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.

5 Decisions

5.1 This chapter opens with a presentation of third sector views on and experiences with the decision-making process. Applicants' experiences of the process are presented next, with separate sections on how long they waited for the decision and their views on how decisions were justified.

SWF staff skills/culture: perspectives of third sector organisations

5.2 All third sector respondents stated that in their localities SWF staff were members of the Revenues & Benefits team. Where opinions on this subject have been expressed, respondents believed that local authorities have made this arrangement because they thought that processing SWF applications require a similar skillset to processing benefit applications.

5.3 However, several third sector respondents emphasised that processing SWF applications actually requires a different set of skills. Specifically, applications for Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit do not require applying discretion or understanding vulnerability:

You need a different training to apply discretion, a different set of skills… discretion is hard. (policy manager).

5.4 Closely linked to that, some front-line and policy respondents also complained about there being a 'culture' of focussing on the criteria rather than on the individual:

Do we have a person in front of us who is in real need?' - this has to be what the Fund is about. The criteria must come second. (policy manager).

5.5 A number of front-line respondents felt that while SWF staff were pleasant and helpful, some lacked understanding of need, poverty and vulnerabilities, and that this was reflected in decisions.

5.5.1 For example, organisations supporting women fleeing domestic abuse complained that their local SWF staff did not understand the scale of crisis such women face or the consequences of refusing an award, or giving a partial award. In this case, without sufficient material means the woman may return to the perpetrator, or may be advised by Social Work staff that her children may be taken into care.

5.6 Similarly, some front-line and policy respondents also thought that SWF staff have a 'culture of not giving full Community Care Grants', which in the respondents' opinion was a consequence of the staff's lack of understanding of vulnerabilities and the realities of living in poverty. When partial awards were given, they were justified by the applicant being in 'low need' rather than the lack of funds.

5.7 Because processing SWF applications properly requires from Revenues & Benefits staff the acquisition of new skills (how to apply discretion) and learning about the realities of poverty and complex vulnerabilities, respondents thought that Revenues & Benefits staff face the challenge of a 'cultural shift' when they become involved in processing SWF applications.

5.8 It has also been pointed out by a policy respondent that processing SWF applications requires good interviewing skills:

[As an interviewer] You need to ask "how does that affect that?", you shouldn't take "I'm fine" at face value. (…) The interviewer must know how to deal with people embarrassed by their situation. Some [older] applicants may be afraid of being put in a care home if they said they do not have a cooker. They may be hesitant to explain how vulnerable they actually are. (policy manager)

5.9 Asked for suggestions as to how this issue of a 'cultural shift' faced by SWF staff may be addressed, respondents' opinions were divided. Some said that Revenues & Benefits staff who process SWF applications should be given training (by Social Work colleagues as well as third sector support organisations) in understanding vulnerabilities. Others thought that SWF applications should be processed by Social Work staff. Yet others suggested that there should be more joined up work between the two teams.

In each local authority SWF management should reflect on the extent of a 'cultural shift' faced by Revenues & Benefits staff who process SWF applications and, where the issue appears to be significant, explore the most appropriate ways of addressing it. Options might involve secondments or mentoring from Social Work or welfare rights staff.

5.10 Some support organisations spoke of refusal decisions that resulted in the local authority or the NHS "picking up the bill anyway, perhaps a ten times higher bill" (policy manager). It has been suggested that SWF officers should flag up applications where rejection could affect other budgets, particularly the Social Work department's budget. Such applications should then be seen by a senior employee with a more comprehensive understanding of the local authority, before a decision is made.

How decisions are communicated to applicants

5.11 All Crisis Grant applicants received a phone call and the majority also received a letter. One in six Crisis Grant applicants did not receive a decision letter. In one Crisis Grant case the decision-maker sent a text, presumably because he or she was not able to leave a voicemail.

5.12 Most Community Care Grant applicants received both phone calls and letters. One in five Community Care Grant applicants did not receive a decision letter.

5.13 Third sector organisations pointed out that decisions were sometimes communicated by phone only, with no decision letter being sent to the applicant. This practice was deemed unacceptable.

5.14 A specific criticism has been made by third sector respondents that without a decision letter, applicants may not be aware of the right to a review, may not know how much time they have to ask for a review, or how to go about filing for a review.

It should be obligatory to send the applicant a decision letter.

5.15 Third sector respondents were critical of the fact that they were not sent copies of decision letters. Respondents said that this had consequences for reviews; it is difficult to ask for a review where the advisor has not got a decision letter. Additionally, decision letters are a vital source of feedback for support organisations as to what local authority preferences are.

Under the permanent arrangements it should be obligatory to send a copy of the decision to applicant's advocate, by email at least.

5.16 Where support organisations have seen decision letters, they felt that the clarity of the letters varied.

Waiting times for the decision

5.17 Typically, Community Care Grant applicants had to wait between two and four weeks for a decision. A few received their decision within one week and one applicant had to wait 12 weeks. A few Community Care Grant applicants emphasised that they experienced hardship while waiting for the decision:

I've got twin boys that were, at the time, they were two, so still wee babies. I had no flooring or nothing. (...) I had absolutely nothing. Right down to silly things like pots and pans because the boy's dad taken everything totally, he cleared my house. I didn't have a sofa or anything like that. I had to have something that my children can actually sit and eat their dinners on. (...) It took a while to come through, that was a big issue. It [the four weeks of waiting] probably felt a lot longer for the boys. (Community Care Grant, depression and anxiety, lone parent, victim of domestic violence)

So, it did take a good few weeks to get a response off them, which... To let you understand, I'd actually moved into my property by this point. So it was an airbed on floorboards. So it was quite hard in the interim waiting. That was quite stressful. That really was quite stressful. (…) The worst thing was waiting the amount of time that I actually had to wait. (Community Care Grant, previously homeless)

5.18 Some third sector respondents also stated that when delays did occur, they might have created 'a lot of hardship'. One front-line respondent brought an example of a previously homeless person living in an empty flat for 12 weeks waiting for a Community Care Grant decision. For this reason one policy officer suggested that there should be a fast-tracking system for selected Community Care Grant applications.

5.19 One area where information gaps were identified by applicants was information about the progress of their Community Care Grant application. This was highlighted by one respondent where decision waiting times were longer and where they had to chase information rather than receive it more pro-actively.

So I mean, aye, it was, it was not a nice period. But the fact that I had to constantly wait and constantly repeat myself to somebody to try and get something which I found it really ridiculous, to be fair. (Community Care Grant)

5.20 A significant majority of Crisis Grant applicants received the decision on the same day, typically within two hours. A few applicants had to wait two or three working days. However, in one case the applicant had to wait three days just to be phoned back by SWF staff to complete the application process. The decision was subsequently made within ten minutes.

5.21 In another case the applicant applied for Crisis Grant and had to wait two weeks for his grant due to DWP's fault. (SWF staff contacted DWP a number of times during those two weeks and on each occasion were told that the DWP were going to pay the applicant imminently).

5.22 Both Crisis Grant applicants and third sector respondents were of an opinion that the 'two working days' target for Crisis Grants is not fast enough to respond to a crisis situation. Several third sector respondents suggested that the target processing time should be by the end of the day. Some felt that it should preferably be within one hour.

The maximum target processing time for Crisis Grants should be 'by the end of the working day'.

5.23 When their clients were awaiting a Crisis Grant decision, support organisations signposted clients to food banks, Section 12 payments might have been applied for (as a last resort) and churches also provided help.

5.24 A common concern expressed by third sector organisations was that Crisis Grant applications were not processed over the weekend. This concern has been validated by the following account from a Crisis Grant applicant:

I phoned them on a Friday about 12 o'clock, they didn't get back to me, I had to phone them back on Monday. So it was a weekend with nothing. I was quite astonished they could leave somebody for the weekend in crisis. (…) I did all weekend without gas and food and then starved for the weekend. (Crisis Grant, learning difficulties)

Each local authority should be encouraged to consider ways of making it possible to apply for a Crisis Grant outwith office hours or on public holidays. One possibility would be to delegate this task to Social Work colleagues who already provide an emergency service.

Justification of decisions

5.25 Around one in four SWF applicants who were unsuccessful or partially successful reported that the reason behind the decision has not been communicated to them. This included cases where applications were rejected due to applicants not meeting the criteria: it was not communicated which criteria were not met.

5.26 Some applicants thought that decisions in their cases were unfair. As mentioned earlier, in some cases applicants thought that SWF eligibility rules are unfair, for example being allowed not more than three Crisis Grants per year or the exclusion of people who have been sanctioned[6].

5.27 In a few cases applicants thought that the decision was unfair because it was harsh:

I was sleeping on a futon that was broken (…) they refused a bed for me. (Community Care Grant)

5.28 Some decisions suggested that SWF staff might have held pre-conceived views that some essential items (such as clothes) can easily be sourced by applicants on their own, justifying a negative decision:

I applied for the clothes and for the bed. But they said they can't give me the money for the clothes, so I received just the bed. I was disappointed. (Community Care Grant)

5.29 Similarly, the fact that a few respondents applied for a fridge freezer but were awarded a fridge would suggest that SWF decision-makers regard a freezer as a non-essential item. However, applicants perceived a freezer as a vital way to save money on food, and did not see it as a luxury.

5.30 On the other hand, some others felt that decisions in their cases were justified, for example a rejection to award a hall carpet due to it being a 'non-essential' item.

5.31 Applicants' accounts of decisions suggest that some local authorities have chosen not to apply discretion at all (even if the Guidance allowed it and the applicant was in particularly difficult circumstances). For example, all respondents who already had three Crisis Grants in one year were rejected regardless of how difficult their situation was.

I've had three Crisis Grants last year. I had to apply again because I still wasn't getting this money [benefits]. They said, no, you've had it three times, that's it. Too bad. I thought, well that's fine, and I get that there has to be a limit, but surely depending on your circumstances, that could be changed slightly. I needed baby milk. They left me with a baby that was only weeks old with nothing. (Crisis Grant, multiple applications)


5.32 The majority of applicants did not need to wait for the decision longer than the 'target processing time'. In some cases waiting times added to the hardship experienced by Crisis Grant and Community Care Grant applicants. Crisis Grant applicants and third sector respondents felt that the '2 working days' target processing time for Crisis Grant is too long to respond to a crisis situation.

5.33 The majority of applicants received decisions formally by letter. The scope for asking for a review was restricted for those who did not receive a decision letter. Third sector advocates felt that they should be sent copies of decision letters.

5.34 Applicants expressed varied opinions on the fairness of decisions. Among respondents who were unhappy with the decision, some felt that the decisions in their cases were harsh, while others felt that their decisions were unfair as a result of unfair eligibility rules. The perception of decisions being fair was associated with SWF staff making a sound judgement on which items are 'essential' or 'non-essential'.

5.35 A number of third sector respondents felt that some SWF staff did not understand 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 so did not have access to the review process.


Email: Franca MacLeod

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