On the front line

Occasionally, I do a quick round-up of current issues facing
front-line staff. This round-up is based on a few of the queries
that came into my unit’s advice-line in just one afternoon. If
nothing else, it shows the overwhelming value of having an in-house
advice service that can provide detailed assistance to front-line

The first query concerned a woman working in a school who also
cares for her disabled child. She wanted to know how much national
insurance she should be paying. However, it came out that her
husband had lost his relatively well-paid job a few months back. He
was now setting up his own business but was yet to make much
profit. The family had not claimed child tax credit because they
thought their earnings were too high. Last year they were, but we
advised them to make a claim now and ask for a “current year”

The next call was about a 17-year-old woman who had lost her job
after being ill. She was living independently and had tried to
claim jobseekers’ allowance (JSA) but was being knocked back by the
Jobcentre. They were adamant that it was essential that she got
letters from each of her parents, confirming that they would not
have her back, and also a letter from her landlord, a very
supportive housing association, stating that they were planning to
evict her. This was the only way the Jobcentre would consider her
to be in “severe hardship” and thus eligible for JSA.

We helped the housing officer by giving her a copy of the
Jobcentre’s own internal guidance on JSA severe hardship payments,
which says quite categorically: “Evidence from a responsible third
party may mean that contact with the young person’s parents is not

We also supplied the housing officer with the phone number of the
under eighteens support team, which has to authorise all such
refusals of JSA, so that they could learn the facts of this case.

The next query was about a 41-year-old disabled man who lives with
his mother and earns £170 per week and also claims £70
working tax credit. He plans to live independently and wanted to
know what housing benefit he would get. We had to point out that he
would be liable for something like the first £95 of the rent
himself, which came as a real blow.

And problems with tax credits when people are in work also remain a
major issue. Another query came in from an organisation that helps
lone parents into work. They wanted to know what the tax credit
payments would be if a woman took up work at the national minimum
wage for 16, 20 or 25 hours per week. Our software package can
churn out the correct answers in a nano-second, but there is the
nagging doubt that we are giving “wrong” advice simply because
Customs and Revenue inevitably come up with a different figure.

The next call showed the importance of giving sound advice. A young
woman was facing a massive repayment of income support because she
had failed to tell the Department for Work and Pensions when her
child became looked after. All we could offer at this stage was
advice about how to try to argue that the overpayment, although
real, was not recoverable.

The other 15 queries can wait for a future article.

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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