Social worker or benefits adviser? Examining the impact of welfare reforms

Should social workers take responsibility for helping service users negotiate the complex and ever-changing benefits system? Mathew Little reports

The list of welfare reforms introduced in April and due to take effect later this year is long: the so-called bedroom tax, the withdrawal of council tax benefits, the benefit cap and the scrapping of crisis loans and community care grants, to name just a few. Meanwhile, the number of people with disabilities found “fit for work” following work capability assessments continues to grow.

These changes will transform local authority social work departments into “go to agencies” for families in financial need, says Gary Vaux, head of money advice at Hertfordshire council. He predicts social workers will increasingly take on the role of mediator, helping people to access emergency services such as food banks. Already, he says, some charities running food banks require a letter from a social worker to prove the claimants are genuine.

Just one change – the benefit cap, which limits the amount a household can receive to £500 a week and includes carer’s allowance, child benefit and housing benefit – will affect 40,000 families and up to 150,000 children in 2013-14, Vaux estimates. The National Housing Federation says the number of children affected could be closer to 190,000.

Vaux does not believe we will see the return of social workers as benefits advisers, but he adds: “I certainly think they are going to have to be benefit aware, to help people negotiate what, for some, is a very dramatic switch in their benefits.”

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However, Winston Morson, an independent child protection social worker, says social workers are often ill-equipped to give proper benefits advice, despite the rising need for information. “In terms of social work training, there are modules that focus on benefits advice, but when you are in the role there is little follow up, so you are very limited in terms of your own knowledge about what the current lay of the land is with regard to the benefits system,” he says.

Vaux admits that it is not easy for social workers to keep on top of the welfare reforms while juggling heavy caseloads. “I’m a full-time welfare rights worker and I find it hard to keep up to date with all the changes,” he says. “God help the frontline staff.”

‘We are not a welfare service’

Morson says he has observed more families requiring emergency help over the past 18 months, with families approaching the local authority because they are having financial difficulties. Social workers can advise families to approach Jobcentre Plus, but Morson says many service users find that process “a real labyrinth”.

Some direct financial assistance is available: for example, local authorities have funds available under Section 17 of the Children Act, to be used to for children in need. But there is no clear guidance as to when it should be given, says Morson. “You find you are making an ad hoc decision – a ‘Santa Claus’ situation where you have to judge if someone is deserving of the money.”

Social workers have only a limited amount of time available to help people fill in forms, he adds. “Ultimately we are not a welfare service, we’re a child protection agency.”

But not everyone agrees. One experienced children’s social worker in the Midlands tells Community Care that her authority is experiencing a resurgence of requests for benefits advice and support. She points out that it was always part of the job, to a greater or lesser extent; she and her colleagues regularly come across families living in abject poverty – without food or warmth and living in overcrowded conditions – and any assessment has to take this into account. “I don’t think it went away, but now the social conditions of the age are bringing it back into stark relief,” she says.

Financial problems are becoming “a very important presenting problem,” she adds, but social workers cannot simply bat those issues off to Jobcentre Plus, as they may have done in the past. “You can’t ignore financial problems if you are dealing with safeguarding, domestic violence, drug use and alcohol misuse. It’s bound to have an impact. Advocacy on financial issues is going to be a massive part of social work.”

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What impact are the benefit cuts having on the people social workers support?

The care leaver

18-year-old Fay* is from Amble, Northumberland

“I was seven when my sister Rebecca* and I moved in with our foster carers, arranged through Barnardo’s. But last year I turned 18, which is the age when my foster parents stopped receiving a care allowance for me. I moved into my own one-bed flat and started a child care course. 

“Unlike many people my age, I rely totally on benefits to live. I get £113.25 a fortnight in income support and £146 in housing benefit – which is £30 too little for my monthly rent. Money is really tight and the bills keep rising; my flat was really cold this winter and I worked out that, after I had paid my gas and electricity bills, I had £20 a week to live on. A year ago, I’d do my fortnightly food shop and it would come to £38. Now it comes to £58. Even though I split these bills with my boyfriend, I don’t have enough money to buy anything else – not even books for my course.

“I’ve heard that the government is going to stop matching benefits to inflation this year, which worries me as my bills are already so high. I don’t know what I’ll do if there’s another winter like last year.”

The carer

43-year-old Alison lives in a rural part of the West Midlands

“I care for three people. I’m a single parent and I have a daughter who’s 20 and disabled. She’s gone to university now and only lives with me part-time. My mother is in a wheelchair and her needs increase all the time. And my uncle has Down’s Syndrome and dementia and needs 24-hour care, so he lives with my mum and dad during the week and with me at the weekend.

“I earn £9,000 a year. I’m no longer eligible for tax credits; I a bit of housing benefit and a bit of council tax benefit. Last October, the council wrote to me explaining they would have to cut everybody’s benefits as they no longer get as much money from the government. My daughter’s and uncle’s rooms are now classed as excess bedrooms.

“Every week I get more and more in debt. I’ve gone without heating this winter; the temperature in my bedroom fell to minus 13 in January. I feel like I’m living off charity and living off my friends. It’s degrading.”

The disabled person

63-year-old David Horner lives in Congleton, Cheshire

“I suffered a brain haemorrhage in 1997and, during subsequent surgery, suffered a stroke. I sustained significant damage to my brain, which brought about immediate memory and concentration problems and caused double vision.

“With support I managed to retrain and rebuild my career, but in 2009 I was made redundant. My doctor advised me not seek further full-time employment as I was mentally exhausted. So I set about applying for incapacity benefit. I did not know then that employment support allowance (ESA) had, in effect, replaced incapacity benefit.

“I completed a form and was summoned for a work capability assessment (WCA). I scored no points and realised that neuro-disability was not widely recognised. I failed the assessment and had to appeal, as now appears to be the norm. Eventually the appeal found in my favour, but the whole process affected my mental health.

“In February this year, I was summoned for another WCA, but I complained to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Eventually my case was reviewed and, as a result, my pending WCA was cancelled and I was put in the ESA support group category. It was only possible for me to do this thanks to legal training I had received in my previous job. There must be many thousands of individuals who have neither the knowledge nor resolve to take on the DWP.”

*Names have been changed to protect people’s identities

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