By Sam Swinford*
Whatever your politics, July’s Summer Budget contained what are undeniably significant changes to benefits entitlements. The role of social worker as benefits advisor is much debated. But changes to income are undeniably an important part of a person’s life. If social workers are going to take our Care Act duty to promote well-being seriously, we need to understand how the changes are going to affect people we are working with. The benefit cap in particular could affect care planning, advocacy and safeguarding.
Changes to employment and support allowance
What is the change?
Claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit, fall into two groups, the support group and the work-related activity group (WRAG).
The support group is for people whose disability is so severe that there is no prospect of them finding work. The WRAG is for people who are unable to work but might be able to complete activity such as training or volunteering.
Currently claimants receive £109 a week in the support group, and £102 in the WRAG. From April 2017, the WRAG rate will be the same as jobseeker’s allowance, currently £73 a week. This will only apply to new claimants. The support group rate is not changing.
What effect will it have?
The government’s goal is to incentive people into work. There has been some doubt from commentators about whether this particular change will achieve that goal, as ESA is a benefit for people who are unable to work. In any case, social workers will continue to have a role in enabling access to employment, which is one of the outcomes in the Care and Support (Eligibility Criteria) Regulations 2015 which, if a person is unable to achieve it, may contribute to them being eligible for care and support under the Care Act.
There may be other effects. The cut only applies to new claimants. This means that current WRAG claimants whose condition improves may opt not to move into work, as if their health declines they will move back to ESA WRAG with their income reduced by £30 a week.
The disparity between the support group and the WRAG has been widened and a move from one to the other would mean loss of income and protection from the benefit cap (see below). Current support group claimants may become more reluctant to participate in, for example, volunteering opportunities, for fear that DWP will determine that this means that they should be in the WRAG.
It will be important for social workers to familiarise ourselves with the rules that allow people to participate in such activities. We need to be able work with adults to assure them that there are ways to achieve desired outcomes without risking income, for example under Department for Work and Pensions’ Permitted Work scheme.
Changes to the benefit cap
What is the change?
The existing cap on out-of-work benefits of £26,000 for working-age couples with or without children and single-parent households is to be reduced to £23,000 in London and £20,000 across the rest of the country. There is a lower cap for single adult households.
There are some people who are exempt from the cap, most notably for Community Care readers people who receive disability living allowance (DLA) or its successor, personal independence payment (PIP) as well as people in the ESA Support Group. People receiving pensions are also exempt as are people living in supported housing.
What effect will it have?
The DWP estimates that the benefit cap will affect 120,000 households unless people in these households move into work. Research done by Shelter has found that the changes will make a two-bedroom property unaffordable for claimant families with two or more children in almost every local authority south of Birmingham. DWP states that this will be mitigated as people will move into work.
The exemption for older and many disabled people will protect many people social workers work with from the change. However, it may also create opportunities for financial or material abuse. As well as the 120,000 families who are likely to be affected the cap, there will be a sizeable number who are not subject to it only because the household includes an older or disabled person. These households may stand to lose money or even their homes if that person moves out.
Social workers will need to be vigilant about these changes and ensure that there is no conflict of interest where families are involved, particularly where the adult lacks capacity to make relevant decisions or has substantial difficulty being involved in care planning. Under the Care Act, such a person would be entitled to an independent advocate to support them, but for the availability of the appropriate person to help them instead.
The Care Act’s statutory guidance (p123) notes that where there are conflicts of interests around finances, relatives may not be the “appropriate person” to support the person. Local authorities will need to ensure advocacy services have capacity for these referrals.
Separately, there may also be complications for professionals enabling people to move from supported accommodation. Consider, for example, adults with mental health issues or drug and alcohol problems claiming the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) rate of ESA and living in supported housing. Only 25% of this group has previously claimed DLA or PIP, according to DWP figures. The other 75% will find themselves subject to the benefit cap once they leave supported housing, which in many local authorities will preclude them renting a one-bedroom flat in the private sector. In London even the shared room rate may be unaffordable.
What other changes are there?
The changes also muddy the already murky picture for adults being released from prison, who will need to make new applications for ESA and DLA/PIP. Until these are awarded (which should take 13 weeks but can in practice take considerably longer), the adult may be subject to the benefit cap. Local authorities will have to consider this under their Care Act duties to prevent or delay needs from arising.
I have covered here only the changes in the most recent budget. There are significant changes from the coalition government which are yet to come, most notably completing the migration of working-age DLA claimants to PIP and the national roll-out of universal credit.
The temptation for local authority training departments right now is going to be to focus on the Care Act. But if authorities want to fulfil their Care Act duties around prevention, well-being and ultimately safeguarding, they need to ensure their social workers are confident when it comes to benefits.
*Name has been changed. The author is a social worker in an adults’ community team.