The benefits of checking benefits
By Karen Dunn, Specialist Benefits Advisor, Citizens Advice
Over the last four years VOICES and Citizens Advice Staffordshire North & Stoke on Trent have worked in partnership to provide in house specialist benefits advice for our customers. Working this way provides VOICES customers with the expert advice and support that they need, when they need it, ensuring claims are up, running and correct and any queries or appeals are dealt with promptly.
Karen Dunn, specialist benefits advisor of the Citizens Advice Bureau, explains why ‘getting it right’ the first time and checking/maintaining claims is so important, as well as the interconnected nature of access to finances and other potential support needs.
The advantages of resolving welfare benefits issues for customers experiencing multiple complex needs is widely recognised however, when support workers are few on the ground understandably the focus can be on the more visible needs of the customer. Add to this the complex system of welfare benefits (Universal Credit has not simplified things at all) and, new entitlements are missed, existing awards are not maintained, and claims are terminated or sanctioned.
For example, a customer moves into supported accommodation, they are asked if they are receiving any benefits, and quite rightly, a claim for Housing Benefit is made but, that’s where it can end and where the problems can start. The customer may not realise they need to tell the DWP that they are living at a different address. They may need some support to do this, or they may be able to do it themselves and simply need reminding to do it. But if this one simple task is not done, it can have serious ramifications later on. If letters from the DWP are issued to a previous address because it does not have the new address on its system then, assessments are not attended and forms are not returned. This usually means that eventually entitlement to that benefit ends and payment of benefit stops. A long complicated process must then be followed in order to hopefully get their benefit reinstated. Meanwhile, if it’s ESA, a repeat claim for the same benefit may not be appropriate so the customer is compelled by their circumstances to claim Jobseekers Allowance (Universal Credit if they live in a full service area), or go without an income.
“My first job was for Mind in Leeds, where I ran self-help groups for people with mental illness. But the session people found most helpful was actually about welfare benefits. That was a real light bulb moment for me because in a way, it was counter intuitive – you would have thought the big problem would be the mental health. But they couldn’t concentrate on their mental health while they were worried about how they were going to keep the lights on, pay the rent, or be able to eat.”
Alison Garnham CEO Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG)
Focusing solely on the obvious needs, such as homelessness or mental health, no matter how well intentioned, can be “counter intuitive”. Without an income the customer cannot pay their service charges let alone concentrate on anything else. Their overriding thought is getting their benefits back in place. All of this in turn creates problems for the customer who is vulnerable; the support worker who then has to deal with any increased health needs and the frustrated customer whose benefit has stopped; and the housing provider which has to chase service charge arrears. If they do not pay their service charges they can face eviction with the possibility of a return to homelessness and rough sleeping. The customer’s stress levels go through the roof which in turn can lead to renewed or increased substance use and behavioural issues, which just adds fuel to any potential eviction process. In short it can mean the difference between having a roof over their head, or not.
To more wholeheartedly provide the leg-up our customers need in order to move forward into healthier, safer and, more fulfilling lives we need to get a handle on the basic benefit issues. As illustrated a simple change of address, if not reported, can mean significant backward steps and has the potential to destroy any relationship of trust between the customer and the supporting organisation.
Getting the right benefits in place and keeping the customer on the right benefit improves the person’s health and well-being and, their engagement with services. The support worker can focus on delivering other much needed assistance such as ensuring they attend GP and hospital appointments, that they engage with drug and alcohol support services so that the customer stays on script, teaching basic cooking skills, providing budgeting support and, helping the customer to access suitable permanent accommodation. It ensures that in most cases service charges are paid and the customer is able to move on to suitable housing.
If it’s done right at the very start there are advantages to be felt by all involved, including the DWP and local authority departments, landlords, and the wider community.
- On entering a support service and/or temporary or supported accommodation the customer is given a routine benefit check. This should be done at the initial assessment stage or very soon after.
- If the person is already in receipt of benefits, arrangements should be made to notify each separate DWP department, and other benefit providers such as HMRC, of a change of address or circumstance as soon as possible. With the introduction of Universal Credit this may be easier as the person can do this via their online journal however, they may still require prompting or support to do this.
- If there is potentially an entitlement to other benefits not already received, the person should be supported to make those claims. However, with the introduction of Universal Credit, identifying what benefit should be claimed can be complex as there are different rules for the DWP natural and managed migration from legacy benefits*. Services should check with local benefit advice agencies before making a claim for Universal Credit especially if the person is already in receipt of a legacy benefit.
- If more complex issues arise the person should be supported to attend an expert advice organisation.
- Support services should consider embedding a benefits advisor from an expert advice organisation as part of the service offered to the customer. This would avoid delays in dealing with the customer’s benefit issues. The customer would not have to sit in a busy waiting room at a drop-in service, or endure long waiting times for an appointment, and they would have access to timely specialist advice, intervention and, representation.
- Support services should ensure mandatory training on the welfare benefits system is available to all support staff. This would increase the confidence and capacity of all support workers to be effective advocates on behalf of their customer. At the very least it would help identify any limitations of the service and when to refer for more specialist input.
*Sometimes the person is better off on ‘legacy’ benefits. Legacy benefits are those benefits that Universal Credit replaces: income based Jobseekers Allowance, income related Employment & Support Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit (except in supported housing), Pension Credit, Child Tax Credit and, Working Tax Credit.