Lone parents and income support changes

The way income support is paid is changing, which will have an effect on tax credits, SGOs and the JSA. Gary Vaux looks at some impending problems

The new rules governing lone parents on income support that take effect later this month are beginning to cause concern and confusion, as this e-mail to me from one social worker shows:

“I’m dealing with a woman who has gone from being a foster carer to having a special guardianship order for the two children she used to foster. The children are aged 12 and 14. The Job Centre have told her that her income support will stop in November due to new legislation being brought in. She wants to know whether her SGO allowance could be increased because of this?”

My advice was to firstly check what is actually happening to the client’s benefits in November. I suspect that a combination of DWP misinformation and client panic has meant the message has got a bit garbled along the way.

New definition

I am presuming that the change the DWP is talking about is a reference to the new definition of lone parents that applies from 24 November. Until then, someone is a lone parent if their youngest child is aged 15 or under. The lone parent will therefore qualify for income support.

After this date that cut-off is being reduced to 11 or under. Existing income support claimants will not be affected by this change until at least February 2009 (for those whose youngest child is 14 or 15), or June 2009 (whose youngest child is 12 or 13).

Therefore, the new definition of what constitutes a lone parent shouldn’t affect our social worker’s client until mid-2009. Remember, once a foster carer takes on special guardianship, the child becomes “theirs” and they can claim child benefit and child tax credit.

For benefit purposes, the foster family becomes no different from an ordinary family. The single foster carer, entitled to income support because they are fostering a child under 16, becomes a single parent entitled to income support at present on the same basis.

Switch to jobseekers allowance

Those claimants who lose the right to claim income support from November onwards will be transferred to JSA instead, and invited to sign on as looking for work.

If their income support includes an element for children – which some claims made before April 2004 still do – then when they switch to JSA for themselves they will also have to claim child tax credit for the children – it will no longer be included in their weekly benefit. The changes don’t stop there, however: from October 2009, the cut-off becomes the youngest child’s 10th birthday and from October 2010 it is the child’s seventh birthday.

The change does not apply to foster carers or to carers of disabled children. However, it does have implications for single people who are thinking of switching from fostering status to special guardianship if they are on income support.

Parenting orders

As foster carers they will continue to get income support, but as special guardians they may not, depending on the ages of the children. They will have to switch to JSA and look for work as a condition of getting benefit.

Social workers also need to watch out for situations where parents of children who may be becoming looked-after are being asked to attend family centres and assessment days as a condition of the family remaining together. Only those parents who are on specific “parenting orders” will be exempt from having to look for work – the rest will not.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question e-mail Natalie Valios

This article is published in the 6 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “Working out the impact of the new lone parent definition”

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