Publication - Research and analysis

Consultation on regulations and statutory guidance under the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Act 2015: Analysis of Responses

Published: 17 Dec 2015
ISBN:
9781785448843

Report on responses to the consultation on regulations and statutory guidance under the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Act 2015.

Consultation on regulations and statutory guidance under the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Act 2015: Analysis of Responses
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Introduction

1. The Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF) was established in April 2013, replacing elements of the Social Fund abolished by the Department for Work and Pensions. It is a national scheme, delivered on behalf of the Scottish Government by all 32 local authorities.

2. There are two types of grant available through the SWF: Community Care Grants (CCGs) and Crisis Grants (CGs). CCGs made under the scheme help people to live independently, preventing the need for institutional care, whilst CGs help those facing disaster or emergency situations. Both are intended for those on low incomes. As they are grants, they do not need to be repaid by the recipient. Since April 2013, the SWF has helped more than 164,000 households.

3. Developed in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) in consultation with the third sector, the Fund is underpinned by the first substantive example of social security-related legislation in Scotland. The Welfare Funds (Scotland) Act 2015 places a statutory duty on each local authority to maintain a Welfare Fund. It also provides new powers to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO), establishing an independent review process.

4. Between 27 May 2015 and 21 August 2015, the Scottish Government consulted on draft regulations and statutory guidance under the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Act 2015. Sixty-one responses (53 from organisations and 8 from individuals) were received. In addition, two responses were submitted using an Easy Read version of the consultation questionnaire.

Defining low income (Chapter 3, Q1 and Q2)

5. The consultation asked respondents if they thought it was a problem that local authorities currently use different ways to decide whether a SWF applicant is on a low income. Two-thirds of respondents (67%) answered ‘yes’. This group wanted to see greater consistency in decision making by local authorities, and thought that inconsistencies in current arrangements were confusing not only for applicants but also for agencies that support people in making applications to the Fund. However, 33% (including a majority of local authority respondents) highlighted the importance for local authorities to have the flexibility and discretion to give grants to those who are most in need – while also taking into account local economic conditions such as the costs of housing, food and transport.

6. The consultation sought views on the methods that should be used by local authorities to decide whether an applicant is on a low income. Three options were set out in the consultation paper. Option 1 was the status quo (decision makers make a judgement on the basis of information given by the applicant and information in their own systems); Option 2 was that local authorities should use the same list of ‘approved’ ways for deciding whether a person was on a low income; and Option 3 involved setting a low income threshold, above which no payments would be made. Respondents were also asked which of these three options they thought was best.

7. The largest proportion of respondents (46%) chose Option 2. Option 3 was the least popular option, chosen by just 11% of respondents. Respondents comments on this question focused on finding the most appropriate balance between greater consistency and transparency in decision making, and having a flexible system that allowed for discretion. Option 2 was seen as providing that balance. Respondents were nearly unanimous in wanting some level of discretion to remain in decision making. There was also general agreement that being in receipt of (or being entitled to) benefits should not be a prerequisite to applying for a grant.

Limiting repeat awards (Chapter 4, Q3 – Q5)

8. The consultation paper proposed limiting the number of CG awards to three per year per household (a change from the current three per year per individual). This was to address a perceived unfairness in that couples sharing a household might be able to receive six awards in a year, whereas a single person (including a single parent) would only be able to receive three. There was a proposal to similarly limit CCG awards, and respondents were asked what they thought the consequences would be of these two changes.

9. In relation to the first proposal, local authorities were more likely than other groups to identify positive consequences, or to say there would be no consequences from limiting CG awards to three per household per year. This group thought the proposed change would be fairer, increase consistency and avoid discrimination against single parents in particular. However, around half of local authorities also identified possible adverse consequences. By contrast, third sector respondents were almost unanimous in identifying only negative consequences from the proposal, highlighting a range of vulnerable groups who could be adversely affected (e.g. women, adults with disabilities, care leavers, people with addictions or cognitive impairments, etc.).

10. Regarding the proposal to limit CCG awards, third sector respondents, again, generally identified only negative consequences. Moreover, there was less support among local authorities for this proposal, partly because it would be unusual for any individual to request more than three CCG awards in a year, and partly because there could be good reasons (in these exceptional cases) for an individual to need more than three CCG awards.

11. The consultation paper also invited views on a third proposal, which suggested a limit on the number of times that a CCG grant could be given for the same item in a set period of time. Respondents were asked if they thought there should be such a limit, and if so, what the limit should be.

12. In relation to this third proposal, respondents were divided in their views, with 51% agreeing, and 49% opposed. Irrespective of whether they agreed or disagreed, respondents gave examples of circumstances in which an individual might legitimately need to apply for the same item again in a relatively short period of time. These circumstances were thought to be uncommon, and so those who agreed with this proposal thought that local authorities should have the discretion to award the same items again in exceptional cases. Suggestions about the period of time for which the limit should apply ranged from 12 months to 36 months, and it was often suggested that the limit should apply only to larger items, including white goods which would, in any case, ordinarily be under warranty.

Prioritisation of families facing exceptional pressure (Chapter 5, Q6)

13. The consultation asked whether families facing exceptional pressure should be given priority in decisions on CG applications, as they are currently given priority for CCG awards. Respondents were divided in their views on this question with 49% in favour and 51% opposed. Those in favour argued that households with dependent children should be given priority and that the early award of a CG could fulfil an important prevention / early intervention purpose. Those opposed argued that such a prioritisation would be discriminatory and disadvantage other equally vulnerable groups. They also pointed out that applications from individuals with dependent children are already ‘fast-tracked’ without the need for further prioritisation. In addition, a practical difficulty was raised: in order to process CG applications quickly, they must be treated on a first-come, first-served basis; therefore, if one group is prioritised over another, it would cause delays in processing all other applications.

Payment and processing of CGs (Chapter 6, Q7-Q9)

14. The draft regulations included a requirement that CGs be paid in cash, or a ‘cash equivalent’. The consultation therefore sought views about what kinds of payments should be considered as appropriate ‘cash equivalents’. Five options were suggested – i) Paypoint; ii) Allpay; iii) Fuel cards; iv) High street vouchers; and v) Travel tickets, bought on behalf of the applicant. Respondents were asked to choose the ones they thought local authorities should be able to use.

15. Two-thirds of respondents selected all five options. The option chosen most frequently was ‘Paypoint or alternative electronic transfer’. However, third sector respondents emphasised that applicants should have the right to choose how the grant is paid, and argued that cash (or bank transfer) should be the default payment method unless the applicant preferred an alternative. Local authority respondents discussed the advantages of different cash equivalents in certain circumstances, emphasising the importance of having a range of payment options available, and the discretion to choose the best method for the applicant.

16. The consultation also asked respondents for their views about how local authorities could make sure that the method of payment is the best one for the applicant. Third sector respondents thought that the way of deciding the best method of making an award was to discuss the options available with the applicant and ask which s/he prefers. Local authority respondents highlighted the complex range of issues they considered when making awards to applicants. These included not only the applicant’s specific needs and preferences, but also how to get the award to the applicant in the fastest way possible; how to ensure that the award was used to meet the applicant’s needs in the way intended; and how the payment could be made to stretch as far as possible.

17. The consultation document set out proposed timescales for processing CGs, and respondents were asked if they agreed with these. Around three-quarters (72%) agreed and 28% disagreed. There appeared to be different understandings about statements made in the draft statutory guidance (and draft regulations), suggesting that clarification may be required on this issue. Those agreeing with the statutory guidance emphasised the importance of avoiding delays in making decisions for people who were faced with a crisis or emergency. However, they also thought decision makers should have the discretion to extend timescales in some cases to allow applicants to complete their applications. Those disagreeing thought that the proposed timescales could result in a greater number of applications being declined, or applicants not being awarded the amounts requested due to insufficient information.

18. The other issue raised by respondents was that, for the purpose processing crisis grants, the working day should be considered as from 9am to 4pm (not 4.45pm as set out in the draft statutory guidance). The point was made that if 4.45pm is the cut off time, there would be insufficient time for an application to be taken and the necessary verification checks to be carried out for the grant to be paid the same day. Therefore, respondents thought that any application received after 4pm should be treated as having been received the next working day.

Exclusions from CGs and CCGs (Chapter 7, Q10 – Q13)

19. Annex A of the draft statutory guidance contained a list of 19 excluded items for which, it was proposed, CG and CCG awards should not be made. (Examples included: a television or radio; school uniform; holidays; funeral costs; etc.) Respondents were asked if they agreed with proposals to exclude two further items: substantial improvements to private property and repatriation costs (i.e. costs associated with assisting a person to return to their home country).

20. Around three-quarters of respondents (71%) agreed with the proposal to exclude substantial improvements to private property and 79% agreed with the proposal to exclude repatriation costs. Those in favour of excluding these items thought that the SWF was not the most appropriate source of funding for these costs. Those not in favour thought that local authorities should have the discretion to make awards for these items in exceptional cases.

21. Respondents were also asked if they thought anything should be added or removed from the current list of exclusions. Seventeen percent (17%) suggested items to be added and 29% suggested items they thought should be removed from the list of exclusions.

Vulnerabilities and equalities impacts (Chapters 8 and 9, Q14 - Q16)

22. Annex C of the draft statutory guidance contained a list of vulnerabilities (i.e. factors that might increase a person’s vulnerability) that local authorities should consider when processing applications. (Examples of vulnerabilities were: frailty or old age; learning difficulties; being a lone parent; being an ex-offender; children living with a disabled adult; etc.). Respondents were asked if there was anything on the list of vulnerabilities that should be removed, or anything that should be added. Just over a quarter (28%) suggested that one or more vulnerabilities should be removed from the list, and 38% thought that one or more vulnerabilities should be added.

23. The consultation asked respondents for their views about what impacts the draft regulations and statutory guidance could have on vulnerable groups. Respondents identified potentially adverse impacts for single people / couples without children; people with disabilities; women (including disabled women and migrant women); older people and their carers; and black and minority ethnic groups (including refugees, migrants, and gypsy travellers).

Other comments on the draft regulations and statutory guidance (Chapter 10, Q17- Q19)

24. Respondents were asked for their views on the effects, gaps or unintended consequences of the draft regulations, and whether they had any other concerns, comments or suggestions on the draft statutory guidance. Respondents’ comments on the draft regulations focused on: improving access to the Fund; clarifying statements about the need to request reviews in writing; and improving the process of notifying applicants about the outcome of decisions.

25. Additional points made in relation to the statutory guidance included: the importance of recognising the preventative nature of the Fund within the statutory guidance (and draft regulations); encouraging a more holistic approach to providing support to applicants; and the need for ongoing training for staff involved in the administration of the Fund.

Comments on the application form (Chapter 11, Q20-Q22)

26. The consultation invited comments about whether there should be a combined application form for CGs and CCGs, or two separate application forms. A majority of respondents (59%) were in favour of a combined application form.

27. Respondents also suggested a range of improvements to the application form, including changes to the wording of certain sections of the form, and improvements to its layout, signposting, structure and flow.


Contact

Email: Will Tyler