Since April we have made available additional funds of over £43 million to district office budgets for loans and grants. From today social fund officers will be using the completely revised guide which has been introduced in all district offices.
Does not the Minister recognise that, even with these additional funds, if the fund is the final back-up of a system for people in the most urgent need of one-off payments, there is still too much budget limitation at local offices, which have to pay more attention to the availability of funds than to the need of the person applying? Does he recognise that the repayment of a loan is still too much of a limiting factor in granting loans, which should be granted anyway to the people in most urgent need?
The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say before that we are dealing at the margins of the social security system with those in exceptional circumstances who have exceptional needs. I believe that the social fund, managing a controlled budget with discretion at local level, is the right way to proceed, but, of course, we are looking forward to the reports from the social policy research unit at York and others in the not-too-distant future when there will be an opportunity to review the whole system.
I thank my right hon. Friend for listening carefully to the representations that I and many Conservative Members have made about the increase in the social fund, especially for the people in Skelmersdale of whom he took note when I made representations to him.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that among his priorities are people who find themselves homeless and without furniture or other items? Under the social fund and the additional money that he has made available, will they be given a high priority in the deliberations of local officers?
As I think my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has power to make directions and to issue guidance on the social fund. Guidance is also given at local level. It is for the individual social fund officers to use their discretion on whether payments are made.
The Minister is incredibly complacent about the operation of the social fund, on which many thousands of people rely to make ends meet. Is he aware of the abysmally low success rate in many cities? Is he further aware that when a grant is applied for jointly with a loan, there are massive variations among district offices in those cities? In Manchester, for example, the success rate in Wythenshawe is 5·7 per cent., in Chorlton it is 8·7 per cent. and in Rusholme it is 13·6 per cent., despite all three offices having spent their full allowance, including the additional money from February and September this year? Will he urgently consider the amount of money in the social fund to ensure that people are treated equally under this abysmal system whenever they go to social fund offices throughout the year and regardless of which office they apply to?
I reject any concept of its being an abysmal system. In August this year, we provided substantial extra resources for the social fund because we recognised the pressures in offices. All offices received an increase of at least 10 per cent. and those under most pressure received up to 40 per cent. in additional resources. I challenge the hon. Gentleman's presumption about discretion. If there is discretion at local level, there will be variation between different offices when judgments are made by social fund officers. The combination of a fixed budget and the use of discretion is an appropriate way in which to meet exceptional needs.