How social workers can help kinship carers manage impact of tougher benefit rules

With the government having tightened work requirements for benefit claims, social workers can help ensure kinship carers are not penalised for their additional responsibilities, writes Lynne Thompson

Social worker with kinship carer or adoptive parent and child
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By Lynne Thompson

Last year, the government introduced new rules about universal credit which affect kinship carers disproportionately.

It increased the maximum amount of time that a child’s main carer must spend working or engaging in ‘work-related activity’, such as looking for jobs, to be eligible for the benefit.

This has risen from 16 hours a week for carers of three- to four-year-olds, and 25 hours for those looking after five- to 12-year-olds, to 30 hours for both of these groups.

It is recognised that foster carers – including registered family and friends foster carers – have additional demands when looking after children, so they are subject to more generous rules.

Under these, they need only engage in work-focused interviews with their job centre, rather than seek work, while they are fostering a child aged up to 16.

Tougher requirements on kinship carers

However, kinship carers who are not foster carers only benefit from these arrangements for the first year they spend caring for a child of a friend or relative.

Subsequently, they are put in the same position as parents looking after their own child.

This is despite the fact that kinship carers will often have similar or greater demands than foster carers.

Demands of meeting children’s complex needs

They are likely to be be looking after a child, or children, who have endured a traumatic early life, which may manifest in special educational needs, behavioural difficulties or developmental delays.

This undoubtedly means carers must spend more time with the child than would be typical, in order to meet these complex needs. There may be extra meetings at school or for medical or social work appointments.

This all means that the kinship carer is not able to spend as much time as the government would like on work-related activities, which may mean their universal credit is stopped or reduced.

The agreement a person makes when they claim universal credit is with a work coach, who oversees the number of hours spent on work-related activities.

Work coaches’ discretion to ease requirements

However, a work coach also has discretion to alter these hours based on the individual’s circumstances.

Under DWP guidance, coaches can ease work-related requirements if the claimant has complex needs that mean it would be unreasonable to expect them to meet the requirements. Such needs include emergency or necessary care for a dependant child.

So, if the kinship carer can demonstrate that they need to spend extra time with the child, then these hours can be reduced.

The claimant should show that the child needs extra care, and extra time spent on them, compared to a typical child of a similar age. 

Social workers can help in these circumstances by giving documentary evidence to the claimant that the child has additional needs than would be expected for their age.

Social work evidence of child’s needs

This can include things like:

  • The child is often in trouble at school because of behavioural issues. The kinship carer is regularly called in to meetings and must be available for meetings.
  • The child is behind in their schoolwork because of additional learning needs, so extra time must be spent helping them with homework.
  • The child is poorly nourished or has bad eating habits, so time must be taken to prepare nutritious and appealing meals.
  • The child needs constant reassurance because of anxiety.
  • The child needs additional stimulation so extra hobbies and activities must be encouraged.

The evidence should reinforce why the child’s needs differ from those of a similarly-aged child without these needs.

Most two-year-olds need a lot of help with dressing and eating. However, you would expect that help to be reduced in a child of five.

You would not expect a child of 14 to need as much supervision with homework as an eight-year-old.

Lack of awareness among work coaches

Sadly, work coaches are not always aware that they are entitled to exercise discretion in these circumstances.

So, what can be done if the work coach will not reduce the number of hours a claimant needs to spend on work-related activities?

Social workers would be able to accompany a client to a meeting with the work coach and, provided the claimant gave the work coach permission, he or she could speak directly to the coach.

Challenging job centre decisions

However, if this does not make a difference, the claimant needs to ask the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for a ‘mandatory reconsideration’, setting out why they disagree with the job coach’s decision.

These are generally considered by someone with more experience and who is more aware of the rules.

This is normally sufficient to enable the circumstances to be reconsidered. However, if that fails, then the claimant should appeal the decision to the social security and child support tribunal. This must be within a month of the mandatory reconsideration decision.

More broadly, a local authority could contact the relevant regional DWP partnership team to discuss discretion for kinship carers, to support its greater use by work coaches.

What social workers need to know

It is not necessary for social workers to be aware of the detailed rules around work-related requirements. They are not benefits advisers.

However, social workers need to know that they can help claimants by explaining to the DWP why they cannot meet work commitments, and be aware of what to do if job coaches do not consider the circumstances of the kinship carer.

They can also signpost kinship carers to information and advice on universal credit provided by the charity Kinship.

Lynne Thompson provides private client support to professional firms such as solicitors and accountants. She advises on private client tax matters, state benefits and care home funding


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