A useful guide through the benefits maze
This year, the Government is undertaking the biggest programme of benefits changes in a generation. We’ve already seen the introduction of the “bedroom tax” and the replacement of council tax benefit with local schemes that may result in many low income families paying council tax for the first time.
This article aims to reduce any worry and confusion families may have about these existing and approaching benefit changes, and increase your chances of getting what you are entitled to – something that is more important than ever in the current economic climate. The changes outlined are expected to apply across the UK but their introduction is likely to be delayed in Northern Ireland.
Council tax benefit scrapped and replaced with local schemes
The national system of council tax benefit has been scrapped and each area now has its own local council tax support scheme for those on low incomes. However, many local schemes are less generous than the council tax benefit they have replaced. For instance, in many areas, all council tax payers of working age now have to pay something towards their bill, no matter how low their income.
Pensioners are automatically protected from any cuts and since local councils in England are free to set their own rules, it is possible for them to protect other groups as well – including parents with a disabled child. Contact your local authority to find out if there are any protected groups under the local scheme in your area.
Introduction of “bedroom tax” to council and housing association tenancies
Since April, council and housing association tenants have faced a housing benefit cut if their home has more bedrooms than they are seen to need. When deciding the size of property needed, two children under ten or two children of the same sex under 16 are normally expected to share. If you have one “extra” bedroom, your Housing Benefit is cut by a figure that is equivalent to 14 per cent of your rent. If you have two or more “extra” bedrooms, the cut is 25 per cent. Pensioner households are exempt from this cut.
Although young children or children of the same sex are usually assumed to share a bedroom, your award should include an individual bedroom for any child whose condition prevents them from sharing. You will need to provide your Housing Benefit office with information about their needs and you may have to provide medical evidence. If your Housing Benefit office refuses to accept that your child can’t share a bedroom, you should challenge this decision. Contact a Family have produced standard appeal letters for families to use, available free from the Helpline.
Are families with disabled children exempt from the bedroom tax?
At the time of writing, there is no blanket exemption for families with a disabled child. Instead, the Government has agreed that Housing Benefit awards should include an individual bedroom for a disabled child if their condition prevents them from sharing. However, other families with a disabled child may still be affected by the bedroom tax. For instance, if a spare bedroom is needed to store disability equipment or for an overnight carer for their disabled child. Families in this position still face a cut in their Housing Benefit. However, a number of legal challenges against these rules are underway so if you are affected, seek urgent advice about appealing your Housing Benefit decision whilst also applying for a discretionary housing payment.
What are discretionary housing payments?
Discretionary housing payments can be made by local authorities to help make up a shortfall between your rent and your Housing Benefit. They are at the discretion of the local authority, so you have no legal right to a payment. However, as a parent of a disabled child you may be given a higher priority – particularly if your property has been substantially adapted.
End of box out
Community care grants and crisis loans scrapped
Families on low income benefits are no longer able to apply to Jobcentre Plus for community care grants to help with costs like a new cooker or a new bed. Crisis loans offering urgent help following an emergency have also been scrapped. Instead, you will need to look to your local council for help. Council schemes vary from area to area, so contact your local authority for more information. Budgeting loans will still be available for one-off costs but, unlike community care grants, these need to be paid back.
Introduction of benefit cap for out of work families
Following a pilot in four London boroughs, the Government intends to introduce a new “benefit cap” to all other parts of the country between July and September 2013. This will limit the total amount of benefit payments that a family can receive if they are out of work. The cap will be £500 per week for couples and lone parents (£350 for single people).
The benefit cap will not apply if you, your partner or any child you claim child benefit for gets either disability living allowance (DLA) or the new personal independence payment (PIP). It also will not apply to any family where someone works sufficient hours to be eligible for working tax credit (regardless of whether you actually receive working tax credit or not). Certain other groups are also exempt. Families affected by the cap should seek advice about applying for a discretionary housing payment.
If you have an older child living with you who gets DLA, this does not mean you are exempt from the benefit cap. You are only exempt if you, your partner or a dependent child gets DLA. If your son or daughter receives benefits (such as Employment and Support Allowance) as a disabled adult, their DLA award will not protect you from the cap. This remains the case even if you act as their appointee. Seek advice about whether you are exempt on any other grounds.
Personal Independence Payment replaces DLA for those aged 16+
DLA is being scrapped for disabled people aged 16 or above and replaced by a new disability benefit called the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). DLA will be retained as a separate benefit for disabled children aged under 16.
Initially, PIP will only apply to those making a brand new claim. Then, from October 2013, DLA claimants whose existing award ends, or who report a change of circumstances, or who turn 16 will be re-assessed under the PIP system. Other adults claiming DLA will be re-assessed for PIP from October 2015 onwards.
PIP and young people turning 16
From 10 June, PIP now applies to 16-year-olds making a new claim. However different rules apply to 16 year olds with an existing DLA award.
If your child turns 16 on or before 6 October 2013 and their DLA award is ending, they should be sent a DLA renewal pack and will not be invited to claim PIP until a later date.
If your child turns 16 after the 6 October 2013, they will be invited to claim PIP shortly after their sixteenth birthday. If their current DLA award is due to run out on their sixteenth birthday, new rules will allow these DLA payments to continue for a temporary period until a decision is made on their PIP claim. Special rules will allow a 16-year-old who is terminally ill to continue claiming DLA rather than PIP.
PIP/DLA – what’s the difference?
At first glance, the new PIP may seem very similar to DLA. Like DLA it is not means tested and has two components: a mobility component and a daily living component which considers the need for care and assistance.
However, PIP uses entirely new rules to decide whether you qualify for the benefit. A disabled person will be awarded points depending on how limited their ability is to undertake certain specific activities. Their points are added up and the score they get determines whether they qualify for PIP and at what rate. There will also be a new way of assessing your claim, involving a face-to-face meeting with a health professional.
As well as having to complete a claim form and a questionnaire, most people will be asked to attend a face-to-face consultation. This will not be with your child’s GP but with a health professional working on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). In this respect, PIP is similar to the assessment used for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). You can accompany your child to the consultation and send in any other evidence that you want to be taken into account.
Introduction of new Universal Credit
Most means-tested benefits for people of working age are to be replaced by a new Universal Credit. It is scheduled to be introduced from October 2013 for new benefit claimants, with those on the existing benefits and tax credits being moved onto Universal Credit between April 2014 and 2017.
The Government says that some groups will be much better off under the Universal Credit – particularly many working families. This is a result of more generous rules designed to make sure that work pays. However, there is concern that some families with a disabled child will end up worse off.
This is primarily because of a cut in the basic child disability addition paid as part of the Universal Credit. If a child’s DLA award does not include the high rate care component and they are not severely visually impaired, their parents’ Universal Credit award will include a lower disability addition of £28.45 per week. Given that equivalent payment under tax credits is £57.89 per week, this represents a cut of £29.44 per week, or around £1,500 per year.
Some working families may find that other Universal Credit work incentives are greater than the cut in their disability addition, leaving them better off overall. But other families will be worse off over time – particularly out of work families with a child who qualifies for the lower disability addition.
The Government has said that anyone worse off as a result of moving from their existing benefits onto the Universal Credit will receive a top up – ensuring that their payments do not drop. However, these top up payments will be frozen, so these claimants will still be worse off over time due to inflation. In addition, this will not help those families who first start to qualify for disability additions after the introduction of the Universal Credit.
Derek Sinclair is part of Contact a Family’s welfare rights team, and is Senior Parent Adviser on the charity’s national Helpline.
More detailed advice about all of these changes is available from Contact a Family’s benefits experts. For more information, visit: