Carers should claim every penny owed

Carers and their charges are owed thousands of pounds of benefits, says David Prosser

A national failure to provide decent standards of care for older people is part of a wider failure of the care system, say charities that advise carers and those in need of help. A report published on Monday, revealing how the NHS is failing elderly people, is only part of the picture.

Shan Nicholas, chief executive of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, says while the Government is planning legislation intended to improve support for carers, the charity is concerned not enough is being done.

"Our support for 250,000 carers, including some as young as seven, has shown that many face a constant battle for their needs to be recognised," she says. "Full-time, unpaid and heavy-ended care can leave thousands of carers struggling to get out of poverty."

Part of the problem is that the patchwork of benefits on offer is so complicated. Some overlap, so people claiming one type may lose out on another. In other cases, money is available irrespective of what else you are claiming.

"These can often be quite difficult benefits to claim," adds Moira Haynes of Citizens Advice. "The forms are often lengthy and your answers need to be couched in the right sort of language."

As a result, too few people know what kind of help they are entitled to - let alone claim it. Charities such as Citizen's Advice do their best to help - and are worth contacting if you need information - but too many people fall through the holes in the system.

CARER'S ALLOWANCE

The main state benefit for carers, this allowance is currently worth £45.70 a week. To qualify, you must be at least 16 years old and looking after someone for at least 35 hours a week. The person you're looking after must receive a qualifying disability benefit, such as attendance allowance, and if you work, you must not receive a weekly income of more than £82.

In addition, full-time students are barred from claiming carer's allowance, you must be living in the UK when you make a claim, and the allowance is available only if you're not claiming one of a list of other benefits. However, if you fall foul of this rule, you may still be eligible for the carer's premium, paid as a top-up to your existing benefits.

INCOME SUPPORT AND PENSION CREDIT

These benefits are for people whose income falls below a weekly minimum - the exact amount depends your circumstances.

Income support is for people not in paid work, or working less than 16 hours a week (if you have a partner, he or she must work less than 24 hours a week). You must be entitled not to be looking for work.

Claimants include single parents, people who are ill or on disability benefits and many carers. Claimants must not have savings of more than £8,000 and those who have between £3,000 and £8,000 will receive less.

Pension credit works on a similar basis, but is available to those on low incomes over the age of 60.

DISABILITY LIVING ALLOWANCE

This benefit is paid to people who find it difficult to care for themselves. It's available as long as you claim before you turn 65, irrespective of income, savings and benefits.

The benefit has two parts, depending on an assessment of your care needs and your mobility, and is paid at three rates depending on the severity of your problem. Children are eligible for the benefit too.

ATTENDANCE ALLOWANCE

People over the age of 65 who find caring for themselves difficult claim this benefit, available at two rates. You need to have had the problems for six months before you claim and receiving this benefit entitles your carer to apply for carer's allowance.

INCAPACITY BENEFIT

Aimed at those who have paid sufficient National Insurance contributions, this benefit is for people who can't work due to illness or disability. While you are still getting statutory sick pay from your employer, you can't claim.

TAX CREDITS

Cash is available under both the working tax credit and child tax credit schemes for people looking after children and those in work with disabilities. How much you can claim depends on a range of criteria, including your income, your children and your disabilities.

NATIONAL INSURANCE

One problem for people not in work is that they're not making NI contributions, which are needed to build entitlement to many state benefits, including the basic state pension. However, people in receipt of carer's allowance can claim NI credits. If not, you may be able to get home responsibilities protection, which works in a similar way.

OTHER BENEFITS

Anyone who is receiving benefits for carers or for disability may also be able to claim help with the cost of housing, through housing benefit, or a reduction in their council tax bill, through council tax benefit. Also it's worth checking whether you are entitled to health benefits such as free prescriptions, eye tests and dental treatment.

In addition, charities such as the Princess Royal Trust and Citizens Advice can advise on other sources of help - grants for home improvements, for example, or even when carers can get support at home to give them a break.

Your rights and how to see them enforced

* Decisions on claims for attendance allowance and disability living allowance are so often wrong that six in 10 appeals against them succeed according to a report published this year by Citizens Advice. "What the Doctor Ordered" warned carers and others claiming state help to stand up for their rights.

* In particular, it is crucial that you appeal against any decision with which you disagree. You have the right to appeal against any rejection of a claim for benefits or tax credits and an independent tribunal will consider your case.

* The agencies responsible for administering benefits and tax credits are all able to help you fill in claims forms, though Citizens Advice warns: "These systems often do not work as well as they should at a local level".

* In any case, many people would prefer to take independent advice about their situation from Citizens Advice or a similar organisation. This is particularly important for people who need to arrange long-term care for the elderly, an area where the law is exceptionally complicated and varies according to where you live. The Nursing Home Fees Agency is an excellent source of free advice in this area.

* Useful contacts: Benefits Enquiry Line: 0800 882200; Citizens Advice: see your local office, or log on to www.citizensadvice.org.uk; Department for Work and Pensions Carers Line: 0800 882200; HM Customs & Revenue: 0845 300 3900; Nursing Home Fees Agency: 0800 998833; Princess Royal Trust for Carers: 020 7480 7788; The Pensions Service: 0800 99 1234; For housing benefit and council tax benefit, contact your local authority.

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