Examination of witnesses (Questions 200
WEDNESDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2001
200. I just have one quick question. Do you
think that there is a gender issue here? We have been asking questions
about who Social Fund claimants are and whether minority ethnic
groups apply and other different groups in our society. When you
mentioned other people, you mentioned other women. Is this a gender
(Ms Forest) I think the only factor is that women
have more to do with the household usually. But as far as we know,
it is a 50/50 split. Men apply for benefits, loans and whatever.
Mrs Humble: So it is just a coincidence that
there are four women here in front of us.
201. I was hesitant to ask that question. I
want to follow on from this piece of evidence by Ms Mackenzie
about the insidious nature of people being entrapped into debt.
Do you think it would be helpful if we banned that practice?
(Ms Mackenzie) I think it would be very helpful.
202. Think carefully about what you are saying
(Ms Mackenzie) If you were to take away that way of
offering help and you increased the grants instead of loans through
the Social Fund.
203. There would need to be the two elements:
that if that offer of help were not there, that would need to
be backed up by an improvement in the grant system?
(Ms Mackenzie) It would have to be more accessible.
It would make people's lives worse if it was not there because
it is their only source of help other than the Social Fund.
204. I have been pondering about asking this
question because it suggests that I might not be on your side
but it is an important point. Your debts, Liz, are horrendous,
really, really horrendous and I just want to ask whether a small
grant from the Social Fund, because it is always going to be a
relatively small grant or loan, would be of any help to you. I
do not know whether you are still in that situation. But perhaps
what we are talking about is a system that just cannot really
help you very much?
(Ms Mackenzie) I think that is right. I think my circumstances
were very different because when I started off, my husband was
in good employment. He was a manager in a big company. I was in
employment. We both had a good income coming in that covered whatever
else we could afford. Although we had loans, we did have the means.
As soon as his job was taken away, then the problems started to
begin. We could not afford to pay the mortgage. My job was not
as well-paid as his job was. But the income was taken away and
that threw me into the poverty trap right away, just the whole
situation, what happened, his behaviour, what he did to my daughters
and myself then made the whole situation even worse and I could
not see anybody helping me out of that amount of debt. I believe
that I should have been able to leave that debt behind. The situation
was his responsibility. He is in prison. He does not have to pay
it back. I am in the front line and it is affecting me.
205. I am going to put a question to you all
and I am going to assume what the answer is unless you tell me
different. It seems to me that none of you has been put into this
situation by life style, way of life or anything else. They all
seem to have been life events and events visited on you in your
various different ways and you have found yourself having to deal
with Social Funds and things like that because of unforeseen circumstances.
Would that be true?
(Ms Mackenzie) Yes.
206. It may be, Catherine, that health was an
element in that?
(Ms von Ruhland) In a way that has opened up things,
being a single person and having been evicted.
207. But the eviction was the life event that
threw you into these things?
(Ms von Ruhland) Yes.
208. Those life events were unforeseeable. You
did nothing, really, to contribute to them. Those are circumstances
which are out of your control rather than out of easy living or
a profligate life style.
(Ms Mackenzie) I would like to issue a challenge:
if any of you were faced with the same situation how would you
have coped any better? How would you have dealt with this situation?
209. I am very pleased to be asking the questions
and not answering them. That is a very powerful question. I am
sure you are right. One of the things we will need to consider
a little more in the course of this inquiry is how people find
themselves confronting these situations because I think there
is an expectation that people bring it upon themselves. We have
had clear evidence this morning that none of you had any real
control over being thrown into this. That is maybe something the
policy makers will need to take on board.
(Ms Mackenzie) I believe that is how you are treated
by the front line staff. It is that you have only yourself to
blame. You are not doing anything to help yourself whereas it
is the complete opposite.
(Ms Moxon) If the Social Fund cut in as it should
it would stop the continuous downward spiral, because once you
are in the poverty trap you do keep on going down because you
are so vulnerable that lots of other things are thrown at you
and without any help from the Social Fund you cannot do anything
about it. My income is now reduced to £34 a week. That is
deductions by the Social Fund and the shortfall to Housing Benefit.
How would any of you like to try and manage on £34 a week?
You could not do it.
Chairman: I do not think anybody would try and
argue against that. That is a powerful point on which perhaps
to end. We are very grateful. Can I repeat our thanks to Church
Action on Poverty for helping to bring you together and enabling
us to have access to your experiences. It has been very cogent,
lucid and powerful evidence and it will help us enormously with
our inquiry. Thank you very much for attending.