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Social Fund

Volume 164: debated on Monday 8 January 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the current backlog of social fund loans and grant applications in Department of Social Security offices in London.

The latest information available is for November. In London as a whole, 8,500 applications were brought forward as uncleared from October. These were made up of 2,400 community care grant applications and 6,100 budgeting loan applications. There were no outstanding crisis loan applications.

The Minister surely knows that the Government are saving a vast amount of money under the new system, as opposed to the old single payments system. It is totally unacceptable that such a backlog should be allowed to develop. Will he please look again at the possibility of introducing more flexibility into the system as a whole? It is ludicrous that certain offices underspend their social fund budget, although applications are outstanding. As that money cannot be carried over to the next financial year, it is lost. There should be some means of transferring money between offices so as to match overspend and underspend. I ask the Minister to look again at the system to see what flexibility can be introduced.

We do, of course, monitor very carefully the social fund. It is worth pointing out that the figure that I gave to the hon. Gentleman means that, on average, 35 community care grant applications and 97 loan applications in London's local offices were carried forward. If one bears in mind that in the case of some of those loan applications the client or the applicant had already been offered a loan but had not yet accepted it, that is not too bad a record in all the circumstances. However, as I have already said, we monitor the social fund very carefully.

Will the Minister look carefully at the report that has been sent to him by the leader of Southwark council—a report which received all-party support in Southwark—requesting a meeting but highlighting cases where loans had been requested but grants had been refused? Is not the system far too inflexible? Many people are turned away when they are totally impecunious. They are told that they cannot have money for a cooker, or furnishings and the rest, so they keep on coming back, hoping, believing and expecting that there must be something in the system that will provide them with the money with which to survive. At the moment, much of the delay is caused because people have to return for money since they have none, on account of the system not allowing them to have grants when they need them.

The vast majority of refusals under the social fund are because the applicants do not meet the basic eligibility criteria. Under 10 per cent. of the refusals relate to insufficient priority being accorded to the application; less than 2 per cent. of refusals are because it is judged that the individual cannot pay. In those circumstances, money, advice or other guidance is given to the individual concerned. I shall of course look carefully at what Southwark is sending me, but it is worth saying that in 218,000 cases where loans have been refused, community care grants have been given instead. However, those loan refusal cases are still included in the statistics.

Is the Minister aware of the independent report by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux which says that 49 per cent. of pensioners' applications to the social fund were refused and that the applications of up to 80 per cent. of young persons and unemployed people were refused? Is he further aware that among those refused was a young woman who was due to have a baby in two days' time? She was refused a grant for a bed on the excuse that she could sleep on the floor, a disabled couple were refused a grant for a cooker on the ground that they could eat out, and a crisis loan was refused to a young man on the ground that he could eat out in soup kitchens? Is this a success?

I shall study with interest what NACAB has produced. The report was a small snapshot of a limited number of people who have been in touch with citizens advice bureaux. Moreover, the survey was taken in the first year of the social fund's operation, which I do not believe is typical of its operation since then. Our figures suggest that, far from 55 per cent. of applications being refused, 39 per cent. are refused. That compares favourably with the level of refusals which were 42 per cent. in the last year of the single payments scheme.