Severe treatment

January and February always bring a fresh crop of destitute 16 and
17 year olds. They may have dropped out of education in the
Christmas term, have been supported by parents during the child
benefit extension period or relied on the kindness of friends and

Many young people in this situation have to claim jobseeker’s
allowance under the severe hardship payments (SHP) rule. This is
probably the most unpleasant way to have to claim benefit, so if
there are alternatives, (for example, income support because of
ill-health), use them.

The law says that a SHP can be paid if the Department for Work and
Pensions is “satisfied” that without one, “severe hardship will
result” to the claimant. This is a tough test – one has to prove to
the DWP’s satisfaction not only that hardship exists, but that it
is severe. To make matters worse, this is virtually the only part
of the benefits system with no appeal rights – a recipe for
value-based decisions by benefit officials and surely grounds for
challenge under the Human Rights Act 1998.

But it gets worse. DWP guidance instructs staff to ask intrusive
questions about how people are supporting themselves. They are also
instructed to obtain permission to contact parents when young
people are not living with them and that if this permission is
refused, warn that it could jeopardise their claim. And in cases
where abuse is suspected or disclosed, DWP staff are told to ask
for details.

Apart from the sheer offensiveness of this approach, it flies in
the face of all good practice in child protection. It is surprising
to say the least that the departments of health and education have
allowed this guidance to be used for so long. But above all, it
does not comply with the law. Established caselaw (R [SB] 33/85 and
R [I] 2/51) makes it clear that claimants should be believed unless
what they say is “inherently improbable” or “self-contradictory”.
To apply a different test to young people is therefore
discriminatory and wrong in several respects. Also, the legislation
on SHPs does not specify any special provision for intrusive

If SHPs are refused it is possible to take judicial review action
in the courts and it’s high time we had a decent test case to put
things right.

Neil Bateman is a welfare rights specialist.

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