How can I help you?

Occasionally I like to dirty my hands, and ears, and do a stint on our unit’s advice line. The queries range from the mundane to the spectacular.

Here is a selection of queries from just one day’s calls, which show how social work and benefits interact in practice.

Call 1 (from a voluntary group working with homeless teenagers):

“My client is 16, at school and living at his mate’s house because home life was impossible. He gets £32.90 income support a week because he’s ‘estranged’ – is that right?”

Easy. No, the social security office is wrong. He should be on £43.25 a week as he is living away from home. This is the fifth or sixth call like this so far this year.

Call 2 (an employment adviser):

“I’m helping someone do therapeutic work. They are on incapacity benefit and housing benefit. How much can they earn before they lose their benefits?”

Not so easy. The caller should have said “permitted” work. Further questioning showed that the client also receives income support to top up their incapacity benefit, so I had to explain that earnings rules for incapacity differ from those for means-tested benefits. After 10 minutes, I think the caller understood me.

Call 3 (social worker):

“Can foster carers claim tax credits?”

Not too bad, once I’d established that the query related to the fosterer’s own children, not the ones they care for. It all hangs on whether the Inland Revenue treats them as being in “remunerative work” – getting a reward element – even if that reward element is now non-taxable because of the new tax thresholds for foster carers.

Call 4 (hospital social worker):

“Can you send over your fact sheet on the new rules on benefits while [the claimant is] in hospital?”

The social work team has received nothing official yet from either the hospital administration or benefits office telling them about the change, and some patients still have not had full benefits restored.

Call 5 (Connexions personal adviser):

“My client is 17 and has moved in with her boyfriend’s family. She is still at college and needs income support, but the local Department for Works and Pensions office has told her to leave the course and sign on. Is that right?”

No, again. And another example of poor service for young people. As long as she is not “cohabiting” with the boyfriend and his parents aren’t “acting in the place of her parents”, she is estranged, and is due income support without signing on.

Call 6 (group home manager):

“I run a local authority group home for people with mental health needs. One resident seems to be getting the care part of disability living allowance, even though he has been here three years. Why?”

Alarm bells! He is being overpaid, as disability living allowance (Care) is not paid in that situation. What is at issue is whether the overpayment is recoverable or not. More work needed on this one.

These are just six of the 15 calls I took. They show how the worlds of social work and benefits can interact and occasionally collide. Many social work staff struggle to understand the rules on benefits, and expert help can make that job easier.

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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