Seasonal benefits and finances

Friday 13 December 2019

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


This blog follows on from Robyn’s wise advice around preparations – see Christmas...Be prepared... - Here I look at seasonal  benefit issues, DWP services and financial support over this midwinter break.

While Maggie’s Centres shut doors over the break and the Online staff are away, this community 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 and support. The staff cats may be away, but do feel free to continue to play.

Below I take a look at where you can still find information and advice around benefit issues, the DWP Christmas arrangements, what you can do in a financial crisis and some sources of grants to help with those extra costs or for some gifts and treats.

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 have been paid automatically in your payments in early December.

These include: Attendance Allowance, DLA and PIP, Carer’s Allowance, Contributory ESA and its predecessors such as Incapacity Benefit and SDA, State Retirement Pension and Pension Credit, War Pensions and others  among others . For the full list and more details see here

The bonus amounts to the princely sum of £10. However, when it was introduced in 1976 it amounted to an extra week of the single State Retirement Pension, but has not been increased for inflation ever since.

More recently basic weekly benefit amounts have been frozen – the current single £73.10 for example should now be worth £81.09 , so the Christmas Bonus now only gives you a week of benefits being at the rates they should now actually be. Freeze for long enough and amounts get silly – a 1911 idea to double peoples pension at 80 leaves us with 25p extra in the pre 2016 State Retirement Pensions for over 25s, so don’t spend it all at once. 

The Christmas Bonus is then rather less exciting than when it first came in, but it is still worth a quick check that you have had your tenner.

2. Benefit payments over Christmas and New Year


The general rule for payments

In general, during any holiday interruptions, the DWP (responsible for most benefits) and HMRC (responsible for Child Benefits and tax credits) will make payments earlier than the normal pay date,  if that would hit against a statutory or bank holiday. Tax credits have set some new payment dates covering a few payment dates.


Universal Credit issues 

Universal Credit (UC) is slightly different, in that you don’t slot into a preset schedule of general payment dates, but receive a monthly payment that comes from the date on which you started your UC claim. However, when it comes to a bank holiday disruption, the effect is just the same; you get paid the day before.

Changing paydays from work :

If you or a partner are working, this can be a time of year when UC’s fixed approach to assessing income each month could mean a big change in your normal payment. Many employers pay December wages early – partly as payroll staff may be away and partly to help employees do any Christmas shopping.

That could mean that you might receive two lots of monthly salary in the same UC monthly assessment period with the result that your UC payment goes right down or even stops altogether in the run up to Christmas. If you come off UC you will need to do a “rapid reclaim” to restart a calculation and payment next time.  

That involves logging into your online UC account and doing a reclaim – all the data from your previous claim will still be there so it is really just confirming all of this still stands and away you go. However, annoyingly this reset can remove all messages and journal entries, so it is worth taking screenshots or copying and pasting.

See Citizens Advice Re-apply for UC for more details. But note the reference to Live Service UC is out of date; all UC claimants now come under Full Service UC.

For specific details on dates  - and some other Christmas budgeting tips - see the Mumsnet page here 


Money when awaiting first payments 

If you have only just made a claim for means tested benefits any and you can’t manage until the first payday then you can ring the office dealing with your claim and ask for a Short Term Benefits Advance Find out more at Get an Advance on your first benefits payment

The need for one can be more common with Universal Credit (UC), as there is a routine wait of five weeks until your first payment. Under some pressure, arrangements for  UC Advance Payments were considerably improved:

  • there is now more publicity about their availability and less restrictions on when you can apply for one them - for more detail on UC advances, see UC Get an Advance Payment
  • you can now  have a payment for up to 100% of your anticipated first UC payment, rather than the old 50%. However, you don’t have to ask for the full amount if you hope you can manage with a bit less. You can go back again if you find you need more up to that maximum 100%
  • you may have some other help in this time from other benefits – such as ESA or from the 2 week run on of any previous Housing Benefit claim  

Advance Payments can also be taken out if you are struggling ahead of a known increase in your existing UC claim coming up e.g. a new child is on the way (or is awarded DLA)  or the addition of a “limited capability” or “carer’s" element will be due next month.

The reason to be cautious is that Advance Payments (APs) are loans, even if interest free ones. They will then be recovered at 15% of your Standard Allowance – i.e. the amount for being you (as a single person or a couple) rather than of the whole potential UC. So, while APs can help avoid real crisis in the wait for a payment or increase, they will need repaying, leaving you below the UC “poverty line” for up to 12 months

Ideally, the first ordinary payment of UC needs bringing forward; it could be done technically, but it doesn't fit the way UC is intended to work. You can opt for more frequent payments after the first month as a matter of choice in Scotland and NI and at the discretion of the DWP in England and Wales.


Benefit Sanctions

It would be a cruel and unusual punishment to be hit by a benefits sanction at this time of year - and the evidence that sanctions actually do what they are intended to do is limited. If one does come your way do challenge it as:

  • it may be totally unfair and trigger happy and the success rate to reverse sanctions is high
  • accepting a sanction and taking it on the chine could mean that any future sanction is more severe.
  • and under UC, the severe hardship payment - to tide you over during a sanction and ideally until it can be reversed  - is not just a reduced payment of the amount lost (as it is under the “legacy benefits”) -  but is a loan under UC



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. You can click the links to see details for:

  • Christmas and New year opening times at Jobcentre Plus (who do “working age” benefits) 
  • general contact details for the Pension Service (for pension age benefits such as State Retirement Pension and Pension Credit) . there are no special seasonal times, just that lines are closed on bank holidays
  • similarly for the Disability and Carers Service
  • and HMRC benefits – general details for tax credits and Child Benefit  . Lines will be closed on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day 
  • for Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support check with your local council website. 



Grants that can help


Macmillan Grants

While not targeted at Christmas needs 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 at Macmillan Grants

Application is via a third party such as a health professional or a benefits advisor. 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.


Turn2Us Response Fund

This is a newer 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 click on The Turn2Us Response Fund

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 first and Turn2Us will need a recent bank statement to evidence you meet the financial criteria of a low income. The last date for applications before the new year is 19th December, but later applications may not be processed until the New Year



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. There is a range of other charities offering different sorts of special days and breaks and gifts. You can find more details and links on our Maggie’s Cancer Links page : Gifts, Treats and Experiences

Ellie's Friends and Something to Look Forward To

Both are sites where you can make kind offers of gifts, services and experiences and search for these in your area


Other special days and breaks include:

  • the Willow Foundation for 16 to 40 year olds
  • if sailing sounds fun, the Ellen Macarthur Cancer Trust offers days for 8 to 24 year olds 
  • Paul's 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 

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



Getting advice during the break 


Citizens Advice

Detailed online information on a whole range of practical topics is available from their homepage 

You can also check the opening times and details of your local Citizens Advice office 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. You will be directed to separate pages for Scotland (to find a local service) and N.Ireland (for both local services and online information).


Macmillan and Tenovus

Again, there is a lot of useful information on their website, a postcode checker for local services and a national support line on 0808 808 00 00.  Once again interactive telephone or face to face support may have restricted hours over the break. For more details see Macmillan Cancer Support. A similar range of information, advice line and local support operates in wales at Tenovus Cancer Care



Crisis time

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


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.


Food banks

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 your nearest foodbank at the Trussell Trust website.


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


Worries about 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 the Warm Homes Discounts scheme which most but not all suppliers operate 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 conditions - including some cancers - that  mean they have to use more water. For more details of help with water bills see the Citizens Advice page 

Extra benefit to help keep warm 

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.

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


The safety net of last resort used to be crisis help from the former discretionary Social Fund which offered

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The safety net of last resort used to be crisis help from the former discretionary Social Fund which offered

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

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


Christmas charities

Lots of local charities, churches and charities will be making an extra effort to reach out at Christmas, from  famous national ones such as Crisis 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


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.


Where is the….?

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

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 - Christmas .... Be prepared... - which in turn inspired this one.  



Finally… an almost farewell until 2020

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 team support in the Community takes a break

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.

The Community remains open and available 24/7 so do post and share and log in to support each other and be supported , even if the team may be away. Be kind to yourself and others.

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


Online Benefits Advisor

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