The Social Security benefit system is highly complex and constantly changing. This often results in people not claiming the benefits they are entitled to, either because they are not aware of which benefits to claim or because the process of claiming them is too difficult and time consuming.
Also, the structure of the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP), which administers most benefits, is complicated. In recent years the department has set up call centres to receive initial benefit claims and this means that it is no longer possible to complete a claim form face-to-face with a member of their staff in a local office. It is the aim of this factsheet to outline the main types of benefit which may be available to you and how to claim them.
Who's who in the benefits system?
The Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) is the overall government department responsible for the administration of most, but not all, Social Security benefits.
The DWP is divided into a number of smaller organisations, and broadly speaking the main ones are:
Jobcentre Plus: Jobcentre Plus administers working age benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support. Regional offices called Benefit Delivery Centres administer claims, you cannot visit these offices. Staff in local Jobcentres help people to find work. Claimants are often required to attend appointments at Jobcentres to continue receiving benefits.
Disability and Carers Service: this department administers 'Disability Living Allowance' and 'Attendance Allowance', the benefits paid to people with long term disabilities and/or illnesses. It is also responsible for 'Carer's Allowance' which is a benefit paid to people caring for a disabled person. The department does not have drop-in offices so if you have a query regarding these benefits it usually has to be made by calling the central processing office in Blackpool.
The Pension Service: The Pension Service administers both State Retirement Pensions and Pension Credit for people over retirement age. Again, as the service does not have local offices it is usually contacted by telephone. The main office is in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is separate to the DWP and is the new name for The Inland Revenue. Along with the traditional role of Income Tax collection this department now administers Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit. In terms of contacting them, again, this is mainly done either by telephone or online.
Local Authorities (councils) administer Housing and Council Tax Benefit. Claims to these benefits are made by contacting your local council. The procedure for claiming will vary from council to council but the regulations regarding entitlement are laid down in law by central government. Generally speaking it is possible to attend your local council office if you wish to claim these benefits or you have an enquiry regarding them.
Details of how to contact each of these departments is explained in more detail further on.
The different types of benefit
Though there are many different benefits - well over 50 at present - they broadly fit into two main categories: means-tested and non-means-tested. Within the non-means-tested group there are some benefits which are only payable if you have paid enough National Insurance contributions and these are known as contributory benefits.
'Means-testing' is an old-fashioned term. Put simply, to qualify for these benefits a 'means test' is applied. This firstly considers your level of 'need' by looking at your age, whether you have a partner or children, or whether you or your family have any illnesses or disabilities. From this an amount of money is calculated, usually on a weekly basis. This is the minimum amount the government considers someone in your situation should be able to live on to cover basic living expenses. Once this has been done, your income and savings will then be considered to see if you have already reached this level of 'need'.
If your income is short of this amount then you will be entitled to the benefit. If your income is higher then in most cases you will not be entitled to these benefits. However, for some benefits, such as Housing Benefit and Tax Credits, it is still possible to receive these benefits at a reduced amount even if your income is above your calculated level of need. Means-tested benefits do not depend on the amount of National Insurance contributions you have paid.
The main types of means-tested benefits are as follows:
Income Support: payable to certain people below state pension age. It is designed to bring people's income up to a minimum level depending on their circumstances. Because of this it is often paid as a 'top-up' benefit; that is, it is paid in conjunction with other benefits if those benefits do not in themselves reach this minimum level. Broadly speaking it is paid to lone parents responsible for children under 10 (this reduces to age 7 from October 2010) and carers. The means test applied to it considers most income, including income from earnings and benefits, and the savings limit is £16,000. If you have savings in excess of £16,000 you will not be able to receive Income Support. More information on this benefit can be found on the NAS factsheet, 'Income Support, a guide to calculating and claiming'.
Income Related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA): this benefit was introduced in 2008. It has replaced Income Support as the benefit for people who cannot work due to sickness or disability and have a low income. There are two types of ESA, this Income Related (or means tested) ESA and Contributory Employment and Support Allowance, which will be looked at later under contributory benefits. A person may be entitled to either Income Related ESA or Contributory ESA or a combination of the two. You make a single claim for both parts of the benefit. To be entitled to ESA you have to meet criteria regarding how your illness or disability affects you. The amount you receive and the limits on savings are very similar to Income Support. For further details on ESA, please see the NAS information sheet ‘Employment and Support Allowance.
Income-based Jobseekers Allowance (JSA-IB): this benefit is for people who are expected to be 'actively seeking work'. It is important to distinguish between 'income-based Jobseekers Allowance' and 'contributory-based Jobseekers Allowance', which will be looked at later. The difference between the two is that income-based Jobseekers Allowance does not depend on the number of National Insurance contributions you have paid in the past. The amount you receive and the limits on savings are very similar to Income Support. If you claim income-based Jobseekers Allowance you are required to draw up a Jobseekers Agreement with a personal adviser at the Jobcentre, where you agree what types of work you are prepared to look for. You are also required to attend the Jobcentre regularly to update them on your search for work (known as 'signing on'). The Jobcentre also offers a number of incentive schemes and training programmes to help you back into work. At all Jobcentres there should also be a Disability Employment Adviser who specialises in helping people with disabilities into work.
Housing and Council Tax Benefit: both of these benefits are designed to help people on a low income with their rent and Council Tax. Housing Benefit can only be claimed by people who rent their property, whether it is rented from the Council, a Housing Association or from a private landlord. Income Support, Income Related Employment and Support Allowance and Income Based Jobseekers Allowance can help with mortgage interest costs if you own your own home but usually only after a waiting period. Housing and Council Tax benefit are, like Income Support, calculated based on the circumstances and income of the applicant. Where it differs is that there is no upper age limit, and there is no automatic cut off if your income is above the minimum amount the government states you need to live on. This means that if you have a moderate income it is still possible to receive Housing Benefit if you are struggling to pay your rent, though it will only cover a proportion of your rent. It is also possible to work and receive Housing and Council Tax benefit and there is no upper limit on the number of hours you can work, though whether or not you qualify for the benefit will depend on your income from your job and any other benefits you receive. There is, as with Income Support, an upper savings limit of £16,000. Housing and Council Tax benefit are administered by local authorities (councils) and to the process of claiming these benefits will be looked at in detail later on.
Child Tax Credit: is a means-tested payment for those who are responsible for children. It can be paid whether the parents are working or unemployed. Like the benefits mentioned above, it is calculated according to the household income of the family, taking into account any earnings and other benefits they receive. It is, though, an under-claimed benefit as it is possible to have quite a high annual income and still qualify for the minimum rate of the benefit. The amount of Child Tax Credit payable is increased if the child you are responsible for is disabled.
Working Tax Credit: this is similar to Child Tax Credit but is only payable if the applicant is working. You do not have to be responsible for children in order to claim this benefit but if you do not have children, the amount you receive will usually be less than if you did. If you are responsible for children you will need to be aged over 16 and be in paid work for more than 16 hours per week in order to claim this benefit. If you are claiming and do not have children you need to be over 25 and be in paid work for 30 hours or more per week. An exception to this rule is if you are not claiming for children but are disabled. In this case you are only required to be over 16 years old and work more than 16 hours per week. In all cases, however, the amount you are entitled to will, like the above benefits, depend on your income from earnings and other benefits. Working Tax Credit can also help with childcare costs you may incur while at work.
Pension Credit Guarantee: this benefit is very similar in structure to Income Support but is payable to men and women over qualifying age. If you are claiming as a couple, only one of you needs to be over qualifying age. Pension Credit qualifying age is calculated from your date of birth. If your date of birth is before 06 April 1950 your qualifying age is 60. If your date of birth is between 06 April 1950 and 5 April 1955 your qualifying age raises incrementally from 60 to 65 based on your date of birth. If your date of birth is after 5 April 1955 your qualifying age is 65. An important difference between Pension Credit and working age means tested benefits is that there is no upper savings limit for Pension Credit. However, as with Income Support, if you have savings over £10,000 an amount of money will be calculated as being generated from your savings. This amount is taken into account when calculating the amount of benefit to which you are entitled. This often means that people who have saved money for their retirement are excluded from receiving this benefit. However, there is a similar benefit called Pension Savings Credit which can only be claimed from the age of 65 and can provide a little extra money for those with higher levels of savings or income.
The Social Fund: this Fund is part of the Department of Works and Pensions but it does not administer benefits as such. The Social Fund pays grants and loans, some of which are received automatically if you fall into a certain group. For example, all people aged over 60 who are not in hospital or residential care should receive the annual Winter Fuel Payment to help with their heating costs. Some payments made by the Social Fund are, however, discretionary and means-tested, so an applicant's savings and income will be considered before they are awarded. These include Community Care Grants, Budgeting Loans and Crisis Loans.
These benefits do not depend on any other income or savings that you have, nor on any National Insurance contributions you have paid. An exception to this rule is ‘Carer’s Allowance’ which, although it is not means-tested as such, cannot be claimed if you work and earn in excess of £100 per week. It is not the same as a means-test however, because if you work and earn less than £100 per week you will still be entitled to the full rate of the benefit regardless of the amount you earn, and other income such as an occupational pension does not affect entitlement.
Disability Living Allowance: Disability Living Allowance or DLA is a benefit paid to people with long term illnesses or disabilities. It does not depend on National Insurance contributions and does not take into account any income from earnings or other benefits in its calculation. This means that it is possible to work full-time and receive DLA. It is split into two distinct parts or ‘components’ - ‘mobility’ and ‘care’ - though you apply for both on the same form. Broadly speaking the mobility component considers an applicant’s ability to walk and the care component looks at the extra care and supervisory needs an applicant needs as a result of their illness or disability. The mobility component is divided into two levels of payment, lower and higher, which are dependent on the type of the problems experienced with walking. The care component is divided into three levels of payment - low, middle and high - the level that is awarded will depend on the level of need. Those with the most needs are awarded the highest rate. An important point to note is that because DLA payment is based on an individual’s support needs and not on a diagnosis of a particular illness or disease, there are very few medical conditions for which DLA is automatically payable. The exception to this rule is if you have a terminal illness and you are not expected to live for more than six months. In these cases, applications for DLA can be fast-tracked.
Claims for DLA can be made from birth through to the age of 65 (Attendance Allowance is a similar benefit for people aged over 65) and as such it is one of the very few benefits payable to children. However, whereas children can receive the care component of DLA at any age, they can only qualify for the mobility component once they reach the age of three. Even at age three, children can only receive the higher-rate mobility component. They become eligible for the lower-rate mobility component from age five onwards.
If you are awarded DLA there are a number of positive effects it can have on benefit entitlement, including the allocation of a disabled person’s parking badge (blue badge) if you are awarded the higher rate of the mobility component. If awarded, it is not taken into account when calculating other social security benefits and can entitle you to an increase in your means tested benefits.
DLA is one of the commonest benefits people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder will receive. The DLA form is very long, especially the child version, and can be very difficult to complete. The National Autistic Society provides a number of factsheets regarding DLA, including advice on completing the claim form, what evidence to provide with the form and how the appeal process works if an application is refused. These are all available by contacting our Autism helpline on 0845 070 4004.
Carer’s Allowance: tends to go hand-in-hand with DLA as it can only be claimed if the person claiming it cares for someone who receives the middle or higher rate care component of DLA or any rate of Attendance Allowance. In addition, the person providing the care must do so for 35 hours or more per week. It can be claimed from the age of 16 and there is no upper age limit. You cannot receive Carer’s Allowance if you work and receive more than £100 pounds per week in earnings, though there is no limit on the number of hours you can work. If you receive certain other social security benefits you cannot receive Carer’s Allowance as these benefits ‘overlap’. These other benefits include Incapacity Benefit, Contributory Employment Support Allowance, Maternity Allowance, State Retirement Pension, Widow’s Benefits and contributory-based Jobseekers Allowance. Also, if you are a full-time student you are usually excluded from receiving Carer’s Allowance. Further information on this benefit can be found on the NAS factsheet, ‘Carers Allowance’.
Child Benefit: this benefit is payable to all people responsible for children up to the age of 20, regardless of their income or savings. To qualify for Child Benefit if a child is between the ages of 16 and 20, the child normally needs to be in full-time, non-advanced education.
Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP): this is a benefit but it is not paid by the DWP. It is paid by employers to their employees when they are pregnant and within 11 weeks of the expected date of birth or when they have recently given birth. You do not have to have paid a set amount of National Insurance contributions to qualify and it is not affected by any other income or savings you have. However, to qualify for it you must have been employed by your employer for at least 26 weeks and earn an average wage in excess of £97 per week. It can be paid for a maximum of 39 weeks and is initially paid at 90% of your average weekly earnings for the first 6 weeks and then at a standard rate after that of £124.88 per week. Many employees will, however, be entitled to more than this under their particular contracts. Statutory Paternity Pay is calculated in a similar way for men whose partners have recently given birth and can be paid for two weeks.
Statutory Sick Pay (SSP): this is paid by employers to their employees if they fall ill and cannot work. Like Statutory Maternity Pay it does not depend on the amount of National Insurance contributions you have paid. It also follows the same rule in that you must earn an average of £97 per week from your job to qualify for it. However, you do not have to have worked for your employer for any particular length of time before you can qualify for SSP. If you are off work for a long period of time you are usually required to provide evidence of this to support your claim for SSP. In most cases, this will be a certificate from your GP stating you should refrain from work for a set period of time. SSP can be paid for a maximum of 28 weeks. You cannot receive SSP if you already receive Incapacity Benefit, contributory-based Jobseekers Allowance or SMP.
These are benefits which are not means tested but you will only qualify for them if you have paid enough National Insurance contributions. National Insurance contributions are usually paid through working and paying National Insurance, though you actually receive some National Insurance Credits (sometimes referred to as 'stamps') when you receive certain benefits such as Contributory Employment and Support Allowance. Contributory benefits are, broadly speaking, not affected by any savings you have. When looking at your contribution record, the DWP will consider how many National Insurance contributions you have paid over a given period, the length of which will vary depending on the benefit you are claiming. For example, for Incapacity Benefit and Contributory-Based Jobseekers Allowance your National Insurance contributions over the previous three years will be considered but for State Retirement Pension your contributions over your entire working life will be taken into account.
Contributory Employment Support Allowance: this benefit was introduced in 2008. It has replaced Incapacity Benefit as the benefit for people who cannot work due to sickness or disability and have paid enough National Insurance contributions. There are two types of ESA, this Contributory Employment and Support Allowance and Income Related (or means tested) ESA, which is described above. A person may be entitled to either Income Related ESA or Contributory ESA or a combination of the two. You make a single claim for both parts of the benefit. To be entitled to ESA you have to meet criteria regarding how your illness or disability affects you. If you are aged under 25 you may be able to claim Contributory Employment and Support Allowance in Youth, which is a way of getting Contributory Employment and Support allowance without having to have paid National Insurance contributions. For further details on ESA, please see the NAS information sheet ‘Employment and Support Allowance.
Incapacity Benefit: was replaced in October 2008 by Contributory Employment and Support Allowance. No new claims can be made. This benefit was for people who could not work due to sickness or disability and had paid enough National Insurance. The government intends to transfer all people who are getting Incapacity Benefit onto either Employment and Support Allowance or Jobseekers Allowance between October 2010 and 2014.
Contributory-based Jobseekers Allowance (JSA-C): this is very similar to Income Based Jobseekers Allowance (see above) in terms of the amount payable and the fact that you have to 'actively seek work' and attend the Jobcentre on a regular basis to update them of your search for work. It differs though in that it is not means-tested, so any savings you have will not affect your entitlement. Also, if you have a partner who is working and you are entitled to contributory-based JSA, their earnings will not affect your entitlement as they would if you received income-based JSA. JSA-C can be paid for a maximum of six months and if you are still out of work at the end of that period you are usually transferred onto income-based JSA as long as you pass the means test for that benefit. You actually apply for both types of JSA on the same form and the Jobcentre will then look at your National Insurance record to see if you qualify for the contributory-based or the income-based version of the benefit.
State Retirement Pension: at present the State Retirement Pension is payable to men from the age of 65. The retirement age for women is currently being raised from 60 to 65. Women born on or before the 5th April 1950 will still be able to claim their State Retirement Pension at age 60. Women born between 06 April 1950 and 5 April 1955 have a retirement age determined by their date of birth between age 60 and 65. Women born after 05 April 1955 have a retirement age of 65. The government plans to make further increases to the retirement age.
The amount of State Retirement Pension you receive will depend on the amount of National Insurance contributions you have paid over your working life. This is a complex area as there are different types of contributions depending on whether you are single or have a partner and whether you contributed to the state earnings-related pension scheme (SERPS) which operated between 1978 and 2002. If you are approaching retirement age and you are unsure how much State Retirement Pension you will be entitled to you can contact The Pension Service to ask for a ‘Pension Forecast’. If the amount of contributions you have paid over your working life means that you only qualify for a small amount of State Retirement Pension it is possible you can claim Pension Credit as well, which will top up your state pension to a basic minimum level. You can receive State Retirement Pension if you decide to retire abroad but the rate is normally frozen and you do no receive any annual increase.
This list is far from exhaustive and if you are unsure of which benefits you may be entitled to you should consider taking advice from a specialist Welfare Rights Adviser. Advice on where to go for this help is provided further on in this article.
The process of claiming benefits can be very confusing and lengthy, especially if you have to claim more than one benefit at the same time. It can also be difficult given the number of government organisations involved in administering the different benefits. In addition, there has been a general move by the DWP in recent years away from the use of paper claim forms and towards telephone and internet-based claims. Whereas this is easier for some people who are adept at using this technology, it can prove a problem for those unfamiliar with it, and in particular for the elderly and disabled. Increasingly, your claim will be dealt with by a call centre that is located a long way from where you live and it is often difficult to obtain face-to-face advice on your claim from your local DWP office.
The benefits described in this section can be claimed in the following way. Please note that most of the DWP numbers listed here operate between 8am and 6pm Monday to Friday, though Tax Credits maintain longer opening hours.
Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support can be claimed by calling 0800 055 6688. When you call, an operator will take details of your claim and send you your answers in the post which you are then asked to sign and return along with any supporting documentation. It can be returned either to your local Jobcentre Plus office or to a central processing unit which you should be provided with an envelope for.
Jobseekers Allowance is claimed using the same number, 0800 055 6688. You will usually be asked to attend an interview at your local Jobcentre, where the claim form will be completed and a Jobseekers Agreement drawn up between yourself and a personal adviser.
Disability Living Allowance is claimed by calling the Benefit Enquiry Line on 0800 882200. A claim form will be issued to you with two date stamps on it, one for the date when you called and another dated six weeks later. If you return the form before that six week date is reached and a benefit is subsequently awarded, it will be backdated to the date of your first phone call.
Carer's Allowance is also claimed by telephoning 0800 882200 and the form will be issued to you by post.
All of the above benefits can now be claimed online by visiting the DWP's website, www.dwp.gov.uk/eservice. Before you can claim these benefits online you will need to obtain a 'government gateway' number. You can do this using the same website and it is a relatively straightforward procedure which should only take a couple of minutes.
State Retirement Pension and Pension Credit are both administered by the Pensions Service. To claim Pension Credit telephone 0800 99 1234. To claim State Retirement Pension call 0845 300 1084. In both cases, a claim form should be sent out to you, although you can also apply for Pension Credit directly over the phone.
Statutory Maternity Pay and Statutory Sick Pay are both paid by your employer and are usually organised by them.
Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit are administered by Her Majestys Revenue and Customs (HMRC). To claim these benefits call 0845 300 3900. You can also claim online at www.hmrc.gov.uk.
Child Benefit is also now administered by HMRC. To claim Child Benefit call 0845 302 1444 or claim online at www.hmrc.gov.uk.
Housing and Council Tax Benefit are claimed by telephoning your local authority (council) who will send you a claim form in the post. You can usually claim either benefit using the same form. In most cases you will be able to attend your local authority office to receive help with completing the form but you should check with them beforehand to see if they offer this service. Many councils now also operate an online application system for Housing and Council Tax Benefit.
The Social Fund forms for Community Care Grants, Budgeting Loans and Crisis Loans should be available from your local Jobcentre Plus office.
Where can I go for help?
There is no specific national Welfare Rights organisation and help with benefits can sometimes be hard to come by. However, the following organisations may be able to help.
Local Authorities: some local authorities provide a Welfare Rights service, though not all will do so. Also, some local authorities will restrict the service to a particular group; for example, they may have a policy of only helping local authority tenants. To see if your local council provides this service you should contact them by telephone. If they cannot help you they may have a list of other organisations in your area who can assist you further.
Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB): this is a national network of free advice agencies and most large towns and cities should have one. They often provide benefit advice and will sometimes help with the completion of claim forms and even offer representation at appeals. However, the extent of their service will vary from office to office depending on their resources. Some CABs have a housebound service where they will visit you in your property to assist you if you cannot make it to their office. To contact them it is usually best to make an appointment by telephone. You can find your nearest CAB by looking in your local phone directory.
The Community Legal Service (CLS): this service operates a telephone advice line offering free, confidential advice on all legal matters and this includes benefit advice. Whether they can offer you advice, however, depends on your income as they will only be able to help you if you are on a low income and would qualify for legal aid. They can be contacted on 0845 345 4 345 or via their website at www.clsdirect.org.uk. Please note this service is only for people living in England and Wales. There is a similar organisation in Scotland, the Scottish Legal Aid Board and they can be contacted on 0845 122 8686 or via their website at www.slab.org.uk.
The Benefit Enquiry Line (0800 882200): a government helpline for disabled people, their carers and representatives. They will not have details of any specific claims but can offer general advice regarding which benefits you may be entitled to.
Local Advice Agencies: there are many local advice agencies, including disability groups and local branches of charities, which may be able to offer advice and help with benefit enquiries. They should be listed in the phone directory or in the Yellow Pages under advice agencies. Alternatively, you could search for these agencies online. DIAL UK holds a database of these agencies and can be contacted on 01302 310 123.
In terms of reference material, the government website, www.directgov.co.uk, provides overviews of all benefits and how to claim them.
The CAB's website, www.adviceguide.org.uk, has a large section on benefits which you may find useful. The Disability Alliance is an organisation which specialises in benefits matters for disabled people. Their website, www.disabilityalliance.org.uk, has a number of factsheets on benefit entitlement. Please note, however, that they will be unable to offer individual advice on benefits over the phone.
Finally, The National Autistic Society has a Welfare Rights Service which can help with benefit queries. To book a telephone appointment with a Welfare Rights Adviser, call our Autism Helpline on 0808 800 4104 or email your query directly to firstname.lastname@example.org
Greaves, I. (2007). Disability Rights Handbook 32nd edition April 2007 April 2008. London: Disability Alliance
Quick link to this page: www.autism.org.uk/23630