Be earnings wise

A new guide attempts to clear up confusion over service user remuneration, writes Gary Vaux

Some questions seem to crop up with predictable regularity every couple of years. Who will manage the England football team? Who will lead the Conservative Party? Can I pay service users for their time, expertise and help in developing policies, delivering training and so on?

I can’t help with the first two and the third has always been a tricky one, because many service users rely on benefits, and payments from local or health authorities have a nasty habit of messing up those benefits. In the past, I have been asked:

  • How much a social service department could pay looked-after young people who sit on interview panels for residential staff.
  • Whether a health authority can pay mental health patients who are involved in consultation on services (as legally required).
  • What steps carers should take to ensure they are no worse off when they have had money from social services for helping to chair meetings and write reports.
  • Whether the minimum wage applies to service users with learning difficulties who “work” in the day centres they attend.

    These are all difficult matters because the benefit and tax systems are rigid in defining what is “work” and “earnings”, especially when compared with the looser concepts of voluntary work, reimbursement and expenses that local authorities seem to operate under.

    Too often, I’ve seen service users paid an almost insultingly low sum because “if we pay them any more, they’ll lose their benefits”. Or service users have not been warned that a 200 payment for helping develop a policy on respite care could lead to a cut in benefits and even a tax demand.

    The Department of Health has published Reward and Recognition, setting out the principles and good practice of service user payment and reimbursement. This guide can be found on the DH website at

    It cannot avoid the basic problem that the benefit and tax system does little to encourage service user paid involvement, but it does set out the problems and make some valuable suggestions. It tells providers they have a paramount “duty of care” towards clients, particularly those who rely on benefits. It recommends that service users should be encouraged to seek welfare rights
    advice and it even sets out an induction briefing checklist of issues that need to be clarified before the service user starts work.

    The guide covers such areas as volunteers (and the “expenses” minefield), payment for home-to-work travel costs, the minimum wage, employment rights, self-employment, taxation and a brief but accurate overview of benefit rules.

    Ultimately, however, this is a matter that only a change in the law can resolve. The guide is a starting point for anyone who is involving service users on a paid or voluntary basis but it can only describe “what is” rather than “what should be”. There are precedents, such as in the rules for councillors, for changing benefit rules so that service user earnings are disregarded.

    It surely cannot be beyond the capabilities of the Department for Work and Pensions to come up with a definition of “approved” earnings that service users could have, that would be disregarded when benefits are calculated. Until then, at least make sure that you use the DH guide.

    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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