All EU must know

Every so often in this column, I run through changes to the system that you might have overlooked.

– From 1 May 2004, the European Union will include a number of central and eastern European countries.

This has led British newspapers to issue dire warnings about thousands of fresh immigrants coming to the UK, attracted by our “generous” benefits system. The government’s response is to hint very strongly that the habitual residence test (HRT) will be extended. There are rumours of a minimum one-year “qualifying period” being introduced, instead of an alleged three-month existing limit.

However, this ignores certain basic facts about the current HRT. Case law has established that a person could be habitually resident from the day of their arrival in the UK. So the three-month rule that benefits agencies often operate has no legal basis. Second, workers from the EU are exempt from the HRT anyway.

– Since 1 April 1998, people living in band F, G or H properties have had their council tax benefit restricted to the maximum help available for band E properties. However, the restriction will be removed from 1 April 2004.

– Although the Children’s Fund has been in the news a lot recently, and children’s trusts are soon to be in place in many local authorities, the Children’s Trust Fund has had little publicity. CTF payments have been referred to in the press as the £250 per child “baby bond” promised by the chancellor last year.

The Inland Revenue has now published draft regulations that confirm that access to the fund will be linked to child benefit entitlement. Payments will start in April 2005 for all children born after 31 August 2002. If a child is part of a household receiving child tax credit, with a household income below £13,230, the child will receive an extra £250.

– The government has backed down on its plans to use the withdrawal of housing benefit to tackle antisocial tenant behaviour, following consultation on proposals issued in May 2003. Most respondents pointed out that there were enough existing measures in place without adding a further and possibly unjustified housing benefit sanction solely against low income tenants.

– The lower savings limit for means-tested benefits is to be increased – but don’t hold your breath, as it won’t happen for more than three years.

The £3,000 threshold above which savings reduce eligibility to income support, jobseeker’s allowance, housing and council tax benefit is to be increased to £6,000 from April 2006.

– The crackdown on organised crime continues. A social security commissioner has ruled that a person who organised quiz nights at his local pub was “working” and therefore not entitled to incapacity benefit.

– According to the Social Security Contributions (Amendment) Regulations 2004, “references to trustees do not include a tronc-master”. Could anybody out there please tell me what a tronc-master is? It sounds like a Lord of the Rings fan at the Department for Work and Pensions has slipped in a Middle Earth reference in order to see if we noticed. Now if they could only get Gandalf to claim pension credit…

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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