Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported today that the Social Fund plays an important role in helping people in financial hardship, and is reaching many of those in greatest need. But there is a risk that potentially eligible people are not aware of the Social Fund and that some Jobcentre Plus staff may not give appropriate advice because their own awareness of the Social Fund is limited. For those who do apply to the Social Fund, the quality of decision-making varies.
Around one-fifth of people in the United Kingdom live in low income households and over a quarter of households have no savings. However, only 47 per cent of people on low incomes responding to an NAO survey were aware of the Social Fund. Lone parent families and disabled people benefit most from the Social Fund, while take-up is low amongst pensioners and some ethnic minorities. Even when customers know about the Social Fund, they are not well informed about the different types of award or how much money they may receive. The Department needs to increase awareness of the Social Fund among its own staff and ensure that potential beneficiaries are better informed, for example, by staff automatically mentioning the Fund to new benefit claimants.
The quality of decision-making is a concern for some types of Social Fund award. In 2003-04, the Department made decisions on 4 million applications to the Social Fund. Speed in handling applications is important and most Jobcentre Plus districts meet their target for making decisions. Getting them right first time depends on staff knowledge and experience as well as obtaining the relevant evidence, but internal checks indicate that high numbers of initial decisions on some awards contain errors.
Customers are entitled to a review if dissatisfied with the decision, firstly by an internal decision-maker and then externally by the Independent Review Service. In 2003-04, the Internal Review Service overturned over 50 per cent of Community Care Grant decisions and 41 per cent of Crisis Loan decisions it received. The National Audit Office considers that the Department should take steps to improve its decision-making by introducing up-to-date, centrally co-ordinated Social Fund training.
The number of staff working on the Social Fund has fallen since 2001-02 while application volumes have increased. According to departmental data, staff cost per application is lower for the Social Fund than for some major benefits. But there are significant differences in staff cost per application across the 90 Jobcentre Plus districts. The Department is taking steps to reduce these variations by standardising working practices across the districts. Longer term efficiencies will require more fundamental change, including greater use of specialist teams and IT improvements.
The Department recovers a high proportion of loans paid out, mainly through automatic deduction from customers’ benefit payments. It is improving its debt recovery procedures for customers not on benefits, amongst whom debt has risen from £90 million to £180 million in the last 5 years. But more could be done to improve recovery from people with outstanding debt who return to benefits. Under present arrangements, the Department cannot recover Social Fund debt from tax credits, which an increasing number of customers are receiving in place of benefits.