Memorandum submitted by Citizens Advice
Bureau (CP 28)
Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx) help with more
benefits and tax credits problems than anything else, and handled
1.6 million enquiries in this area last year. Debt is the second
largest area of enquiry for CABx. A higher proportion of CAB clients
are on benefits and in low paid work than in the UK population
as a whole.
We are therefore well placed to comment on the impact of poverty
on children and families and to contribute to the debate on what
particular policies need to be addressed to improve the experiences
of families on low income.
We very much welcome the pledge made by the
Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Tony Blair MP, in March 1999,
to end child poverty within 20 years. We recognise the achievements
that have been made so far in moving towards this target by improving
the income of families with children, but believe that more needs
to be done to ensure that all families are able to benefit from
full and active participation in the society in which they live.
CABx frequently report clients facing gaps in
full benefit income resulting from poor administration of the
benefit system. They report clients unable to afford essential
household items for their families such as beds and bedding, fridges
and cookers and items of school uniform for their children. CABx
regularly report applying for charitable trusts to assist their
clients in obtaining essential household items. They report families
living on less than benefit income because they are having, to
repay the debt.
It is essential that rates of benefits and tax
credits are set at adequate levels. Projections suggest that the
rate of child tax credit may still need to be increased if numbers
in child poverty are to be reduced to the 2004-05 target figure.
We also believe that increases in the adult benefit rates need
considering as child poverty cannot be looked at in isolation
from the family budget as a whole.
As well as continuing to increase the cash income
of families with children, we believe that the following issues
need to be properly and urgently addressed if the Government is
to properly tackle poverty and social exclusion faced by families
on low income:
The need for improvement in the administration
of the benefits system, in particular, to improve responsiveness
to changing family circumstances.
Complete reform of the social fund
to ensure that it can meet its purpose of enabling families on
low income to meet the needs that cannot be met from their normal
The "poverty trap" associated
with housing benefit. The need for reform of the housing benefit
system has long been recognised. The high withdrawal rates of
the benefit leave people with little incentive to work more hours.
The costs of education. CABx frequently
report clients on low income struggling to pay the various costs
associated with their child's education. Uniform costs, equipment
and "voluntary" contributions for trips put pressure
on families struggling to make ends meet.
Wider issues of debt, access to money
advice and measures to improve financial literacy.
1. Citizens Advice welcomes the opportunity
to submit evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry
into child poverty in the UK.
2. Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx) deliver
free advice from over 2,000 outlets throughout England, Wales
and Northern Ireland. All CABx belong to Citizens Advice, which
sets standards for advice, training and other matters, and which
also co-ordinates national social policy, media and parliamentary
work. A higher proportion of CAB clients are on benefits and in
low paid work than in the UK population as a whole. The two largest
enquiry areas are social security benefits and tax credits, and
debt. A recent CAB client survey found that over 40% of CAB debt
clients were in receipt of means-tested benefits and therefore
due to repayments were living off less than a benefit income.
3. The problems experienced by CAB clients
on low income result from difficulties in gaining access to their
full benefit entitlement and problems affording costs that their
normal benefit income cannot meet. CABx frequently report clients
struggling to make ends meet whilst waiting for their full benefit
and tax credit entitlement to be established and clients not being
able to afford basic essential household items for their families
such as beds and bedding, fridges and cookers items of school
uniform for their children. CABx regularly report applying for
charitable trusts to assist their clients in obtaining essential
household items. They also report families in debt resulting from
living long-term on a low income as well as from changes in family
circumstances and overcommittment.
4. We very much welcome the pledge made
by the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Tony Blair MP, in
March 1999, to end child poverty within 20 years. The Government
has introduced a number of measures designed to improve the cash
finances of low-income families on benefits and to help move families
from reliance on welfare into work.
5. Since 1997, the Government has significantly
increased both child benefit and the child elements of income
support and income-based jobseeker's allowance. There has not
however, been a parallel increase in the adult rates of benefit.
Projections from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest that
the Government's recent measures to tackle child poverty will
have a significant impact but that it may still need to increase
the rate of child tax credit to reach 3.1 million by 2004-05.
We also believe that failure to increase adult benefit rates to
adequate levels will threaten to reduce the impact of the increases
in the benefits for children and put a strain on the overall household
budget. We believe that there is a strong case for increasing
the adult benefit rates.
6. The introduction of the National Minimum
Wage and of the working families' tax credit in 1999, followed
by the new working and child tax credits were also intended to
improve the income of families in low paid work and thus reduce
child poverty. The New Deal for lone parents aims to assist lone
parents to move from benefits into workchildren in lone
parent families are more than three times as likely to have incomes
below half average incomes as children in other families (UNICEF,
2000). New tax credits introduced in April 2003 form a major part
of the Government's programme for tackling child poverty and making
work pay. Around 6 million families are expected to benefit from
the new tax creditsabout nine out of 10 families and take-up
figures recently produced look very encouraging.
7. Improving the cash incomes of families
is clearly a very important measure in addressing child poverty
but CAB client experience illustrates that on its own it is not
enough. Alongside these measures, improvements need to be made
to the delivery of the benefit system to ensure a smooth as possible
transition on and off benefits without people left facing gaps
and delays in obtaining the benefit and tax credit income to which
they are entitled.
8. Other steps are also needed to ensure
that families on low income have access to financial assistance
to help them afford to meet needs that cannot be met out of their
normal income. Typically this might include lumpy expenditure.
The social fund exists to serve this purpose but CAB evidence
shows that it is far from succeeding in meeting this role.
9. For example, families cannot get assistance
with distinctive items of school uniform from the social fund,
primarily because Local Education Authorities (LEAs) have the
power to provide this financial assistance to families on low
income. The availability of this assistance however, varies tremendously
from LEA to LEA and many authorities provide no assistance at
all. Cab has reported that children have been sent home from school
because their parents had not been able to afford the correct
full uniform. Other families report choosing to buy their children's
uniform instead of paying other bills and getting into arrears
as a result. Some families have borrowed money from unlicensed
lenders or sought assistance from charitable funds.
10. The withdrawal of housing benefit at
such steep rates as income increases can serve to reduce the incentives
of families to move into work, trapping people on low incomes.
If families are to see the benefits of more generous levels of
working tax credit and increases in the minimum wage, then the
treatment of tax credits as income for housing benefit purposes
needs to be examined further.
11. Recent research published by the Centre
for Research in Social Policy and Save the Children
found that children who face severe and persistent poverty live
in families who have experienced many transitions on and off benefit.
CAB evidence suggests that one of the reasons for this is families
can experience gaps in income whilst they wait for their benefit
claims to be resolved.
12. Poor benefits administration is one
of the most frequent benefit problems reported by CABx. In July
2002 Citizens Advice published national and regional reports on
standards of benefit administration. These reports resulted from
a campaign run nationally from September 2001 to March 2002. During
this time CABx systematically monitored advice cases involving
clients with benefit administration problems. The aim was to look
at the quality of service delivery during a period of major reorganisation
of benefit and in-to-work services, and to provide feedback to
assist with improving services.
13. The main problems were longstanding
and familiar ones to CAB advisers, who have seen evidence of these
problems over many years: errors and lost papers, delays in processing
claims, confusing letters about benefits, problems contacting
social security offices by phone; wrong, inaccurate or incomplete
advice. For example:
A CAB in Hertfordshire Bishop's Stortford reported
that their unemployed clienta lone parent with two children
was told by her local Jobcentre that she was not entitled to jobseeker's
allowance or any other benefits because she already had a firm
job offer. Due to delays involving security checks no job ended
up materialising and the client had no income for ten weeks. She
got into severe rent arrears and had been issued with an eviction
notice. She should have been entitled to both JSA and housing
14. One of the problems frequently reported
by CABx is the refusal of crisis loan applications by reception
staff at Jobcentre Plus offices. People are in error advised not
to bother to both to apply, as they would not be eligible. Other
people are not fully advised about which aspects of the social
fund they can apply for.
A CAB in North Yorkshire Hambleton reported a
teenage lone mother whose baby, aged less than 10 months, was
sleeping on the floor after a borrowed cot had to be returned.
The client was refused a budgeting loan as she had other loans,
and was told to apply for a crisis loan. The client was not given
information about a Community Care Grant (CCG), and having sought
a crisis loan could not apply again for a CCG for six months.
In any event, the client's application for a crisis loan was refused.
15. The problems experienced by people on
low incomes in April this year when their tax credits changed
has been well documented by Citizens Advice along with MPs and
other organisations. In the first couple of months CABx saw hundreds
of desperate families in dire need as their working families'
tax credit payments came to an end and were not replaced by any
payments of new tax credits for several weeks. In many cases this
was particularly acute where claimants circumstances had changed
since they completed their applications but pressure on the system
meant that the changes were not able to be processed before payments
were due to have started. CABx reported clients in rent arrears
and threatened with possession action because they had defaulted
on repayment agreements.
It is essential that changes to payments of benefits and tax credits
are managed effectively and contingency arrangements put in place
to ensure that vulnerable families do not suffer further stress
16. The evidence collected by bureaux suggests
poor delivery of benefits may result in key government anti-poverty
policies may fall short of their targets, and that people are
losing out on money the Government intends them to have.
17. We recognise that there have been attempts
to address these problems with the roll out of Jobcentre Plus
but even in areas where Jobcentre Plus has been rolled out, bureaux
continue to report claimants being told that their claim will
take up to two months to process.
18. We regularly report our concerns over
these issues with Jobcentre Plus officials and are currently assisting
in the production of scenarios to be used in their "mystery
shopping" programme to assist in monitoring the quality and
adequacy of advice in areas where CABx have reported most problems.
19. In the experience of CABx, the social
fund offers too low amounts to too few people and demands repayment
rates for budgeting loans that are too high. In our report on
the social fund published in the autumn of 2002
we concluded that "It is clear that the social fund needs
extensive reform in order to achieve the Government's objectives
to provide help to people when they need it most, to provide more
support to families with children, and to combat social exclusion."
20. Community care grants are a tremendously
useful part of the social fund as they are there to provide extra
money to assist families under extreme pressure and do not have
to be repaid. However due to budget constraints, even when applications
meet the criteria and the need is recognised, many are refused
because they are deemed to be medium rather than high priority.
Even whether grant applications are successful, they are frequently
too small to meet the need and families under extreme pressure
are left struggling.
A CAB in Cheshire had two clients who were refused
Grants because of budgetary constraints. In the first, a woman
with an asthmatic son left her violent partner and moved into
her parents' home. This was unhealthy for the child, as the client's
mother was a heavy smoker. The woman obtained a council house
and applied for a Grant of £1,250 to furnish it. This was
refused on priority grounds. In the second case, a client receiving
income support and invalid care allowance, living with her daughter
(who is schizophrenic and receiving income support and disability
living allowance) and granddaughter, applied for a Grant for new
mattresses and carpets to ease exceptional pressure on the family.
Again this was refused on priority grounds.
21. The eligibility criteria for budgeting
loans are very narrow. Eligibility is limited to those who have
been in receipt of income support or income based jobseeker's
allowance for more than 26 weeks. There are large numbers of people
whose incomes are at, or only fractionally above, the levels of
income-related benefits, who have no access at all to social fund
loans. People on low incomes do not have the same access to mainstream
credit as others, and people on benefits normally have no access.
We believe that social fund loans should continue to be available,
and should be extended to a wider group of people on low incomes
than at present.
22. We believe that people who qualify for
the maximum child tax credit and/or qualify for working tax credit
should be eligible to apply for a budgeting loan. If the eligibility
criteria do not widen to include those on maximum child tax credit
the numbers eligible will actually decrease as some families will
float off income support when the child elements become paid through
tax credits. People whose sole income is a contributory benefit
such as incapacity benefit or contribution-based jobseeker's allowance
should also be eligible.
23. People are also turned down if they
already have outstanding loans, regardless of whether they are
in real need. The following case illustrates the difficulties
this causes for some families.
A CAB in Essex reported a lone parent with two
children, one of whom was ill and needed medication kept in a
fridge. The client applied for a budgeting loan for the fridge
but was turned down as she was already paying off a £530
Loan at £13 per week.
24. Access cannot be widened without an
increase in budget as too many people who already meet eligibility
criteria are refused because of budget limitations. Budget limits,
eligibility criteria and rules governing outstanding loans mean
that many people in real need are refused assistance. Where grants
are awarded they frequently do not meet the needs of the applicants.
In West Yorkshire, an 18-year-old pregnant client
was offered a budgeting loan of £207 to furnish and equip
a council house. The local CAB commented that this was inadequate
and that, under the pre-1999 system, the client might have received
more because the amount paid would have been based on the client's
need, rather than on the application of a formula, as is now
25. For those who succeed in their application
the repayment rates are often so high that they are left struggling
to meet their daily household expenses out of incomes well below
income support level.
A Buckinghamshire lone mother with two children
was offered a Loan of £375 for beds and a fridge. She wanted
to repay over 78 weeks, but has been asked for repayments of £11.90
per week over 31 weeks.
26. Unfair an underfunded highlighted the
fact that delays in the processing of new benefit claims meant
that over one third of all crisis loans were paid to claimants
waiting their first benefit payment. We have argued that in order
to ease the pressure on the budget there should be a separate
budget available for people in these circumstances. However whilst
there is not such a budget available it is concerning that families
in these circumstances and with no benefit income have been refused
loans and told that their child benefit will tide them over. For
A London CAB reports a woman with four children
who applied for income support when her husband left her. A week
after she made the claim, she was told that it would be a further
11 days before payment would be made. The woman requested a crisis
loan but was told she could not have one while her income support
claim was processed. Although her income support would be £106
a week, social security staff told her that her child benefit
payments of £45 a week should see her through.
A disabled woman in Yorkshire applied for incapacity
benefit after she had been on statutory sick pay for 23 weeks.
She was told that payment would take five weeks. She then claimed
income support and was told that this would also take five weeks.
Benefits Agency staff told her that there was no point in applying
for a crisis loan, as she would not get oneshe should live
on her daughter's student loan. The CAB advised her to insist
on applying for a crisis loan.
27. The social fund budget is too low, and
we recommend substantial increases, particularly to community
care grant and budgeting loan budgets. Far too much time and money
is spent in administering a complex system with high rates of
refusal. Additional resources, over and above amounts already
committed, would greatly assist the Government in ensuring that
the poorest people in society have the basic necessities, such
as beds, cookers, fridges, furniture and warm clothing.
28. We believe if exclusion from education
is to be tackled effectively then attention needs to be given
to the financial costs of participation in school life.
The financial costs faced by parents and children range from school
uniform costs to school activities and extra curricular activities.
As the Government encourages schools to include pupils in extra
curricular activities with the aim of improving attainment
it will be even more important that the needs of pupils from poor
households are taken into account. Costs should not form a barrier
to participation in either the academic or social life of the
school. But too often, in CAB experience, costs are a very real
barrier. For example:
A CAB in Oxfordshire reported that their client,
a single parent on income support had approached the headmaster
of her children's school about help with the costs of the forthcoming
school residential trip. She was advised that no money was available
either from the LEA or from the school. The LEA admissions booklet
however, stated that where more than half the time of the trip
is during school hours, help is available for parents on income
support. A CAB in the Midlands reported their client's fear that
her children might miss out on their trips. She was concerned
that her younger child would not only miss out on the trip to
the Lake District but also on the planned follow-up work in class
afterwards. The letter from the school requested deposits from
parents wishing their children to take part, but gave no mention
of the costs being voluntary or of any help available. The client
was on income support and had debts but was eager to do all she
could to save and ensure that they would not miss out.
She had approached the bureau about any help
that may be available from a charity.
29. Following continual reporting of problems
faced by parents in meeting the costs of school uniforms for their
children we carried out a survey of LEA policies on offering assistance
with school clothing costs. A CAB evidence report published in
January 2001, Uniform failure, demonstrated how the lack of help
with school clothing costs was causing serious problems for parents
on low income. The report showed that the availability and level
of Local Education Authority (LEA) school clothing grants had
declined in real terms since 1990 and that CABx reported that
some children had been threatened with exclusion from school simply
because their parents had not been able to afford the correct
uniform. An example of the difficulties experienced is illustrated
in the following recent case reported by a CAB in Buckinghamshire:
Their client on income support and higher rate
disability living allowance applied for an school clothing grant
for his twins who were due to start school. The LEA turned down
his application however, as he had received a grant the previous
September for his older child, who had transferred to secondary
school. He was concerned that the twins were suffering at school
because they were not wearing the uniform and he had had two phonecalls
from the head teacher requesting that they wear it.
30. Following on from Uniform failure, we
undertook a survey in the summer of 2001, of every LEA in England
and Wales. We found that almost one third of LEAs (30 per cent)
provided no help whatsoever towards the costs of uniforms. Nine
LEAs had slashed or abolished their grants since 2000. Only 28%
of LEAs offered grants to children of both primary and secondary
school age. 41% of these LEAs did not offer annual payments and
they all operated strict eligibility criteria. The trend towards
more restricted eligibility schemes is worrying as this may well
be a step towards complete withdrawal of help. The findings from
this research were published in a briefing published in August
31. Since this time the Department for Education
and Skills (DfES) has re-issued its guidance to schools on uniform
policies emphasising that it is better practice for a uniform
policy to consist of items of clothing that are available from
a number of retail outlets than to have "designer" items
that are expensive and only available from one supplier (DfES
Feb 02). The issue of provision of financial support however has
not been discussed by the DfES. In June this year however, the
Welsh Assembly passed a motion calling for subordinate legislation
to set standards for LEAs in Wales to provide clothing grants
for secondary school pupils on low incomes. The issue of financial
support needs to be addressed in England too. We believe that
without further action from the DfES pressure of LEA budgets will
lead to a continued decrease in the financial support available
to families on low income.
32. We welcome the fact that the DfES is
carrying out research into the costs of education in the autumn
of this year. We hope that it will result in clear guidelines
both to schools and to LEAs on the level of charges appropriate
for activities in school hours. We hope that communications from
schools to parents will demonstrate a great sensitivity to the
financial constraints of parents and ensure that better financial
assistance is available and communicated to parents. We would
also like to see the DfES taking a more active role in monitoring
the charges or "voluntary contributions" requested by
schools to ensure that children are not excluded from full participation
in the life of their school.
33. The "poverty trap" was always
a problem for people on family credit and housing benefit, and
it has not been resolved with the introduction of tax credits.
People receiving both housing and council tax benefits can now
"lose" 85p out of every additional £1 of income
from tax credits or work. The problems experienced by clients
on working families' tax credit were well documented in our report
Work in progress
and the situation has not been addressed with the introduction
of the New Tax Credits in April this year.
A CAB in London reported a client with a wife
and two children. He was on jobseekers' allowance and had been
offered a job working nine hours, five nights a week. With working
tax credit he would only be £46 a week better off because
of the reduction in his housing and council tax benefit. This
meant that he was effectively working long hours, at night for
a gain of £1 an hour.
34. We hope that the widening of the earnings
disregard for housing benefit from April 2004 will improve this
situation for people working over 16 hours and claiming working
35. The poverty trap created by housing
benefit, is not helped by poor administration of housing benefit
in many local authority areas. These issues are longstanding and
a source of frustration for clients and CAB advisers. Despite
recent initiatives by the Department for Work and Pensions, the
housing benefit system is still beset with delays and continual
reassessments caused by the need to notify local authorities of
a variety of changes in income and circumstances, including the
receipt of tax credits.
36. People on low incomes are often working
flexible hours for varying rates of pay, and may have to notify
small changes frequently. When the benefits section is slow to
act on information they receive about changes to income, underpayments
and overpayments can build up. The result of inefficiencies in
housing benefit processing is that people are landed with debts,
in the form of arrears of rent or overpayments of benefit.
37. Over the last five years CABx have reported
a substantial increase in the number of new debt enquiries. They
are now dealing with over one million debt enquiries each year.
In May 2003 we published a report
based on research undertaken to find out more about the reasons
for this increase. The research found that CAB debt clients are
most likely to be of working age. They are particularly poor,
with high proportions of people in receipt of means-tested benefits
and tax credits and many being tenants of social landlords. The
average monthly income of debt clients was less than half of that
for the UK population as a whole. Over 40% were in receipt of
means-tested benefits and therefore the repayments pushed them
below income support level. Nearly half of all the debt clients
surveyed had children or other dependents living with them, compared
to just over a quarter of UK households as a whole. A significantly
higher proportion of CAB debt clients were lone parents compared
to the population as a whole (20% compared to 6%). This possibly
reflects the fact that many lone parents are either in receipt
of means-tested benefits or in low paid work, and therefore may
be more likely to encounter debt problems due to low income.
38. The survey asked people to consider
why they were experiencing debt problems. The three most common
reasons given were living long-term on a low income, over-commitment
and job loss.
A CAB in Nottinghamshire (Erewash) reported that
they were helping a lone parent with three children whose only
income was income support. The client had a number of debts, but,
despite advice from the CAB, found it difficult to keep up with
her priority commitments on her income of £120 per week.
The client's careful budget was thrown out of balance when she
had to buy school uniform for her two youngest children, as the
county council did not provide any assistance. As a result one
of her creditors took court action, increasing the debt by £70
in court fees and costs.
39. Over the last 10 years there has been
a dramatic shift in the types of debts about which CAB debt clients
are seeking advice. Now CABx are dealing with people who have
considerably higher numbers of credit debts. Low income and the
number of credit cards, bank and finance company loans had the
most effect on the size of the clients' total debt.
40. The impact of unmanageable debt on an
individual's life can be overwhelming. By the time they sought
advice from the CAB, nearly 40% of the clients said that they
felt they could not cope and were feeling in crisis. One quarter
said that they were already seeking treatment for stress, depression
and anxiety from or via their GP.
41. It is difficult to address the issue
of child poverty without addressing the issue of debt, the repayments
of which, frequently results in families living well below income
support levels. Strategies for tackling child poverty must cover
a wide range of issues to be fully effective. Initiatives must
tackle irresponsible lending and borrowing, lack of access to
affordable credit, and access to advice, all have a part to play.
We welcome the announcement in the Budget of the introduction
in April 2004 of a new fund for Jobcentre Plus managers to improve
access to debt advisory services in areas where free provision
is limited or does not meet customer needs. We hope that this
recognition of the importance of money advice services will be
reflected more broadly in government services and government led
partnerships, and specifically in strategies to tackle child poverty.
42. We also believe that levels of indebtedness
would also serve as useful indicators of child poverty.
43. In conclusion we believe that strategies
to combat child poverty will fail to stop people falling through
the net if they do not address the concerns outlined above. Specifically
we believe that:
There is continued need for improvement
in the administration of the benefits system, to ensure that families
do not suffer gaps in their income when moving from one benefit
to another, or moving between benefit and work. It is important
that claimants are given full and correct benefit advice to ensure
that they don't miss out on their entitlements.
We believe that complete reform of
the social fund is required to ensure that it better serves the
purposes for which it was intended.
The impact of the "poverty trap"
associated with housing benefit need to be examined further.
The Government needs to ensure that
no child is excluded in education because of the associated costs.
Costs should be limited and financial assistance available to
those on the lowest incomes.
Increase in the rates of benefit.
Whilst families on low income can be assisted by specific grants
and benefits, the rates of benefits and tax credits should be
set at a rate that enables families to have a decent standard
Outside of specific area of welfare
benefits, strategies aimed at improving levels of financial literacy
and reducing indebtedness should be addressed.
Social Policy Officer
404 People's Panel, MORI, 1999. Back
In too deep: CAB clients experience of debt, May 2003. Back
IFS briefing note 32, March 2003. Back
Britain's poorest children: severe and persistent poverty and
social exclusion, Centre for Research in Social Policy and Save
the Children, September 2003. Back
New Tax Credits: CAB clients' experiences of the first two months,
Citizens Advice, August 2003. Back
Unfair and underfunded: CAB evidence on what's wrong with the
social fund, NACAB, October 2002. Back
See NACAB response to Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal,
June 2000. Back
See Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal, key idea 17, April
Help with school clothing costs: CAB briefing, NACAB August 2002. Back
Work in progress: CAB clients' experiences of working families'
tax credit, NACAB 2001. Back
In too deep: CAB clients' experience of debt, Citizens Advice,
May 2003. Back