Welfare rights: Keep claimants up to date with changes

Make sure claimants know about the latest benefits because the Department for Work and Pensions can be rather coy about publicising them, to the detriment of many, writes Gary Vaux

The Department for Work and Pensions has recently paid £35,000 in compensation to a widower, Mr Q, who failed to claim the widowed parents allowance when it was introduced in 2001. The parliamentary ombudsman made this far-reaching judgement because the DWP had failed to do enough to make bereaved fathers aware that they could access the new bereavement benefits that had previously only gone to widows with children.

The decision has implications for other recent and forthcoming changes to the benefit system that have the potential to leave some families better off, but which have been poorly publicised.

For example, from November 2009, child benefit will no longer count as income when housing benefit is calculated. This could make the difference between a family getting some help with their rent or not. But there are no plans for a publicity campaign about this.

Child maintenance

Similarly, a change in housing benefit rules in October 2008 means child maintenance has ceased to count as income when housing benefit is worked out. How many families know about that particular change? It could make all the difference to their claim.

And how many women have missed out on the £190 health-in-pregnancy grant since it was introduced in April this year? It is available to almost all women who are 25 weeks or more pregnant, irrespective of income, savings or situation. It was introduced with very little publicity.

Back to Mr Q. He had been widowed some years before 2001, and was raising his children on his own. Although he didn’t claim until 2005, the widowed parents allowance could be paid to men who had been widowed before April 2001 as long as they were still caring for children after that date.

The ombudsman ruled that: “In general, unless asked there is no onus on Jobcentre Plus to inform people they may be eligible to claim a particular benefit. This is not the case, however, when a change in statutory provisions gives rise to new entitlements.”

Compensation awarded

He went on to say that Jobcentre Plus hadn’t taken reasonable steps to publicise the change, and awarded the £35,000 compensation. This included more than £28,000 for the benefit Mr Q had missed out on, plus almost £6,000 in interest and £750 for inconvenience and distress.

Of course, claimants don’t have to go through the rather convoluted ombudsman process in order to gain compensation from the DWP. In my own authority, we’ve recently come across a woman who was having £10 deducted from her income support every week because of the child support she was alleged to be receiving. The fact that she had told them back in 2003 that her ex-partner was no longer paying – and the “children” in question are now aged 21 and 19 and no longer part of her claim anyway – means she has just received more than £3,500 in backdated benefit. We are also using the little-known DWP compensation scheme to gain additional recompense for her. It teaches the DWP a bit of a lesson too.

There are benefit changes coming up – such as the extension of the higher rate of DLA mobility to adults and children who are blind – which will need to be adequately promoted in such a way that the target audience is made aware of their possible right to claim at the right time, not years later. This would certainly make a change from the largely negative, stereotyped, stigmatising and fraud-driven imagery and message used in recent DWP publicity.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice at Hertfordshire Council. E-mail us any questions

This article is published in the 8 October 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Make sure clients know about the latest benefits”

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