4. Administration / Applicant Journey
4.1 Local authorities should ensure that applicants applying for assistance are treated with respect and their dignity is preserved as per the Welfare (Scotland) Act 2015. This is in line with the commitment that the Scottish Government has made to build a social security system that is founded on the principles of fairness, dignity and respect.
4.2 It is up to local authorities to determine where the application and processing of the SWF should sit in relation to other services, taking any steps deemed appropriate to ensure separation of duty and integrity of the award.
Residence of applicants
4.3 The Regulations specify that a local authority may provide assistance out of its SWF only to a person who is resident in the local authority area, is about to become resident in the local authority area, or a person who is homeless.
4.4 Where a person has been assessed as homeless by a local authority, they are legally entitled to be provided with accommodation by that local authority, and therefore likely to have an address in that area. If the person has been assessed as unintentionally homeless by a local authority, they are entitled to settled accommodation in that area if they have a local connection with the area (but may be waiting for this in temporary accommodation). If assessed as intentionally homeless, they will be entitled to temporary accommodation.
4.5 In either case they will have an address which does not need to be a permanent one.
4.6 In some cases, temporary accommodation may be provided out-with the local authority area where the assessment has been made, in which case they should apply to the local authority where that address is. However, if the temporary accommodation is as a result of the Council having allocated a permanent property to the applicant but they are unable to move in immediately, e.g. Council are still undertaking repairs, consideration should be given to processing the application by the local authority where the permanent home has been allocated. If the applicant is sleeping rough, they may be able to use a contact and care of address from a local third sector organisation. An application should not be rejected solely on the basis that the applicant does not have an address; further investigation is required to determine eligibility.
4.7 If the person is homeless or has no fixed address, for example, a member of the Gypsy Traveller Community, they should be treated as though they live in the local authority to which they have applied. This applies to applications for both Crisis Grants and Community Care Grants.
4.8 Local authorities can also provide assistance from their SWF, in the form of a Crisis Grant, to assist the applicant to return home where a person is stranded in the local authority area, or provide assistance where exceptional circumstances justify this. The SWF should not, however, be used to meet repatriation costs associated with helping a person leave the United Kingdom and return to their home country.
4.9 If a person from out-with the local authority area seeks to make an application, the local authority concerned can refer the applicant to their home local authority, unless the circumstances dictate otherwise. For example where the payment needs to be collected in person and this cannot be achieved due to the travel distance or the person is without means to receive a payment i.e. no card or mobile phone.
4.10 Where an applicant is moving to a different local authority area and applies for removal costs, or Community Care Grant items, the local authority that they are moving to should consider the application.
4.11 People leaving prison, young offenders or applicants leaving other institutions to set up a new home should apply to the local authority where they intend to reside, rather than the one where the prison or institution is located.
How applications are made
4.12 The Scottish Government website provides contact details for Welfare Funds in each local authority. Local authorities have discretion about where in the organisation they process applications, and how they link the scheme to existing services. There is an expectation on local authorities to work with applicants to identify any other support they may need or be entitled to and signpost them to relevant services to help solve any underlying problems.
4.13 The application process will depend on the local authority's approach to wider service delivery and the infrastructure it has in place. Local authorities will need to weigh up the cost of providing services with the benefits of each channel, for example, in assessing need and identifying underlying issues.
4.14 Local authorities must make provision for applications to be taken via three delivery channels, for example, online, on the phone and face-to-face and actively promote these channels. This is in order to meet varying needs, for example, in terms of literacy, access to (and skills to use) the internet and the ability to travel to appointments. Local authorities must provide face-to-face applications for more vulnerable individuals to whom face-to-face applications would be the most appropriate, and to people who have support needs or impairments. Paper applications may be accepted from those who are unable to or prefer not to use other methods, for example people in and leaving prison.
4.15 Local authorities should consider the Principles of Inclusive Communication and use these in planning and reviewing their channels for delivery, with a view to reducing the barriers to access and meeting the needs of all applicants. This includes making reasonable adjustments for disabled people to ensure equal access to services in line with the relevant equality and diversity legislation within the Equality Act 2010.
Support for Applications
4.16 Ideally, applications should be made by applicants themselves. Where appropriate, however, local advice agencies may provide support. A supported application may be preferred in a range of situations, for example, where children are subject to a Compulsory Supervision Order. In this example, a person supporting the family would help with the application (in the parent's name) for assistance. An award can then be made to the person supporting the family by way of 'supervised spend' (see paragraph 4.46) or delivery of goods organised with them.
4.17 Where an applicant has been supported in making an application, a local authority should establish with the applicant if they wish a decision letter or other correspondence to be copied to the agency/person that provided support to the applicant.
4.18 The Regulations allow for applications to be made on behalf of another person. If an application is made on behalf of a person, by someone other than an appointee, that person should be required to give their consent to the application being made on their behalf in writing. Local authorities may make an exception if this is an unreasonable demand on the applicant.
Gathering Evidence and Demonstrating Proper Consideration
4.19 Decision makers must clearly document the reasons for their decisions. This includes how they have used or evaluated the evidence to decide on whether the application meets eligibility, the qualifying criteria and priority level. The SWF is a discretionary fund and decision makers should detail their reasons for making decisions in case a review is requested, recording any reasons for deviating from the guidance.
4.20 Decision makers must ensure that they:
- treat applicants with respect and preserve their dignity
- follow any local protocols relating to the processing of applications, for example, in notifying the applicant of the outcome of an application
- base their decisions on accurate and up-to-date information
- take all relevant information into account
- seek to gather necessary relevant information to fill any gaps in evidence, giving the applicant an opportunity to make their case and respond to any apparent conflict in evidence. As highlighted in SPSO's SWF Annual Report 2016/17
- use discretion where appropriate, on a case-by-case basis
- keep an open mind and focus on the need identified by the applicant and the overall objectives of the SWF
- make a reasonable and fair decision, based on all the facts of the case, in keeping with the laws of natural justice
- make decisions within timescales, as set down in Section 4(3) of the Act and Section 13 of the Regulations.
4.21 Further relevant information may need to be gathered if there is not enough information on the application, or there is reason to clarify or question the information. If there is reason to doubt what is provided, for example, inconsistencies, the decision maker may need to gather additional information to decide whether, on balance, the information provided during the application process is true.
4.22 A decision maker may contact the applicant for more information or check with third parties, such as social workers, landlords and doctors, subject to the applicant's agreement. When this type of contact takes place, it should be recorded.
4.23 Decision makers should be mindful of using social media sites to gather information. It is possible that the account they propose to access, and the information it contains, may not have been put there by the individual in question, and therefore the amount of weight the decision maker can attribute to it is limited. Information given on the phone should be written up for inclusion in the record. Decision makers may also arrange a home visit to gather more information if they think it is necessary.
4.24 Applicants should be treated fairly and openly. It is important that they understand what evidence they need to provide to support their application. It is also important that, where evidence is counting against their application, they are told what it is and have an opportunity to explain further.
4.25 The evidence requested should be proportionate to the circumstances of the case. It should only be asked for if essential. Applicants should not be asked for evidence which would cause them to incur an unreasonable expense (for example those in rural areas who would need to travel considerable distance to obtain information or individuals having to pay a bank for a statement) or if it is already evident that the application will not succeed even with that evidence in place. If the applicant refuses to give further information, a decision should be made on the basis of information that has been gathered during the initial application. If the decision maker forms the impression that the application is not properly completed, or evidence is not being provided because of a chaotic lifestyle or other vulnerability, efforts should be made to provide appropriate support so that the necessary information can be gathered and a well informed decision can be made within the statutory timescales.
4.26 If the information could be obtained from another source, such as a support worker or nurse, the decision maker could, with the applicant's permission, approach such other people to obtain supporting information.
4.27 "Right First Time", produced by the Scottish Government, looks at how public bodies can save money and improve service to applicants by making fewer mistakes or poor decisions. It also sets out a checklist of questions for decision makers and managers at each stage of decision making.
Appropriate, robust recording of decision and reasons
4.28 The Regulations require the following be recorded during the journey of an application:
- application date
- details of the application, including the type of application and what was applied for
- any contact with the applicant in addition to the application form
- a summary of the key facts taken into account in making the decision. This will usually include an assessment of eligibility and the qualifying criteria (including which of the Community Care Grant criteria the applicant has been judged to have met)
- any information gathered that was actively disregarded
- the priority given (where it has reached that stage in the decision making process)
- relevant discussions about fulfilment of award and method agreed
- the decision made. This will usually include how the amount and intended duration of an award were calculated.
- the reason for the decision
- decision date
4.29 It is important that all decision making records are robust and reflect all the facts of the case and decision making process, as they are retained and may be referred to at a later date in the event of a request for review. All sections of decision making templates should be completed to record decisions. Sample decision making templates for original and 1st Tier Reviews decisions have been included as examples and can be found at annexes D and E.
4.30 Decision making documentation should be retained for six years in addition to the current financial year, in line with current retention policies for Housing Benefit, and made available if there is an application for review.
Communicating the decision
4.31 The Regulations require that all applications should receive an official decision and that this is communicated to the applicant in writing, unless the applicant requests otherwise. Where decision-making timescales have not been met, this should be acknowledged and an apology should be made.
4.32 Feedback from the Social Security Experience Panel indicates that applicants do not always understand the reason given in their decision letter. Decision letters must contain sufficient information to enable the applicant to understand the reason for the decision. The decision in writing must use plain and unambiguous language, be clear and concise and include the following :
- details of the application including the type of application and, what was applied for
- the date of the application
- the date of the decision
- an explanation of the reason for the decision referring to the applicant's circumstances and the relevant stages in the decision making process,
- the reason for any item not awarded
- details of any assistance awarded and the method by which it will be awarded. This will usually include the purpose and duration of the award.
- If the applicant has received support to make the application, a copy of the decision should be sent to the agency/person that has provided the support, if requested.
4.33 Crisis Grant decisions must be given as quickly as possible, by phone if possible, to ensure that the applicant knows the outcome. Text and email may be used if there is a way of ensuring that the applicant is receiving the message sent. Decisions should be followed up with a letter.
4.34 If an applicant has particular needs due to a disability or impairment, for example vision, cognitive or hearing impairments or a learning disability, efforts must be made to communicate the decision in a way that meets their needs.
4.35 Applicants must be given an accurate reason for their application being rejected, even if this touches on sensitive issues. Staff delivering bad news to applicants should bear in mind the severity of their circumstances, treat them with respect and seek to understand the position that they are in. The information offered should be clear and concise. Where possible, alternative forms of support available locally should be suggested but only where there is some probability of success.
People In and Leaving Prison
4.36 Local authorities should consider the needs of people in and leaving prison in accessing their Welfare Fund and meet them where they can. There is a high incidence of literacy problems in the prison population and telephone and on-line applications are likely to be problematic. Prisoners may not have access to the internet and, while they may get access to a phone, prisons may not be able to provide the necessary supervision for the duration of the application call. The Scottish Government therefore issues a stock of generic application forms to prisons so that they can be submitted to any local authority. Local authorities may also want to supply their own forms, where they receive a high volume of applications from one or more prisons.
4.37 Local authorities should also be aware that applications may also be received from people in prisons' families, who may have to apply more frequently than other groups, whether to meet their own needs, or to support their family member on release, or temporary release from custody. They may not have access to relevant support networks, as they can be disadvantaged due to the stigma attached to having family members in prison. In such circumstances, decision makers should demonstrate the guidance on the treatment of applicants (4.19), and communicating decisions (4.29-4.32).
4.38 The Scottish Prison Service has agreed to meet the cost of the postage of Welfare Fund application forms to allow prisoners to submit their applications to local authorities. To allow for consistency of service for prisoners, the two private prisons at Addiewell and Kilmarnock have agreed to do this also.
4.39 Prison Officers, third sector organisations, social workers, peer mentors, where available, and other prisoners with more experience of completing forms may be able to offer support. Where there are strong links with a local prison, local authority staff may wish to make an arrangement to provide support for applications, particularly if they have a support arrangement in place for other local authority services.
4.40 The Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service have produced an advice note, to be published on the Scottish Government website, for local authorities and people who might be supporting people in and leaving prison in making an application, setting out how the Welfare Funds can contribute to reducing re-offending. This includes a suggested applicant journey for people in and leaving prison and highlights points to consider in processing an application.
4.41 Key points to remember for local authorities are:
- Making links with prisons which release people into their area
- involve the prisoner's named contact (whether prison officer, prison Throughcare officer, social worker, third sector mentor or peer mentor – as appropriate) in the process so that the individual is supported throughout the application process.
- consider the individual circumstances of the applicant and avoid rule of thumb measures in making awards
- applications should not be rejected on the basis that the applicant does not have an address - applicants should apply to the local authority they intend to live in
- consider decisions in principle (see paragraph 8.40) where possible to allow applicants to plan ahead
- ensure awards are timely and accessible for people leaving prison in order for the grant to have the best effect
- send decision notices to the single point of contact in the prison in time for the applicant to ask for review or make an alternative plan
- make links with local community justice and offender reintegration services and include relevant advice in decision letters.
4.42 A range of work is underway to improve the liaison between the SWF and the Scottish Prison Service, for example, we have reviewed the advice note referred to in paragraph 4.37 and will publish this on the Scottish Government website.
How grants are fulfilled
4.43 Local authorities decide what support will be given and the amount of any grant, with the aim of achieving best value for money and providing support to the maximum number of applicants, whilst respecting the needs of the individual applicant. The Act allows local authorities to pay third parties to arrange for them to provide goods or services to successful applicants for assistance.
4.44 The Regulations require Crisis Grants be made in cash or cash equivalent, unless the local authority considers it would be of advantage to the applicant for the grant to be provided in a different manner
4.45 A cash equivalent is something that does not limit the recipient as to where they can spend an award, or what they can spend it on. Cash equivalent examples include Paypoint or similar services, Allpay (without restrictions), high street vouchers (accepted at a number of outlets) and electronic bank transfer.
4.46 Decision makers should have an open discussion with the applicant about available cash and cash-equivalent options in order to select the most appropriate method. When deciding to make a cash equivalent payment, local authorities should seek to understand any potential for stigma and take reasonable steps to minimise this.
4.47 When establishing whether it would be of advantage to the applicant to receive a grant in another manner, i.e. not in cash or cash equivalent, local authorities must ensure the individual's needs and preferences are understood, recorded and taken into consideration as part of the decision making process.
4.48 Some examples where it may be of advantage to the applicant to receive a grant in another manner include the provision of travel vouchers or fuel cards to meet a specific need or white goods, such as cookers and fridges, in the case of disaster.
4.49 If awards are not collected or there is no contact from the applicant, in these circumstances it would not count as one of their 3 awards in 12 months.
Community Care Grants
4.50 Community Care Grants can be fulfilled in cash, cash-equivalent or in kind. Local authorities can fulfil Community Care Grants in kind, rather than by using cash or a cash-equivalent, for example, by providing white goods, furnishings or travel vouchers. This can help secure economies of scale, for example, through bulk purchasing or re-use initiatives.
4.51 In making decisions, local authorities need to balance the needs of the applicant against the remaining budget. Factors to be taken into consideration include:
- balancing quality, cost and the projected life of the item to make sure that the decision represents best value
- the capacity of the applicant to travel to make purchases, or collect an award, and the delivery costs associated with delivery of bulky goods
- what infrastructure or contracts the local authority has in place to make bulk purchases, and other local services available (for example, furniture re-use schemes)
- the likely wear on the item and the effect on its life, as this may result in repeat applications (for example, if a washing machine is going to have heavy use, a larger capacity washing machine may be required)
- any specific needs due to equality considerations (for example, a need for adapted furniture because of a disability or where there is a need due to religious requirements)
- energy efficiency of the products being chosen – where possible, white goods should be A rated
4.52 If awards are not collected or there is no contact from the applicant within 28 days of grant notification being issued then it should be withdrawn. In these circumstances it would not count as one of their 3 awards in 12 months. Exceptions to this may be, for example, if there has been a period in hospital. Local authorities should treat any potential exceptional circumstance on a case by case basis.
4.53 In certain circumstances, decision makers may make awards on the basis that spending should be supervised by an appropriate agency. This may be appropriate where the applicant needs help with decision making or where there is evidence that previous awards have not been spent on the items intended.
Consistency in Awards
4.54 Local authorities may use a standard list of current prices to identify the costs of commonly applied for items. Local authorities may wish to construct their own lists based on their contracts, or prevailing prices in their local economies, taking into account varying costs of delivery and the needs of the applicant.
4.55 If the applicant demonstrates a need for a specialist product to meet their needs, for example, where an item needs to be of a specific type or be adapted, the local authority should exercise discretion. An award of a higher amount may be appropriate, for example, where a disabled person needs a cooker with special adaptations, or where family size means that their needs will be better met by goods of a higher specification.
4.56 Local authorities should not use food bank referrals to fulfil a grant award. If an application has been unsuccessful, local authorities may consider signposting to local food banks to meet the applicant's immediate need as part of the wider holistic service. It may also be appropriate to refer or signpost, if it has not been done already, an applicant to income maximisation and other services to ensure they are receiving all the benefits they are entitled to.
Charging items to the budget
4.57 If a local authority decides to fulfil an award using a non-cash method, it should ensure any goods, vouchers and so forth are charged to the budget at their actual cost or reasonable value, or the cost to the local authority.
4.58 Local authorities should validate the information that is collected in the application process by checking data provided by the DWP. Personal information about individuals should be held in confidence, in keeping with local data protection policy and practice. Information provided in connection with an application should not be passed on without consent.
4.59 Local authorities should consider the legalities and practicalities of using data they already hold on applicants, to streamline the application and verification process.
4.60 The Ombudsman may require local authorities to supply or produce information or documents which the Ombudsman considers necessary for conducting a review.
Fraud / misuse of goods
4.61 Local authorities should be pro-active in preventing fraud and share practice with other local authorities. Where a local authority identifies evidence of fraud or misuse of the fund, they should record this and take it in to account in future applications. Where appropriate, the applicant must be made aware if this is the case and be given the opportunity to explain. Local authorities should also make appropriate links to their processes for audit, risk assessment and detecting fraud.