there a reason
(Sir Richard Tilt) We do not know for certain what
the reason is yet. We are conscious of that change, and I just
alluded to it a moment ago. We think people are probably turning
to Community Care Grants a little more than they were, we are
certainly conscious, from some of the casework decisions that
we see, that there has been, because of the cap, the cash-limiting,
there are a number of decisions where we think the decision on
priority has not been made correctly, and so we are changing,
I think, an increasing number of those decisions, because we are
going back to the basics and saying, "This person does qualify,
and they are high priority."
(Ms Adey) Certainly, we are seeing a higher proportion
of the applications rejected at the review stage in the Benefits
Agency; this year, so far, we have seen almost 34 per cent of
those cases that are rejected at that review stage. And we do
think this is playing into this equation, but we are not yet certain
of all the things, and the Commissioner has raised that as one
of his early concerns. So we will be looking at it.
90. In 1999/2000, you were confirming about
two-thirds of the awards, and now you are confirming rather less
than half, so that does seem a significant difference?
(Sir Richard Tilt) We are well aware of that, but
at this stage I think it is largely conjecture as to what is the
reason for that, and I have suggested some of the possible reasons
for it; a similar pattern on crisis loans as well.
91. But that was particularly with reference
to Community Care Grants. Sticking with Community Care Grants,
most people have been refused because they were not eligible or
because their needs were considered not to be of sufficient priority.
To what extent do you think the figures conceal the role of local
budgets in actually making the decisions?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Our impression, from the casework
we see, is that clearly there are cases where, at local level,
on CCG, people have not been put through Direction Four in the
way that we think they should be, and we cannot prove that, but
we suspect that that has to do with the pressures on local Social
Fund managers and the budget, and those, of course, are a lot
of the decisions that we are changing. There is a similar problem
on high and medium priority, and the use of this term, in some
parts of the country, of paying only the highest of the high,
which, again, we do not recognise, and if something is high priority
then we say that it should be paid.
92. You have identified 16 Benefits Agency districts
where, effectively, they have run out of money, not to put too
fine a point on it. Which are they?
(Sir Richard Tilt) I cannot tell you off the top of
my head, I am sure we can let you have the information that we
have got. I think the number has actually risen slightly since
we prepared the information; but we can certainly let you have
the detail of it, but I could not tell you off the top of my head.
93. Do you know what the characteristics of
the areas are, are they inner cities, are they rural areas?
(Ms Adey) Not necessarily.
94. There is no pattern, in terms of the characteristics?
(Ms Adey) No.
95. What does that actually mean, in practice,
for the people who live in those areas?
(Sir Richard Tilt) It means that you are not getting
consistency across the country, which it seems to me should be
one of the objectives of the scheme, and, certainly, from our
point of view, is one of the things we would want to support and
try to spread, which is why we raise it.
96. So you have got a postcode lottery as to
whether you get the money or not, apart from the eligibility criterion?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Yes; and, as I think you are aware,
those priorities can also shift in the year as well, so they can
go up and down. There are a tiny number of districts that are
paying any medium priority, there are just a handful, but that
is very small indeed.
97. The other ones say that they can meet all
the high priority cases, but you are somewhat sceptical about
(Sir Richard Tilt) I think the problem that we have
identified, in some cases, is that this is exercising pressure
on the decision-maker which will lead them to come to a wrong
conclusion on Direction Four, particularly, in relation to Community
Care Grants; nobody checks those.
98. What types of needs classed as medium and
low priority are not being met, effectively? I think what you
are saying is, if they have medium or low priority they are not
going to get the money, virtually anywhere?
(Ms Greenshields) That is absolutely true, yes.
99. What sort of needs are those?
(Sir Richard Tilt) Do you want to give some examples?
(Ms Adey) They are not linked to items, so it is not
a need such as a cooker or a bed. The Secretary of State gives
guidance to decision-makers to marshall these needs into high,
medium and low priorities, and, by and large, that is done by
way of the extent to which they will meet the intention of the
Community Care Grant. So you have a qualifying condition and then
the priority is linked to the degree and extent to which it will
meet that condition. So, in theory, at least, any item could be
paid as a Community Care Grant; in practice, it is very often
still only the top few items, cookers and beds, and, where budget
pressures exist, often reduced items, such as mini-cookers and
those sorts of things, so that usually is delineated in the districts.
(Sir Richard Tilt) I think, fridges are quite often
excluded or put into medium priority; some elements of clothing,
that one might have thought were quite high priority, sometimes
get pushed into medium priority.
16 See Ev. p39. Back
See Ev. pp39 and 40. Back