This year has been defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. Low-income families faced even greater challenges than in normal times during the pandemic. Some low-paid sectors of the economy were particularly badly affected, and parents faced greater costs and insufficient support with children spending long periods being home schooled. The UK government’s furlough and self-employed support schemes have shown that a different social security system is possible. The £20 increase to universal credit and working tax credit was welcome and clear recognition that the existing system was not adequate. The government also made temporary improvements to universal credit by reducing conditionality and suspending debt deductions. We have pushed throughout for greater recognition of the impact of the pandemic on children through our participatory research, policy and campaigning work.
Understanding the impact
We conducted research with the Church of England on the impact of the pandemic and our surveys and interviews have exposed the day-to-day struggles that low-income families have faced in two Poverty in the Pandemic reports. Our Cost of Learning in Lockdown research, as part of our Cost of the School Day project, also documented the experiences of thousands of parents and children. The report was used as evidence in the Scottish government’s coronavirus guidance on preparing for the start of the new school term in August 2020, and our recommendations were reflected in the school contingency planning guidance released by the Department for Education in England in August 2020. Our UK Cost of the School Day project is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, and in Scotland, by the Scottish government.
“[We haven’t got] enough technology – the children are sharing devices. They are under additional stress that their work is late as they are having to share devices, and are working during evenings and weekends.”
A mum of three from Wales shares her experience of home schooling in the pandemic as part of our Cost of Learning in Lockdown research with Children North East. 35 per cent of low-income families who responded to our survey were still missing essential resources for learning in January 2021.
We worked closely with academics at the universities of York and Birmingham on the Covid Realities project. Parents and carers living on low incomes have been documenting their experience of the pandemic and advocating for change. Participants particularly highlighted benefit debt repayments as problematic, so we jointly published research on this. Participants have been able to share their experiences directly with parliamentarians and the media, and at public webinars. You can hear directly from participants at cpag.org.uk/covidrealities
Our flagship Early Warning System helps us get a better understanding of how changes to the social security system are affecting the lives of children and families. Throughout the pandemic, we continued to gather real-time intelligence from advisers about the experience of children and families using our social security system. Some of the issues, thrown under the spotlight by the high number of universal credit claims being made in the pandemic, have been quickly resolved. Problems raised in our Mind the Gaps and Falling through the Net briefings have sometimes been mitigated in response, for example:
- Deductions in universal credit is an issue that CPAG has raised with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over a number of years, and our advocacy is greatly strengthened by being able to share Early Warning System evidence as part of this work. For example, in September 2020, we responded to the ‘fairness in debt management’ consultation sharing our evidence, and in March 2021 we met with DWP officials to discuss deductions. Shortly afterwards the government announced that they would bring forward a reduction in the debt repayment levels in universal credit by six months - a reduction from 30 per cent to 25 per cent, came into force in April 2021 instead of October 2021 as planned.
- The multiple lockdowns have forced many support services, including welfare rights services, to move online. There has been concern about the most vulnerable benefit claimants who may need face-to-face support and who struggle to access services online. The Early Warning System has received a number of case studies on this issue, and as part of our new relationship with the DWP customer experience team we were invited to share evidence of cases involving vulnerable claimants that may raise safeguarding issues, to inform a DWP serious case panel meeting on this issue.
- The minimum income floor, which assumes a certain level of earnings for self-employed universal credit claimants, was initially suspended until November 2020. The government extended the suspension until April 2021, and in the March budget announced a further six-month extension to September 2021.
More cash for families
We know how important, and effective, getting cash to families is. Using our evidence on the impact of the pandemic, we worked with other organisations and engaged with politicians, officials and the media to advocate for more support for families.
We played a lead role in securing two £100 cash grant payments for each child in Scotland entitled to free school meals. Two further £100 pandemic support payments were announced in the 2021/22 budget. We contributed to campaigning that saw an increase in support for local welfare assistance in England – £63 million last June and then £170m through the Covid Winter Grant Scheme; and in Scotland – £45m invested in the Scottish Welfare Fund (more than doubling the Fund).
When it came to free school meals provision, we advocated a cash-first approach to ensure families had choice and dignity. In Scotland, local authorities were funded to provide free school meal replacement though lockdown, and the Christmas and Easter holidays. Cash payments were provided in 29 of 32 local authorities - following our engagement directly with local councils and national government on the importance of cash to give parents agency and choice in feeding their families. In Wales, 20 out of 22 Welsh local authorities offered families the option of receiving money to cover the costs of meals. In England, we know of a handful of local authorities who implemented this approach and individual schools who also adopted this method. As the Covid Winter Grant Scheme was rolled out across England, we saw a number of local authorities moving to a cash-first approach. Free school meals have also been extended to families with no recourse to public funds across the UK, and this is a permanent change in Wales.
We have contributed to other successes in Wales too, in our first full year working consistently in the nation. We successfully advocated increased flexibility and discretion in the Discretionary Assistance Fund, and extending the COVID-19 self-isolation payment to parents of children isolating. Wales’ Pupil Development Grant - Access fund, which helps eligible families to cover the costs of school uniforms, shoes and other school equipment, has been extended to include children in more year groups. The grant amount has been increased for Year 7 pupils, and its terms were extended to allow the purchasing of laptops and tablets in response to the pandemic.
We have been active members of the coalition to keep the £20 increase to universal credit and working tax credit, and to extend it to those on legacy benefits. We supported the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Poverty, to which we provide the secretariat alongside the Equality Trust, to publish a report on the impact of losing the £20 increase. We welcomed the extension of the increase until October 2021, but continue to campaign for the £20 not to be cut, and for it to reach everyone claiming support from the social security system, not just those receiving universal credit or working tax credit.
Providing support in a crisis
With pandemic-related changes to our social security system, and more people relying on that system, we worked very quickly to get the latest information out to advisers, frontline workers and volunteers via AskCPAG. AskCPAG is our digital advice service with online tools, made possible thanks to funding from The Legal Education Foundation. With AskCPAG, frontline workers and advisers working remotely have had resources, tools and information at their fingertips. It has provided vital, and up-to-the-minute information at a time of frequent, significant change. We are grateful to the Community Justice Fund and National Lottery Community Fund for COVID-response grants that funded this work. Thanks also to grants from the Scottish government, Comic Relief and London Community Response Fund/Trust for London, we were able to provide funded AskCPAG subscriptions to 1,000 frontline workers, whose organisations would not otherwise have been able to afford them.
“AskCPAG is the best reference tool in the benefits area.”
An AskCPAG user
We have been gathering user feedback and making improvements to AskCPAG, adding new content and topics including COVID-19 tools and a topic area with helpful book and web links and resources. Many of our flagship books were edited to include COVID-19 updates as they happened.
We reached approximately 33,340 families through our advice service for advisers, giving up-to-date information to ensure families could maximise their incomes. We produced a guide for UNISON Scotland on how the Scottish government’s £500 bonus for health and care staff affects those who receive Scottish and UK benefits and tax credits, and met with members of their health committee to discuss the issues.
We responded quickly to the changes in circumstances to ensure we could continue to provide training to frontline workers, delivering 64 different training courses. We are grateful for additional funding from the Scottish government COVID-19 Social Justice Fund to support us to successfully move our welfare rights information, advice and training online.
We are so grateful to everyone who has supported our work and stood with us through the pandemic.