Debt and benefit advice for ex-offenders

Benefits advice is now delivered in a variety of settings, with a range of partnerships involved – in GP surgeries, hospitals, libraries, housing offices, even in social work offices. But one place where it has had little presence is in the probation service.

This is surprising, given the nature of the work of offender managers and the circumstances of many clients. In my own area, we have tried to address this gap with a project that aims to provide debt and benefit advice to ex-offenders, based in local probation offices. The response has been very positive.

Debt queries form the largest single problem area. These range from reassurance about the debt process to ongoing, complex case work. In the past month alone, the adviser prevented three evictions. In each case the local authorities have agreed to deduct arrears from benefit, thus decreasing the chance of the offender defaulting again. If the evictions had gone ahead, the chances of the ex-offender staying out of trouble would have greatly reduced.

A key weapon in the adviser’s armoury is the ability to backdate housing and council tax benefit for up to 52 weeks. This is more generous than almost all other benefits and it’s invaluable where someone has fallen into rent arrears but failed to claim all the help they are entitled to in the past. It is therefore worrying that from October the government is considering limiting the backdating to just 13 weeks.

Dramatic impact

It proposes to do the same to pension credit too, but the impact on housing benefit will be much more stark and dramatic – inevitably there will be an increased number of evictions, especially among vulnerable tenants who don’t grasp the housing benefit system.

Rent arrears are usually accompanied by council tax arrears. In one recent case, a council refused to come to an arrangement and demanded the debt was paid by the end of the financial year. However, after a letter of complaint to the manager, the nominal payment arrangement was agreed and, as long as the offender kept to the agreement, any costs would be waived. In another case, an ongoing dispute with a bailiff company over a council tax debt has finally been resolved after complaints to the directors of the company and the local authority, and the original offer accepted. A request for the little-known but valuable “discretionary housing payment” was also made to the local council. If accepted, this will top up the client’s housing and council tax benefit.

A full benefit check is given at each initial appointment and often offenders are not aware they are missing out on benefits. In one case child tax credit had not been applied for. The adviser assisted in the claim and requested a three-month backdate which will clear some of the offender’s debts and give her more available income.

Offenders in debt often cannot cope with post, and refuse to check their bank statements. One offender had not realised both her income support and child tax credit had been stopped. Both have now been reinstated and the ensuing CTC overpayment has been disputed.

In other cases offenders do not understand the benefit system due to their mental health issues. One offender was simply not aware that his benefits had been suspended incorrectly by the Department of Work and Pensions. The benefit, which had not been paid since the middle of January, was reinstated and the backdated benefit paid.

Gary Vaux (pictured) is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone.
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