Memorandum submitted by the London Advice
Services Alliance (Lasa) (SF 30)
London Advice Services Alliance (Lasa) provides
training to a wide range of workers who advise on, and help applicants
with, the Social Fund.
1. The overall budget is inadequate.
Recent dramatic increases to selected,
ie Maternity and Winter Fuel, payments should be applied across
It is impossible for people to afford
relevant large items out of their weekly means-tested benefits.
Most of these are now considered basics in our society.
Disproportionate amounts are spent
on the administration.
2. Loans force poor people into greater
3. Discretion is iniquitous, obscure and
unworkable. It is impossible for people to understand what is
needed to qualify. The interaction of low budgets and discretion
mean that discretion only operates within a very rigid band.
1. Funeral payment amounts should
be increased and the rules on "religious" costs eased.
By definition they are claimed by the very poorest in our society
where neither the deceased nor bereaved have adequate savings.
There is nothing inherent in funerals to make this a benefit issue:
it is time for some "joined up thinking" across relevant
departments to help people on low incomes.
2. Budgeting Loan amounts are much
3. Community Care Grant criteria
are too obscure and the procedure demeaning. Most people are refused
as they do not realise the extreme circumstances they must write
in the application form.
4. Crisis Loans suffer from all
the above, but also from prospective applicants being barred from
London Advice Services Alliance (Lasa) is a
development and resource voluntary organisation, which provides
information, training and support to advice giving agencies primarily
Trainees include social, health, resettlement, advice
and housing workers and those working with homeless people, disabled
people, pensioners and families. This submission is based on issues
and cases raised during training sessions and on enquiries which
come to our advisers' advice line. We outline some general concerns
as well as problems with specific payments.
What is most striking perhaps is that 12 years
after its introduction the Social Fund is still iniquitous, problematic
and clouded in obscurity.
1. Inadequate budget
i. The overall budget for the Social Fund
is inadequate and is arguably the root cause for most of its problems.
Recently we have seen this budget used as a political issue, with
the fanfare of publicity for a dramatic increase in fundingbut
in selected areas only, notably winter fuel payments and maternity
payments. The poorest pensioners and families might equally like
to see a similar 300% increase for funeral payments and Community
ii. To qualify for most Social Fund payments
you must be in receipt of a means tested benefit whose levels
are arguably based on subsistence level budgets. On the whole
it is intended therefore for the poorest in the country. When
introduced the Social Fund hinged on the premise that people on
means-tested benefits should and could put money aside for future
large items of expenditure such as washing machines, fridges,
beds and even it seems funerals. This is just not possible on
current levels of benefit. Above all, this is not a problem with
budgeting, but a problem of poverty.
iii. The Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey
of Britain 1999 identified a range of items that the majority
of people in the UK consider as necessities. By emphasising "social
relations and social participation, the survey differs from most
analysis'" The data shows that 95% consider adequate beds
and bedding for everyone in the house to be essential; 89% a refrigerator;
85% the ability to replace or repair broken electrical goods;
82% decent home decoration; and 76% a washing machine.
In line with the Government's objectives to combat social exclusion,
they must take on board that items covered by the Social Fund
are a necessity, not an optional luxury. It is time that these
essential items were either allowed for by increasing weekly rates
of means-tested benefits, or by making access to Social Fund payments
easier and the amounts more generous.
iv. From a different angle the disproportionate
amounts spent on administering the discretionary arm of the Social
Fundrelative to the amount spent on actual payments to
peopleis a waste of public finances. At one stage this
was roughly 50:50. A more transparent and less discretionary system
would be a better use of tax-payers' money.
The emphasis on loans in the discretionary Social
Fund is still not acceptable. Repaying loans forces people to
live on less than their subsistence level, applicable amounts
for long periods of time. This in turn forces people into other
forms of debt to cover their basic living needs. Indeed many are
initially refused as they are too poor to make the repaymentsusually
because of existing deductions from their weekly benefit.
i. For Community Care Grant and the Crisis
Loan applications Social Fund Officers must follow the Social
Fund Directions, which although legally binding are quite vague.
The subsidiary Guidance is not legally binding, which it even
restates itself. Nonetheless, Social Fund officers follow it as
if it was law. Similarly local guidance is often treated as gospel.
So, the notion of discretion and treating each applicant as an
individual is undermined by the creation of rigid rules by the
decision makers. At the same time how these notional rules are
applied varies from one area to another.
ii. There is no transparency in the discretionary
system. 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
form. For instance, to satisfy Direction 4(a)(ii) for a Community
Care Grant to "remain in the community" applicants need
to say that without it they are likely to go into an institution
such as hospital, or residential care, or indeed that their children
will go into care, if they do not get a bed. This may well be
the eventual consequence. But it is much too drastic and frightening
for most people to say about themselves or their children. The
majority of Community Care Grant refusals stem from this difficulty
in completing the form and demonstrating that you qualify, in
such dramatic terms. As, for instance, beds and cookers are considered
basic necessities, most people will simply say they don't have
and need this item.
iii. It should not be necessary for people
to degrade themselves to the extent currently necessary for Community
Care Grants. We welcome the recent change to Budgeting Loans whereby
applicants no longer need to explain in turgid details how their
need developed nor how deserving they are.
iv. The interaction of the low budgets and
discretion means that in practice only cases considered as "high
priority" ever have a chance of getting a payment. So "discretion"
if any is limited to a very rigid range. To put this in context,
a person moving out of hospital and setting up home may get a
payment for essential furniture and household equipment, but a
pensioner needing extra or replacement warm bedding is likely
to be refused. So this makes a nonsense of the other ranges of
priority. Why not either publicise a national list of the people,
extreme circumstances and items which are likely to qualify, or
increase the funding so that other non-emergency needs can also
1. Funeral payments
i. The amount available from the Social
Fund has decreased. But restricting the amount available through
Social Fund funeral payments has had no impact on the market price
of funerals. Instead the cost of funerals has increased. Bereaved
families and friends are placed in an invidious position. Unfortunately
at time of a death, the bereaved are unlikely to be able to engage
in negotiating the cheapest cut price deals with undertakers and
likely to just agree to a standard funeral that they recommend.
Obviously at such a time people are oblivious to the existence,
let alone rules, of funeral payment limits. Commonly these are
only realised after everything is arranged and the undertaker's
ii. By definition funeral payments are intended
for the very poorest in society, as neither the deceased nor the
bereaved have adequate savings or assets. There is no justification
for not funding the standard cost at least. Many bereaved people
get into serious debt as a result.
iii. The Social Fund definition of "religious
costs" is applied too tightly. Many people in London
want to have their remains in a certain cemeteryeg Greek
Cypriot, for social and cultural regions. This should not be treated
as a religious cost. Unfortunately these are usually more expensive
than the local authority burial grounds.
iv. It is time that the Government used
its notion of "joined-up" thinking and working, and
took the initiative to solve the problems of funeral costs for
people on low income. There is nothing inherent to funerals to
make it solely a benefit issue. The Departments of Health, Environment
and Social Security should collaborate. Potential policies could
regulating the price of funerals,
introducing a modestly priced, affordable
funeral service, perhaps directly or indirectly run by health
or local authoritiesbut which is more acceptable than the
2. Budgeting Loans
i. The new weighting system for assessing
applications seems better than the total arbitrary discretion
that it replaced, in that at least applicants and advisers can
now gauge the likelihood and amount of payment when applying.
It is also welcome that claimants are no longer forced to write
galling, degrading accounts of how desperate they are. It is also
welcome that Community Care Grants are no longer routinely treated
as applications for loans instead.
ii. However the low amounts allowed for
payments remains a problem. For instance in the Leaside District
office in London the maximum amount for a single person on benefit
for 6 months is currently £210; or if on benefit for 3 years
£315. Regardless of whether an applicant needs a cooker,
or to furnish an empty flat, that is their limit.
iii. A lone parent with one child is limited
to a maximum amount of £349.86 they have been on benefit
for 6 months; or £525 if they have been on benefit for 3
yearsagain regardless of whether they need children's clothing
iv. Moreover these limits are usually revised
downwards over the year depending on the demand on the district's
3. Community Care Grants
i. As stated earlier, the criteria are too
obscure and harsh for individuals to negotiate unassisted. The
form itself aggravates this. It should not be essential to have
an adviser. This in turn causes another waste of public fundsalbeit
coming out of local or health authorities' pursesby creating
extra work for their staff.
ii. As it works, you do not qualify on the
merit of your needs, but on your ability to say degrading and
humiliating things about yourself. People with quite genuine and
eligible needs are commonly refused, as they do not know the key
phrases to use in their forms.
iii. From a holistic point of view people
living in poverty with children or in poor health will in the
long-term suffer deterioration in their health from the lack of
adequate clothing, bedding or household equipment. The cost of
their increased morbidity falls on those on low income and on
the health service.
iv. Whilst legally all parts of Direction
4 have equal legal merit, most advisers find that applications
made on the grounds of "families under pressure" rarely
v. Furthermore, the high success rates at
the review stage is a reflection of a poor standard of decision
making at the frontline.
4. Crisis Loans
A major problem facing potential applicants
is that Benefit Agency receptionists tell them they do not qualify,
Obviously if you don't apply you do not get any decision, therefore
you have no valid refusal to challenge. Another common line is
to tell people that they must apply at a different office. Given
that by virtue of it being a Crisis Loan, people are likely to
be stranded and penniless. Despite innumerable DSS promises that
this practice would end, it persists. It seems that all staff
members use their discretion to take the power of discretion to
its ultimate meaning within the Benefit Agency.
It seems that the Social Fund 12 years on is
still as unworkable and unfair as ever. Beyond that the budgets
are much too low. Grant giving charities are feeling some of this
strain, but people on low income feel it most. There needs to
be greater state responsibility to assist low income people to
afford funerals and large items of expenditure, especially those
considered basic essentials by society. It is not possible to
budget for these out of means-tested benefits, especially income
support or income based Jobseeker's Allowance.
30 Gordan D, Adelman L, Ashworth K, Bradshaw J, Levitas
R, Middleton S, Pantanziz C, Patsios D, Payne S, Townsend P, &
Williams J: "Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain";
2000; Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Back