How can we help people who fall through the holes in the safety net?

What do benefit claimants do if they have claimed a benefit and due to ‘administrative delays’ their money has not been paid? Or when a letter has been lost in the post but their benefit is stopped because they fail to respond? Charlie Callanan has some advice.

The Department of Work and Pensions and local authorities are the main sources of support our clients might be expected to turn to when they find themselves without the means for financial survival. But unfortunately they may find there is very little financial support to help them.

They may be able to get a ‘short-term benefit advance’ of certain benefits (but not Personal Independence Payment or Attendance Allowance). This is possible usually where they have made a claim for a benefit but are waiting for the claim to be decided  or processed and the DWP thinks it is likely they will be entitled to that benefit. Or an advance may be made where the client already has an award but their benefit cannot be paid on the correct date because of technical processing problems. However, if there is a question about the client’s entitlement, or if they are appealing a decision to refuse the benefit, they cannot get the advance.

Similar help is available for clients who claim Universal Credit called a short-term advance. Where an advance is given, it must normally be repaid from future benefit payments.

Crucial to get advice

It is important to note that if a claimant is no longer being paid Employment and Support Allowance because they have been found fit for work, or if they have received a ‘sanction’ while claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance, and so their benefit has been cut, the rules are different. In such cases it is crucial the client gets advice about challenging the decision and/or claiming an alternative benefit where possible.

Equally if the client has had a change in, or loss of benefit income, it is important to inform the local council so any claim for housing benefit and council tax reduction can continue.

Local welfare assistance schemes

When community care grants and crisis loans were abolished in April 2013 the Government handed responsibility for their replacement – ‘local welfare assistance schemes’ – to local authorities in England, and to the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Claimants may qualify for local welfare provision on various grounds. These include where the claimant needs help in an immediate short-term crisis, such as if they do not have sufficient resources. This should include where the claimant has no money due to problems getting their benefit. Clients in receipt of a means-tested benefit, or with no income, will usually be able to make a claim to the local scheme when in need. And people in paid employment who suffer a crisis (eg. due to a fire or flood) should also be able to apply for help.

In England, depending on the needs of the claimant, help might be given in the form of supermarket gift cards or vouchers, white goods or furniture. In the schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cash grants and/or loans are available.

One major disadvantage of these schemes is that if your client’s local authority is not willing to give cash help (as in England) they may not have any money to pay essential household bills, including, for example, ‘topping up’ their fuel prepayment meter. The authority providing the scheme also has discretion over how they run it and decision-making does not involve an independent appeal system. Many providers use rules and criteria similar to those for the abolished community care grants and crisis loans. The scheme in Scotland – the Scottish Welfare Fund – provides ‘crisis grants’ and community care grants.

Please note that the ‘budgeting loans’ available via claims for certain means-tested benefits, or the budgeting advance in Universal Credit, cannot be given for a temporary lack of income. These are only awarded to cover longer-term essential expenses such as clothing or furniture.

If your client is really struggling financially local charitable provision may be available. Sadly, food banks across the UK have become more necessary as DWP policies diminish already low benefit incomes. The provision of free meals at local religious sites is another sign of claimants having to rely on charitable handouts to get by, rather than on what was once called social security.

This article indicates the paucity of options for clients in often desperate need. At the time of writing, the film I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, was released, giving movie-goers an insight into how desperate things can get for claimants trying to navigate the UK’s welfare benefits maze.

Further information

Local welfare assistance schemes