This is a story with a positive outcome – but it serves to illustrate a point.
Most people would probably agree that welfare benefits are there to provide support at a time of need. Whatever your views on whom should access them, when, for how long and how much, you probably agree that they are needed in some shape or form.
But what happens when your only source of income is welfare benefits, and they are refused? What should you do? When we hear about such personal struggles, we’re assured that there are measures in place (appeals, tribunals, hard-ship payments) to rectify things. How do you manage until the situation is resolved, though, and how long might that take?
Centrepoint recently supported a young person, whom it seemed should be entitled to benefits – but they were being refused. From thereon in, the young person embarked on a journey. This journey would take over two years and four professional agencies to resolve. It was filled with benefit refusal letters that had no clear rationale, no advice on what steps to take next and no signposting for support.
The delays were extraordinary; one application for housing benefit wasn’t assessed for four months. The demands for information and evidence were complicated and protracted. For example, if you need to prove which school you attended, obtaining a letter from that school can take weeks. How do you provide payslips from a zero hours contract when the information is online, your payroll log-in has expired and the former employer doesn’t reply to your emails or calls? How can you supply a parent’s National Insurance number if you have been estranged for years? The barriers are endless and the environment hostile.
My point is this: The system is supposed to provide support at a time of need. But in order to engage with that system we need to be at our most tenacious and resilient, just when we may be feeling at our lowest and most vulnerable.
As I mentioned, our story has a positive outcome. The road was long and tortuous but our young person had the slim advantage of professional support and a bit of time. Without those things, the toll on a person can be devastating: homelessness, food poverty and detrimental effects to mental health.
If the human suffering isn’t compelling enough an argument to overhaul the system, consider this Citizens Advice research finding – that every £1 of legal aid spent on housing, debt, employment and benefit advice can save up to £8.80 in costs to the taxpayer further down the line.
Those facts again: 28 months and four professional agencies! In our case, fully backdated benefits totalling over £6,800 were awarded (eventually). So, that’s the money sorted – no acknowledgment or compensation for the distress caused, though. However, it just goes to show what can be achieved when a very engaged young person is linked with amazing legal advocacy.
Centrepoint collaborates with external organisations to make legal advice available to young people that is independent, trusted, accessible and free*. This work was made possible thanks to those amazing partners and dedicated lawyers, many of whom give their time pro bono – including Hanvit, who helped us with this case.
"We are very delighted to have achieved a successful result and to have made a real difference to the young person," says Hanvit, a pro bono volunteer at the Connect Legal Advice Clinic.
"Supporting young people to explore their rights helps them to achieve justice, but also underlines the importance of the work lawyers are assisting with. Each win and the effort we put into these cases will hopefully lead the way for systemic changes and improvements in the benefits system," she adds.
*Please note, Centrepoint and its partners do not undertake work that would otherwise be covered by legal aid. We have a robust signposting system to ensure that work is not diverted away from this very important and respected resource.