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Benefits Blog

by Tombenefits

news and thoughts from the world of welfare rights
12 December 2017 at 20:13

Seasonal benefits, grants & gifts

A look at practical arrangements for payment of benefits, emergency financial support and grants , getting advice and support and help with Christmas gifts and treats that may help over seasonal break.

As I write, snow is all around, though we dodged it just here - to get us in the seasonally required mood wether you have eyes fixed on St Nicholas’ Day, Hannukah, Yule, Christmas (be that 25th Dec or 7th Jan) or just plain old Saturnalia :-)

Many traditions and religions see this as a time of celebrating light and pushing back against the dark as it rises to the winter solstice. Indeed archaeologists now believe Stonehenge’s main alignments is in relation to mid-winter rather than mid-summer, even if mid summer feels a tad more enticing for celebrating :-)

But while for some it is about finding ways of joining in the celebrations in as sensible - or unwise :-) - a way as possible , it is of course a hard time for many too. Robyn’s blog -  Looking Forward to Christmas...?  - offers some really useful practical tips about organising things, managing some of the symptoms and emotions that this time of year can bring. You can see it here.

This blog follows on from that one to look at some of the financial help and arrangements over the Christmas break.

While Maggie’s Centres shut doors over the break and the Online Centre staff are away, this site of course remains open to all, so please do log on for information, to post general queries and thoughts and to both ask for and offer support from and to each other.  

Do carry on swapping messages, warmth and online (((hugs))) :-) While  I and the other staff cats will be away,  do, O best beloved mice, feel free to play :-)

In the rest of this seasonal blog , I take a look at some of the benefits arrangements and other financial support, grants that can help, support to access gifts, special treats and experience days, help available in a crisis and sources of advice and support, while we are away.


1. The Christmas Bonus

In general , the benefits system doesn’t really do Christmas, as rules are rules and gruel rations are determined equally throughout the year :-).

However.  some benefits still come with a Christmas Bonus attached, which should be paid automatically, in the payment before Christmas.

These include: Attendance Allowance, DLA and PIP, Carers Allowance, Contributory ESA, Retirement and Pension Credit among others . For more details see here

£10 might not seem much, but when it was introduced in 1976 it represented an extra week’s pension; a shame then that it has never been increased with inflation.

Similarly, that nice Mr Lloyd George also doubled the pension every week :-) in 1911 for those aged over 80, which is why older Centre Visitors may puzzle over what to spend their extra 25p on :-)


2. Benefit payments over Christmas and New Year

In general , during any seasonal shutdowns, the DWP (responsible for most benefits) and HMRC (responsible for Child benefits) and tax credits) will make payments earlier than they would normally be due.

The general rule then is that you will get your payment on the last working day before any closure.

For some more precise details  - and some other Christmas budgeting tips - see the Mumsnet page here 


2.3 Delayed first payments

If you have only just made a claim and there is some unusual delay - or in the case of Universal Credit you are struggling with the standard six weeks or so until your first payment – then you can ring the office dealing with your claim and ask for an Advance Payment.

Universal Credit rules have been relaxed on Advance Payments. so that there is now more publicity of their availabbility, less restrictions on when in your cycle you can apply for them.

Unfortunately, the payments still remain at 50% only of your anticipated first payment, until January 2018, when the new offer of a 100% loan comes in. However, if your wait for first payment carries on into the New Year,  then you can make a second application in the New year. 

Full Advances could really help, and make UC much more Christmas friendly, by next year. However they do need repaying, which can mean a 15% deduction from ongoing payments of UC for up to 12 months.

Ideally the first ordinary payment of UC needs bringing forward; it could be technically but it doesn't fit the way UC is intended to work.


2.4 Benefit Sanctions

It would be cruel and unusual punishment to be hit by a benefits sanction at this time of year - and the evidence that sanctions have much effect is equivocal at best. If you do get hit by a sanction, do apply for a Hardship Payment to tide you over.

In many cases, sanctions will be withdrawn if challenged, though this process takes its own time. A Hardship Payment then can can help right now, but don’t just accept a sanction - even if eased by a Hardship Payment - if you feel it is unreasonable.

Statistically, the DWP back down far more on sanction decision than on other benefit decisions . Getting a decision reversed is important as:

  - with most benefits - you still lose out even with a Hardship Payment - and reversing the sanction gives you back the difference

  - with Universal Credit , the Hardship Payment is now a loan, so getting the sanction reversed makes an even bigger difference

  - taking a short first time sanction on the chin, stays on your record. This does mean that if you run into problems again within a year, a new sanction could be for much longer. 


3. Contacting benefit agencies over mid-winter

There will be days of normal service in those in-between dog-days of turkey curries, leftover nut roasts and inventive things to do with sprouts :-)

  - Details and the main phone numbers for Jobcentre Plus (who do “working age” benefits) are available here.

  - Details for the Pension Service (for pension age benefits such as Retirement Pension and Pension Credit) are here.

  -  there are no specific listings for carers and disability benefits so just try the usual numbers and see.

  - for HMRC benefits - tax credits and Child benefit - normal lines are closed on any Sundays and specificaly on Christmas, Boxing and New Years Days. 

  - for Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support check your local council. 


4  Grants that can help

3.1 Macmillan Grants

While not targeted at Christmas difficulties in particular, these can meet a wide range of needs relayed to cancer, such as a need for a new appliance, bed, special equipment, help with heating costs, short breaks and so on .

These are once a year, one off grants averaging around £400, for those whose income falls below a certain amount.  More details are available here.

Application is via a third party such as a health professional or a benefits advisor such as yours truly. The application needs a medical confirmation of a cancer diagnosis.

There is then a little bit of to-ing and fro-ing needed with the application form, but once in, then payments can be approved within a week.

3.2 Turn2Us Response Fund

This is a new fund offering one off grants in situations where people face have had a life-changing event in the last 12 months ad have a need for support.  Payments can be made for specific items or to help with short spells of living costs.

For more details see here or my Benefits Blog on this new and helpful resource here

As with Macmillan Grants, they need a third party application via approved third parties, which include your local - and online - Maggie’s Benefits Advisor.

We will need to do a benefits check and Turn2Us will need a recent bank statement to evidence you meet the financial criteria of a low income.


4. Help with Christmas gifts and treats

Under financial pressure the first thing to go from pared down budgets may be luxuries and treats. But now and again these can make a real difference at special times

4.1 Ellie’s Friends

This is less of a grant application and more of some determined bringing together of people and businesses willing to offer discounted or free services / sessions / meals/ stays to help make a real difference for people affected by cancer.

It started with kind offers made to Ellie,  a young woman with cancer as she blogged - and her determination to mobilise such kindness and share it around.

The site  available here - can register an offer - be that just in a local area or something more widespread - and so that person/organisation registers as one of Ellie's Friends.

And if you need - or know of someone with cancer - that could do with a treat - then just the postcode on that same site to find out Ellie's friends are offering in the area.

4.2 Something To Look Forward To

A similar idea to match gifts and experience offers with people affected by cancer is offered by the site available here 

4.3 Other special days

There are are a range of other charities offering different sorts of special days -such as :

 - the Willow Foundation for 16 to 40 year olds

 - if sailing sounds fun, the Ellen McArthur Cancer Trust offers days for 8 to 24 year olds 

 - Pauls Place offers Respite breaks for young adults and their families in N. Devon

  - Live Better with cancer offers tip, links  and products suited to the needs of people living with cancer 

Find out more from the page on Maggies Cancer links available here 

The Grove Hotel in Bournemouth offers non-profit making hotel breaks for those affected by cancer and the costs of a stay can be supported by a Macmillant Grant - see details here


5. Getting advice during the break 

5.1 The Online Centre

There is a wealth of information in blogs and conversations, even when there are no staff about.

A handy guide to finding all the Benefits information about the place can be found within a past Benefits Blog “Benefits Support in the Online Centre”. It’s available here.

Everything mentioned there is still accessible over the break and links will take you there; it’s just that you won’t be able to get a response from me over the break. But please do feel free to message me and I will get back to you in January.

5.2 Citizens Advice

Detailed online information on a whole range of practical topics is available here

You can also check the opening times and details of your local Citizens Advice Bureau and how the telephone advice service operates in your area, by entering details in the postcode checker on that page. There will though naturally be limited opening hours over the break

For Scotland and N.Ireland the post code checker will redirect you to the separate sites to check there

5.3 Macmillan

Again there is a lot of useful information on their website, a postcode checker for local services and a national support line is on 0808 808 00 00 Once again interactive telephone or face to face support may have restricted hours over the break


6. Crisis time

What if something goes wrong leaving you penniless, foodless or without power? Emergency support is available through a variety of sources:

6.1 Your local social services :

Check links for your local council - that would be the 2nd-tier or county councils in two-tier areas of England. There will be some emergency cover and it may be that your medical team can help you access any urgent support you may need. This may be mainly in terms of any support services, but can include small grants in respect of children.

6.2 Foodbanks
These can provide food boxes, usually with around 3 days supplies for a family. They are run by local charities, churches and volunteers and depend on public donations of goods, money and time. They are wonderful, kind and non-judgemental people who would so wish not to be needed in such growing numbers.

You will need a third party referral from someone such as social services, housing, citizens advice, your clinical teams and local Jobcentre etc to access them.

You can find a list of local food banks here.

6.3 Fuel and water:

Power supply issues:

The network take a strain over this time of heavy usage and sometimes wild weather, so the power can go down. It’s worth keeping the number to hand for your area to report any supply failures.

If you have an urgent need for power to run essential medical equipment at home, they can prioritise getting your power back or may be able to offer some back up power supply . It is though worth keeping batteries, or medical equipment well charged

Paying for power and water.

If you use tokens and keys on a pre-pay meter, might it be worth laying up some spares in case your usual shop is shut?

Debt issues threatening your supply can be sorted in the New Year. Just stress you are a vulnerable customer and will be seeking budgeting advice so as to be able to make sustainable and realistic repayment offers.
Longer term, it is worth checking out Warm Homes discounts from your supplier for vulnerable people on a low income. These offer a reduced rate and replace the former social tariffs.

If you are on a water meter, check with your supplier for schemes that cap bills for those whose health means they have to use more water. That can include certain cancers.

Extra help from benefits:

If the weather gets really cold, there will be automatic Cold Weather Payments added to means tested benefits for some qualifying claimants – over pension age, disabled, young children. These are worth £25 for that week, but are only triggered by a consistent cold snap with temperatures below 0C for a whole week. More details here.

If you are over pension age you should have already automatically received your Winter Fuel Payment, regardless of health and income. This is worth between £100 and £300 for the winter and is usually paid in November and December. If you are eligible for the first time you do actually need to make that first claim – details of the scheme and how to claim are here.

6.4 Schemes that replaced the discretionary Social Fund.

The safety net of last resort has gone a bit patchy following the “localisation” of the old discretionary Social Fund “crisis loans” and “community care grants”.

  - Crisis Loans were were loans available to all left stranded by either lost or delayed benefits payments or some emergency such as flood, fire, plague of locusts or charades gone horribly wrong :-). Help while awayting a payment has been absorbed into Advance Payments of the benefits you may be waiting for - see above.

- Community Care Grants were larger grants - taking a bit longer to be decided - to help avoid a move into residential care longer to decided for minor adaptions and repairs to help someone go back home, move home or stay out of institutional care

Both kinds of help - and in some cases the actual names - are replicated in the replacement schemes that operate at a national level in Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland and at a local council level in England:

  - In Scotland, there is a national scheme - the Scottish Welfare Fund – see here. Applications are via your local council so check your council’s website for details. All payments are made as grants rather than loans

  - In Wales, a similar, grants only,  Discretionary Assistance Fund operates, but is administered centrally. See details here

  - In Northern Ireland the same mix of loans and grants offered by the old Social Fund continue as Discretionary Support - to apply ring 0800 587 2750. See details here

  - In England, it is down to your local authority (second tier or county councils in two-tier areas) as to how to run their “local welfare scheme” or even whether to run one at all. Check your local council’s website for details or use the postcode checker here

In all cases, your application will be helped if you can get a third party – such as social services, housing, your cancer team or an advice agency involved in supporting your application

6.5 Christmas charities

Lots of local charities, churches and charities will be making an extra effort to reach out at Christmas.

Famous national ones such as Crisis at Christmas and the Salvation Army right down to small local ones.

Offers might involve: gatherings, meals, companionship and practical support, such as advice and referrals to food banks

6.6 Need a listening ear?

Sometimes it can be a difficult time when fun and fellowship are almost compulsory, but loneliness, bad times on cancer journeys or missing absent friends can kick in. Do log on to the site and start or join a conversation and message your friends.

And it is OK to ring family and friends too, ; don’t not because you don’t want to trouble them

The Macmillan Support Line will be good during their opening hours. Details here

When closed, there is 24/7 support available from the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 (local call charges apply).

It's not just there for people feeling right at the end of their tether or suicidal. The Samaitans are there to offer a listening ear, "in your own way, whatever's getting to you" .

For more details see  here

6.7 Where is the….?

….20ml syringe, feed clamp, tablets - iPad or medical :-) , remote control, bottle opener?

The irritatingly correct answer is often: Have you tried the top left hand drawer/ where did you last remember seeing it? / behind the sofa? :-)

More seriously, it is worth preparing your stash of essentials – safe from roaming visitors - just to cover you over days when your local pharmacy / wine merchant may be closed :-)

For more tips around practicalities, managing symptoms and managing emotions over Christmas, the wheel of this blog turns full circle :-) Do then have a look at the Robyn’s blog - Looking forward to Christmas...? - which in turn inspired this one. You can find it here



Finally… an almost farewell until 2018 :-)

I shall soon be bidding you a fond farewell until next year as I prepare my many – oh so many - resolutions :-). By all means message me now, but I will only be in for a few days before the staff support in the Centre closes down.

It may be that this time of year finds you full of festive cheer and that you feel up for wild partying - or just taking it a bit more gently as Robyn suggests :-). Or it may find you anxiously waiting results, feeling side effects or missing loved ones.

I hope though that you will all find some warmth and strength to help with whatever challenges you are having to endure. May you find some love, light and peace - or at least the missing remote control :-) - over these weeks.

As ever do feel free to post any general comments or queries and share experiences by joining the Conversation here and to message me for a quiet word in private

But do please bear in mind that, on this occasion, I may not be around to answer them :-). But please do use that Conversation to support each other and swap the wisdom of the group :-)

I promise not to shake my head sadly in the New Year and will of course catch up any messages that arrive after I have broken up

Be kind to yourself and others, for ‘tis the law :-).

With warmest wishes and seasonal (((hugs)))

Tom :-)

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