Soical workers need to know the welfare system to help the unemployed during the recession

Gary Vaux provides some key questions for social services teams to ask themselves if they are to work effectively with clients in the downturn

With the official unemployment figures nudging two million, and the number of people looking for work nearer to three million, social services staff need to start dusting down (or gaining) some of the skills that haven’t been used for 20 to 30 years.

That means knowledge of the bene­fit system, but also an awareness of where to find help for problems, such as credit card debt and mortgage difficulties, that were simply not prevalent on this scale the last time the economy dipped into recession.

There are a few key questions that social workers and social work departments need to be asking themselves.

  • 1 Are you equipped with enough basic knowledge of benefits and debt matters to at least point people in the right direction for more specialist help – or ideally offer a modicum of help yourself? Do you know your ESA from your JSA your CCG from your CCJ your CMEC from your CEMC? If you don’t, then you need refresher or introductory training in benefits and debt.
  • 2 Are you aware that the government’s welfare reform programme will add 300,000 lone parents into the “jobseekers” category in the next two years, as they lose entitlement to income support when their youngest child turns seven? Add to that a further 500,000 people with ill health and disabilities, who will be “managed” off incapacity benefits into either work or unemployment, to get an idea of the scale of the problems that all jobseekers will be facing.
  • 3 Which local or national organisations exist that can help your clients with the benefit and debt problems that they’ll be facing? How do you make referrals to them? And how busy they are? It’s no help to a client who is facing eviction to be waved in the general direction of the local Citizens Advice Bureau if it has a six-week waiting list for debt advice sessions.
  • 4 Have you talked to partners in mental health, youth offending teams, Connexions, Relate and so on about the impact the recession will have on their clients and services? There is a recognised two-way link between mental health, poverty and debt – having a mental health problem makes it more likely you’ll be on a low income having a low income makes it more likely you’ll acquire or exacerbate a mental health problem.
  • 5 Are you looking after your colleagues as well as your clients? The recession could be hitting the people you work with, even if they keep their job. Two-income families with a mortgage can be devastated when one partner loses their job. Are you promoting credit unions, debt advice and other sources of help to staff too?
  • 6 Can you influence charging and finance policies in your organisation? If you’re in a local authority, your ability to waive charges for services or help people financially may be limited. But is there any room for manoeuvre? Be imaginative. Can you use Section 17 Children Act money to “buy out” loans that clients have taken out at extortionate rates of interest from official or unofficial lenders?

I’ve always believed and argued that social workers need benefits awareness and knowledge in order to be effective. That need is now greater than ever.

By the way, I made up the CEMC initials in my first point to make you think you’d have to go on that benefits training course. The rest are genuine.

 Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He can be contacted through Derren Hayes

This article is published in the 5 March edition of Community Care under the headline “Social workers must be welfare savvy as unemployment rises”

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