6. Experiences of applying: mode and waiting times
- All local authorities stated that at least three application channels were available in their area. However, there were variations in the emphasis placed on different channels between area. Face-to-face applications were not offered in all areas.
- Applicants had different preferences and needs around application mode but were not always aware of the different application options available to them.
- External stakeholders believed that application options may have become more limited since the pandemic, particularly with regard to face-to-face applications. There was concern that people who do not have a phone or internet access may struggle to apply.
- The proportion of applications made online has increased significantly since the inception of the Fund – by 2020/21, 80% of applications were made online. A number of local authorities with overall high levels of applications were receiving all or almost all of these online.
- Overall, online applications were less likely to result in a successful grant compared with applications via other modes.
- Crisis Grant decisions were more likely than Community Care Grant decisions to be made within the statutory time frame.
- There was a strong perception among local authorities that resources were the biggest factor in whether they met target time frames. When resources were stretched, target times for Community Care Grants tended to be de-prioritised to ensure that Crisis Grants (and/or SISGs in recent years) could be delivered.
- Applicants described negative financial, physical and mental health consequences of having to wait for a Community Care Grant. Similarly, for some, even relatively short waits for Crisis Grants could cause significant difficulties when they had run out of food or electricity.
- Local authorities suggested that a single performance measure for grants was not necessarily helpful, since it did not allow for prioritisation of more urgent cases – for example by fast tracking of applications to support new tenancies.
The ultimate aim of the SWF is to 'provide a safety net to people on low incomes' and in doing so to alleviate hardship. In order to assess whether it is meeting this aim, a key question is what impacts applying to the Fund are actually having on applicants in practice. What are their experiences of applying to the Fund, and how far do these indicate it is working as an effective safety net?
The next two chapters explore experiences of and outcomes from applying to the Fund, drawing on a combination of quantitative data and qualitative interviews with applicants, wider stakeholders and local authorities. This chapter focuses on the application process itself, including evidence on how different application modes and waiting times for a decision can shape applicant experiences. The following chapter focuses on the actual outcomes of applications and the impacts of receiving or being refused an award, before discussing experiences of signposting and referrals to alternative or additional support.
Mode of application
Variations in application modes promoted
The SWF statutory guidance requires local authorities to provide for applications via at least three channels (face-to-face, online, telephone, or in writing). All local authorities stated that at least three channels were available in their area. However, it was apparent from interviews with local authorities that there were variations in the emphasis placed on particular channels between areas, with face-to-face, phone and paper application options appearing less accessible or well promoted in some areas compared with others. For example, while all areas stated that they offered phone applications, there appeared to be some differences in emphasis on phone calls with applicants as part of the process. Some areas stated that they phoned all applicants to ensure they had a complete picture of their application and to check the form is completed correctly. However, another area noted that if a customer phoned to apply, they would generally be directed to apply online in the first instance (although if this was not suitable the team would ring them back and help them complete the application). Conversely, a minority of areas reported that they continued to take most applications by phone.
Face-to-face applications were not offered in all areas, while in others it was offered but was not as readily accessible as other channels, either because of staffing issues or restricted office access (because of Covid, but also reflecting the geographical dispersal of customer-facing offices in some areas). It was also suggested that paper applications were generally an exception and were often only really used for people in or leaving prison and applying to the Fund for grants on release (as they are unable to access the internet from prison to apply).
Awareness and views of different modes
These local differences in emphasis on different application modes appeared to be reflected in differences in awareness of application options among applicants. Applicants interviewed for the review included people who had applied either by phone or by internet in spite of having a definite preference for the other mode, simply because they had not been aware it was an option. Those who were not used to using the internet, had literacy issues or internet access problems tended to have a preference for applying by phone, while others felt online applications were quicker and could feel less stressful than making a phone call (especially for those with anxiety issues or who had past negative experiences applying for help).
"Somebody on the phone might be having a bad day, all they need to do is snap at you...it's easier to do it anonymously."
Changes in application modes over time
There was a perception among external stakeholders interviewed for the review that limited application routes may have become a bigger barrier since the Covid-19 pandemic. This was particularly thought to be an issue with regard to in-person applications, as some local authorities had yet to open up their offices to the public more widely. For the minority of applicants who did not have a phone or internet access and needed an option to apply in person and/or to be able to wait for call-backs in council offices, this could present a significant barrier to accessing the Fund. One local authority interviewed for the review had dealt with this by offering phones in their office that people could use to apply if they did not have phone or internet access, but again this was not offered across all areas.
Analysis of quantitative data on the Fund confirms that the range of application methods being used has reduced over time. In 2013/14 applications were evenly split between telephone (48%) and online applications (44%) with a small number by post (6%) and in person (3%). By 2020/21 over 80% of applications were online, with just 18% by telephone and less than 1% by post or in person.
There was also considerable variation between local authorities even pre-pandemic in the application mix: in 2019/20, almost a third of local authorities already had applicants almost exclusively applying online. These include many of the higher demand/higher pressure areas. This may suggest that local authorities who experience the highest demand may encourage online applications as a means of dealing with this. Alternatively, it might be that areas that promote online applications receive higher numbers of applications, as applying online without the need to speak to someone may be less cognitively and emotionally demanding.
Mode of application and outcome
Quantitative analysis also indicates that having a genuine choice of application modes may matter not only because different applicants have different preferences, but also because different application modes appear to be associated with different success rates. After other factors are taken into account, applications by phone, face-to-face, or in writing have a higher success rate for both types of grant than online applications. Moreover, there is evidence that vulnerable applicants tend to be more likely to apply online – in 2019/20, 92% of vulnerable frail, older or immobile people applied online, as did 97% of households with children living with a disabled adult, compared with 71% of all applicants in 2019/20.
In summary, the evidence indicates the importance to applicants' experience of the Fund of being made aware of a choice of application modes, both because different applicants have different needs and preferences with respect to applying, and because different modes appear to be associated with different chances of success. However, the evidence indicates that, although all local authorities offer a choice of three modes, these different modes may not being promoted equally to applicants.
The SWF guidance sets out target processing times for both types of grant. Local authorities are required to make a decision on Crisis Grants applications immediately after the local authority had received all information they need to make a decision, and no later than the end of the next working day following receipt of an application. Community Care Grants allow for a longer timeline, with decisions required within 15 working days after receipt of all the information required to enable a decision.
Variations in waiting times
The 2021/22 SWF annual update shows that 93% of Crisis Grants were processed within the target time of the next working day. A lower proportion – 86% - of Community Care Grant applications were processed within the 15 working day target limit. Although the majority of applications are processed within the target times, this has worsened in recent years, particularly for Community Care Grants, with over 90% of Community Care Grant applications processed within target times between 2015/16 and 2018/19 but just 83% in 2019/20, with limited recovery since. Similarly, over 95% of Crisis Grants were processed within target times in 2018/19 but this high rate has not been matched since.
Analysis of differences in processing times by local authority focused on 2019/20 data, since data for 2020/21 and 2021/22 were impacted by additional pressures in some areas relating to SWF teams processing of Covid self-isolation support grants (SISGs, discussed in chapter 9). This shows that more local authorities met target times for Crisis Grants (26 or 32 made at least 95% of decisions by the end of the next working day) compared with Community Care Grants (half made at least 95% of decisions within 15 working days).
Factors impacting on waiting times
There was no clear relationship in the quantitative data between waiting times for Community Care Grants and either level of applications or spend vs budget – those not meeting target times included local authorities with higher and lower levels of applications, while local authorities with budget overspends were represented among both those who met and those who missed target times. However, three of the areas that less commonly met Crisis Grant waiting times were also three of the areas with the highest overspends in 2019/20, which may indicate a relationship between stretched resources and longer waiting times.
The perception that resources were the biggest factor in meeting target timeframes was certainly apparent in interviews with local authority managers and decision-makers. As discussed in chapter 4, there was a strong perception that administrative funding for SWF was insufficient to enable local authorities to meet target timings consistently, and that this was only likely to become more challenging with increased demand due to the cost of living crisis.
A recurrent theme among local authority managers and decision-makers was that where teams were stretched, target times for Community Care Grants tended to be de-prioritised, in order to ensure that Crisis Grants (and/or SISGs in more recent years) could be delivered within the statutory timelines. This is reflected in both the lower adherence to time targets for Community Care Grants, above, and in the views of some stakeholders interviewed for this review, who felt that processing times for Community Care Grants, in particular, were considerably slower than they had been historically:
"In the 12 years I've worked with this service, the length of time for decision and then for delivery is massive compared to what it used to be."
(External local stakeholder 1)
Impacts of waiting times for applicants
The potential negative impacts of waiting for Community Care Grants on applicants – even sometimes when these were within the 15 day target – were indicated by both external stakeholders and applicants themselves, who described financial, physical and mental health consequences of having to wait for a grant:
"Even though I applied in the first week of November … I had to wait until the week after Christmas. It was very difficult because I had just a guest bed which was really uncomfortable. I had no electric cooker connected; I just had a microwave… I had a gold watch of sentimental value and I ended up selling it to get my cooker connected and to get some groceries. … That upset me quite a bit, especially as it was Christmas time…"
However, it was also noted that the impact of waiting for a grant will vary depending on people's individual circumstances – for example, a stakeholder noted that if someone is moving into a new tenancy and has no furniture, they may either be paying housing costs without being able to move in or end up living with no furniture for a period, either of which was felt likely to have a more significant impact than replacing an old or broken item in an existing property. Similarly, depending on the individuals' circumstances, replacing a broken item might be a higher or lower priority in terms of impact – for example, an applicant noted that it had been problematic for him to go two to three weeks without a fridge as he needed to keep his medication refrigerated.
Local authority managers suggested that having a single performance measure in terms of timescales was not necessarily helpful, since it did not allow local authorities to prioritise more urgent cases. Some (though not all) local authorities did already have arrangements in place to fast track or prioritise applications, particularly for Community Care Grants, often working with housing colleagues or local third sector organisations. However, this did not seem to be an option for those applying without the support of an organisation: an applicant who had applied both independently and through a social worker commented on the fact she felt her social worker had been able to 'push' her application more than she was able to.
Analysis of quantitative data to examine who waits longer for Community Care Grant decisions also indicates that those moving into new accommodation are likely to be prioritised – people who were moving were more likely to receive decisions within the target time-frame. Groups who were more likely to wait more than 15 days for a decision included: online applicants compared with those applying by phone, in person or by post; third party applicants (where someone else applied on their behalf); and people without disabilities (indicating that those reporting a disability might be prioritised for a decision).
In line with the quantitative data, which shows that generally Crisis Grants were more likely to be decided within the time frames compared with Community Care Grants, there was less discussion of issues with Crisis Grant wait times among local authorities and external stakeholders. However, applicants interviewed for the review highlighted that for some, even relatively short waits (within the target time frame) could cause significant difficulties when people had or were about to run out of food or electricity and had no other means to pay for these. As one applicant put it: "if you're needing, you're needing there and then." For another, waiting two days had mean their electricity ran out and their fridge-freezer defrosted, adding to their financial difficulties as they had to throw food out.
The wait times reported by applicants also varied quite widely, for both types of grant. Both applicants and external stakeholders commented that better information on the actual likely current waiting times would help in alleviating some of the stress of applying, which could be considerable during this waiting period:
"It was terrible. I was stressed beyond words, suffered from stress and panic attacks as it is. Knowing whether I would get it, if it would be yes or no … if you've got no one to turn to it's horrible you know."
(Applicant 11, who reported waiting 3-4 days for a Crisis Grant decision)
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