When Labour was voted into office in 1997, one of the first phrases it coined was “joined-up government” – the novel concept that government departments should talk to each other and co-ordinate their policies. So how is this deceptively simple measure progressing?
Here are just four recent examples from the social security world that shows how tricky it is to join up even basic matters.
The Department for Work and Pensions administers both pension credit and (indirectly) housing benefit. One of the advantages of pension credit is that anyone who gets the guarantee credit element is entitled to council tax and housing benefit, even if they have savings of more than £16,000. Yet here is an extract (2.01) from the most recent Housing Benefit Guidance Manual, issued to HB staff: The reason for looking first at the capital rules before the assessment of HB/CTB is that anyone who has more than £16,000 is not entitled to HB or CTB.” No mention, then, of those getting guarantee credit.
Second, anyone applying online for tax credits on the Inland Revenue website is asked to give details of how much working families’ tax credit or disabled person’s tax credit they have received since April 2003. Both of those benefits were abolished in March 2003.
Third, we are still seeing problems with care-leavers and access to benefits. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was supposed to tidy up financial support for looked-after young people and care-leavers. With a few exceptions (lone parents and young people with ill health or a disability) this largely meant ensuring that the local authority took responsibility for providing cash to those covered by the legislation.
But we are now routinely coming across cases where Job Centre staff can’t seem to grasp exactly who is “eligible and relevant”. They appear to be taking the attitude that if you have been in local authority care at any point, for any length of time, then you must be outside the benefit system and are the responsibility of social services. So a system designed to stop young people falling through the cracks is actually working against those it was meant to help because the DWP and the Department for Education and Skills don’t communicate properly over who is and who isn’t part of the care system.
Lastly, the DfES has responsibility for the new education maintenance allowance. The EMA guidance on the DfES website tells applicants on income support to take the claim form to their local social security office in order to get confirmation of receipt of benefit. It needs to be stamped and taken away again.
However, Job Centre Plus staff have been told in their official guidance to take the form from the applicant to stamp it and return it by post. Applicants are understandably annoyed to learn they have travelled a considerable distance in some cases to take their form to the “local” social security office and then waited ages to be seen when they might as well have posted it.
You might say that these are only minor matters – but if joined-up government is to mean anything in practice, it’s not just at the strategic policy level where joined-up work is required.
Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question to be answered please write to him c/o Community Care.