Defining hardship in leafy Surrey Heath

Being an opposition member can be frustrating at times but especially when a couple of subjects come up which you know a lot about. Tonight was one of those occasions on the subject of a hardship fund for those severely impacted by the benefit changes.

Now I represent Old Dean which has one of the highest areas of poverty in the county. We have around 250 Surrey Heath households who are just impacted by the bedroom tax and Old Dean has many of these. Indeed, I am already dealing with such cases from desperate individuals and their families.

So when Surrey Heath draw up a scheme to decide how to allocate their hardship fund and therefore get money to those most in need, you might have thought that the Old Dean councillors might have been asked for their comments, experience and knowledge but no…not the slightest effort was made. Our political colour should have made absolutely no difference here – it is our residents affected more than most and therefore likely to apply to this fund more than most.

Instead, we have a scheme drawn up and agreed tonight which has 20 different considerations for awarding an “exceptional hardship fund payment”. Some of these just not do appear to make sense.

So let’s start by explaining the scenario that I used tonight – “A claimant has satellite TV at their house” – is that classed as unnecessary expenses and therefore they are ineligible for this fund?

The immediate reaction of at least 2 Conservatives in the meeting were an audible yes followed by an angry speech by one about hard times in their day.  Many people would of course agree with that view without thinking it through. This was however contradicted by another Cllr who rightly said that it depends.

But…what if the satellite TV was actually free or part of an overall bundled package in which they also got their landline and a computer? And what if they needed their computer in order to fill in the employment forms to get a job or for claiming benefits as the Government are now insisting it is done on-line?  And what if the satellite TV was on a 18 month contract and they had 12 months to run and had lost their job inbetween? And what if the reason why they were impacted by the bedroom tax was because their partner had recently passed away or an abusive partner had moved out?

And what exactly is a partner anyway? According to another criteria, “the income and expenditure of the customer, their partner and any dependents or other occupants of the customer’s house” will be considered.  Regrettably, it is not made clear whether the partner has to be living with you although surely this is the only way it would make sense.  It will also be very interesting to see how the Council intend to get the financial details of any non-family lodgers especially as the Govt are encouraging those impacted by the bedroom tax to take in lodgers even though it then impacts on other benefits such as losing a single person Council Tax discount.

Similarly, another poorly worded clause is, “Any savings or capital that might be held by the customer or their partner or other relevant family member.” – what is a relevant family member? An Aunt living in Scotland? An Aunt living in Surrey?  A brother living in Australia? It’s not defined. This should just be family members living in the property.

It is not clear why the length of time they have resided in the property is particularly relevant or how much weighting should be given or indeed how “deemed reasonable” expenditure will be defined as one person’s view is not the same as another. Will a bottle of wine jointly consumed on a Sunday be classed as unreasonable? Is smoking okay? What about those who give away 10% of whatever income they get to their church/place of worship for religious reasons? How about an annual respite overnight break to the nearest coast?  Is this really what we want officers to check?

It is particularly disappointing that even child benefit will be taken into account in another criteria  when even Surrey Heath rightly bulked at doing so for Council Tax benefit when otherwise setting the harshest levels in the entire country. This just shows how contradictory the scheme is.

Bizarrely, perhaps the most important question namely whether it is cost-effective to the Council is not even included as a criteria although it is within a supplementary document.  This is crucially important because many of those affected are disabled and some live in specially adapted properties paid by a Council’s Disabled Facilities Grant. Put simply, it would make no financial sense to force such people to downsize as the grant would then need to be used for a new property. This should be clearly included.

There is no scorecard in the policy or any kind of marking scheme to assess these criteria. Most worrying therefore is that a grant or otherwise severely impacting on the life and well being of a resident is almost entirely dependent on the undefined viewpoint of an individual officer.  The criteria are mainly just opinions and moral judgements with the “appeal” being little of the sort consisting only of “written representation to Surrey Heath Borough Council setting out the grounds of appeal.” Surrey Heath will “consider” the appeal and respond in writing, setting out the decision and associated reasons.  This means that there is no formal opportunity for the customer to make their case in person or to explain their evidence in an oral way thus penalising those who are illiterate or dyslexic. This inevitably will lead to delay, confusion and anger amongst those already in desperate need and possibly equality issues.  There is no further appeal against the decision.

Now I really respect the officer team at Surrey Heath who are trying their best to adopt a practical solution to a hopelessly thought through national policy. It is painfully obvious that most councillors agreeing these policies simply don’t have a clue at the moment about the reality of this subject. They clearly have not seen cases themselves or even met such people. I have asked for anonymised cases to come forward to committee at the earliest possible review. This will hopefully show my colleagues some understanding  of the real cases that they are asking officers to decide with unclear criteria.

I really hope and actually expect that officers will be as flexible and sympathetic as possible and grant as many applications as they can. The difficulty will not be now  but when the Hardship Fund begins to run out and extremely strong cases eventually get refused. This will then mean people presenting themselves as homeless costing us even more as a Council to sort out thus ruining any “cost savings”.

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