Little is as confusing in the benefit system as the treatment given to 16- and 17-year-olds. The last Conservative government took this group out of mainstream benefits: a policy endorsed by the present government.
The idea is that young people should be supported by parents and engaged in activities (school, training, employment) that have their own income streams. Whether this is a training allowance, an education maintenance allowance (EMA), child benefit or wages depends on the circumstances of the young person and their family.
But some young people are just unable to follow approved activities, or if they are, they may be estranged from their family and therefore not able to access support from them. Even if they are doing the right thing, it does not follow that they receive the support they need: EMAs are only being introduced nationally from September, the basic training allowance is only £40 a week, and there is no national minimum wage for 16 to 17 year olds.
This means that there are “concessions” in the benefit system to cover a range of eventualities. Income support can be claimed by lone parents, disabled people and those on training courses if their other income is inadequate. Those 16- to 17-year-olds who are still in education can get income support if “estranged” from their parents. Others can obtain jobseekers allowance if they have recently left education and are having to live away from home. Finally, there is a catch-all payment of jobseekers allowance for severe hardship.
If we overlay all this with changes brought about by care leavers legislation, we have a situation that no one understands fully or can defend rationally.
Just before Christmas the Department for Work and Pensions sent out a memo (DMG JSA/IS 54) to all decision-makers. It was a result of the Hillingdon Council case concerning asylum-seeking minors supported under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, who were deemed by the court to be entitled to “after-care” support from the local authority even though not formally looked-after.
The downside is that the benefit exclusions that apply to looked-after children could now be applied to those who have only been supported under section 17. This memo gives the green light to that approach but in woolly and inexact terms.
The circular does correctly point out that, since 7 November 2002, children accommodated under section 17 are definitely not looked after. But it then goes on to imply that those assisted under section 24 are. As this is used for after care, it could mean care leavers aged 18 or over are being wrongly denied benefits.
For young people supported under section 17, DWP staff are likely to take note of an earlier part of the memo, which appears to give them the right to decide who is and who is not looked-after, without realising that it is qualified in relation to arrangements made after 7 November 2002.
We are already getting reports of young people, who have had recent but limited support from social services under section 17, being refused access to benefits on the grounds that they are “looked after”.
What we need is a review of the funding and support that young people need which accepts that 16 to 17 year olds should have the same rights as other citizens.
Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. Please write to him c/o Community Care.