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.

4 Eligibility

4.1 This chapter begins with a presentation of third sector perspectives on eligibility rules with a particular reference to SWF being a discretionary scheme. The following sections explore applicants' familiarity with eligibility rules as well as applicants' views on the equity of current eligibility criteria.

Third sector perspectives on eligibility criteria

4.2 Front-line and policy respondents from third sector support organisations were divided in their assessment of the current (revised) eligibility criteria: some thought that the criteria are 'about right' while others expressed an opinion that the criteria are too strict or narrow. The relaxation of eligibility criteria in October 2013 was unanimously seen as a move in a positive direction.

4.3 There were some concerns among the third sector representatives that local authorities are not exercising discretion in applying the eligibility criteria (mostly on the grounds of the lack of a qualifying benefit), leaving applicants in hardship.

4.4 However, front-line staff from one support organisation thought that applying discretion sparsely is positive since it leaves less room for clients manipulating the system, and therefore helps targeting funds at those who really need help.

4.5 Some front-line respondents thought that they would benefit from there being more 'case-law' (case studies of discretion decided at the review stage). While it has been recognised that such case law is necessarily small in the early days of any new policy, it has been pointed out that support organisations lacked feedback from SWF officers as decision letters were not sent to them.

4.6 A number of policy respondents emphasised that potential applicants should be encouraged to make an application. One such respondent felt that potential applicants should be encouraged "if there is any chance of success" (policy manager). Some front-line respondents spoke of incidents where people phoning the SWF number have been initially 'screened out' by call centre workers rather than SWF officers. This practice has been criticised on the grounds that decisions regarding eligibility should only be made by staff qualified to make such decisions. One policy manager strongly believed that attempts at applying which do not result in an application being made should be monitored.

4.7 Those third sector respondents who thought the criteria are too narrow were concerned that the criteria gave too much weight to the applicant being in receipt of a qualifying benefit. This group of respondents felt that because of the emphasis on qualifying benefits, a large number of people who are the very poorest and sometimes the most vulnerable - but for some reason not in receipt of a qualifying benefit - are effectively excluded from the SWF. In these cases, clients would frequently be discouraged from applying, which meant that there was no record of the attempt and the client would not be able to file for a review.

Every attempt at applying should be logged onto the system even if the decision-maker does not take the application to Stage 2 of the process. The decision letter should be sent and (where relevant) the applicant's advocate should be notified. The volume of such attempts should be monitored by SWF management.

4.8 Front-line respondents pointed out that there are various reasons for which clients may not be in receipt of benefits. Examples given to researchers included a woman who has fled domestic abuse and who was too traumatised to tell benefits officers about her situation. Similarly, administrative errors made by the DWP may result in a client being refused a benefit. Respondents felt that although such people were not ineligible for the SWF, the emphasis on qualifying benefits means that they were effectively in a weak position to be successful.

4.9 It has also been pointed out by a policy manager that the Guidance is worded in such a way that people who are in need but not in receipt of a qualifying benefit may be discouraged from applying. Specific examples provided were people with 'zero hour' employment contracts who had no income or people who were working but paid in arrears facing a gap in income.

4.10 Nearly all third sector respondents were concerned that that there is a gap in support for people who are destitute and ineligible for the SWF. It was thought that JSA claimants who have been sanctioned constitute the biggest category of such people.

4.11 While a sanctioned client may be able to receive a discretionary Hardship Payment from the DWP or a Section 12[5] payment from the Social Work department, front-line respondents felt that these are 'difficult to get'. The charitable sector is then the only source of support for such an individual.

4.12 Both front-line and policy respondents were of an opinion that this gap in state support for people who have been sanctioned is not acceptable. Two solutions have been suggested: those who felt that the current eligibility criteria are too narrow suggested relaxing the criteria further to effectively include all destitute people. Those who felt that the current eligibility criteria are 'about right' suggested that the Scottish Government should provide another safety net for destitute people ineligible for the SWF.

4.13 As for what an alternative safety net might look like, one policy manager suggested that the SWF could be complemented by a loan system with eligibility set lower than for a grant (e.g. a family in need would get a grant while a single person with a similar need would get a loan). This would help such applicants overcome difficulties while ensuring that the funding is recycled.

4.14 By and large, third sector respondents thought that basing eligibility on broadly defined needs/vulnerability works better than specifying eligibility groups. However, one policy officer pointed out that there was a danger that some vulnerabilities were underappreciated by SWF staff (resulting in applications being rejected or discouraged), which highlights the importance of staff having a thorough understanding of vulnerabilities and client groups.

4.15 Several front-line respondents have been concerned over cases where clients were being asked by SWF staff to apply for a Budgeting Loan from the DWP before making a SWF application. It is unclear to the research team whether this was a 'teething' problem that has gradually been resolved or it is a generic problem resulting from the Guidance on eligibility not being understood on this point by SWF staff.

The Guidance underlying the permanent arrangements would benefit from more clarity of the roles and responsibilities of the DWP and the SWF.

4.16 A few front-line respondents spoke of cases where applicants were asked by SWF staff if they could make their way out of the crisis (or buy necessary goods in the case of Community Care Grant) by using a credit card. Respondents judged it as unacceptable and pointed out that it frustrates their efforts of taking clients out of debt.

Applicants' understanding of eligibility rules

4.17 Overall, the majority of respondents said that they understood the eligibility criteria. For most, this was through receiving information directly from the SWF when they applied. Again, even where the decision was a negative one, most applicants were satisfied that the decision on their eligibility was sound. In fact, the Crisis Grant applicants who had experience of applying for the Social Fund in the past had a 'you win some, you lose some' philosophy.

I get a phone number and I speak with someone and the lady was very, very helpful. She explained to me everything, how this works. (Community Care Grant)

I asked her and she explained why I couldn't get it and stuff. It was more understandable then. (...) She said to me on the phone, it's just because the Community Care Grant, it's more for people that have been in abusive relationships and stuff. Whereas my scenario was totally different, even though I had nothing. I was still on Income Support and stuff. (Community Care Grant, refused)

4.18 The applicants who had used Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants in the past were familiar with the rationing of awards. Others who had not accessed help before understood the principle.

Yes, she [SWF call handler] said it was like three times a year and stuff like, you could apply for it. But as I say…(...) I would, hopefully, never have to use it again. (Crisis Grant, partial award)

There's no point [in applying again], basically. That's what the guy said, you've had it for a year. (Crisis Grant, multiple applications)

4.19 There were, however, a small number of applicants who did not agree with the eligibility criteria and felt that their case merited an award.

I don't understand the scheme whatsoever. (...) When I applied I got told I was a low category and all this, whatever that meant, you know what I mean? (Crisis Grant, refused)

4.20 There were also applicants who provided examples of what they felt were injustices or inconsistencies in how Community Care Grants in particular had been awarded. However, it seems likely that some of these cases may refer back to the Social Fund rather than current SWF practices.

When I lived in my other house, a man got a house up there, the one bedroom and he was just out of jail. It was for beating up his wife. They gave him £1000 to carpet his house… (Community Care Grant, refused)

(...) give me something, offer me something, some sort of help, that's what I think they could improve it. And explaining the reason why I didn't fit the criteria, that's the two problems. (...) I've actually just got a couple of friends there, they're single guys just got a houses. They've been awarded their grant, got all the stuff; their carpets all done and everything. I've got a kid so I don't know where's the justice in that. (Community Care Grant, refused)

4.21 Some respondents were frustrated by the 'maximum three Crisis Grants in a year' rule.

I don't think you should actually have a cap on how many [grants] you're allowed in a year. I think you should be investigated and if it comes to the fact that you are in a crisis, you should be helped. (Crisis Grant)

Well, it was when I'd phoned again to chase up the benefits, I had said to them, "Look, I can't keep going like this, I've got a baby to buy things for." (...) Last time that I phoned and I was just told, basically, beat it because you've had it already. Up until then it was fine. (Crisis Grant, multiple applications)

Applicants' views on qualifying benefits, sanctions and entitlement

4.22 Some of the applicants who were unhappy with how eligibility was decided had concerns about how their benefits impacted on the award. In one case, the applicant said that he had not been judged to be in receipt of the correct qualifying benefit for a long enough period. This does not reflect the Guidance, so may indicate an error in the assessment of this case or a misinterpretation or lack of understanding.

[I was refused] because I had only been claiming for my daughter less than six months.(...) and I'm actually changing all my benefits when I started claiming for her. (...) [It's not fair] Because I've had my daughter for a lot longer than that. Because her mum wouldn't hand the money over, I had to wait and wait and wait. (Community Care Grant, refused)

4.23 Several applicants who had a benefit sanction felt that the SWF rules should not take this into account.

It was not a problem to apply. But only thing that was because I got a sanction, they'll not give me anything. That's the only thing that is needing changed, I think, with the crisis grant. Because, people who are sanctioned get nothing. I think, because honestly people, there's nothing that they can do, there's nowhere they can turn to. If you know what I mean. Because sometimes I've not got the bus fare to get to an appointment and that. (Crisis Grant, refused)

4.24 A significant majority of Crisis Grant applicants in our sample had experienced a crisis due to delays or mishaps relating to benefits, rather than sanctions or a lack of entitlement.

Guidance or case study examples of where discretion has been applied would be useful to third sector organisations, particularly in cases where people were not currently in receipt of qualifying benefits. It would be good to 'showcase' exceptional circumstances, where discretion is being used well.


4.25 Third sector staff were glad to see eligibility clarified in recent months, with an acknowledgement that there had been a loosening in the application of the eligibility criteria.

4.26 Most applicants said that they understood the eligibility criteria, especially those with previous experience of the Social Fund.


Email: Franca MacLeod

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