Now that the cost of living crisis is soaring up the news agenda, there is one question I can’t get out of my head. Why are benefits, tax discounts and food vouchers, already earmarked for folk who need them, going unclaimed?
According to the online benefits calculator entitledto.co.uk, households are missing out on £15bn in benefits every year. What’s more, this is just an educated guess. The Government currently isn’t tracking how many people are claiming Universal Credit. The same goes for council tax discounts and rebates, despite debt to local authorities being one of the most prevalent today.
So that £15bn figure is a stab in the dark, albeit a carefully judged one based on historic data. But in the absence of reliable government data, we have to rely on independent charities to understand why vulnerable people are failing to get the help they deserve. There’s a reason why online benefits calculators provided by Entitled To and Turn2Us are becoming the go-to tools for anyone trying to steer a way through the benefits system. They are free, relatively easy to use and will give you answers in minutes.
But awareness of benefits and the ability to claim starts with a proper connection to the outside world, whether it’s online or through a landline telephone. Both options are fast becoming unaffordable luxuries for poorer households.
Telecoms firms are jacking up prices even within contract and while heavily discounted “social” tariffs are available, only one to two per cent of eligible customers are taking them up. It’s estimated by Ofcom that 11 per cent of lower-income households aren’t online, rising to 18 per cent for the over-65s.
Often, people only get their full benefit entitlement when they hit rock bottom and turn to a food or fuel bank, where volunteers can point to what’s available.
One of the few facts about benefits in the public domain is that 850,000 pensioners who qualify for Pension Credit don’t get it. This is a travesty, considering how this could be worth up to £3,300 a year and act as a gateway to the Warm Homes Discount, discounted council tax and a free TV licence.
It shows the increasing digitalisation of the benefits system, accelerated during the pandemic, has left far too many pensioners behind. The Government has apparently launched a campaign this month to publicise its Pension Credit claims hotline (0800 99 1234). Did you know that? Before researching this column, I didn’t.
And what about Healthy Start vouchers? These provide low-income parents with £4.25 a week to pay for basics like milk, fruit, vegetables, pulses and infant formula. But according to the Food Foundation, uptake of the scheme among eligible families was just 54 per cent last year, meaning 300,000 families missed out on as much as £1,200.
The situation worsened this year as the Government phased out paper vouchers in favour of a prepaid card that needs to be topped up every four weeks. Parents have flooded the Healthy Start Facebook page with complaints about the new system, which came into effect this month. From applications being repeatedly rejected to cards failing at the supermarket checkout, it’s clear the roll-out has been a dog’s breakfast.
The Department for Health and Social Care has insisted that it has fixed the problems. The sheer volume of complaints I’ve been seeing from desperate families as recently as this week suggests otherwise. Now is not the time to plunge people into chaos with a new digital-only system that barely functions. It’s yet another example of how a bungling benefits bureaucracy often presents an appalling choice: go without or face the demeaning hassle of trying to get what is rightfully yours.
Another predictable farce has been the delays in the council tax rebate scheme. Only a handful of councils have issued the £150 that was promised to people living in council tax bands A to D this month, with many warning that payments might not be made until September due to the need to implement new systems. Worse still, those who most need the rebate are the least likely to pay by direct debit and may have to wait months for councils to set up new portals to accept claims.
Finally, I wonder how much councils will actively promote the Household Support Fund offline when it’s up and running again (whenever that might be). It looks like many local authorities will use websites and social media to keep people updated – fine, but where’s the outreach plan? Has that just become an enlightened extra, rather than a fundamental pillar of any effective welfare programme? Until officialdom gets its act together, you can join me in evangelising about unclaimed benefits.
Reach out to the vulnerable people in your family and community and help them figure out what’s on offer. Time to cut that awful £15bn sum down to size.