Unlucky for most

Craig, professor of social justice, looks at the 13 year history of the social
fund and finds that it fails abjectly to alleviate the problems of poverty.

1988, the Thatcher government introduced the social fund. The fund has provoked
great hostility, which is remarkable given its minute contribution to social
security expenditure.

launched it was hated equally by those required to make it work, the poor and
their representatives, and the parliamentary opposition. Shadow social security
secretary Robin Cook commented that it was "a new assault on the poor …
the social fund will mean sweeping cuts in the help available to the
poorest". His successor Paul Flynn noted the fund "is a lottery and
the chances of winning depend on where you live … [local] spending priorities
have nothing to do with local needs". Strangely, the fund is still with us
nearly five years after the Conservatives were ousted.

recent House of Commons social security select committee inquiry1
raised hopes of the fund’s demise. But, despite compelling evidence about its
disastrous record, and calling for "an urgent overhaul", the
committee pulled its strongest punches. The government responded2
with a bland assurance that "The Social Fund complements other measures to
help the poorest and most vulnerable in our society." This is an echo of
Conservative social security secretary Peter Lilley’s claim in July 1993 that:
"The social fund is solid evidence of the government’s continuing
commitment to providing help with exceptional expenses for vulnerable

"end the social fund lobby" has picked itself up from this latest
setback and at a major conference organised in Leicester this week is pressing
for reform. Despite occasional tinkering, the discretionary fund’s structural
faults remain:

The likelihood of discrimination against unpopular claimants – unemployed young
people, lone parents, minority ethnic groups.

An overwhelming emphasis on loans.

Annual expenditure caps, deflecting demand elsewhere, driving need

has shown that the fund fails abjectly at helping the most vulnerable. First,
the fund drives holes in Beveridge’s idea that the welfare state acts like a
safety net. Loans take claimants’ income 15 per cent or more below the already
inadequate official poverty line. Successive governments have refused to assess
the poor levels of benefits, suppressing the 1960s review that found that
levels were totally inadequate. Today’s benefit levels are therefore not judged
in relation to objective adequacy but 1940s political expediency.

has also showed that the fund generated increased indebtedness among the
poorest claimants. The official government evaluation5 found that
decisions to make awards were so erratic that there was nothing to distinguish
the needs of those who received them from those who did not. Perversely, Lilley
claimed all this research provided "no evidence to alter our belief that
the basic principles of the discretionary scheme are right."

agencies6 again found that "the fund is manifestly failing to
meet need and … creating confusion and despair amongst benefit
claimants". Discretion was in practice unequal, decisions being shaped
often by discriminatory attitudes. Although recent changes apparently limit the
discretion open to social fund officers, they still strongly influence the way
in which claimants needs are "shaped" and the size of loans

cash limits require social fund managers to juggle with budgets in the face of
unpredictable demand, a lottery effect is inevitable. Chances of obtaining help
vary significantly between areas, from month to month, and between differing
population groups in ways unrelated to need. Demand re-emerges elsewhere. The
social security consortium’s work7 and more recent reviews of the
fund’s impact on claimants8 and on small local charities and
national voluntary organisations, such as the Family Welfare Association,
reveal increased pressure from people rejected by the fund.

have to take defensive action, requiring claimants to prove they have been
refused by the fund before providing help, which leads to increased hardship.
Demand is driven into the exploitative private loan sector. Research also
reveals many claimants are unwilling to approach the fund either because they
were uncertain of their chances of getting help, because they judged themselves
unable to service even an interest-free loan from already inadequate benefit
incomes, or, in the case of Muslim claimants, that loans were culturally alien.

are ways to shorten the odds for a successful application. Social fund
managers’ fears about overspending, balanced by the desire to spend up to prescribed
limits in order to avoid losing subsequent budgets, means that February and
March are better months for applications, with spending sometimes twice the
monthly average. For both grants and loans, the staple fare of exceptional
items – cookers, beds and floor covering – are the best bet.

fund’s inability to meet most demand justifies its sobriquet as the "fund
that likes to say no". The only change during the past 13 years has been
growing pressure on budgets, and more refusals. The Department of Social
Security and its successor the Department for Work and Pensions have made
marginal changes that have attempted to manage pressure more effectively by,
for example, limiting the scope of eligibility. Thus, although gross grants
expenditure more than doubled to £98m (1998-9), a concurrent fourfold rise in
applications to almost £1.2m, pushed the refusal rate from 48 per cent to 81
per cent in 1998-9. That is eight million refused grants to 1999 – 700,000 of
them people refused not because they were ineligible but because of
"insufficient priority"- that is there was not enough money available
to meet those needs. In 1999, arrangements were introduced for filtering
applicants before formal application. Significant numbers of those who might
have applied for grants are now discouraged from doing so. Consequently, grants
applications dropped 45 per cent in the following year.

similar pattern emerges for crisis loans with the refusal rate climbing from 12
per cent in 1988-9 to 27 per cent 11 years later. This element is now virtually
self-replenishing, income from "recoveries" funding new
"awards". Government might regard this as proof that the fund
manifests the virtues of careful budgeting, which it champions among poor
people. The darker side of crisis loans is that about 60,000 people – of no
money, homelessness and so on – have been refused help because of
"insufficient priority" or because of "inability to repay".
There are people too poor to service even interest-free loans.

loans are, however, the fund’s operational heart and soul, where social
security’s disciplinary role is clearest. By the end of 1999-2000, of 15
million budgeting loan applications, 6 million were refused, one-third because
of "insufficient priority". Net expenditure fell from £68m (gross
expenditure £108m) in 1987-8 to £23m in 1999-2000 (gross expenditure £396m);
thus, loan recoveries have risen ninefold from £40m to £373m. Budgeting loans
consequently appear not to be under pressure; refusal rates dropped slightly to
40 per cent, while gross expenditure has risen steadily.

is a statistical sleight of hand that allows secretaries of state to present
the fund as responding to demand and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable:
actually, one year’s applicants are meeting the next year’s needs, while
demands on expenditure fall. In its first year, the fund’s net total spend (the
net cost to the Treasury of grants and loans, less repayments)was £118m; last
year it was £130m, £33m less than if spending had increased annually by a (very
modest) 3 per cent.

tight financial line is underpinned in part by the refusal to help those
regarded as bad risks – the 300,000 plus claimants regarded as unable to repay
a loan. The division between the loans and grants illustrates the fund’s
disciplinary role. The proportion of grants expenditure going to pensioners and
disabled people (traditionally "deserving" claimant categories) rose
from 31 per cent to 43 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion going to lone parents
and unemployed dropped from 59 per cent to 44 per cent as they were ever more
strongly "directed" towards loans. The Department for Work and
Pensions, shunning "open" government, has obscured these trends by
changes to recent annual reports.

fund’s costs cannot be judged solely in terms of the falling annual net
expenditure but through its contribution to the hidden suffering of millions,
and to social division and exclusion. The Family Welfare Association reports
that families whose requests for help to buy cookers were rejected were told
they could buy sandwiches.9 And there are the fund’s management
costs. Social fund officers dislike the stress generated by a scheme predicated
largely on refusing help and which has presented enormous financial and
administrative problems. Formal accounts were referred back twice by the
Auditor General amid accusations of mismanagement, other accounts qualified;
administrative costs have sometimes exceeded half-actual expenditure. In 1998-9
administrative costs were £215m, considerably greater than net expenditure
(£184m). Administrative resources have been absorbed coping with ineffective
computer systems, managing spending on inadequate budgets, moving money between
offices in response to predicted demand, and in complex formulae for
calculating local eligibility. The complex management of reviews, complaints
and judicial reviews, have also consumed substantial public resources.

1934, the existence of one-off payments has tacitly acknowledged that social
assistance is inadequate for even the most modest day-to-day living costs.
Recent governments have dealt only with one recurring problem – containing
expenditure – but by penalising the poorest people in society. Yet, based on
detailed proposals for change,10 a grants-based scheme might have
net costs of substantially less than 1 per cent of the current social security
budget. The political "savings" would be considerable: recognition
that Labour was indeed committed to eliminating the poverty of the poorest. As
the Social Security Advisory Committee said in 1994: "We make no apology
for repeating our firm conviction that the poorest… people in our society
should be protected, whatever sacrifices have to be made by the rest of the

Craig is professor of social justice at the University of Hull.


House of Commons, The Social Fund, Third Report of the Social Security
, HC 232, The Stationery Office, 2001

Department for Work and Pensions, Report on the Social Fund, Reply by the
Government to the Third Report of the Social Security Committee, Cm 5327
The Stationery Office, 2001

Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security Annual Report on
the Social Fund to Parliament
, The Stationery Office, July 1993,

S Becker and R Silburn (1990), The New Poor Clients, Benefits Research
Unit, 2000; and Social Security Research Consortium, Cash Limited: Limited
, SSRC, 1991; and R Cohen, JCoxall, GCraig and A Sadiq-Sangster, Hardship
, Child Poverty Action Group, 1992

M Huby, GDix, Evaluating the Social Fund, HMSO, 1992

Children’s Society, Out of Pocket, Children’s Society, 1996.

G. Craig (ed), Your Flexible Friend?, Social Security Consortium, 1996.

Church Action on Poverty, Debt on our Doorstep, CAP, 2000

Community Care, 24 August, 2000

G Craig, Replacing the Social Fund: a Structure for Reform, Joseph
Rowntree Foundation 1992; and Social Security Advisory Committee, The Social
Fund: a New Structure, HMSO, 1992


social security committee social fund report and the government’s response can
be found at



spiritual well-being is an integral, essential aspect of their everyday lives,
writes Margaret Crompton. And a spiritual life need not mean a religious life.

child has the right to “a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical,
mental, spiritual, moral and social development” (Article 27, United Nations
Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989).

well-being is an integral, essential aspect of everyday life. It is not an
optional extra, a fairy tale, an academic exercise or a nuisance. Individuals
have differing ideas about the meaning of spirituality. For many people,
spiritual well-being is inseparable from religious belief and observance. Some
who hold no religious belief reject any idea of spirituality. Others believe
that spiritual well-being needs no connection with religious organisations.

the individual practitioner’s personal position and agency focus, good practice
depends on recognition of, and attention to, the beliefs, background,
experiences, responses, interests and needs of every individual child.
Nurturing spiritual well-being requires skills which are essential for all
effective communication with children, founded on regard for every child as a
whole, unique, worthwhile person.

No special
equipment or time are needed. Opportunities for communication occur in such
everyday contexts as car journeys, playing, sharing housework, sitting in
waiting rooms, walking. Practitioners also meet children in specific
agency-focused, time-limited situations, one-to-one or in groups. Children
communicate best when relaxed and involved in some unthreatening activity when
they may speak about beliefs and experiences which can be described as

spiritual well-being is essential for the development of integrity, sound
judgement, respect for the self, for other people and the world. It is also
important for a sense of inner peace. People are commonly said to have “a great
spirit,” to “show spirit,” to “be spirited.”

phrases describe the efforts to overcome obstacles, recognise opportunities,
make plans and achieve aims which are essential to human life. Care for the
whole child implies concern to nurture and develop the ability to experience
the full life of the spirit, inseparable from the body, mind and emotions.
Above all, the spirit represents the will to live – even in conditions of  despair, disadvantage, discouragement,
terror, and threat.

about feelings and responses are constantly given and received spontaneously.
This is illustrated in a description of two-year-old Edward who exhibits a
“highly developed quality for delight.”1 He can “rejoice in each new
possibility, whether it is the unexpected brightness of colour, any
representation of the sun, moon and stars or the rhythm of music which
instinctively makes him dance”. Music offers infinite opportunities for the
expression of delight.

In our
busy, noisy lives, children’s need for peacefulness and privacy is easily
forgotten. Department of Health guidance (1989) requires that children be
allowed “special privacy in order to pray during the course of the day, or to
build a small shrine somewhere in the home.”2 This should extend to
the secret dens and private places where children withdraw to exercise
imagination, create their own worlds, find peace.

private place often has no physical site. For 10-year-old Joanna “spiritual
refreshment was found in an imaginary garden, where it was always sunny and
peaceful, in contrast to the gloominess of her home life and endless chatter of
her noisy sisters”.3

whether or not they are articulate or religious, need and experience spiritual
refreshment. Sharing stories is a universal method of communication and
nurture. Storytelling and reading provide opportunities for relaxation,
managing everyday problems in worlds of imagination, developing confidence and
trust, exploring feelings and trying out ideas. Children communicate about
feelings and experiences through responses to stories, telling their own tales
and composing poems.

stories from religious traditions can encourage respect for both children and
source-religion. Children for whom family and faith backgrounds are inseparable
may need encouragement to feel comfortable in multi-faith settings. For example,
eight-year-old Gurmail told his class that his family had gone to church and
Sunday school. His sensitive teacher realised that this Sikh boy had lied
because he did not want to appear different from his classmates. Her awareness
and responses transformed Gurmail’s anxiety and humiliation into celebration
and confidence.4

story books with no religious association explore aspects of spiritual
well-being in contexts of, for example, bereavement, exile, facing death, fear,
new relationships, threat to the environment. A young child’s enjoyment of
colour and representations of the sun, moon and stars links with spiritual
aspects of art, and perceptions of the world outside the self which may lead to
concern for the environment. This is inherent in all children who experience
their surroundings through every sense from the moment of birth (and before).

You need
only watch a two year old exploring a garden to see this – discovering insects,
feeling the texture of petals, moving soil, smelling flowers, placing plants in
the earth. Watch her crouching there for long, concentrated, delighted minutes
exploring the ground, aware only of what she feels, sees and smells,
discovering the world. She is also continuing the life-long process of
discovering herself in relation to that world. Learning to care for, rather
than destroy, the environment is crucial as both a contribution to, and effect
of, a sense of spiritual well-being.

experience does not always involve joy and delightful discovery. Moments of
delight have their counterparts in despair and awe have theirs in fear.
Children’s responses are often ignored by adults whose own spiritual well-being
is, perhaps, neglected and impaired. A social worker described a girl whose
parents did not love her as “dis-spirited;”’ she rarely smiled and had little
energy, with “no spirit, a shell, no life or verve”. He associated spiritual
well-being with “positive motivation, light, involvement, emotional congruence”
and “wanted to pour it in” to her. He felt frustrated because “the parents had
the lock to the bottle top”.

social worker visualised a child whose spiritual well-being was impaired as
“dragged down, slumping, exuberance crushed”. Failure to notice or respond to
such signals often has disastrous consequences, probably themselves unnoticed
or misinterpreted. A 21-year-old remembered her childhood from eight to 11 as
“pretty agonising. I was afraid of death, and of life for that matter, and
subject to severe panic attacks which nobody seemed to notice”. She had felt
unable to explain these experiences but later thought that they were not
“caused by any mental instability but simply by my having reached a religious
crisis at a ridiculously early age and being quite unable to cope with it”.5

seemed to notice” for over three years – a third of the child’s life. No
special skills were needed to detect her suffering. Awareness, attention,
respect and concern would have provided a firm foundation to help her grow
through her crisis, gaining insight, strength and confidence. Adults’ fear,
anxiety, busyness or boredom constituted neglect.

children are abused or neglected in any way all aspects of life are affected.
Spiritual impairment may be expressed through, for example, chronic sadness,
depression, failure to thrive, illness, offending, poor school attendance and
attainment, self-harming, suicide, violence, withdrawal.

themselves are often “dis-spirited,” crushed by heavy responsibilities and
depleted resources, whether inner or material. A government minister recently
described the aim of social work as transforming people’s lives. Practitioners
need such transformation no less than do the children with whom they work.
Approaching that work in the context of nurturing spiritual well-being can
bring fresh stimulus and restore declining spirits. Every practitioner, as well
as every child, is a whole, unique and worthwhile individual.

Crompton is a freelance lecturer. Her social work experience in child care spans
40 years. She has written and edited numerous texts on communicating with


1 M
McClure, “How children’s faith develops” in “The spirituality of children”, The
, supplement, 86, 1996

Department of Health, Guidance Notes to Children Act, DoH, 1989

3 R Nye,
“Spiritual development”, Crompton, M ed Children, Spirituality and Religion
– a Training Pack
, Central Council for Education and Training in Social
Work, 1996

4 L K
Thomas, “Communicating with a black child: overcoming obstacles of difference”,
P Milner and B Carolin, eds. Time to Listen to Children: Personal and
Professional Communication
, Routledge, 1999

5 E
Robinson, The Original Vision, Religious Experience Research Unit, 1977


1 Crompton
M, Who am I? Promoting Children’s Spiritual Well-Being in Everyday Life; a
Guide for All Who Care for Children
, Barnardo’s, 2001

2 Crompton
M, Children, Spirituality, Religion and Social Work, Ashgate, 1998

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