- Government to stop Housing Benefit and pension credit for people leaving Britain for a month
- Critics fear move will hit aid workers, fishermen and people fleeing domestic violence
- Even people going to Northern Ireland for a month will fall foul of new rules
By Chaminda Jayanetti
The government is planning to strip Housing Benefit and pension credit from people who spend more than a month outside Great Britain in a move that will affect 130,000 claimants, despite warnings it could hit people including aid workers and women fleeing domestic violence.
Under new rules (pdf) announced in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement and due to take effect later this year, Housing Benefit and pension credit payments will be terminated for claimants who spend more than four weeks in a row outside Great Britain.
Given that the rules cover Great Britain and not the UK as a whole, it means that people who spend time in Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man will be hit.
The Department for Work and Pensions is pressing ahead with the changes despite warnings from its own advisory committee that the move could hit a wide variety of people, including aid workers, nurses working abroad, fishermen, students, and women fleeing domestic violence.
Tighter rules for tiny savings
Under the previous rules, Housing Benefit and pension credit payments would stop if a claimant left Great Britain for more than 13 weeks at a time.
The new rules cut this down to a much more restrictive four-week limit, with exemptions limited to military personnel posted abroad, mariners, continental shelf workers, and people receiving medical care abroad.
People who travel abroad due to the death of a loved one are also exempt from the four-week limit – but even they will see the limit cut from 13 weeks to eight weeks.
Moreover, the exemptions miss out a longer list of people who could be affected, and the DWP has ignored criticisms from its Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) having not even held a formal consultation on the changes with potentially affected groups.
Nor does the government intend to conduct any formal evaluation of the impact of the changes. An equality impact assessment conducted by the DWP simply stated: “Claimants who wish to be abroad from GB for longer periods should consider if they can afford to do so – just as working families do.”
Housing Benefit is paid to working families as well as out-of-work households.
The DWP expects the change to affect 130,000 people every year – 100,000 Housing Benefit claimants and 60,000 pension credit claimants, with the 130,000 figure resulting from some overlap between the two.
However, the department expects that most of these people will “adapt their behaviours” in response to the rule change, and that 45,000 claimants will continue to leave Great Britain for 4-13 weeks in a row each year, thereby losing on average £600 in benefits.
The government predicts it will save £20m in 2016/17 via the new rules – less than 0.2 percent of the £12bn a year it eventually plans to achieve in overall welfare savings.
Furthermore, the DWP admitted the changes could lead to increased fraud in an explanatory memorandum to the SSAC: “The policy could discourage claimants from notifying [local authorities]and DWP of their intention to travel abroad, thus potentially increasing fraud rates.”
Housing Benefit claimants leave Great Britain for extended periods for a variety of reasons. Among those for whom the Housing Benefit time limit will be cut are:
- A person providing medically approved care of someone living outside Great Britain – time limit after which benefit payments are stopped cut from 52 weeks to four weeks
- A person caring for a child whose parent is temporarily absent due to medical treatment – 52 weeks to four weeks
- A person who has left their home through fear of domestic violence – 52 weeks to four weeks
- In connection with being a share fisherman – 13 weeks to four weeks
- A person detained in custody on remand pending trial, pending sentence upon conviction, with bail requirements to live elsewhere, needs to live in bail accommodation, or is sentenced following conviction – 52 weeks to four weeks
- Absences to Northern Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands – 13 weeks to four weeks
The time limit for people requiring extended medical treatment or convalescence abroad is also being halved, from 52 weeks to 26 weeks – a move the DWP predicts could affect disabled people.
The DWP’s Equality Impact Assessment set out the effect of the changes on people facing domestic violence: “Although we have no substantial analytical evidence, there will be small cases of claimants impacted by the policy (in the main, women) who have left their dwelling through fear of violence in that dwelling – for example fleeing back to a family in Northern Ireland.
“Currently those fleeing domestic violence are allowed HB during a period of temporary absence for up to 52 weeks. Under the changes if they decide to flee to a place of safety outside GB, as with the example to Northern Ireland, then their HB will be stopped after 4 weeks. It is the Department’s view that due to very small assumed numbers we do not propose to make extensions to this group.”
The changes will not affect those whose Housing Benefit is paid into their partner’s bank account. Nevertheless, the DWP admitted that they could lead to women staying with abusive partners: “Families who will be impacted most by this policy will be those where one partner is a victim of domestic violence and flees to a place of safety outside GB.
“This could mean that women, who are generally more likely to be the victims, stay with an abusive partner rather than seek safety overseas.”
In January, officials from the DWP took questions from the SSAC, a broad committee which counts among its members right-wing think tank director Matthew Oakley and Nicola Smith of the TUC. Members of the SSAC repeatedly raised concerns about the impact of the changes.
One of the points they focused on was the domestic violence issue. Committee members asked whether the DWP had considered exempting victims of domestic violence from the changes.
DWP officials were unmoved. The minutes of the January meeting state their response as: “The Department’s assumption was that anyone fleeing domestic violence would generally be doing so within Great Britain. The numbers of those leaving Great Britain on those grounds would be very small.”
Rules is rules
In fact, the DWP officials attending the SSAC meeting repeatedly brushed off committee members’ concerns, holding to their official line that the changes were “fairer to taxpayers”. Warned that the changes could affect people on low wages working abroad for extended periods, such as aid workers, nurses called out to foreign health emergencies, and deep sea fishermen, DWP officials simply told the committee: “Ministers wanted to hold to a principle of drawing a clear line with these rules… The change was about a straightforward principle and a message that, in general, four weeks would be the limit for temporary absences from GB (Great Britain).”
Similarly, when committee members raised concerns that the measures could grandparents who travel abroad to look after their grandchildren during school summer holidays, DWP officials replied: “The Department’s view was that there are other grand-parents within GB who could not afford to travel to visit their grand-children within GB and who would consider it unreasonable that the taxpayer should be expected to fund the trips abroad of other pensioners.”
The committee also raised concerns about the lack of a formal consultation with potentially affected groups – only local authorities have been formally consulted, plus more informal discussions regarding the pension credit changes with organisations such as Age UK. The DWP officials responded that: “There are factors to be taken into account, such as drawing a balance between providing additional entitlement, for example to those who chose to spend time abroad and the needs of taxpayers who fund the welfare bill.
“Ministers have given thought to which occupations they wanted to extend the four week concession, and have decided to go no further.”
The changes were originally due to be implemented on 1st April this year, but were then pushed back to 30th May. A DWP spokesman told Sentinel News that they will no longer take effect this month, but will be implemented at some point this year. The changes must first be laid before parliament and, being secondary legislation, will automatically become law after a short period of time unless MPs demand a vote.
The spokesman said there are at present no plans to change any of the proposals before they take effect.