Summary

SCVO welcomes the opportunity to respond to this consultation on planned legislation to place the Scottish Welfare Fund on a legal footing and on options for a review of decisions made by local authorities about applications to the Fund.

Many of our members will be responding with a focus on the detail in the draft Bill, on how the Fund is currently operating and with strong views on the review process, where decisions on applications are being challenged.

SCVO has focussed on wider issues relating to the Fund:

  • The need to fully evaluate how the Fund is operating – taking account of third sector knowledge and experience.
  • We must protect the basic human rights of those using the Fund – at a time when they may have very little to support their daily needs, the Fund should not further strip them of dignity and respect and should not add another layer of bureaucracy for families who need support.
  • The need for independent review of decisions relating to the Fund and that the monies for the fund should continue to be ring-fenced.

Lastly, we must never lose sight of the human cost of austerity and welfare cuts which are driving people to seek crisis support or help with basic goods and equipment which many of us might take for granted. We must do more to prevent people reaching crisis point, and ensure the third sector and statutory services are working together locally and nationally with this goal in mind.

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Review of existing Fund

We are concerned that there is a sense of speed surrounding the introduction of the Bill to place the Fund on a permanent legal footing. Whilst we recognise that this is important, particularly for those families who will use it, we feel that time needs to be given to ensure any evaluation of the fund is full, inclusive and identifies both strengths and weaknesses of current practice in managing the Fund.

We are also concerned that there has been little information given out on the ongoing evaluation especially to the third sector given its role in helping to shape the interim fund.

The Fund has been operating for less than a year; up until now, there has been an underspend (we won’t know the current spend until 11th February) – this is despite the devastating impact of welfare reform across Scotland. Anecdotally, from members and from individual activists, there is a sense of growing concern about how the Fund is operating:

Lack of choice in goods – in some cases to the detriment of an individual’s wellbeing.  At a recent Inclusion Scotland welfare event, a case was described where  limited choice in a replacement cooker actually had the impact of reducing an individual’s independence and combined with fitting costs (due to the kitchen being purpose built), was more expensive than the option of replacing the product which the individual had been using.

Building on this last point, arguments are made about fraud, whilst some voices may argue that it doesn’t matter what we provide to people who are in crisis.  Our assertion is this: For many, the decision to approach the Scottish Welfare Fund in the first place will have been a difficult one, particularly when they have reached crisis point.  The use of vouchers and of pre-procured goods suggests that fraud is expected and not the exception.  We do not think this fits with the vision for welfare outlined in the Independence White Paper:

“the benefits system should be fair, transparent and sympathetic to the challenges face by people receiving them, respecting dignity, equality and human rights.” (page 176, “Scotland’s Future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland”)

Delay in payment of crisis grants – we heard from one community organisation that it would be up to five days for a crisis grant to be given out.

Lack of discretion in giving awards – and signposting to food banks rather than giving out money to enable families to buy their own provisions.

People being referred to the Fund for essential equipment which should have been provided as part of a care package – and being caught between the NHS and a local authority in terms of who would fund the equipment.

People in dire need being deemed as ineligible for the Scottish Welfare Fund when they are caught between appeals, when DWP processes fail the individual and there is a lack of flexibility in interpreting the Scottish Welfare Fund guidelines. In one case, an individual with no heating or food was left with a list of local charities which could potentially help. There was no support from the DWP or from the Fund.

People being referred to the Welfare Fund by DWP staff when the chances are they are ineligible for help. People are left to fend for themselves and to travel needlessly between organisations – often without the financial means to do so.

Finally, we are concerned that people affected by often unfair and uncalled-for sanctions are not able to access the Fund unless they can prove severe impact.  The evidence being gathered by the sector on the impact of sanctions points to people being pushed into abject poverty and further debt, often through no fault of their own.[i]  Even where a sanction appeal has been successful, people may have to wait for 7-10 days before their benefits are reinstated.  For those people, an award from the Scottish Welfare Fund may be the difference between eating or not. This means that there is a gap in the basic safety net for many.  Citizens Advice Edinburgh and other organisations can provide case studies which illustrate this point.

Protecting basic human rights

We believe that the planned Bill must include principles or a commitment to protect key human rights and/or reflect a commitment to maintain the dignity and respect of individuals who have to use the Fund.  In the case of this Bill, this is especially important as many approaching the fund for help are struggling to achieve the most basic of rights e.g. access to food, heat etc.  Further stigma and bureaucracy only serves to further strip people of those rights.

Creating a new layer of bureaucracy

We have some concern that the Fund may present a new layer of bureaucracy for families in need.  When they may already be engaging with other public services or indeed third sector services, applications for the Fund add in a new level of assessment and yet another application process.  There is a risk that these services and supports are not being joined up from the perspective of these families. This is insightfully illustrated in recently published research by Demos:

“We also find that many of the systems that ostensibly help support people are often not experienced as ‘supportive’ in any real sense. People frequently complained about the complexity of the welfare system, were worried about the consequences of recent reforms, exhibited a chronic lack of trust in social services and, in rural areas in particular, felt that statutory services were abandoning them altogether.”[ii]

The Scottish Welfare Fund must avoid this scenario. We would hope the ongoing evaluation would be able to identify if indeed it is creating more bureaucracy but also where good practice exists – where connections between funds and services are being made by professionals with whom families are engaging.

Independent review

Many of our members will argue strongly for independent review of decisions about the Fund.  We feel that this is important. However this is realised, it’s important that review decisions are speedy for both Crisis Grants and Community Care Grants (CCGs) given the level of need for applicants and the importance of key goods which CCGs might be supplying.

Maintaining Ring Fenced Monies

Whilst there is a need for this Fund, we believe that the funds should remain ring-fenced, particularly for the crisis grant element.

Conclusion

Whatever the next steps for the Scottish Welfare Fund, we must never lose sight of why this Fund exists.  We must not lose sight of the fact that people are in desperate need, often through no fault of their own.  We must always question if we are doing enough to prevent people from reaching crisis point regardless of where the policies causing extreme poverty originated.

The third sector has a key role in preventing people from reaching crisis point[iii]– the announcement in the Draft Budget of £2.5m for welfare capacity building for the sector could help to plug an important gap in expanding the capacity of trusted, community based organisations who are already working with families and individuals in need.

References

[i] http://www.scvo.org.uk/news-campaigns-and-policy/briefings-consultation-responses/independent-review-of-jobseekers-allowance-sanctions/

[ii] Ties that Bind – Demos, 2014

[iii] http://www.scvo.org.uk/news-campaigns-and-policy/research/scvo-welfare-reform-mapping-report/