Welfare Rights: Double standards

The benefit system can seem very inflexible. What is worse is that it often seems to work against the very goals that the government claims it wants to achieve.

Take adult placements for example. This is very much a Cinderella service in many parts of the country, yet it provides many excellent examples of how local authorities, voluntary organisations and individuals can work to deliver supportive and good value accommodation to disabled and vulnerable adults. In order to reduce the administrative burden on adult placement providers, the government even changed the rules so that private households didn’t have to be registered as residential care homes.

Yet the benefit system has never been comfortable with adult placements. Even when Revenue and Customs created a special category of income to ensure care providers weren’t penalised by the tax system, the Department for Welfare and Pensions made no special provision for the carers.

This compares very unfavourably with what happens with foster carers. Because foster care is seen to be “a good thing” benefit rules have, over the years, been relatively relaxed. For example, fostering income isn’t regarded as income if the carer is claiming any means-tested benefit.

Adult placement carers, however, have a much tougher time of it. The income they get from caring may well be counted as income. This is because the income support and related rules say that the income they get from caring will only be ignored if it is paid on behalf of someone who is not normally a member of their household and is only “temporarily” in their care.

In a recent test case, the DWP appealed against a tribunal decision which had awarded carers’ allowance to an adult placement carer. The DWP argued, successfully, that the carer could not claim carers’ allowance because she was “gainfully employed” and earning more than £82 a week (the limit for claiming carers’ allowance).

The claimant in the case in question lost because the DWP argued that the cared-for person had become a member of the carer’s household, even though he was paying her a commercial rent. This meant that the earnings she got from being a carer could not be ignored.

Does that mean that no adult placement carers can claim carers’ allowance? No, but it makes it more difficult. Carers will have to establish that the cared-for person is only with them temporarily, and this doesn’t just mean “not permanent”.

Respite carers will have no problem with doing this, as they only have short-term “guests” but other carers may have to argue it out case by case. The longer the placement goes on, the harder this will be.

Carers can’t even rely on the fact that Revenue and Customs take a different view than the DWP does over earnings – as the commissioner said: “The law can define (the same) income in different ways for different purposes and it is the social security meaning that I have to apply”.

Although the DWP, and the commissioners, may arguably have been technically correct in refusing the claim, surely there should be some kind of “public interest” test applied when benefit rules cut across other social policy objectives? CC

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 e-mail him at graham.hopkins@rbi.co.uk

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