The need for better advice and
assistance to Social Fund claimants
87. The advent of separate claim forms in 1999 has
emphasised that the onus is on individual applicants to decide
which type of Social Fund payment they are likely to qualify for,
and to demonstrate their entitlement. Yet, there was a widespread
feeling among welfare rights advisers we spoke to, and who responded
to the inquiry, that, in the words of the London Advice Services
Alliance: "It seems virtually impossible for unassisted applicants
to know how to qualify, or what to write in their application,
especially for Community Care Grants. From our experience, most
need a skilled adviser to help complete what should be a simple
is therefore unsurprising that there was also a consensus among
respondents to the inquiry that applicants for Social Fund payments
were far more likely to be successful if they had the assistance
of an adviser. The people having to negotiate the obstacle course
of claiming a Social Fund payment are particularly vulnerable.
Elaine Kempson's description of applicants for Budgeting Loans
could apply equally to those applying for Community Care Grants
and Crisis Loans:
"They have a high incidence of ill-health, of
family instability and breakdown and of insecure housing.. They
also tend to be people who have been receiving benefit for long
periods of time and so have very little or (more usually) no money
in savings that they can draw on to meet unexpected expenditure.
Because of the incidence of family breakdown, many also have no
relations they can turn to when they need to borrow money."
88. Liz Forest, a witness with direct experience
of using the Social Fund, described what it was like to claim:
"You are in a very vulnerable position. You are usually distressed.
Usually you are upset and up to here with life...You are very
Helen Dent of the Family Welfare Association drew attention to
the particular need for advice of people from minority ethnic
groups, and those whose level of literacy was poor and understanding
of bureaucracy, nil.
However, she also pointed out that there simply were not enough
advice workers available for the numbers in need of help.
Therefore many vulnerable people ended up dealing with the system
89. Academic Mike Rowe wrote that: "Throughout
my work, the value of quality information was emphasised. Social
Fund Review Officers stated that, in review interviews, they were
able to see the applicant, to ask questions and to obtain information
that application forms could not. Social Fund Inspectors suggested
that, in many cases, they changed decisions on the basis of further
information rather than as a result of procedural or other errors."
Sunderland Welfare Rights Service commented: "The high success
rate of reviews witnessed by Welfare Rights Officers when providing
representation suggests that the quality of original decisions
is rather poor. It appears to be a waste of public money to have
reviews of poor decisions. We believe that the initial inquiry
into the claimant's circumstances should be more thorough."
The Social Fund Commissioner made a similar point about the quality
of initial decisions: "I think, sometimes, some of the earlier
decisions, at the first stage, are made without all the information
that ought to be there."
90. The Minister was very frank to us in admitting
there were difficulties for claimants in need of Social Fund payments
in negotiating the system successfully. She argued that the Government
was trying to move away from the "unwritten assumption...that
somehow there was perfect knowledge of the benefits system out
there which could be assumed on the part of claimants, therefore
it was the claimant's job to do all the work within the system
to get out of it what their entitlements were."
She argued: "I think we have changed that assumption in introducing
Personal Advisers, in trying to have a much more open access to
However, when pressed to say when a Personal Adviser service would
be available to Social Fund applicants - a particularly vulnerable
group of people in a time of special need or a crisis - the Minister
could not say: "there are no immediate plans to apply Personal
Adviser services to the Social Fund individually and separately
to everything else. I think it will come as part of the process
as a whole."
91. We agree with the Minister when she said "we
do need to try and strengthen the ability of the system itself
to take up somebody's circumstances and needs and make sure that
they get access to everything they are entitled to."
The Committee is on record as being enthusiastic about the role
of Personal Advisers in offering claimants a 'holistic' service,
drawing together benefit claiming and supporting people back to
work. At present, their role mainly consists of in-depth interviews
with people when they first claim benefit, aimed at helping them
focus on steps to return to employment. There are also interviews
with people who have been on benefit for some time, to assist
them in moving towards work. However, we have become very aware
in the course of our inquiry that Social Fund clients are a particular
group of claimants, often in desperate circumstances, who are
likely to need particularly intensive help in finding their way
through the benefits system. It is asking too much of Personal
Advisers in their present form to take on this role.
92. It has become quite clear to us that Social
Fund applicants need more active and informed assistance from
Benefits Agency staff both in accessing appropriate Social Fund
payments and in dealing with their benefits more generally
at a disruptive period of their lives. We would like to see better
trained staff working directly and intensively with Social Fund
claimants for short periods, acting as 'champions' to assist them
in accessing the benefit help they need. This might involve
greater liaison with other agencies, such as local authority housing
and social services departments, the probation service, homelessness
resettlement projects and welfare rights services.
Help given at this point may assist people in getting their
lives on a more stable footing, thus giving them the possibility
of thinking in the future about work and ultimately reduce the
cost to the public purse of their benefits.