Benefits

This is for information only.  We are unable to provide advice on this.  For reasons why, click here.

Aim of this information

This page outlines the main sources of financial help that are available, with links to additional information and details of how to claim the benefit. The benefit system is constantly changing and it is therefore important to use the links provided to find the most up to date information about what is available, and how to apply.

This is not a comprehensive guide to benefits – just some of the likely benefit issues that may confront someone leaving prison. For example there is no information about benefits for people over pensionable age, disability benefits, child benefit, or maternity benefits. For information about the full range of benefits see the additional information section at the end of the page.

Why is this important?

At least 75% of people who leave prison will not have paid employment to go to on release. Most will be dependent on benefits and other financial help for a period after their release. This can be a very difficult time, with any delays in receiving money leading to anxiety and frustration.

To make any type of claim, you will require your prison release documentation, your National Insurance number and details of the bank account into which you’d like your benefits paid. It’s important that you know what you’ll need to take with you to any benefits meeting and also, what you may be eligible to claim for.

What can I expect on leaving prison?

Discharge grants

Most sentenced prisoners over 18 years of age who, after receiving a custodial sentence, serve more than 14 days in prison will receive a discharge grant when they are released. The present rate of payment in England and Wales is £46. A prisoner will not be eligible if they have over £16,000 capital. The full rules for payment are in Annex B of the Prison Service Instructions PSI-72-2011 which can be found here. These instructions also give details of the circumstances when an additional grant of up to £50 may be paid direct to an accommodation provider to help the prisoner secure a release address.

All prisoners, upon release should receive a travel warrant whether or not they receive a discharge grant (PSI-72-2011).

Freshstart interviews

Freshstart is a special initiative set up to assist people leaving prison to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance as soon as possible.

Freshstart enables claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance to be started 5 weeks prior to release from prison with the Freshstart team making appointments for claimants a day or two after discharge. At the interview with the Job Centre, your claim will be finalised and you will immediately be referred to the Government’s Work Programme, where you will receive specialist support to help get you into employment as quickly as possible. JSA payments should be paid a week after the signing on period.

If you need to claim benefits after discharge from prison it is important to do so as soon as possible to make sure that the delays in receiving financial help are as short as possible. Also have a look at Support Getting into Work.

What benefits are available?

Jobseekers allowance

Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) is a benefit for people aged between 18 and retirement age who are unemployed (or working less than 16 hours per week) but are capable of work.

To receive JSA you have to meet several conditions. At the outset of the claim you will be asked to sign a Claimant Commitment which will detail the steps you will need to take to find employment. JSA may be stopped or reduced (sanctioned) if you do not comply with this agreement or ‘jobseekers direction’. The rules for JSA are complex – particularly for example, if you are claiming as one of a couple (full details can be found here.)

If you need to start a claim for JSA other than at a Freshstart interview the Job Centre prefer that this is done online, but you may also be able to apply by phone (see details here.)

If you are in a Universal Credit area you will need to claim UC, which has similar rules to JSA.

JSA may be either:-

  • Income based – available if you and your partner have no other or limited income or savings
  • Contribution based – available on the basis of your record of National Insurance contributions and credits. For details see here. If you make a claim for JSA, the Benefit Agency will assess your claim to see if you are eligible for contribution bassed JSA before assessing your eligibility for income based JSA.

Housing Benefit

Housing benefit is a regular payment from the Council to people on a low income to help pay the rent on their accommodation.  Housing benefit is available to people who are lodgers, but not available to people who are living in the home of a close relative. The Citizens Advice Bureau and Shelter both have excellent detailed information about housing benefit rules (which frequently change) and how to claim.  If you are in a Universal Credit area similar help with housing costs is paid through UC.

Local authorities should process housing benefit and council tax claims within 14 days but they often take much longer, on average 22 days.

Special rules regarding the circumstances in which serving prisoners can claim housing benefit set out by the government here.

Council tax and council tax reduction

If you own or rent your home you are likely to be liable to pay Council Tax. You will not be liable if you are a lodger, live in a hostel or live in a house where several households independently pay rent to a landlord (i.e. a house in ‘multiple occupancy’). Other particular groups are also exempt and the full rules about Council Tax can be found here.

There is now no national scheme of Council Tax Benefit. Instead each council has its own Council Tax Reduction scheme to assist people on benefits or low income with paying their council tax. For most people of working age each council can largely make its own rules. A change from the previous national scheme of Council Tax Benefit is that in many council areas some people whose only income is JSA are now expected to pay something towards their Council Tax. The details of the Council Tax Reduction scheme for each council area can be found by following the link here.

If you get into arrears with council tax the council may obtain a liability order in the court and collect the arrears by direct deduction from benefits or wages, or by using bailiffs (have a look at Shelter’s information on dealing with the process).  Advice and assistance from your local Citizens Advice Bureau could be very useful.

Universal credit

In 2013 the Government started to introduce Universal Credit (UC) – a single new benefit to replace:-

  • Income Support
  • Income based Job Seekers Allowance
  • Income Based Employment Support Allowance
  • Housing Benefit
  • Working Tax Credit
  • Child Tax Credit

One aim of the benefit is to make it easier for people out of work to move into employment without having to start a new benefit claim. Many features of UC are similar to the benefits that it replaces. An outline of how UC works can be can be found here, with further details on the CPAG fact sheet.

Progress has been slow in introducing the benefit, and UC will not cover all areas until at least 2020. Details of the Job Centres where new claims for the six means tested benefits have been replaced by claims for UC are here.

Income support

Income support (IS) is a means tested benefit available for people under state pension age who do not have to be available for work to claim benefit. The most common groups who are eligible for income support are single parents looking after a child under 5, and people who meet certain conditions such as carers. Full details of eligibility and how to claim can be found here. Universal Credit is available to similar claimants in a UC area.

Working tax credit

Working Tax Credit may be available to people on low income who are working at least 16 hours per week. The amount you receive depends on your individual circumstances for example, the hours that you work, and your income. There is an element of the benefit that is available to help with child care costs. It is a complex benefit and the rules are likely to change. For an up to date explanation of the rules and how to claim see here. Universal Credit has similar financial help for working people with low income.

Child tax credit

Child Tax Credit (CTC) is available for people with children who are in receipt of benefits or on low incomes. You do not need to have a very low income to be eligible so many people with children are entitled to some CTC. For the full rules (which may well change) and how to apply see here. Universal Credit has a similar child element for people with children.

Employment and support allowance

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is available for people under pensionable age who are unable to work because of sickness or disability, and who are not entitled to Statutory Sick Pay. Full details of the rules and how to claim can be found here. During the claiming process you will be sent a lengthy form (form ESA 50) asking detailed questions about your condition. You may find it helpful to get assistance from an experienced advisor in completing that form (for example from a Citizens Advice Bureau). If you are in a Universal Credit area you should claim UC and not ESA. The rules are similar.

ESA may be either:-

  • Income based – available if you and your partner have no other or limited income or savings
  • Contribution based – available on the basis of your record of National Insurance contributions and credits. For details see here. If you make a claim for ESA, the Benefit Agency will assess your claim to see if you are eligible for contribution based ESA before assessing your eligibility for income based ESA.

Other types of help available

Short term benefit advance

There is usually a gap between making a claim for benefit and receiving the first payment. For Job Seekers Allowance this may be at least 2 weeks, and for Universal Credit five weeks may elapse before the first payment is made. However, once a claim for benefit has been made it is possible to claim a short term benefit advance to provide financial support until regular benefit payments start. You will need to show that you are in severe financial need.

The payment is a loan and has to be repaid from any benefit once payments commence. A claim for a short term benefit advance can be made at the same time as the benefit is claimed. Short term benefit advances are not available for any other purpose, such as helping in a crisis or if you have run out of money between benefit payments. Full details of short term benefit advances for JSA, ESA and IS is available here and on our information page ‘Changes to crisis loans and short term payments from JobCentre plus’.  A similar short term advance payment of benefit is available for UC claims.

Local welfare assistance schemes

Every local authority has a Local Welfare Assistance Scheme to help people in urgent need following an emergency or unforeseen event. These replace Crisis Loans, and Community Care Grants, which were abolished in 2013. Help from these Council schemes may be available, for example, in cases where benefit sanctions have been applied, or an essential item of household equipment has suddenly broken down. Each local authority makes its own rules as to how to run the scheme. Often the schemes provide help direct from retailers, rather than by giving out cash, and there may be a limit to the number of applications that can be made in a year. Details of the new arrangements and how to find out about your council’s scheme can be found from the Child Poverty Action Group, the Children’s Society or the Unlock information page ‘Changes to crisis loans and short term payments from JobCentre Plus’.

Budgeting loans and help with household items

Budgeting Loans are available from the Job Centre to help pay for a variety of personal and household expenses. To be eligible for a Budgeting Loan you have to have been receiving income related JSA, IS or ESA for the previous 26 weeks. For full details of eligibility, what they can be used for, the amounts awarded and the application form see here.  If you receive Universal Credit you can apply for a Budgeting Advance which has very similar rules to Budgeting loans.

If a budgeting loan is not available and there is an urgent need for basic household goods and furniture (for example when setting up a home from scratch) many towns have a voluntary run service that can supply reasonable quality used furniture and sometimes white goods either free of charge or at minimal cost. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau  can refer people who need the help of this service.

Food banks

An increasing number of people in financial difficulty have needed to use food banks to provide for themselves and their families. A major reason for this growth is said to be because of delays in benefit payments and an increase in benefit sanctions (see the news item here.) Your local Citizens Advice Bureau will be able to provide general advice about food banks and other sources of emergency help.

Food banks will generally give a package of food to last from a few days to one week. Most food banks need the user to be referred by another organisation (eg a CAB or the Job Centre). The Trussel Trust is the largest provider of food banks in the UK, however, many other organisations provide food banks. You may find one close to you by Googling your town or local authority area and ‘food banks’. The most comprehensive list of food banks on the web appears to be provided by netmums.

What happens if I’m sanctioned or I receive an overpayment?

Benefit sanctions and hardship payments

In recent years there has been a sharp increase in the number of people claiming JSA and ESA who have had their benefits sanctioned due to not complying with their Job Seekers Agreement (have a look at the detailed report produced by CPAG in 2014).  A sanction means that the benefit is reduced or stopped for a period of time.  The government’s rules on benefit sanctions can be found here.

If you have been sanctioned and you believe this is unfair you may ask for a reconsideration or appeal the decision.  You may wish to contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau for some assistance with this.

You may be able to ask for a Hardship Payment.  This is a payment of reduced benefit which is available if you can show that you or your family will suffer hardship because of the sanction.  Full details of hardship payments can be found here or here.   For some JSA claimants a hardship payment will not be available for the first two weeks of a sanction.  In these circumstances it may be possible to apply for help to the Local Welfare Assistance Schemes.  Universal Credit has similar sanction arrangements, and provision for making hardship payments.

Recovery of benefit overpayment

Getting convicted and receiving a prison sentence can be a harrowing experience with much emotional and practical turmoil. At that time it may not be foremost in your mind to tell the Job Centre about a “change in circumstances”. This often means that benefits continue to be paid for a time after they should have been cancelled. The Benefit Agency is entitled to recover any such overpayment from any benefits that are paid after release from prison (just at the time when money is at its tightest). The rules about benefit overpayments and how it might be possible to reduce the rate at which the overpayment is recovered can be found here.

National Insurance contributions

National Insurance is a compulsory scheme of payments made by everybody under pension age and over 16 years who are in employment or self-employed. There is a minimum level below which employees do not have to make NI contributions.

The National Insurance scheme is complex. You can find details of the scheme here.

You can check your National Insurance contribution record here.

National Insurance contributions whilst in prison

When you’re in prison, either on remand or convicted, you are not liable for any National Insurance contributions and you will not receive any National Insurance credits.

National Insurance contributions – With the exception of those at the end of their sentence and working outside of the prison, prisoners are not liable to pay NI contributions They can however make voluntary contributions towards their State Pension. Voluntary contributions can be paid upto six years after the tax year in which you were released from prison.  If you were self employed before your custodial sentence, you can continue to voluntarily pay Class 2 contributions.

National Insurance credits – These can be awarded to individuals who are incapacitated or unemployed and regarded as being temporarily out of work. This does not apply to convicted prisoners. This means that, if you do not voluntarily pay contributions after leaving prison to cover any shortfall to your NI contributions, you may receive a reduced State Pension in the future.

How much benefit am I entitled to?

Benefit calculations are complex. There are two on-line calculators to assist people find out which, and how much, benefit they are entitled to:

You will need quite a lot of information before you start to use the calculators – for example details of earnings, any savings (both for you and your partner) and your rent. The details of the current rates of all benefits are available here, but these figures on their own may not be very helpful.

General benefit information

The Government’s own comprehensive benefit information can be found here.

Both Turn2Us and Citizens Advice provide comprehensive information on all benefits, and advice on how to deal with problems that can arise.

Nacro provide information about benefits and financial issues when leaving prison.

The problem of the Prisoner Finance Gap is described in chapter 7 of the Unlock/Prison Reform Trust report ‘Time is Money’.

Shelter has useful on-line advice about housing issues, including housing benefit, council tax support and housing issues for prisoners and ex-offenders.

To get advice and assistance with benefits problems

Turn2us “Find an Adviser lists the various organisations in your area where you may be able get help with benefit problems.

The Citizens Advice Service gives both telephone, on line, and face to face advice and assistance. You can find the advice phone number and details of your local Citizens Advice Bureau here.

More information

  1. Practical self-help information – More information on funding opportunities can be found here.
  2. Discuss the issue – Read and share your experience on our online forum.

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