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Thursday, 16 February 2012

POVERTY LINE


I was on Radio 5 Live today and was shocked when – I’ll call her Jayne – rang from Dorset to say she was a single mum with a 17-year-old son and they were both living on her income support of £67.50 a week. Her child benefit had been taken away, she said, and so had her child tax credit. Her income had fallen from £138 to less than half that.

“What did you eat last night?” asked host Nicky Campbell. “He had beans on toast, I had nothing” she replied.

Jayne is in her fifties and has severe arthritis. She has been unable to find a job herself and gets income support as a disabled person of £67.50 a week. Her Housing Association rent and council tax are paid for her but she has to find £40 a month for her heating and £19 a fortnight for her water bill. That leaves her about £48 a week.

Out of that she now has to keep her son (I’ll call him Jack) as well. A benefit intended for one person now has to feed and clothe two people, one of them a 17-year-old. As Jayne says “He needs a lot of food.”

It didn’t seem right to me. But when I looked into it I found that it was.

Jayne and Jack have fallen into a gap in the system.

Child Benefit - £20.30 a week for the first child – is not paid now for 16 or 17-year-olds who are not in education or training. Child Tax Credit – the full amount is £59.50 a week though Jayne says hers was £55 – stops then too. So when Jack left his course those benefits ended.

If Jack went back to college or into a recognised training scheme they would be restored. But he can’t find a place. So Jayne’s income has fallen by more than £75 a week to less than half its level when Jack was in education.

For a limited time after Jack left college Jayne could have applied for what is called a ‘child benefit extension period’. That can last for up to of 20 weeks and would restore child benefit and child tax credit. She has to apply within three months of him leaving. No-one had told her about it but she is still in time to claim and is now going to do so.

Jack wants to find work. But that is proving very hard for a 17-year-old in his position. And although he is looking for a job he cannot claim Jobseeker’s Allowance until he is 18 at the end of 2012.

He may still get something – if he asks. To do that he must go back to the JobCentre and apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance on grounds of ‘severe hardship’. There is no definition of what that means but the Under-Eighteens Support Team can award it on a discretionary basis.

As he has no income or resources of his own and his only parent lives on a means-tested benefit intended to keep one person he has a chance.

That would give him £53.45 a week. But it will only last a maximum of eight weeks and then he has to ask for it to be renewed. If his Mum’s claim is unsuccessful he may try this route.

One way or the other the family might get a bit more money for a limited time. But well before Jack is 18 both will almost certainly run out. Then single parent Jayne and 17-year-old son Jack will be living on the money the Government says is enough for just one adult.