Gaining a foothold: How community organisations support people to navigate in-work benefits and tax systems

07 Aug 2018 |Written by Jessica Bricknell

Making a decent living.

Working in a job that fulfils us.

Supporting ourselves and the ones we love.

These are ambitions that people living in Britain share and hold dear.

Yet for many of us, they are ambitions that can seem impossibly hard to reach - even when in work. The cost of living marches upwards whilst wages stall. Jobs are changing; employment contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours ('zero hour' contracts) as well as positions in the precarious gig economy are now established features of the employment market. Having a job is no longer an assurance that you will be able to pay your rent, insure your car or heat your home.

This means that a strong state support system is more important than ever to ensure that everyone can live a joyful and fulfilling life whilst in work. In-work benefits are a vital contribution to households across the country, helping individuals and families meet their living costs. This is reflected in the fact that in-work benefits represent a far greater proportion of welfare expenditure than unemployment benefits.

Still, the rigid systems underpinning in-work benefits can present a daunting burden to people who are already struggling. The complex administration of mean-tested benefits such as Tax Credits - and more recently Universal Credit - requires individuals to fulfil reporting obligations that can seem onerous at best or insurmountable at worst. It is not hard to find oneself becoming confused, scared or inadvertently tripped up.

Thankfully, the community sector is populated with people who dedicate themselves to helping people navigate this intricate officialdom. The Online Centres taking part in our funded HMRC Advice and Guidance project are excellent examples. They know the elements of the system which are most likely to cause people problems, as well as features which can make the experience easier. They build awareness, provide encouragement and support for those making initial applications, and troubleshoot with individuals who have run into difficulty. They also excel at equipping enterprising individuals with the skills they need for responsibly managing their tax as a self-employed person.

We undertook research with the Online Centres taking part in the HMRC Advice and Guidance project - as well as with the people benefitting from its work - to understand this support better. The resulting project report describes the work of the community sector on in-work benefits and self-assessment in greater detail. It draws attention to what the tax and in-work benefits systems can look and feel like for vulnerable people. It expands on the many situations that individuals experience before, during or after their interaction with these public services, and crucially details the supportive actions that community organisations take in response to improve people's positions.

The report demonstrates that as long as tax and welfare administration remains difficult and unfamiliar, there will be a need for community support. On this basis, we recommend that individual government departments responsible for essential public services:

  • Start or continue to invest in the community-based organisations that help people to access and effectively use existing public services
  • Tirelessly examine and improve the design and usability of the public services they provide, focussing especially on the experience of vulnerable people. (For a leading example of a department working hard to develop accessible public services, see our collaboration with HM Courts and Tribunals Service.)

Understanding the direct and indirect encounters that people have with complex public systems provides a fuller picture of not only the importance of state support, but also the significant work that the community sector does to complement it. At Good Things Foundation we are extremely proud to be able to showcase the vital supportive work done at Online Centres - to bring it into the light, and give it the recognition it deserves.

Read the full report: 'Accessing HMRC services: the role of the community sector'

Featured project

HMRC: Advice and guidance