Review of the Scottish Welfare Fund Interim Scheme

The review explores how well the interim arrangements of the Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF) have worked, from the perspectives of applicants to the SWF and the third sector organisations supporting them. It also provides recommendations for the remainder of the interim period and for the permanent arrangements.

Executive Summary

The Scottish Welfare Fund

In December 2010, the Coalition Government announced its intention to terminate the discretionary Social Fund, from 1 April 2013, and to transfer responsibility and funding to the Scottish Government. The Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF) is the successor scheme in Scotland. An interim scheme was put in place for the first two years. In the longer term, the permanent SWF will be set out in legislation, informed by experience gained in the delivery of the interim arrangements.

There are two elements to the SWF, replacing Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants under the previous scheme:

  • SWF Crisis Grants (CG) are intended to alleviate periods of disaster or crisis in order to avoid serious damage or serious risk to the health or safety of the applicant or their family.
  • Community Care Grants (CCG) are intended to support independent living among key groups including people leaving care, those setting up home after an unsettled way of life, and those at risk of going into care. They also help families facing exceptional pressures in need of essential household items.

The SWF is a national scheme delivered through local authorities. The Scottish Government also supports local authorities through providing guidance on the implementation of the SWF and through Quality Improvement Visits (QIV) and follow-up practice sharing workshops. The SWF is monitored by local authorities through collecting applicant data which is reported to the Scottish Government. This research complements the monitoring data.

Research aims and method

The Scottish Government commissioned a team from the Institute for Housing and Urban Real Estate Research at Heriot-Watt University to undertake a review of the interim arrangements. The main aim of the review was to explore how well the interim arrangements had been working, from the perspectives of applicants to the SWF and the third sector organisations advocating for and supporting them. It also aims to provide recommendations for the remainder of the interim period and for the permanent arrangements.

The study was a qualitative assessment, based on in-depth interviews and small group discussions with representatives from a broad range of third sector organisations, and in-depth telephone and face-to-face interviews with applicants.

Third sector interviews were undertaken in October and November 2013, with front-line staff/volunteers and people with strategic or policy officer roles from a sample of 15 organisations. Organisations were selected to be representative of a broad range of applicant groups:

  • Older people
  • Those leaving prison
  • Disabled people and their carers
  • People with mental health issues and their carers
  • Vulnerable families - including lone parents and victims of domestic abuse
  • Black and minority ethnic communities
  • Homeless people
  • Tenants of Registered Social Landlords (RSLs).

A total of 77 SWF applicants were interviewed between January and March 2014. The applicants were sampled from SWF monitoring data and applicants through third sector organisations. The sample included successful and unsuccessful applicants, those with a partial award and those who had their application reviewed after an unsuccessful or partial award. Some groups were over-sampled to ensure a good coverage from different equalities groups.

Findings: Awareness of the SWF

Community Care Grant applicants generally found out about the SWF from their existing networks - their support worker, their social landlord, third sector organisations they were in contact with or their local authority. However, awareness of SWF among staff across these organisations was variable.

Recommendation: Local authorities should raise the profile of the SWF through information materials provided to their own departments, third sector agencies, Job Centre Plus and others.

For Crisis Grant applicants, signposting to the SWF came from the DWP in the majority of cases, though the third sector was also important. There were some examples of applicants being advised by SWF to go back to the DWP instead, which is an area where improvements could be made.

Recommendation: The SWF Guidance should clarify the local authority and DWP's roles. The Scottish Government may consider developing additional training materials on this subject for the third sector.

Applicants did not commonly find out about the SWF through local advertisements or online information. A number of the third sector respondents felt there was scope to improve marketing to make people less involved with the third sector or public sector providers aware of the scheme.

Recommendation: Locally-based advertising campaigns might help to target those potential applicants who are not in contact with organisations.

Findings: Knowledge and understanding

The majority of third sector organisations said that they understood the SWF, although there was an appetite for on-line or DVD-based training that could fit alongside the constrained workloads that often prevented staff from acquiring knowledge. Applicants also generally said they understood the scheme.

Recommendation: Local authorities should pro-actively sign-post existing training, advice and support, and consider developing some on-line training resources.

Findings: Eligibility and discretion

Third sector staff welcomed that eligibility criteria were widened and clarified after the first few months of the interim scheme. However, third sector staff commonly felt that not all SWF staff fully appreciated the nature of the poverty and vulnerability of applicants, and that there was an emphasis on strict adherence to rules and criteria rather than discretion in decision-making. There were also some concerns that some applicants were discouraged from applying.

Most applicants said that they understood the eligibility criteria, especially those with previous experience of the Social Fund. However, a few applicants gave examples of what they felt were 'unfair' decisions, mainly relating to benefits sanctions, applicant characteristics and benefit rules. A number of very vulnerable applicants discussed instances where 'the rules' had left them experiencing considerable hardship.

Recommendation: Anonymised case studies could be produced to provide examples of who has accessed the scheme and how it has helped them. This would provide third sector staff and applicants with useful insights into how discretion is being used.

Recommendation: SWF teams should consider how best to support staff working with discretion for the first time, including mentoring/secondment from Social Work staff.

Recommendation: Every attempt at applying should be logged onto the system even if the decision-maker does not take it to Stage 2 of the application process. The volume of such attempts should be monitored by SWF management.

Findings: Applying to the SWF

Crisis Grant and Community Care Grant applicants typically applied by telephone, although paper-based Community Care Grant applications were more common in some local authorities. The application process itself was widely viewed as straightforward although some respondents raised issues about waiting times to speak to staff by telephone; the cost of telephone calls; and not being able to understand paper-based questions. In some local authorities there were also concerns about there only being one way to apply.

The vast majority of those who had applied by telephone said that the process had been explained well to them by SWF staff who were generally helpful, friendly and supportive. Those supported by advocacy organisations appreciated the specialist support they received.

Recommendation: Efforts should be taken to make applicants aware of all options for applying to the SWF and to ensure that they are sign-posted towards advocacy organisations where appropriate.

Recommendation: Local authorities that do not offer a Freephone or local number or call-backs to SWF applicants might consider this. Local authorities might also wish to monitor call waiting times and staffing and also look at measures to improve efficiency in call-handling.

Findings: Decisions and awards

The majority of respondents in the study sample did not need to wait longer than the 'target processing time' for a decision to be made. In some cases waiting times added to the hardship experienced by Crisis Grant and Community Care Grant applicants. Applicants did not always receive a formal decision letter, and advocates felt that they should be sent copies of decision letters. There were also some concerns about a lack of sign-posting to other assistance.

Although satisfaction with awards was high, some rejections and partial awards meant that hardship was not prevented or alleviated. Some applicants turned to family and friends to make ends meet, but this was not an option for all research participants.

Recommendation: Local authorities should be encouraged to consider ways of speeding up the decision process, particularly for Crisis Grants, to ensure that a genuine emergency response is available.

Recommendation: Where applications are made with assistance from advocacy or support groups, decisions should be shared with those organisations (providing that applicants gave their permission) so that they can facilitate potential reviews.

Recommendation: Crisis Grant applicants should be signposted to other agencies by telephone as well as by letter, to speed up crisis responses.

Findings: The review process

The majority of unsuccessful or partially successful respondents did not ask for a review, mainly because they were not aware of that right; did not know on what exact grounds their application was rejected; felt grateful for a partial award; felt the review would not be successful; or had resolved their need. Third sector representatives felt that they should receive notification of the original decision to enable them to support clients in seeking a review.

Recommendation: All decision letters sent to unsuccessful and partly successful applicants should detail the right to review, the basis of the decision and that a review cannot lead to the loss of a partial award. The possibility of reviews should also be raised in phone calls informing applicants of decisions.


Email: Franca MacLeod

Back to top