Dial b for benefits

A change to how benefit claims are made looks as though it will
have wide-ranging implications for social work clients with
language difficulties, hearing or speech impediments or who have
other communication problems.

In the areas where Jobcentre Plus (JCP) offices are now in full
operation (which is most of the country) there is a new method of
claiming all the benefits that the JCP administers (jobseeker’s
allowance, income support, incapacity benefit, industrial injuries
benefits, and carers’, maternity and bereavement allowances): it is
called the phone.

Whenever a person wants to start a claim for benefit, they are
now being urged to call a contact centre number rather than submit
a paper claim form. The contact centre person will identify which
benefits the caller needs to claim and gives a time when the
claimant will be called back, usually within 24 hours.

This second conversation will usually take about 45 minutes and
will involve the claimant giving a lot of information about
circumstances, earnings, savings and so on. They will also be asked
to give housing or tenancy-related information in order to
kick-start their claim for housing and council tax benefit as

The claimant is then sent the completed “customer statement” to
check and sign, and take with them to the work focused interview
(WFI), which is now mandatory for all new claims for
JCP-administered benefits, unless a person is specifically

At that interview, the JCP “client adviser” takes the completed
form from the claimant, makes any necessary amendments and sends it
to be processed into the all-important “input documents”. This is
basically the definitive version of the person’s benefits claim,
and confirms that the crucial details have been “verified”.

The new process throws up a whole new range of problems for
clients and advisers. The most obvious is that some clients do not
have ready access to a phone. We have already had a report of a
hospital patient who wished to claim incapacity benefit being told
that she had to use a pay phone on the hospital ward (which doesn’t
accept incoming calls) to make her claim.

Other clients will have a language or communication problem that
makes use of the telephone very difficult. Others may find that the
telephone interview precludes them from putting across vital pieces
of information that an adviser or social worker would have included
on a paper claim form.

There is, of course, no enforceable requirement that benefit
claims have to be made in the new manner. Tele-claims are legal –
but so are the existing methods, such as completing a paper claim
form and submitting it by post or in person. But the Department for
Work and Pensions seems to view face-to-face initial interviews
only as a last resort.

Tele-claims will generally be backdated to the date of the
initial phone call, in the case of income support and jobseekers
allowance. For other benefits, the existing rule about three-month
backdating will protect claimants in most circumstances.

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.


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