A new belief system

My children think it’s “sooooooo like unfair” that all teenagers are portrayed as Little Britain’s Vicki Pollard, Catherine Tate’s Lauren or Harry Enfield’s Kevin.

What’s worse is that, for years, many parts of the Department for Work and Pensions seems to have operated on the basis of the same stereotypes. Sixteen and  17-year-old claimants are often perceived, and treated, as intrinsically dishonest, idle and untrustworthy.

Nowhere has this been more true than in the treatment of 16 and 17-year-olds who wish to claim income support or jobseekers allowance (JSA). They may be trying to claim because they are “estranged” from their parents, still in education and living away from home. Or it may be that they are unemployed and trying to prove that they would suffer “severe hardship” if JSA wasn’t paid.
In both cases job centres and social security offices have often taken a hard line before accepting a claim as valid. The harshest requirement has been that in nearly all cases the young person would be told that, in order to prove “estrangement” or “severe hardship”, they had to supply a letter from their parents confirming their story. Alternatively, they had to give consent for the social security officials to approach the parent for similar confirmation.

Almost by definition, this was a test too far for many 16 and 17-year-olds. Parents were given an effective right of veto over the young person’s claim and could sabotage it by simply saying that the young person could return home or by refusing to either confirm or deny the estrangement. 

But the DWP’s internal guidance did actually say that evidence from a reputable third party, such as a social worker or Connexions worker, could make that kind of parental evidence unnecessary.

But now even greater progress has been made on severe hardship and estrangement cases.

The DWP has looked at this issue and sent new guidance to their local offices, which is startling in its honesty and its effect.

It begins with a bold statement: “The overriding principle is that the young person’s statements should be believed. Only if their statement is self-contradictory or inherently improbable will third-party corroboration be required.”

My concern, however, is that old habits, particularly about contacting parents, die hard. Training for relevant social security staff is being planned, but the guidance has been in circulation since November 2005 already, so the message may not be getting across with sufficient force, at least initially.

As one civil servant, responsible for implementing the new guidance said to me recently: “Just getting the guidance right is no guarantee that staff in the field will take it in and act on it. There will still be bad decisions, prejudice, and so on and even the training won’t stop it.”

But at least now, when you are next faced with a Kevin, Lauren or a Vicki who is unable to return home and who needs benefits urgently, you can talk to social security with a degree of confidence that your client will be believed and unnecessary hurdles won’t be placed in their way.

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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