The House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee this week published their report on welfare policy in Scotland. CPAG in Scotland provided written and oral evidence to the Committee so we were excited to see their recommendations. We would support many of the recommendation in the report.
Maintain the £20 uplift
The Committee recommends the UK Government consider making the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent and considering whether to extend and backdate it for legacy benefit recipients so that they do not lose out on this increase in benefits through no fault of their own due to which benefit they receive.
Social security plays a vital role in preventing child poverty and MPs are absolutely right to highlight how critical to hard up families it is that the UK government maintains the £20 uplift to universal credit. Cutting that support would push an estimated 22 000 children into poverty in Scotland alone.
People in receipt of legacy benefits who have not benefited from the uplift are most likely to be in receipt of employment and support allowance or income support due to disability or caring responsibilities. Extending and backdating the uplift would provide much needed additional support to these households.[i]
The Committee recommends that DWP and Social Security Scotland work together to promote benefit take-up across all benefits in Scotland and that Job Centre and Social Security Scotland staff should be able to provide information and advice on how to apply on both reserved and devolved benefits.
We fully support this recommendation. With DWP, HMRC and local authorities already administering benefits, the addition of Social Security Scotland, whilst welcome, adds further complexity for claimants in relation to applying for benefits. Only by working together will the agencies administering benefits be able to help claimants realise their maximum entitlements. With many Scottish benefits relying on a qualifying reserved benefit such as universal credit and the potential for Scottish disability and carers payments to result in additional amounts in reserved benefits, it is vital that claimants are given information and advice on how the different system interact.
DWP data for Scottish Child Payment
The Committee recommends that DWP prioritise delivering six to 16 year old data required by the Scottish Government, or work with Scottish Government to find an alternative type of data, so that Scottish Government are able to roll out the Scottish Child Payment for this age group. It also recommends that Social Security Scotland consider all mechanisms for acquiring their own data where possible if they are requesting data which DWP does not hold.
The Committee are also absolutely right to highlight that between the Scottish and UK governments data must be shared and mechanisms identified so that the new Scottish child payment is rolled out to all eligible under 16s by the end of 2022 as promised. The payment is already proving a hugely welcome source of support to families with children under 6. With a quarter of Scotland’s children still living in poverty rolling out the new payment is crucial to progress against our legally binding child poverty targets.
In the meantime we welcome the interim payments that the Scottish Government are making for some of the over fives that will become entitled to SCP – by funding local authorities to make payments for children entitled to free school meals. However our analysis shows that up to 125 000 children will miss out on these payments because whilst they are in families in receipt of universal credit (and therefore would otherwise be eligible for Scottish child payment) they are not entitled to free school meals. We would urge the Scottish Government to extend free school meal entitlement to all children in households in receipt of universal credit or child tax credits. This would both ensure more low income families benefit from school meals, and, allow all these households to receive the interim payments
The Committee recommends DWP raise the work allowance for universal credit claimants and re-establish work allowances for single adult claimants so that they can keep more of the money they earn.
This recommendation is to be welcomed but we would like to see it extended to second earners too. 68% of children in poverty in Scotland live in a household where at least one person works.[ii] Raising the work allowance and extending it to second earner would help ensure that work pays and can be a viable route of poverty. Trends from the past two decades shows that having both members of a couple in work is increasingly important in preventing child poverty. Introducing a second-earner work allowance equivalent to the family work allowance would support both parents in a couple to work and reduce in-work poverty.
The committee recommends that Social Security Scotland fully engage with independent calculators currently signposted by UK Government.
Benefit calculators can be useful in suggesting benefits that you may be entitled to, but it can be difficult to use them accurately with out in depth knowledge of the social security system. They can be used in addition to but should not be a replacement for access to independent expert advice.
Support for claimants who struggle or cannot make a claim online
The Committee recommends there should be an increase in resources and support for claimants unable to claim online and increased financial resources for the Help to Claim service run by Citizens Advice Scotland.
CPAG welcomes this recommendation but would like to see support expanded, not just to help people make a claim but to maintain their claim in the long-term. Evidence from the Early Warning System highlights this an issue alongside making the initial claim. For example:
A disabled client relied on his relatives to set up his UC claim and access his journal online. His adviser recently established that his UC has stopped because DWP were unable to contact the client via his journal on the phone. The client remembers not answering a couple of phone calls at the beginning of the year because they came from an unknown number. He is not able access his journal himself. #1059 (02/06/21)
Five week wait and advances
The committee recommends DWP should re-consider the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s recommendation to implement a ‘starter payment’ two weeks after their initial claim, and only once the claimant’s identity has been verified, to mitigate the risk of fraud.
We would welcome a non-repayable payment during the five week to replace advances which have to be paid back and which contribute to the ongoing hardship that people experience on universal credit and the difficulty in making ends meet from one end of the month to the next. However this recommendation requires further detail about the support that would be available to claimants in the first two weeks of their claim and beyond if there were any delays in verifying income.
A client claimed UC six months ago. At that point he didn't have his passport or any other ID that UC would accept, but had a photocopy of his passport. The DWP asked him to take a selfie holding the photocopy and upload it to his journal. This was not accepted as proof of ID and his case was referred to the risk management team. Every time he tries to request an update the UC helpline tell him they cannot help until risk management team have completed their work. #531 (23/6/21)
The Committee recommends that DWP pause sanctions for at least the rest of 2021 with immediate effect.
We agree. We know from our case evidence that just the fear of sanctions can have a damaging impact. [iii]
A lone parent of a one year old works 11 hours a week in a chip shop. She is very distressed because she is under the impression that her work coach has told her she needs to look for more hours. She is worried that she will be sanctioned but is already working the maximum hours she can as she relies on her family for childcare. As a parent of a one year old she should only be required to attend work focused interviews. It would appear that the wrong conditionality is being applied. #423 (12/4/21)
In summary the majority of the Committee’s recommendations would have a positive impact for claimants if accepted by the government. We await the government’s response the report – expected in August.
[iii] Research into claimants’ experiences of sanctions and conditionality shows that for some claimants, dropping out of the system into a life of destitution was preferable to accessing a system that polices and monitors their behaviour in ways that set them up to fail and with rules that can be impossible to comply with. M Adler, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment? Benefit sanctions in the UK, Palgrave Pivot, 2018