An introduction to the benefits system

Cancer can increase your living costs. Benefits may help you cope with these changes.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is in charge of welfare benefits for England, Scotland and Wales. The Social Security Agency (SSA) is in charge of these benefits in Northern Ireland.

There are different types of benefit:

  • Contribution-based benefits depend on whether you have paid national insurance (NI).
  • Non-contribution based benefits do not depend on whether you have paid NI.
  • Means-tested benefits depend on your income and savings.
  • Non-means-tested benefits can be contribution-based or not and don’t depend on your income or savings.

There is a benefit cap to the amount of benefits you can claim. You may not be entitled to all of the benefits if you are a non-UK national. You can contact Citizens Advice for more information.

If you go into hospital, you should notify the DWP or SSA as it may affect your benefits. You can contact a welfare rights adviser for more information.

If you live in England, Scotland or Wales, visit or HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

Benefits changes in Northern Ireland are still under consideration. For more information, please visit or call 0800 232 1271.

You can also speak to one of our welfare rights advisers on 0808 808 00 00.

Cancer and benefits

A cancer diagnosis can increase your living costs in many ways. Benefits may help you cope with these changes.

A cancer diagnosis may mean:

  • extra transport costs as you travel to and from hospital
  • spending more time at home, which leads to higher energy bills
  • working fewer hours, or stopping work altogether for a while, because of the cancer and its treatment.

These are just some example of how cancer can affect your finances. But depending on your situation, you may be able to get benefits or other financial support to help.

The benefits system can seem daunting and hard to understand. But even just getting a basic idea of how it works can help you access financial support.

How cancer patients can claim benefits

Sean, a Macmillan Benefits Adviser, talks about the benefits you might be entitled to if you have cancer. Call us on 0808 808 00 00 to find out more.

About our cancer information videos

How cancer patients can claim benefits

Sean, a Macmillan Benefits Adviser, talks about the benefits you might be entitled to if you have cancer. Call us on 0808 808 00 00 to find out more.

About our cancer information videos

What are benefits?

Benefits are payments from the government to people in need. There are a variety of benefits for people in different situations. When you are affected by cancer, it may change your situation and mean that you become eligible for certain benefits.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is the main government body responsible for the benefits system in England, Scotland and Wales. The DWP looks after benefits through different services, for example local Jobcentres.

Who can get benefits?

Each benefit has its own rules about who can claim.

As well as these individual rules, whether or not you can get a benefit may depend on one of the following:

  • Your income and savings.
  • Your national insurance (NI) contributions.

NI contributions are paid by people who work for an employer. Your employer deducts the contributions from your earnings and pays them to the government. People who earn more than £155 a week by working for an employer automatically have NI payments taken from their pay. If you’re unable to work, you may be able to get NI credits (usually by claiming a certain benefit). NI credits are treated as though you have paid NI contributions.

Some people also pay voluntary NI contributions. Paying voluntary contributions could be useful if you’re self-employed and want to protect your right to benefits that depend on NI, for example the State Pension.

  • There are four main types of benefit, which we’ve listed below.
  • Means-tested benefits (MT) can only be paid to people whose income and savings are below a certain level. If you have a partner who lives with you, their income and savings are also taken into account. Mean-tested benefits are sometimes called income-based or income-related. They are not affected by your NI contributions.
  • Non-means-tested benefits (NMT) don’t depend on your income or savings. They may be contribution-based or non-contribution-based.
  • Contribution-based benefits (C) can be paid to people who meet the rules of that benefit, and who have made enough NI contributions.
  • Non-contribution-based benefits (NC) are not dependent on your NI contributions.

It’s often possible to be entitled to both means-tested and non-means-tested benefits at the same time. Just because you are receiving one particular type of benefit, don’t assume that you are not entitled to another. You can get advice from a welfare rights adviser.

What happens if my situation changes?

It may affect any benefits you are getting if there are changes to:

  • your income or capital (all your financial assets, including savings), or those of a partner who lives with you
  • your home
  • other people who live in your home and their financial situations.

You should tell the DWP about any of these changes through the service that pays your benefits.

Not every change will affect the amount of benefit you are entitled to. But it’s better to report a change in case it does.

If you go into hospital

Some benefits won’t be affected by a stay in hospital. Other benefits may only be affected if the hospital stay is for more than one year. Certain benefits will be reduced after you have been in hospital for four weeks. If stays in hospital are less than 28 days apart, these will be linked together and treated as a continuous period. You should tell the service that gives you benefits as soon as you can after going into hospital. It’s also important to tell them when you leave hospital, so that full payments can restart if they have been stopped.

The way your benefits will be affected by your stay in hospital depends on your individual circumstances and the benefits you’re claiming. Speak to a welfare rights adviser for advice.

Can I challenge a benefits decision?

If you have applied for (or are receiving) a benefit and you’re not happy with a decision the DWP has made, you may be able to ask for a review or make an appeal. Recent changes to the rules about appealing mean that you must ask for a review first. You must do this within one month of being told of the decision.

The exception to this rule is Housing Benefit.

It’s possible to appeal decisions about Housing Benefit straight away, as long as you do it within one month.

Challenging a benefits decision can be a complicated process, so it’s a good idea to ask a welfare rights adviser for help as soon as possible.

You can speak to a welfare rights adviser by calling us on 0808 808 00 00. They can talk you through the process and send you a fact sheet about challenging a benefits decision.

Can I get benefits if I am not a UK-national?

You may not be able to receive some benefits if you:

  • have come from another country to live or work in the UK
  • are an asylum seeker or refugee.

The rules are complicated. You can get independent legal and benefits advice from Law Centres and Citizens Advice.

Claiming benefits as soon as possible

In most cases, benefits can’t be backdated to cover days or weeks before you applied. Because of this, it’s important to apply as soon as possible, so you don’t miss out on any financial help you’re entitled to.

Further information for Northern Ireland

You can get more information through your local Social Security or Jobs and Benefits office, or from the nidirect website.

You can also get help from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive is responsible for certain financial help, such as Housing Benefit. HMRC helps people with targeted financial support, such as tax credits.

Welfare reform in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Bill is currently still under consideration. For the latest news about the reforms, please visit

For benefits information and support in Northern Ireland please visit or call 0800 232 1271

You can also contact the Northern Ireland Benefit Enquiry Line on 0800 220 674 (or textphone 028 9031 1092 if you are deaf or hard of hearing).

In Northern Ireland, Macmillan Cancer Support, in partnership with Citizens Advice, provides a dedicated Welfare Rights Service to cancer patients, their families and carers. For information and support or to arrange an appointment please telephone 0300 1 233 233 (lines are open 9am-12.30pm and 1pm-4pm, Monday to Friday).

You can also talk to us, Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm.

Back to About benefits

The Welfare Reform Act

There have been changes to the benefits system. There are a number of ways your benefits could be affected.

Macmillan grants

A Macmillan grant is a one-off payment for adults, young people or children with cancer, to cover a wide range of practical needs.