Underclaiming of benefits

Gary Vaux looks at the underclaiming of benefits and how social workers can help their clients to claim

The main function of most welfare rights workers is to improve benefit take-up, in any way we can. It all comes down to the pursuit of the “eligible non-recipient”.

Some benefits don’t need much take-up activity because they are almost universal. For example, child benefit is claimed by about 99 per cent of those eligible for it – hardly surprising when there is no stigma attached to claiming it, no complicated forms and no means test.

Yet other benefits have take-up rates that are much lower, which passes almost without comment. The government is patting itself on the back because take-up of child tax credit has reached 75 per cent of those entitled, and 90 per cent for those earning less than £10,000 a year. But that still leaves tens of thousands of low income families who are losing out on benefits they are entitled to.

Pension credit is also judged to be a success, yet it has only reached between 61 per cent and 69 per cent of those entitled. The target to pay pension credit to three million households in 2006 will be missed by about 300,000 households and the National Audit Office has just reported that pensioners in less deprived areas, rural areas, areas with large ethnic minority populations and areas with older pensioners are less likely to claim. In 2004-5, eligible pensioners did not claim between £1.46bn and £2.07bn in pension credit.

Take-up of housing and council tax benefits has actually fallen between 1997-8 and 2003-4, by 5 and 10 per cent respectively, despite the high profile that council tax in particular has had in recent years.

The NAO estimates that increasing take-up of pension credit by 10 per cent would lift about 100,000 pensioners out of poverty, while a similar increase in take-up of housing and council tax benefits would do the same for 130,000 more.

So promoting take-up is about enabling people to move out of the more extreme forms of poverty.

Social work staff can play a key part in promoting take-up. Routine checking of benefit payments and a rudimentary knowledge of benefit entitlement will go a long way in helping you at least signpost your client for further help if you suspect that they are missing out.

Clients have a lot of trust in social work staff – they believe that if they were entitled to something then you would have told them about it. That faith may be misguided in some cases but it shows the power and influence that social work staff can have.

In my unit, we do a lot of work with the parents of disabled children. The most common refrain when we help parents gain disability living allowance for their child is “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this sooner?” These are parents who have been in touch, often for many years, with social work, education and health staff, yet take-up never featured.

Anyone working with people aged 60 or over needs to keep an eye out for entitlement to pension credit, attendance allowance, housing and council tax benefit, all of which are significantly under-claimed.

All those percentages represent real people, living in or close to poverty, and your input can prevent a bad situation from getting much worse.

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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