This month we determined a number of cases involving applicants from European Economic Area (EEA) countries; who had applied to SWF for assistance after experiencing issues with their benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
In one such case, an applicant applied for a crisis grant after being assessed by the DWP to no longer meet the necessary requirement for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). He had been advised that he did not meet the ‘right to reside’ criteria, which he intended to appeal. The council noted that the applicant was also no longer receiving housing benefit, and that on the basis of the DWP’s decision they could not make an award. They made clear in their notes that the decision was based on the applicant “not having recourse to public funds (NRPF)”. We disagreed with this assessment as sections 6.10 and 6.11 of the guidance make clear that EEA nationals are not generally excluded from applying for assistance by their immigration status; and discretion can be applied to award a grant. We instructed the council to make an award of £81.45 to cover the period of time until the applicant’s next significant Personal Independence Payment (PIP) payment.
In another case, a representative applied for a crisis grant for living costs on behalf of an applicant after his ESA had been stopped. He had applied for Universal Credit but had been declined due to failing the habitual residence test (HRT). He continued to be in receipt of PIP but that wasn’t sufficient to cover his essential living costs. The council declined the application as he had already received three awards in the previous 12 month rolling period for the same issue. We agreed with this assessment as in order for a further application to be made, the circumstances needed to be deemed to be exceptional. As there were similarities with previous applications, we agreed that the circumstances of this application were not exceptional. We were critical that the council had not kept notes for their first tier decision; and also highlighted the representative’s concerns about the tone of their decision letter.
One of the most common reasons for us disagreeing with the council’s decision last month was that we considered the council had incorrectly interpreted the available information.
In one case, an applicant had applied for a crisis grant after losing his wallet on the bus. He was therefore seeking assistance with living expenses until his next payment of benefit. The council declined his application as he had received an award for losing money approximately a year previously, and they did not consider that it was ‘within the bounds of possibilities' to lose a wallet twice within that period. We disagreed with this assessment as after speaking with the applicant, we were satisfied with his version of events. We also disagreed that it was outwith the bounds of possibilities to lose a wallet twice within a 12-13 month period; particularly given the applicant’s circumstances. These included being homeless; having previously had substance misuse issues, and having depression and anxiety. We changed the council’s decision and instructed them to make an award. We also provided feedback to the council that their decision letters and case notes were not in line with the guidance.
In another case, an applicant had applied for a community care grant for a number of household items including white goods and flooring. She has been living in a room at her mother’s house with her daughter for over 10 years. As she and her teenage daughter were sharing a room; the applicant stated that she required more space and was awarded a new tenancy. She had also noted various health conditions and substance misuse issues, as well as problems with harassment locally. The council determined that the applicant did not meet the qualifying criteria for an award; as the housing association had allocated the property from the normal waiting list and that the move was planned. We disagreed with this assessment as we recognise that it is not possible for all applicants to the fund to be able to save for a move, even when the move is not unexpected. Additionally, we considered that while the applicant had not been given a high priority for housing; this did not mean that she wasn’t facing pressures. We took into account her health and substance misuse problems; issues with harassment; and also assessed that their previous housing situation, in which she was sharing a sofa bed with her daughter, was far from ideal. We assessed that she met the qualifying criteria relating to an individual or family facing exceptional pressure and instructed the council to award a cooker, fridge freezer, beds and bedding and a washing machine.
In recent weeks we have determined a number of cases where applicants had made a new application within 28 days of a previous application. In such cases, it is necessary to consider whether there has been a relevant change in circumstances since the previous application because if not, councils do not need to assess the application beyond stage one of the decision making process.
In one such case, an applicant had applied for a crisis grant as she had claimed the wrong benefit; and there would be a delay in the correct benefit being paid. The council refused the application on the basis that she had made a repeat application within 28 days of a previous successful application; and they did not consider there were any relevant changes in her circumstances. They also noted that she was in receipt of child tax credit and had access to a short term benefit advance from the DWP. We disagreed with the assessment as we considered that having to claim a different benefit was a relevant change in her circumstances.
We also confirmed that she was not in receipt of child tax credits, nor had she been aware that there had been a short term benefit advance available to her. We accepted that there had been a relevant change in her circumstances and that she did not have access to any additional sources of income. We instructed the council to make an ward of £280.00 for a period of two weeks. and provided feedback to the council about our findings.
In another case, an applicant requested an independent review as he had applied for a crisis grant due to his Employment Support Allowance (ESA) being stopped. The council declined Mr C's application on the basis that he had applied within 28 days of his last award; and considered there had not been a relevant change of circumstances. We agreed that the application was made under the same circumstances as his previous application; and there had not been a relevant change of circumstances. We, therefore, did not change the council’s decision but provided feedback to them as the signposting provided in their initial decision letter was incorrect.
In recent weeks we have observed some examples of applicants being signposted incorrectly. In one such case, an applicant, who had previously been awarded a crisis grant and spent this; contacted the council to make a new crisis grant application. However, instead of a new application being taken, she was told that she would have to apply for an independent review of her previous application. The SWF guidance makes it clear that applicants should not be prevented from applying to the fund, even if it seems unlikely that the application will be successful (section 5.1). This includes the use of ‘screening questions or eligibility checkers’ to deter applications from making an application. While the applicant also had the right to an independent review of her previous application, she was experiencing a new crisis situation; having spent her previous award. We did not uphold the applicant’s review request; as we considered that she had been awarded the correct amount for her previous application. However, we highlighted in our feedback to the council that she should not have been denied the opportunity to make a new application.
In another case, it was necessary for us to consider whether ownership of a property not lived in by an applicant, precluded him from receiving SWF assistance. The applicant had applied for a community care grant for items for his home after being offered a new tenancy. He also owned a property, which was being rented out. The council refused the application, as they guidance states capital that should be taken into account includes property that is not the applicant's home. However, having reviewed the regulations and the specific circumstances of the case, we disagreed with this assessment. We confirmed that the applicant’s property was in negative equity and the rental income only covered the mortgage interest. We therefore assessed that there was no equity and no profit gained from renting out the property. On this basis, we assessed that despite owning a property, the applicant still required assistance from the fund. We therefore considered that he met the conditions for a grant and awarded the items which met high priority.
In recent weeks we have considered a number of crisis grant reviews where we were critical of councils’ communication with applicants, both in cases where we agreed and disagreed with the council’s decision.
In one such case, an applicant applied for a crisis grant after his Universal Credit (UC) was sanctioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for 66 days. The council awarded £56.39 at the initial decision stage, stating that this award would meet the applicant’s need for 9 days, until he was able to arrange hardship payments from the DWP. Following a first tier review, the council made a further five day award, bring the total to £87.72. After exhausting these funds, the applicant applied for an independent review of the decision. As the applicant was subject to a sanction for 66 days, we considered that it was reasonable for the council to suggest that the applicant should engage with the DWP to pursue a sustainable long term solution, in this case a hardship loan. However, we were critical that the council did not make the signposting more explicit in their letters, and that no explanation of why the original award was nine days in duration was given. Nevertheless, we assessed that the total amount awarded covered a 14 day period, which we considered was in line with the guidance concerning a gap in income of an unknown duration. We therefore did not change the council’s decision.
In another case, an applicant applied for a crisis grant for living expenses. She had received an award 19 days prior to this application, after losing her wallet. However, she had spent this money and was facing a new crisis situation. The council excluded the application at the eligibility stage of the decision making process on the basis of her previous award. The SWF regulations state that councils do not need to consider applications within 28 days where there has not been a relevant change of circumstances. When considering whether there had been a change in circumstances, we noted that the applicant said that she had spent additional money on food due to having experienced a deterioration in her mental health. She explained that she had been unable to leave the house for extended periods, and had been binge eating. We spoke with her GP who provided information regarding her mental health; a recent prescription for medication that is known to increase the appetite, and a history of eating disorders. Overall, we assessed that a change of circumstances had taken place since the applicant’s previous award. We, therefore, considered that the applicant met the conditions for a crisis grant and instructed the council to make an award. When reviewing the case, we were critical of the way in which the council communicated with the applicant throughout the application process. We assessed that this caused distress for the applicant and was not in keeping with treating applicants with dignity and respect.
In recent weeks we have considered a number of cases where we assessed that councils did not take into account applicants' additional support needs; or make appropriate enquiries to gather further information about their health difficulties.
In one such case, an applicant applied for a community care grant for carpets in his living room, hallway and bedroom. The applicant had paid £1000 to an individual to replace his carpets. However, the individual removed the carpets but did not replace them with new flooring, therefore, the applicant had been cheated out of the money and left with no flooring. The applicant was particularly vulnerable as he had learning difficulties and mobility issues. The council assessed that he did not meet the qualifying criteria but we disagreed with this assessment. Overall, we considered that the applicant was facing exceptional pressure to maintain a settled home and that this pressure had been increased by the situation with his carpets. We awarded carpets in all areas as we assessed they met the necessary priority level.
In another case, an applicant applied for a community care grant for a number of household items after moving home. The reason for the move was due to safety issues relating to the wellbeing of her 16 year old son. She also had a two-year-old daughter and the previous home was overcrowded. The council assessed that the application met the eligibility and qualifying criteria for a grant, and awarded the items that they deemed met the necessary priority level. However, they did not award a stair and hall carpet or two wardrobes. Due to the specific nature of the applicant’s son’s health problems, the lack of carpeting was causing particular disruption and upset within the family. This was alluded to in the applicant’s first tier review request to the council, and we subsequently contacted the applicant for further information about this. On the basis of the information provided by the applicant we awarded the carpets and one wardrobe as these were deemed to meet the necessary priority level.
We have determined a number of cases where it was necessary for us to seek advice from the SPSO's GP adviser. We should stress, the advice we take on SWF cases is general and does not relate to an applicant's specific circumstances. If we think more specific information is needed about an applicant's personal circumstances, with their permission, we may contact their own GP or other health professionals. We are publishing two case studies this month about cases where we took medical advice.
In one such case, an applicant applied for a community care grant for a number of household after securing her own tenancy. The applicant herself had borderline personality disorder, asthma and was also pregnant. The council agreed that the applicant met the eligibility and qualifying criteria for an award and a number of items. However, they did not award hallway carpets, an additional bedroom carpet or bathroom and kitchen flooring; as they deemed these items did not meet the priority level. At her first tier review, the applicant submitted a letter from her GP confirming that she has asthma and had reported dust as being a trigger, however the council did not change their decision. We considered the full circumstances of the case; and sought advice from our GP adviser regarding whether floorings specifically would help alleviate this condition where dust is a trigger. Our adviser verified that flooring covering (any floor covering) would reduce dust in comparison to bare floorboards. Based on this information we assessed flooring in the hallway, additional bedroom, kitchen and bathroom met the councils medium priority and awarded these items.
In another case, an applicant applied for a community care grant in order to obtain a new electric cooker. His existing cooker had developed a fault as the hob worked but the oven and the grill functions did not. The applicant suffered from COPD and heart trouble, as well as type on diabetes and mobility issues. The applicant’s representative stated that his ability to manage his diabetes would be affected by his reduced range of cooking options. The council declined the application on the basis that the applicant - who received the higher rate of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), state pension and an occupational pension – was not on a low income. We disagreed with the council’s assessment of income. Section 8.31 of the Guidance explained that the applicant’s DLA – in this case used to fund a Motability vehicle – is excluded when calculating the applicant’s income. We also noted that despite having income from an occupational pension the applicant qualified for and received housing benefit. However, we determined that the applicant did not meet the qualifying criteria for an award. We contacted our GP adviser for further information around whether the lack of a fully functioning cooker (supplemented by the use of a microwave) would create difficulties in terms of his health. Based in part on advice received from the GP, we did not deem the applicant to be at risk of care or to be facing exceptional pressure as a result of not having a fully functional cooker. We also did not assess that an award of a new cooker would eliminate the pressures the applicant faced in relation to his on-going medical conditions.
In recent weeks and months, we have determined a number of cases where councils have refused crisis grant applications because they have that assessed applicants’ circumstances are on-going; and crisis grants are intended to provide one off or occasional assistance.
In one such case, an applicant applied for a crisis grant as he had deductions from his Universal Credit (UC) and had ran out of money for living expenses. The council refused the application on the basis that he had received a crisis grant in the last 12 months and had been on the same income for some time, so they considered that he should have budgeted accordingly. We considered the facts and circumstances of the case, and spoke with the applicant for further information. Whilst we acknowledged that he had applied to the fund due to UC deductions before, we noted that this was only on one occasion three months previously. As a result, we did not assess that this could be assessed as being an on-going feature of his expenditure and it was therefore determined that the application should not be excluded due to the application history. We highlighted to the council that the guidance had not been followed and also advised that the council's decision letters did not provide sufficient detail for the applicant to understand the decision. As such, we upheld the applicant's review request and instructed the council to make an award of £60.
In another case, an applicant applied for a crisis grant as she had spent her UC making up the shortfall between her housing allowance and her rent, therefore had no money for living expenses. When considering the case, we noted that the applicant had initially moved into the property whilst in full time work and had been living with her partner who had contributed to the rent. However, the relationship subsequently broke down and the applicant’s employment also ended. She had therefore been in receipt of UC and having to make up the shortfall in her rent for a period of six months. During this time, she had made three crisis grant applications, two of which were awarded and this was her fourth application for the same reasons. We assessed that making up the shortfall in her rent had become an on-going feature of her expenditure and therefore fell out-with the scope of assisting with one-off needs. We therefore agreed with the council’s decision and did not uphold the applicant’s review request.
When considering community care grant applications, it can take several weeks or months to progress from the initial application stage through to SPSO independently reviewing the case. As a result of this time delay, it is not uncommon for us to observe cases where applicants have acquired the items they applied for by the time we consider the case.
In one such case, an applicant applied for a community care grant after moving into a ground floor property for health reasons. The council assessed that he met the qualifying criteria for an award, however, considered that as he had been on the housing register for 18 months, that he should have planned for the move and therefore did not have an immediate and severe need for the items. We disagreed with this assessment as we did not consider that it was reasonable for the applicant to have budgeted for the items he needed on such a low income. We noted that the applicant had borrowed money to buy the things that he needed, however, considered that this had placed him in financial hardship. We therefore instructed the council to make a cash award of equivalent value to the items we assessed should have been awarded at the initial decision.
In another case, an applicant applied for a number of household items after moving into a new property, again for health reasons. The applicant suffered from a number of physical and mental health problems and had moved from a townhouse property, which had three floors, to a first floor flat. She advised that she was unable to remain in her previous property due to the number of stairs. The council assessed that the applicant did not meet the qualifying criteria, however we disagreed with this assessment. We sought some independent advice from a GP adviser who noted that it would be beneficial for the applicant to have accommodation all on one level due to her health issues. We therefore assessed that she met the qualifying criteria, as we considered that she was moving to more suitable accommodation to prevent admission to care. We instructed the council to award a washing machine, a cooker, a living room carpet, and two bedroom carpets. The applicant had also applied for removal costs, however we noted that she had covered this cost using part of a budgeting loan, before the council assessed her application. As the council did not have the opportunity to consider the case prior to the applicant sourcing support by other means, we disagreed that these costs should be reimbursed.
In recent weeks, we have determined a number of cases where we assessed that the council should have carried out further enquiries as part of their decision making process.
In one such case, an applicant had applied for a crisis grant following a relationship breakdown. He had two small children to care for, and was signed off work due to his difficult personal circumstances. The council assessed that the applicant’s situation was on-going and did not make an award. We noted that the applicant had received two previous crisis grant awards, and only one of which was in connection with his current situation. We therefore disagreed that the situation could be classed as on-going, particularly in light of the fact that the applicant was due to return to work. We also provided feedback to the council that, during their investigations, they had uncovered evidence which they perceived to be inconsistent with the applicant’s version of events. However, the applicant was not made informed of this evidence to enable him to respond to the conflicting evidence. We considered this to contradict the guidance, which states that decision makers should give the applicant an opportunity to respond to any apparent conflict in evidence. We upheld the review request and instructed the council to make an award of £350.
In another case an applicant had applied for a community care grant for a number of household items after being been released from prison on licence under curfew. The council awarded most of the items the applicant had requested, however, they assessed that the washing machine was low priority as he could hand wash clothing or access launderettes in the local area. We disagreed with this assessment as in the first tier review request to the council, the applicant’s support worker explained that he was restricted from being in the area in which the launderettes were situated. The review also noted that the applicant had a criminal justice social worker. We contacted the applicant’s social worker and obtained further information around why it was not feasible to attend a launderette. We were advised that he had recently been the victim of an assault and on-going threats of violence; had to attend appointments by police escort; and only had limited clothing available which increased the need to wash his clothes frequently. We therefore disagreed that the item did not meet the council’s priority level (medium) and instructed them to award a washing machine.
In recent weeks, we have determined a number of cases involving applicants who have recently moved into unfurnished properties and have requested assistance from the SWF.
In one such case, an applicant had applied for a community care grant for a number of household items. She had received the keys for an unfurnished tenancy and made plans to live there with her one year old child. The council assessed that the application did not meet the qualifying criteria as the move had been planned, and the applicant should have prepared for this. We disagreed with this assessment, as while the applicant had planned to move, we noted that she had received help and support from a charity and social work services due to specific vulnerabilities. We also assessed there is nothing in the SWF guidance that excludes planned moves, or states that applicants are expected to prepare for moving. We recognise that this is not always possible for people on a low income, and assessed that, although the applicant’s previous address was not overcrowded, there were other pressures within the home that made it unsuitable. As such, we considered that the applicant met the qualifying criterion of a family facing exceptional pressure to maintain a settled home. We instructed the local authority to award a number of items that met the necessary high priority level.
In another case, an applicant was moving from temporary furnished accommodation to his own tenancy with his pregnant partner. The applicant had applied for a number of items to set up his new home and the local authority assessed that the couple met the qualifying criteria for a family facing exceptional pressure. A number of household items were awarded. When reviewing the case, we did not agree with the local authority’s assessment that the applicant and his partner met any of the qualifying criteria for a SWF grant. Whilst we recognised that the applicant had been living in temporary accommodation, and his partner was pregnant, there were no additional vulnerabilities or pressures that would satisfy the criterion of being a family under exceptional pressure. We also noted that the applicant was not engaged with any support services or receiving tenancy support which would enable him to qualify under a separate criterion. We recognised that the applicant was facing a difficult situation but this was primarily associated with living on a low income, and as such, disagreed that an award should be made. We provided the council with feedback regarding their assessment. We also explained our decision to the applicant, and noted that items they had been awarded by the council would not be withdrawn as we will never reduce or take away an award.
In recent weeks, we have determined a number of cases where it was necessary to consider whether the assistance requested can be provided by SWF.
In one such case, an applicant had applied for a crisis grant after spending his pension on a washing machine. This left him with no money for food, gas or electricity until he was due to receive his next pension payment. The council declined the application on the basis that crisis grants are intended to meet occasional or short term needs and not to provide a regular source of income. When considering the case, we noted that while the applicant had made a significant number of applications to the fund previously, he had only received two awards within the previous 12 month period. We assessed whether his application was excluded as ‘on-going expenses, which are, or are likely to become, a feature of expenditure’ in line with section 15 of Annex A of the guidance. However, the circumstances of this application differed from previous applications and we assessed that the purchase of a washing machine was a one off need rather an on-going expenditure in this instance. We therefore assessed that the applicant met the conditions for an award and instructed the council to award the applicant £68.91.
In another case, an applicant had applied for assistance with expenses to cover the cost of travelling to her sibling’s funeral in another part of the UK. The council assessed that the application was excluded under section 16 of Annex A of the guidance, which states that travelling expenses are excluded, with the exception of one-off expenses relating directly to the qualifying criteria. When reviewing the case, we noted that the guidance states that crisis grants can only be awarded for living expenses. We also considered that the applicant was due to receive a substantial payment of benefit prior to the date she was due to travel, which would enable her to cover the cost of her travel. Whilst we recognised this may result in her being in a crisis situation at a later date, and empathised considerably with her situation, we did not assess that travel expenses should be awarded in respect of this application. We therefore agreed with the council’s overall decision. However, we provided feedback that the council’s online application form enables applicants to request expenses to travel to a relative’s funeral, and that this was misleading for the applicant.
The guidance sets out that each item in an application should be considered in the context of the applicant’s needs and given a priority rating. It further notes that decision letters must provide the reasons for any items not awarded. However, in recent weeks, we have observed examples of cases where councils have not assessed all of the items that applicants had applied for.
In one case, an applicant applied for a community care grant after securing a new tenancy. This followed a relationship breakdown then a period where he experienced an unsettled way of life. The council assessed that the applicant met the conditions for a community care grant and awarded him some items, however, their decision-making notes show that he was asked to ‘prioritise’ what items he required due to ‘budget constraints’. The applicant submitted a first tier review regarding the items which were not awarded but the council upheld their original decision, stating this was because there were no funds available. While we recognise councils’ requirement to manage their budget, we considered that this was an incorrect statement as there was still available budget. We upheld the case on the basis that we considered that the items requested met the necessary priority level. We also fed back to the council that each item should be assessed using the priority matrix contained within the guidance.
In another case, the applicant was told verbally that he could not request floor coverings or towels as they would not meet high priority. As such these items were not assessed. He was also not given reasons for these items not being awarded in writing as they were not noted as having been assessed on his decision letter. We upheld the case and awarded the items which met the necessary priority level, including floor coverings.
This month, we had to consider the appropriateness of a council’s decision to rescind an award. The case involved an applicant who had applied for a crisis grant for food and utilities following a relationship breakdown. The council considered that the applicant met the criteria for an award and tried to contact her by telephone, text message and letter to communicate this decision. When the applicant had not collected her award, the council wrote to her to advise that the award had been rescinded, but would still count as an award in terms of her application history. After receiving this letter, the applicant phoned the council to query this, stating that she had changed her phone number due to harassment from her ex-partner and did not receive the award letter. She subsequently submitted a first tier review but the council did not uphold this request as they said that she was then outwith the timeframe for a review. While there is no guidance regarding what steps councils should take if applicants do not collect their awards, we disagreed with the decision to rescind the award on this occasion. We considered that when this decision was made, the applicant was still within the timeframe for asking for a review of the decision therefore was not reasonable. Additionally, the letter sent by the council did not provide any information about challenging their decision to rescind the award. We instructed the council to pay this award and provided further feedback that it would not have been reasonable to count this as a paid award if she had not received it.
We have also determined recent cases where we used discretion to ensure that the items awarded met the specific needs of the applicant in line with section 4.49 of the guidance. In one such case, we determined that a washing machine with a larger drum size was appropriate and that a waterproof mattress should be awarded as the applicant suffered from severe incontinence issues.
In recent weeks it has been necessary for us to consider whether the assistance sought by applicants should be excluded as an ‘on-going’ need in line with Annex A of the guidance. In one such case, an applicant had applied for a number of items as her existing goods had been disposed of during a deep clean of her property. The applicant suffered from poor mental health and had neglected to take care of her property as a result. She was at risk of being evicted due to the condition of her property and a deep clean had been arranged in conjunction with her housing association to halt court action. The council considered that the applicant did not meet the qualifying criteria for a grant and that the fund could not support the replacement of items due to wear and tear. By stating that the items could not be replaced due to wear and tear, we deemed that the council had assessed that the items should be excluded due to on-going need. As these items were disposed of as part of a deep clean, which was required for the applicant to maintain the terms of her lease and avoid eviction, we disagreed with this assessment as we considered that it was a one-off need. In terms of the qualifying criteria, we assessed that the applicant was facing exceptional pressure to maintain a settled home and awarded the items which met the necessary priority level.
This exclusion has also been relevant to recent crisis grant applications, and one such example involved a crisis situation which had arisen as a result of the applicant repaying borrowed money together with some additional expenditure. This left the applicant with no money for herself, four children and partner for living expenses. When considering whether the applicant was eligible for a grant, we reviewed her application history. She had made a total of eight applications during the past 12 months and five of the these were linked to repaying borrowed money, which had left her with no funds. We also noted that she had made a total of 42 applications for crisis grants since May 2013. Overall, we assessed that borrowing and repaying money was an issue that the applicant had been struggling with over a significant period of time and could therefore de deemed to be an on-going feature of her expenditure. We therefore considered that the assistance sought was excluded in line with Annex A (15) of the guidance as it could no longer be deemed to be a one-off need.
In recent weeks we have determined a number of cases involving elderly applicants with severe and enduring health problems, who we considered were at risk of going into hospital or a care institution without a grant.
In one case, an applicant’s daughter applied on behalf of her 90 year old father for whom she had Power of Attorney and was his carer. She applied for a single bed, bedding pack, a hallway carpet, living room carpet and clothing. The applicant suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and was double incontinent. The council considered that the applicant did not meet any of the SWF qualifying criteria and as such no award was made. At the first tier review stage, the council upheld this decision on the basis that he was established in the community. We disagreed with this assessment as we considered that without an award, there would be a logical deterioration in his health which could lead to treatment in hospital or a care facility, particularly given his age. We awarded all items requested aside from the clothing which we deemed to be an on-going need in this case, therefore excluded.
In another case, an applicant’s benefits advisor applied for bedding and clothing on behalf of an elderly applicant who was suffering from lung cancer, and also had sight and mobility issues. He had lost five stone due to his illness therefore his clothing did not fit him, and his bedding had become damaged due to incontinence issues. The council declined the application as they had requested medical evidence of the applicant’s weight loss and health problems and this was not received. They therefore considered that the need for the items was not confirmed nor was there verification that he was at risk of care or facing exceptional pressure. When we spoke with the applicant’s advisor, she explained that they were still waiting on medical evidence from the applicant’s GP. On the basis of the information provided by the third party, we were satisfied that the applicant was seriously ill and had suffered substantial weight loss within a relatively short space of time. We also confirmed that the applicant required a carer for significant periods each day. As such, we considered that there was sufficient evidence that the applicant was at risk of going into care without adequate clothing and bedding. We therefore changed the decision and awarded all items requested.
The Scottish Welfare Fund decision making process is comprised of three primary stages – eligibility, qualifying criteria and priority. In the first few months of 2017-18, we most commonly disagreed with councils’ assessment of qualifying criteria.
In one such case an applicant had applied for a community care grant for a fridge as he suffered from type 1 diabetes and required a fridge to store his medication. He had also applied for a number of other items for his home, including items which would enable him to have overnight access to his infant child. The council considered that he did not meet the qualifying criteria. However, we disagreed with this assessment. Given the seriousness of his health issues and the difficulties he was experiencing managing his condition, we considered that he was at risk of going into care should a grant not be awarded. We awarded the fridge and carpets for some rooms as these were assessed as being high priority. While we recognised that the additional items would have a beneficial effect in helping him have overnight access to his child, as there were access arrangements in place with the applicant’s parents (the child’s grandparents) which allowed him to stay there with the child at weekends, we considered that these items were medium priority and as such, did not meet the necessary priority to be awarded.
We have also determined a number of cases where the council have determined that an applicant has met the qualifying criteria, but we have disagreed with this assessment. In one case, an applicant had secured her own tenancy after living with her sister for a number of years. The council considered that she should be awarded a grant under the criterion which concerns being given a grant to meet the needs arising out of exceptional pressure on the applicant or a member of their family. They awarded some items but not others on the basis of the priority level not being met. The applicant was therefore seeking a review of the decision not to award the items she did not receive. While we acknowledged that the applicant had a number of health difficulties, we considered that she had moved from one settled home to another and there were no additional difficulties which would increase the pressure she was facing, other than being on a low income. As such, we disagreed that she could be described as facing an exceptional degree of pressure and we did not uphold the review request. We won’t reduce or take away an award that a council has made, and this review therefore had no impact on the items already awarded.
We have determined a number of cases in recent weeks where we considered that councils have not appropriately assessed applications from parents who care for their children for part of the week. This has most commonly, although not exclusively, concerned fathers and has been observed across a number of council areas.
In one case, an applicant had applied for a community care grant for household items for his new property. The applicant had been living an unsettled way of life after the relationship with the mother of his child had broken down two years previously. He had caring responsibilities for his son three nights per week, although his ex-partner had threatened to withdraw access on the basis that not having essential living items was affecting their son’s health and wellbeing.
The council assessed that as he did not have his son full time, they did not constitute a family facing exceptional pressure. They also noted that the pressures that were faced were financial and as such, they did not qualify as being exceptional. We disagreed with this assessment as the guidance states that anyone with caring responsibilities for a child all or part of the time counts as a family for the purposes of the criteria with concerns exceptional pressure. In arriving at our assessment that he met this criteria, we considered the impact on the relationship between the applicant and his son, together with his history of living an unsettled way of life. We instructed the council to award all items as they met the necessary priority level.
In another case, an applicant had applied for a number of household items as she had just moved into a new property. She had been living with her mother for a number of months prior to securing her new property via the council’s homelessness team. The applicant had three children who lived with another family member on a permanent basis, however, she was allocated a two bedroom property as her children would be staying with her at least two nights per week.
The council declined her application as they did not consider that she met the qualifying criteria. Taking into account the information provided by the applicant and her homelessness officer we disagreed with this assessment. We considered that not having appropriate items for her home would create a barrier to her having access to her children and could also impact on her relationship with her family. We therefore awarded items we deemed to meet the appropriate priority level.
In recent weeks, we have determined a number of cases where applicants have asked us to review the amount they have been awarded by the council. In one such case an applicant, who was self-employed, applied to SWF as her tax credits had been suspended following a relationship breakdown. As such, she had no money for living expenses for herself and her two children and applied for a crisis grant. The council awarded her £150 for food and utility costs on the basis that they considered that the amount set out within the guidance would have been ‘excessive’. While the method of calculating awards set out within the guidance is indicative, it also states that local authorities should take the circumstances of the applicant into account when assessing an application. We could find no evidence of any discussion with the applicant over her needs and through our conversations with the applicant, assessed that the initial award was not sufficient. On this basis we awarded the applicant an additional £103.90.
We have also considered cases from applicants who are subject to the Habitual Residency Test. In one case, an applicant, who was a British Citizen, had applied for a crisis grant for living expenses as she had just returned to the UK after a number of months abroad. She had applied for Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) but did not pass the habitual residence test and was advised by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that she could not make a further application for JSA until several weeks later. The council declined her application as they considered that she was not eligible. This was on the basis that the DWP had assessed that she was not habitually resident in the UK. We disagreed with this assessment as the statutory guidance refers to European Economic Area nationals which the applicant was not, and it also says that discretion is also possible. We considered that the applicant was in a crisis situation, with no other source of income, and awarded £175.56.
During recent weeks we have considered a number of cases where applicants have been transitioning between benefits and employment. In one such case, an applicant applied for a crisis grant as he had recently started a new job but had missed the payroll deadline. This meant that he was not due to receive his first wage until several weeks later, and his employer was unable to provide an advance on his wages. The council declined the application as they considered that it was medium priority, and they were only awarding awards at high priority at the time they made their decision. After taking into account all the relevant information, we did not agreed with the council that Mr C's application was medium priority. We placed particular weight on the length of time until his first wage and the impact that it could have on his ability to sustain his new job. We concluded that the application was high priority and instructed the council to award a crisis grant for the 34 day period until he was due to receive his first wage.
In another case, an applicant had just started work after a period of unemployment and had only received a partial wage due to the date he started his new job. We assessed that although he had not received a full month’s wages, he had still been paid a considerable amount more than the equivalent level of means tested benefit. We therefore assessed that he could not be considered to be on a low income. Additionally, his bank statement showed that he had £50 savings at the time of his application which was subsequently transferred out of the account. Taking the above information into account, we concluded that the applicant did not meet the criteria to be awarded a crisis grant.
In recent weeks we have determined cases where it has been necessary for us to assess whether the assistance requested fell within the exclusions listed in the guidance. In one such case an applicant, who owned her own property, applied for an orthopaedic mattress, electric shower and lever taps for her kitchen and bathroom. The council awarded a mattress but did not award the other items, stating that they were excluded as they were repairs to private property. The applicant had previously been awarded a shower unit from occupational health, which was still functional, but the electric shower itself was faulty. This meant the elderly applicant, who suffered from incontinence, arthritis and mental health problems, had to wash herself at the sink. We disagreed that replacing an electric shower was a substantial improvement to private property and instructed the council to make an award. The applicant had also applied for replacement lever taps as her existing taps were dripping, but we did not consider that these met the necessary priority levels.
In a previous case, an applicant applied to the council for a community care grant to pay for repairs to guttering at his privately owned property. The council assessed that the item was excluded as a substantial repair. We disagreed with this assessment as, having investigated further, the cost of the repair was less than £100. However, we assessed that the applicant did not meet the qualifying criteria and as such, did not uphold the review request.
This month, we determined a number of crisis grants where applicants had already received three awards within the previous 12 months. In line with the guidance, it was therefore necessary for us to consider whether the circumstances surrounding applicants’ current applications were exceptional to allow a further award to be made. In several of these cases, we observed that councils did not clearly explain the rationale for their decision in their decision letters.
In one such case, an applicant applied for a crisis grant as she did not receive her full bursary payment due to a previous overpayment. She therefore did not have money to provide for herself and child until she received her next bursary payment. The council determined that the circumstances surrounding her current application were not exceptional and did not award a crisis grant. On reviewing the case, we noted that the applicant’s previous awards were all due to issues outwith her control and none concerned issues with her bursary. Additionally, we found that she had contacted social work for support as her situation had become very severe and she was concerned for her and her daughter’s wellbeing. We considered the risk to her daughter and that there were potential implications for her college course and future bursary payments as she was unable to attend classes due to having no money. Overall we considered that the circumstances surrounding her application were exceptional and upheld the review request. We also highlighted how the council could improve their decision letters as we considered that they provided minimal, non-specific information and enclosed a generic information sheet which included outdated information.
In recent weeks we have determined cases where it has been necessary for us to consider how grants have been fulfilled. In one such case, a council declined an application for a crisis grant as they did not consider that the applicant met the qualifying criteria. This decision was overturned at the first tier review stage and the council awarded a £20 fuel voucher for power. They also advised the applicant to use a food bank. We disagreed with this approach and awarded a higher amount, taking into account the £20 that had already been paid. This is in line with the SWF statutory guidance which states that councils should not use food banks as a substitute for paying a crisis grant if the application is successful.
In another case, an applicant submitted an independent review after being awarded a fridge freezer which she considered did not meet her needs. The applicant suffered from chronic health problems, the symptoms of which fluctuated day to day. On days when she was feeling well, she was able to batch-cook meals for herself and her 12-year-old son. This meant that on days when her symptoms were more severe, she or her son were able to defrost and reheat these pre-prepared meals in the microwave. Having assessed the capacity of the freezer compartment, we considered that it would not allow the applicant to store sufficient pre-prepared meals to meet her family’s needs. We therefore upheld her review request and awarded a fridge freezer with increased capacity.
In recent weeks we have determined several cases where applicants have been experiencing issues or delays with their benefits. In one such case, an applicant had applied for a crisis grant after separating from his partner and being held by the police for several days. When he returned to the property there was no money, gas or electricity and he was not due to receive his payment of Universal Credit for another five days. The council declined the application on the basis that he had received a short-term benefit advance a month previously and had a few tins of food available, therefore they considered that he was not in crisis. We disagreed with this assessment and upheld the review request, awarding a payment for five days which totalled £31.33.
In another case, an applicant had applied for a crisis grant for living expenses after being sanctioned. The applicant was in receipt of hardship payments and noted that he had enough food and electricity to last him for at least three days. The council made reference to not being able to undermine a DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) sanction. We assessed that this reference was incorrect as it had been included in an earlier version of the interim SWF guidance but is not included in the current statutory guidance. Overall, they assessed that the applicant did not meet the qualifying criteria as he was not in a circumstance of pressing need that required immediate action and there was no risk to his health and safety. We agreed with the council’s assessment that the applicant did not meet the qualifying criteria therefore did not uphold the review request.
In recent weeks we have determined several cases where it has been necessary to explore whether the items applied for are excluded from the SWF.
In one case, an applicant from a rural area had applied for living expenses, including £200 for a minimum delivery of oil. He had recently lost his job, suffered a relationship breakdown and was also awaiting his first payment of Universal Credit. The council awarded him 14 days' living expenses plus an additional £6 for electricity but refused his application for oil as they said it was an on-going need and therefore excluded under Annex A of the SWF Statutory Guidance. We considered that his requirement for oil was a one-off need and therefore not excluded as per the council’s assessment. We also assessed that a 28-day award for living expenses was appropriate as per section 7.9 of the guidance and awarded an additional amount to take account of this.
In recent weeks, we have also determined a community care grant review involving an application for a sleep monitor and a replacement fuse box. The council refused the items as they considered them to be excluded items under Annex A of the SWF Statutory Guidance. They assessed that the sleep monitor was a medical item and that the replacement fuse box was an on-going expense as the applicant was a homeowner and should be responsible for maintenance and repairs on an on-going basis. We took into account the circumstances of the case including the noted vulnerabilities and disagreed with the council’s assessment that they were excluded items. However, we did not uphold the applicant’s review request on the basis that they did not meet the priority level in place based on the evidence available.
In recent weeks we have considered several review requests from applicants who have been assessed as meeting the eligibility and qualifying criteria but have not been awarded all or some of the items that they had applied for on the basis of priority.
In one case, an applicant had applied for a community care grant after being allocated a new tenancy. The council awarded some items but declined a number of other items as they assessed that the applicant did not meet the necessary priority level. Prior to being allocated her property, the applicant had fled violence and subsequently experienced a period of homelessness. Additionally, despite her new property being treated several times by the council, it remained infested with insects. In her review request, the applicant’s support worker explained that the need for a freezer and washing machine was immediate and severe as the applicant was unable to leave the property unattended. The curtains were described as being essential for safety and privacy and a sofa was required as the applicant rarely left her home and was socially isolated. The support worker added that it was not possible to store clothes on the floor due to the infestation so a wardrobe was also required. We gathered further information from the applicant’s support worker and also spoke with her housing officer to establish the severity of the infestation. Due to the specific circumstances of this case including severe trauma, the risk of further violence and the severity of the infestation, we upheld the applicant’s review request and awarded all items.
In another case, an applicant had applied for a community care grant for a washing machine, double bed and new clothing after suffering severe injuries six months previously. The council assessed that the applicant met the qualifying criteria and awarded a washing machine as her existing one was broken. They did not award the other items as they considered that the priority level was not met. The applicant stated that while she had a single bed, a double bed was required for comfort and support due to her injuries. She also advised that she needed new clothes as a result of losing a significant amount of weight. We contacted the applicant’s GP who advised that she had insufficient information regarding the applicant’s need for a double bed so was unable to comment. She also provided evidence surrounding the applicant’s current and historic weight readings which did not indicate a sudden weight lost. As the council were operating at high priority, we considered that these items should therefore not be awarded and did not uphold the applicant’s review request.
This month we saw several review requests from applicants who have received crisis grants, but stated that the amount awarded was not sufficient to meet their needs. In some cases, applicants have advised that they phoned the SWF to make a further application but have instead been directed to the review process.
In one case a representative applied for a crisis grant on behalf of an applicant whose husband and seven children had recently joined her in Scotland from overseas. As such, the applicant’s only household income was JSA as her child tax credits and child benefit were not yet in payment. The council awarded £936.60 to cover a period of 14 days and awarded a further payment of the same amount at first tier review. The representative asked us to independently review the decision, stating that the amount awarded was not enough to cover the applicant’s living expenses. We did not uphold the review request on the basis that the council had calculated the award appropriately in line with the guidance. The council had also awarded an additional payment at first tier review.
In another case, an applicant had signed off JSA to start a new job. He had a gap in income before he received his first wage and was seeking assistance from the SWF in the interim period. The council awarded a crisis grant for 14 days as they determined that this was the maximum period they could award for. The applicant asked for a review of this decision as he did not feel that the amount was sufficient to cover the full period for which he was in crisis. We noted that there were 20 days between the applicant applying to the fund and him receiving his first wage. As the duration of the crisis was known when the applicant made his application, we considered that it was appropriate to change the council’s decision to extend the period of his award to cover 20 days.
One of the key themes this month has been around repeat applications for the same items. In one case, a woman made a community care grant application after moving into a new tenancy. She applied for flooring, beds and mattresses for children for whom she had kinship caring responsibilities. The council rejected the application on the basis that she had been awarded money for beds and mattresses from the council five months previously, and beds and mattresses from a different council the previous year. We asked the applicant why there was a further need for the same items in quick succession. She explained that damage was caused to the previous beds due to incontinence issues and that there was a need to leave some items behind in a previous property. One of the beds was also broken. We determined that while the SWF is a limited fund and it may initially appear unreasonable to award similar items on three occasions within 12 months, the full circumstances were not taken into account. We also considered that the guidance only sets out restrictions around repeat applications for the same goods and services within 28 days where there has been no relevant change in circumstances. In this case, we assessed that this restriction did not apply and awarded one bed and mattress but declined the other items on the basis of priority.
In another case, an applicant applied for carpets for a new property as she had left her previous tenancy following an assault. She was refused carpets as the council stated they normally only award this item once and she had received carpets previously. In this case we considered that a rule of thumb had been applied and the applicant’s circumstances, which were very serious, had not been considered. We upheld the review request and awarded carpets on this basis.
This month we have determined cases where residency has been in question. In one such case an applicant applied for universal credit after completing a college course. He had received his final bursary payment several weeks previously and had no money for food until his first benefit payment five weeks later. The council rejected his crisis grant application on the basis that they could not verify he was eligible to apply to the fund as DWP systems indicated that he was living in a different local authority. We made additional enquiries and confirmed he had in fact been resident in a different local authority but had abandoned his tenancy there several months previously. We also considered that the applicant had advised the DWP about his change of address and was attending the appropriate job centre in the new council area but there had been a delay in the system being updated. In light of the above and the fact that he had no fixed address, we considered he should be treated as being resident in the local authority to which he applied and upheld his review.
In another case, an applicant had applied for a crisis grant as he stated a utility company had taken a double payment from his account, causing him to run out of money. The council rejected his application on the basis that he did not meet the qualifying criteria for an award as his situation was not a great or sudden misfortune and they considered it to be a budgeting issue. While this outlined why the applicant did not meet the criteria relating to a disaster, the council did not address the ‘emergency element’ of the criteria. It was then necessary for us to consider the priority of the application. However, despite making several attempts to contact the applicant over an extended period of time, we were unable to seek additional information from him regarding his household situation. On this occasion we were unable to gather further detail to help inform our assessment of priority and as such, could only base our decision on the information available. Therefore, while we disagreed with the council’s assessment that he was not eligible to apply, we did not uphold the review request.
One of the key arising themes we have considered in recent weeks is around the qualifying criteria ‘to enable qualifying individual to maintain a settled home where that individual, or another individual in the same household, is facing exceptional pressure’. In one such case, an applicant applied to the fund for clothing, carpets and a bed as she could not afford these items. She advised that she had a bed on hire purchase but this was causing hardship and didn’t suit her needs. The council considered that the applicant did not meet the criteria of being under exceptional pressure. We contacted the applicant and obtained further information about her circumstances and the pressure her family was facing. This included health problems and disabilities experienced by herself and one of her adult children. The applicant also advised that she had financial problems exacerbated by her hire purchase payments and on one occasion she was unable to pay for electricity for several days which meant that she couldn’t use her oxygen machine. She also advised that the lack of flooring was having an impact on her mental health. On this basis we considered her family could be deemed to be under exceptional pressure and upheld her review. We awarded her the flooring and bed, although we did not award clothing as we deemed this to be an ongoing need.
In another case, a young man applied to the fund for items for his new tenancy. He was planning to move in with his girlfriend, who was experiencing difficulties at home. Prior to being allocated his tenancy, the applicant was living with family and shared a room with a relative who had disabilities. The council did not make an award as they considered that the couple did not face exceptional pressure in their new tenancy. We agreed with this assessment as while the couple’s situation had been very difficult, they did not have any ongoing health problems or other factors that we considered could class them as being under exceptional pressure in their new home.
One of the main themes emerging from the cases we have considered so far is in respect of exclusions for Crisis Grants. According to the statutory guidance, the number of awards any person should receive in a rolling 12 month period should be limited to three awards unless exceptional circumstances apply. In one such case, an applicant had signed off benefits to take up employment but wasn’t due to receive his first wage for 10 days. He had no money for food or electricity and was walking to work, which took an hour each way. The applicant also had multiple vulnerabilities including mental health problems and being accommodated in homeless accommodation. In determining his application and Tier 1 review, the council did not think that the applicant’s circumstances were exceptional. We, however, deemed that there was a substantial risk to his ability to sustain employment due to the above circumstances should he not be awarded a grant. Accordingly, we upheld the review and instructed the council to make payment.
In another case involving the same section of the guidance, an applicant had lost her wallet having thrown it out with rubbish. While she was a vulnerable person, we considered that she had some resilience as she was receiving family support. Taking this into account, and that this was the second time she had lost her wallet, we agreed with the council and deemed that the circumstances were not exceptional. We therefore did not uphold her review request.