Page last updated at 23:16 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 00:16 UK

Self-employed benefits loophole

By Joanne Babbage
BBC Employment producer

Toby Shaw
Toby Shaw cannot claim Jobseekers Allowance

Imagine you have just lost your job, you have a mortgage to pay and a two-year-old baby to look after.

You become a one-income family and realise that your partner's earnings of £5,500 a year are not going to stretch.

You need to find a new job quickly and you need help to survive whilst you look.

So you approach the government for help, but they say whilst you are eligible for Jobseekers Allowance you are not entitled to any money, even though you have paid National Insurance for the last 20 years.

You would probably find that unfair. Well, welcome to the gaping wide loophole in the self-employed benefits safety net.

What you have just read is what is happening to Toby Shaw, 37, from Portsmouth. He got in touch with BBC Radio 5 Live to tell his story.

From boom to bankruptcy

Mr Shaw's career started when he was a schoolboy of 14 washing cars at a dealership for extra cash.

Toby, Henry and Clare Shaw
The Shaws are expected to live on £5,500 a year

When he left school in the 1980s, he worked two jobs - flipping burgers at McDonalds whilst managing a sports shop, all the while paying National Insurance and tax on the hours he was working.

In 1997 he entered the world of recruitment, enjoyed it and set up his own business four years later. At the height of his success he employed 20 people.

Then at the beginning of 2009 the recession hit and his business, like many others, did not withstand the impact.

"If I didn't pay my employers National Insurance contributions when I had my business I would have been threatened with legal action but when I'm in a situation where I need help I can't get any."
Toby Shaw

In February, with rising unemployment, the business folded and Toby reluctantly declared himself bankrupt.

The Shaws were suddenly a one-income family. As a self-employed administrator Mr Shaw's wife Clare earns £5,500 a year. The bankruptcy left the couple with no savings.

In desperation Mr Shaw turned to the government for help, but was told that although he was entitled to Jobseekers allowance the amount he could actually claim was zero.

Income based Jobseeker's Allowance

There are two forms of Jobseekers' Allowance (JSA) - Contribution based and Income based.

To be eligible for contribution-based you have to have paid class 1 National Insurance contributions in the relevant tax years.

In the current climate, this is clearly an emerging issue
Katie Lane, Citizens Advice Bureau

Class 1 National Insurance contributions are paid by most people in employment. Contribution based JSA is not means-tested.

Income based JSA is based on your income and savings. You may get this if you have not paid enough National Insurance contributions, you are on a low income and, importantly for Mr Shaw's story, you have paid contributions for self-employment.

If you have savings in excess of £6,000 you will get a lower payment. If you have savings in excess of £16,000 you probably will not qualify.

Income-based Jobseekers Allowance
This is based on your income and savings
You may get this if you have only paid contributions for self-employment
You get less if you have savings over £6,000
For savings over £16,000 you probably won't qualify.
If your partner works more than 24 hours a week, you won't get income-based JSA

If your partner works 24 hours or more a week on average, you cannot usually get income-based JSA. In contrast contribution-based JSA is not affected.

The bankruptcy means that the Shaw's do not have any savings, but because Mrs Shaw earns more than the equivalent of the weekly amount paid to couples of £100.95, Toby's entitlement is completely cancelled out.

So the Shaws and their baby Henry are expected to survive on a salary of £5,500 while Toby looks for a new job.

'I just need some help'

He finds the situation quite ironic.

"If I didn't pay my employers National Insurance contributions when I had my business I would have been threatened with legal action, but when I'm in a situation where I need help I can't get any," he says.

"Being able to support my wife and child and paying my mortgage is enough incentive for me to find another job. I just need some help while I'm looking."
Toby Shaw

Mr Shaw's story certainly is not unique. With 30,000 fewer people self-employed now than in November 2008, according to official unemployment figures. It is an issue that is becoming more and more common.

"In the current climate, this is clearly an emerging issue," says Katie Lane, a welfare policy officer with the Citizens Advice Bureau.

"We're seeing increasing numbers of clients who were self employed and paid class two contributions only to then find out that they can only claim income based JSA if their business goes under," she says.

"Comprehensive safety net"

Mr Shaw thinks that the system is at fault. He has written letters to Tony McNulty, the Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform about his situation. He has yet to receive a reply.

We approached the Department for Work and Pensions for a comment. While they were sympathetic they said they could not talk about individual cases. They did however release this statement:

National Insurance card
Self-employed people usually pay class 2 National Insurance contributions

"Jobseekers Allowance is just one part of a comprehensive safety net that includes help with rent, mortgage interest payments, council tax payments and tax credits for people in need."

Mr Shaw does not pay rent, has mortgage payment protection and saw a reduction in his tax credits when his business went bust.

He says he is desperate to work, but he feels he is not being offered that safety net.

"Being able to support my wife and child and paying my mortgage is enough incentive for me to find another job. I just need some help while I'm looking," he says.



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Toby Shaw: I'm desperate to be back at work
Toby Shaw speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live



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