Leading Article: Neglect that costs the poor dearly

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The Independent Online
CUTTING 'fat' from the social security budget is the subject of intense national controversy. Of course, no one argues that the poor should receive less. Indeed, ministers speak of targeting welfare more effectively on those who are badly off. The focus of cutbacks, they say, should be to remove anomalies entitling the relatively rich to benefits that the Government can ill afford.

At least, that is the rhetoric. The Government's record in helping the very poorest is more disquieting. There are plenty of examples of people, including families with children, being unable to obtain beds, fridges, clothing and carpeting. The Social Fund - the 'safety net' for the poor - is supposed to help them with grants and loans. In fact, the system is 'an appalling lottery', according to the Social Security Advisory Committee, the official adviser to the Government. Research commissioned from York University by the Department of Social Security has found that the very needy are being turned away.

Cash limits mean that, even if a cause is judged deserving, a person may fail to receive help if the budget has been spent. Cutbacks have been sizeable. Richard Berthoud, of the Policy Studies Institute, calculates that the Social Fund distributes half as much as the system it replaced, saving pounds 226m a year.

In the face of such concern and government wishes to target the poorest, Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, could be expected to think again. John Major, a social security minister during the reforms that produced the Social Fund, might also have had second thoughts. Not so. Mr Lilley has quietly announced that all is well with the Social Fund. 'We have seen no evidence to alter our belief that the basic principles of the discretionary scheme are right,' he says in his annual report on the fund's workings.

That same report measures Mr Lilley's complacency. In 1992-93, 45,491 people were refused a loan to buy essentials because they were too poor. They were so burdened by debt that the Government did not believe it would get its money back. So people already living hand to mouth were sent back to rest on floors in sleeping bags in unfurnished flats with no money to buy tables, chairs and other essentials. The York University research concludes: 'After careful examination of the available evidence, we cannot say that people who receive Social Fund awards are in greater general need that those who are refused.'

There are thoughtful options offered by Mr Lilley's advisers that would cost more but would not represent a blank cheque. The Social Security Advisory Committee asked that certain discretionary grants should be made mandatory. That way people moving from residential care into the community, or faced with a domestic crisis such as fire or flood, would receive money even when a budget was overspent. Other critics have urged Mr Lilley to find some way of helping the 45,491 people refused support because they were considered too poor for the Government's safety net.

None of these problems has been addressed. Instead, Mr Lilley seems content to accept the cash savings and let the neglect of the poorest continue. Such behaviour does not bolster confidence in the social security review.

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