HC Deb 22 July 1991 vol 195 cc741-3
9. Mr. Janner

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he will make a statement regarding the operation of the social fund.

Mr. Scott

I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to the 1991 annual report of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the operation of the social fund, which was laid before Parliament on 17 July.

Mr. Janner

Does the Minister accept that some areas do not spend their allocations, while others, such as Leicester, do not have nearly as much as they need? As a result, people such as my constituent, Jayne Cooper, of north Braunston—[Interruption.] Conservative Members do not understand. Question Time is the time when we protect our constituents from all the bureaucracy that the Government impose on them.

If I send him the details, will the Minister look into the case of Jayne Cooper and see what help can be given to this lady, who has been skewered by the fierce and narrow impositions placed on the use of the social fund?

Mr. Scott

Of course, I shall look at the case, if the hon. and learned Gentleman sends me the details. In both the north Leicester and south Leicester offices, all high-priority cases are being met and some medium-priority cases are being met in north Leicester. We are making arrangements to improve the method whereby funds are reallocated from offices with surplus resources to other offices that are under pressure.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

The Lancashire county council welfare rights sub-committee—of which my right hon. Friend may have heard—fears that, in future, now that Kendal and Barrow are linked with Lancaster in the same office, when the statistics go on to the mainframe computer it may be impossible to obtain those that relate to Lancaster. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that they can be singled out? Lancaster has been given an assurance this year, but it is wondering about the future.

Mr. Scott

I have no reason to believe that the introduction of a new system will in any way inhibit our ability to obtain such information.

Mr. Pike

Is not it regrettable that people who apply to the social fund are often refused a grant and are then refused a loan because their income is not sufficient for them to repay it? Are not many people in urgent need thus prevented from receiving the assistance that they need so much?

Mr. Scott

Very few people are refused a loan by the social fund because of inability to pay; but, when someone clearly cannot pay, other procedures can be brought into play. Indeed, many thousands who apply for a loan in the first place end up with a grant instead.

Mr. Harris

The old system of single payments led to massive abuse and had to be changed, but will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the administrative cost of the social fund, as evidence to the Select Committee on Social Security showed clearly that the cost of handling individual applications was very high?

Mr. Scott

I agree with my hon. Friend about the old single payment scheme, and I seem to have the support of the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury who said recently that nobody liked the system of single payments, which was extremely complicated for both claimants and staff. Any system which depends on discretion rather than on an automatic formula and precise regulations for the delivery of benefit is bound to be more expensive administratively because of the discretionary element involved in the decision-making process.

Mr. Meacher

What is the point of the Prime Minister unveiling a citizens charter today if, as last week's report of the social fund shows, 27,000 of the very poorest citizens in our society got no help because they were too poor to repay it? That is not a very small figure, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested. Will any of the 185,000 people who were denied assistance from the social fund, because there was too little money in a cash-limited budget, get any redress today from the citizens charter? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with the social fund, the administration costs of which last year, at £77 million, exceeded the total of all the grants paid throughout the year, which came to only £68 million?

Mr. Scott

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to trespass on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's ground—the citizens charter—of later this afternoon. I can say, however, that the social fund, with its element of discretion, has proved to be a much more flexible and effective way of meeting exceptional need and exceptional circumstances than the old single payments scheme, or its predecessor schemes.