Better benefits

Under 18-year-olds have been served poorly by the benefits
system for far too long. But change is in the air writes Neil

Complex, contradictory and callous. Three words to describe the
system of financial support for young people under 18.

Anyone who has ever spent time taking a young person around the
agencies which administer the numerous strands of financial support
for young people will recognise this description.

Whichever avenue one goes down – education maintenance
allowance, income support, jobseekers’ allowance, housing
benefit or paid employment, the way is littered with exceptions,
multiple form-filling and obscurity. To make matters worse, this
shantytown of benefits and allowances can undermine young
people’s participation in learning. Is it then any wonder
that the proportion of young people not in education, employment or
training (Neet), has remained at around 10 per cent since the 1980s
– despite improved exam results, economic recovery and government
initiatives? Indeed, Neet numbers have increased by 8 per cent
since 1997.1

Growing concern by groups working with young people, as well as
concern in local and central government, might however lead to

Following an initiative by the Local Government Association, a
cross-government examination of the issues of financial support for
young people culminated in the announcement by chancellor Gordon
Brown in the Budget of a full review of the whole system of
financial support for 16 to 19 year olds. Currently still in the
planning stage, the review will report next spring.

Speaking on behalf of Barnardo’s, long critical of current
arrangements, principal policy and practice officer Neera Sharma
says: “We welcome this review as the benefits system discriminates
against 16 and 17 year olds and impacts adversely on the most
vulnerable young people.”

The Low Pay Commission has also recommended that “…in
principle, there is a case for introducing a minimum wage for 16-17
year olds, set at a lower rate than that for 18-20 year olds. But
we do not wish to encourage 16-17 year olds to leave [full-time
education] or training positions, nor to harm their employment or
training opportunities.”2 The government has asked the
commission to examine this further and it will be consulting
interested bodies later this year.

Homelessness charity Centrepoint, which has suggested that a
learning allowance should replace the current maze, welcomes the
government’s commitment to support young people. Chief
executive Anthony Lawton says that the review “must also consider
those young people without family support and a home. They need a
flexible benefits system to secure work, education or

According to Surrey Council’s Alaster Calder, who advises
the Local Government Association, the review “puts the financial
needs of young people upfront for the first time in years”.

Working Brief No
, p20, December 2002

Fourth Report of the
Low Pay Commission
, 2003, The Stationery Office

Neil Bateman is a welfare rights

Problems with financial support for young people

  • Confusing rules which require expert help to navigate.
  • Limited availability of independent advice and advocacy
    services to sort out welfare rights problems. Money paid through
    numerous different routes of entitlement from different agencies
    with different, sometimes contradictory, eligibility rules
    encourages buck-passing and poor take-up.
  • Delays in payment a frequent feature.
  • Rules designed to minimise young people’s entitlement to
    jobseekers’ allowance.
  • Complex rules for exceptions to the general denial of
    entitlement to jobseekers’ allowance.
  • Insufficient support for participation in education for those
    on very low incomes.
  • Inadequate benefit levels for those living independently.
  • Housing benefit paid at lower rates to most young people in the
    private sector – pushes them into poor quality accommodation,
    deters landlords and causes rent arrears.
  • Very low training allowance which does not motivate young
    people to learn skills.
  • Exclusion from national minimum wage until age 18.
  • Research shows the current situation causes destitution and
    encourages related problems of antisocial behaviour, exposure to
    exploitation, abuse and offending.

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