A representative from the Welfare Rights Unit delivered a presentation on Welfare Reform. From 2013 onwards there were a number of changes to the existing welfare benefits system that would impact on a wide range of individuals. This would result in a decrease in income for many people. The changes could affect both working age and pension age claimant due to changes in both pension age and the forthcoming introduction of Universal Credit.
The current state pension age was sixty five for men and would be sixty five for women by 2018. It would rise to sixty six for both men and women by 2020 and age sixty seven by 2036, although it could be brought forward to 2028. There were proposals in place for pension age to be sixty eight by 2046.
The implications of this were that many older people will be expected to meet the conditions currently in place for working age benefit recipients, as well as the changes in Council Tax Support and the new local Social Fund Provision.
By increasing the age at which pension credit and state retirement pension could be received it meant that persons under this age would be expected to meet the working age requirements in order to receive benefits. Other implications included the changes to rent support for Social Housing tenants and the new localised Council Tax Support Schemes.
The bedroom tax was an under occupancy charge. It came into effect in April 2013. Social Housing tenants would have their Housing Benefit reduced if they under occupied their property. Anybody under occupying by one bedroom would see their eligible rent reduced by 14%, with a reduction of 25% for those who under occupied by two or more rooms. There was a problem at the moment in Middlesbrough that there were not enough smaller properties for people to relocate to. Ultimately this could result in people being made homeless as they might not be able to pay their rent liability.
Discretionary Housing Payments were available to assist people who had a current Housing Benefit claim which did not meet their rental liability. Applications could be made through the Local Authority. There was no limit to the amount of awards that could be received. This was a discretionary payment and priority was given to people with additional needs for example foster carers or those with adapted properties.
Council Tax benefit had been abolished and replaced with a local council tax support scheme for working age claimants. Each local authority was able to devise its own scheme. In Middlesbrough all working age claimants were expected to pay a minimum 20% of their liability. The Local Government Finance Act might afford some additional help for those who were unable to afford this liability. At present couples who received pension credit were exempt from the new scheme. However any pension age couples where one of them received either income related Employment and Support Allowance, income based Jobseekers Allowance, Income Support or Universal Credit would also be affected by the 20% payment.
Universal credit was a new working age benefit which was gradually being rolled out nationally from 2014. It was a single benefit administered by the Department for Work and Pensions. It would replace income based Jobseekers Allowance, Income Support, income related Employment and Support Allowance, Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credits and Working Tax Credits. One of the features of Universal Credit was that it would consider the age of the youngest member of a couple when deciding whether Pension Credit or Universal Credit should be claimed, which meant that where there was a member of a couple under Pension Credit age they would be affected by the under-occupation, Benefit Cap and Council Tax Support changes.
Universal Credit would be paid one month in arrears direct to the claimant and there was an online application and claims maintenance system. This had raised a number of concerns. There was also the likelihood of increased conditionality and sanctions. The emphasis was on encouraging more people into work.
Each Local Authority now had a localised support scheme that had replaced the Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans. It had been designed and managed by the Local Authority. The applications would be decided locally instead of nationally. There would no longer be cash awards. Vouchers for goods or food parcels would be provided. The application process for this was online and additional assistance would be provided to assist the elderly and disabled to complete the forms.
There were other changes which had been introduced which affected working age claimants including changes to Disability Living Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Tax Credits and a Benefit Cap.
From April 2013 Disability Living Allowance had been replaced by Personal Independence Payment for those who were aged 16-64. This relied upon different assessment criteria and also consisted of either a standard or enhanced award for both the Daily Living (care) and Mobility components. The benefit claimant would have to score 8 points for the standard award, or 12 points for the enhanced award following their initial application. It was expected that the majority of claimants will have to engage in a face to face consultation with a healthcare professional.
Central government announced that the introduction of Personal Independence Payment would produce a 20% saving on the current spending on Disability Living Allowance. It was estimated that by 2015, 560,000 claimants will have been reassessed. Of these it was estimated that 160,000 would get a reduced award and 170,000 would cease to receive an award. However it was estimated that 230,000 would get the same support or an increase.
It was expected that this change would generate a large amount of appeals. At the moment the Welfare Rights Unit was dealing with a large amount of appeals and it formed the bulk of their work at present. The Unit had a good success rate in challenging decisions.
Employment and Support Allowance was now the only benefit that could be claimed to replace earnings for those who were unable to work due to sickness or disability. A claimant had to score 15 or more points to be able to be classed as unfit for work and receive a benefit. Existing claims for Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance and Income Support on the grounds of disability were being migrated to Employment Support Allowance. Many claimants were being found fit for work at this stage and were able to appeal the decision. Middlesbrough Welfare Rights Unit had an 80% success rate for all benefit appeals where the client was supported or represented.
Tax Credits had seen an increase in the number of hours a couple must work to receive working tax credits. Previously this was 16 hours but had increased to 24 hours.
A benefit cap was being rolled out nationally with full implementation by September 2013. This applied to working age households who were not in employment. It was set at £350 per week for a single person and £500 per week for a couple or family.
All benefit decisions carried a right of appeal relating to whether the benefit was paid, how it was calculated, the date it was paid from and any overpayments or errors. Middlesbrough residents were able to access Middlesbrough Welfare Rights Unit for help with any benefit queries, including checking whether they had an entitlement to any benefits. This was a free service.
The Chair commented that the Welfare Rights Unit was a valuable service that was much needed in Middlesbrough and that some authorities did not offer such a service.
It was highlighted that The Welfare Rights Unit hold a drop in advice day these are arranged in advance at different locations and people do not need an appointment.