Discretionary Assistance Fund Falling Short?
What happens when someone has no money – nothing at all?
From April 2nd you’ll apply for help from the Welsh Government’s Discretionary Assistance Fund. The contract to operate this £10.2m Fund has been awarded to Northgate Public Services working with Family Fund Trading and Wrexham CBC.
Many are watching the new scheme with great interest as details are rolled out with just 3 weeks to go. And as people watch, some are getting very concerned indeed.
How will people apply?
To apply, people will have to ring an 0845 phone number, apply online or by post. There will be no personal applications despite this being in the specification. Although 0845 numbers are not usually more expensive than geographic numbers, at up to 41p a minute for a call from a mobile phone according to Ofcom, costs soon mount up for a long call – especially as there is an 18-page form to be completed and considerable risks of long periods ‘on-hold’.
Welsh Government must insist on a Freephone number being established immediately.
Is there enough capacity?
Northgate are creating 20 new posts to administer the new fund, based at Wrexham CBC, and have commendable targets of a 5-day turn-round time for Individual Assistance Payments (although this appears to have changed to two weeks recently) and 24-48 hours for Emergency Assistance Payments.
A closer look at the likely volume of applications shows achieving these targets will be no mean feat. Based on last year’s figures a minimum of 138 applications will arrive at Northgate’s offices every working day, to be handled by 20 staff. It remains to be seen if the level of staffing is adequate for the likely level of applications.
Calls that cannot be handled in Wrexham will be routed to Northgate’s English service providers, raising concerns about how well they will be able to handle a different system in a different country and a different language. Let’s see.
Welsh Government needs robust arrangements to ensure that the targets are achieved and to monitor the handling of “overflow calls”.
Who is eligible for a grant?
With just a few weeks to go, it seems that there are still crucial gaps in the system. The criteria to be used to assess whether or not an applicant can get help are critical – yet are still being developed. The draft application form that has been made available doesn’t inspire confidence – not least as it based on the 18 page form used in England for getting Blue Badges!
We are told that the form will be ready for 2nd April – but this leaves no time to test it, or for organisations that will help people to make applications to become familiar with the form or train their staff and volunteers.
The Welsh Government awarded the contract on 15th November 2012 and has had at least 3 months to think about this – indeed it is a year since people responded to the consultation on the new arrangements.
Why does this matter?
The feedback from those on the frontline of the new service is wearily familiar. Too little, much much too late.
Getting it right really matters to people in crisis, who will often have nothing whatsoever. As almost all social security benefits change more and more people are likely to be seeking emergency help.
But getting it right (or not) also reflects on the credibility of the Welsh Government. It makes much of its different ideology, yet this is meaningless if it cannot deliver. It’s also worth noting that responsibility for the Discretionary Assistance Fund is a new power, devolved (albeit by surpise) last year. As Welsh Government itself, and many others, seek new powers, its ability to deliver is under the spotlight.
Effective scrutiny as well as effective delivery is vital.
Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation