Welfare rights is an activity aimed at ensuring that people are aware of and receiving their maximum entitlement to state welfare benefits. It has been established in the United Kingdom since 1969 and has also been developed in other countries including Ireland, Australia and the United States. It became necessary because of the complexity of the UK social security system and had links at the time with a growing Claimants Union movement. As local authorities realised the advantages of having well-informed front-line staff such as housing officers and social workers, who often have to deal with benefit queries as part of their wider tasks, they turned to welfare rights staff to provide that expertise for both training and handling complex cases. In the 1980s, as local authorities took on the wider 'equalities' agenda, anti-poverty work was seen as a valid local activity in itself. Increasing benefit income helps individuals but also boosts the local economy.
Welfare rights advice and advocacy in the United Kingdom
Some local authorities and voluntary sector organisations, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, employ paid or vounteer welfare rights advisers. These advisers usually offer free, impartial and independent advice, information and support on all aspects of social security benefits and tax credits, including free representation at a First-tier Tribunal and Upper Tribunal, which are administered by the UK Ministry of Justice.
Welfare rights advice and representation is also provided by some solicitors, barristers and independent advisers or companies. These advisers may charge a fee or they might provide limited pro-bono (free) advice and assistance.
Welfare rights advisers generally offer expert lay legal advice in dealings with public departments, such as local authority Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit services, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Welfare rights advisers will generally:
- Check what benefits or tax credits people may be entitled to
- Assist with complex benefit application forms
- Advise and represent on all aspects of social security law, including entitlement to benefits, backdating, suspensions and overpayments
- Provide advocacy and representation before social security appeal Tribunals
Welfare rights advisers often use a case management system to help them manage their work. These can be paper based, computer based or online.
Welfare rights officers are often closely allied with campaigning groups and charities such as the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), Citizens Advice Bureau and London Advice Service Alliance (LASA), for example. These organisations are respected for their training and publications, which are used extensively by advisers throughout the UK, as well as their campaigning activities.
Welfare rights advisers' professional organisation is the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA) at a UK level; Scotland has its own professional association, Rights Advice Scotland (RAS).
- Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook (annual publication) Child Poverty Action Group. London.
- Disability Rights Handbook (annual publication). Disability Alliance. London.
- Bateman, N. (2006) Practising Welfare Rights Routledge. Oxford.