Fears for social work role as councils take over poverty fund

The government is planning to hand councils responsibility for Social Fund poverty grants designed help people live independently. The move has prompted concerns about social workers' role from BASW's Ruth Cartwright (pictured) and other sector heads.

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The government is planning to hand councils responsibility for Social Fund poverty grants designed help people live independently, Community Care has learned.

But critics of the plan say it will put social workers in the firing line if they are saddled with making assessments and decisions about who gets the grants, given high rates of refusal for applications.

Community care grants are currently part of the Social Fund, administered by the Department for Work and Pensions through Jobcentre Plus.

They are available to people already claiming, or soon to be eligible for, low income benefits, and can be used to help people stay out of residential care or cover costs associated with family breakdown, long-term illness or even visits to ill relatives or funerals.

However, applications for the grants are turned down in nearly 60% of cases. Last year 640,000 people applied for a grant and 382,000 were turned down by the Social Fund. Successful applicants were awarded £437 on average.

Neil Bateman, welfare rights specialist and registered social worker, said: “It will have seriously damaging effects on people’s perception of social workers. The majority of applications for community care grants are refused and they will have to make those decisions.”

Bateman said that social workers’ dealings with clients in the benefits system were generally as advocates, which is acknowledged as a good way to build trust. But this could be undermined if they had to make decisions on access to benefits, he warned.

Bateman added: “It was for this reason that there was unanimous opposition when [this reform] was proposed way back in 1988. The Association of Directors of Social Services just completely opposed to it. I hope there is the same level of outrage now as there was then.”

“It will put social workers in a difficult position with their employers,” said Ruth Cartwright, British Association of Social Workers joint manager for England. She said they would be forced into fighting their councils over benefits, something which she said social workers already had to do with decisions on care packages.

Although Cartwright was not concerned that social workers would be asked to make assessments for community care grants she felt the plans would still damage their image. “It’s social workers being involved in rationing again. Why are we always the people who have to tell service users that decisions which are bad for them have been taken?”

The DWP also said it had plans to give councils control of budgeting and crisis loans, which make up the other parts of the discretionary Social Fund.

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