Here’s why action is needed now on Universal Credit - Mark Griffin

Last month, the Social Security Committee gave the Scottish Government a clear message: people are struggling, and we need a plan to get cash to them over the months ahead.

Many struggling families are desperately in need of help. Picture: PA

Rightly, the focus remains on tacking the health crisis. Our safety net is fragmented and fragile though, and when the furlough scheme ends, which could come in early July, and more of the restrictions on our lives are slowly unravelled, there could be further damage to people’s way of life.

Both Governments – UK and Scottish – must brace for a second wave of an economic crisis which could push tens of thousands more people onto Universal Credit (UC), which will inflict deep social scars.

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Huge numbers of households have now received their first Universal Credit payment, and many more are still waiting for the cash to arrive.

Those who have now been paid will have seen just how brutal the five-week wait is. Over a third of them have asked for advances and, as a result, they will see their benefits reduced through recovery over the months ahead.

Those new to the benefit are starting to see just how far the safety net has been unpicked.

Some will experience the cruelty of the two-child limit and benefit cap suppressing their entitlement, but everyone will have to face the difficulty of actually living on the rates of benefit offered.

It seems like a lifetime ago but in March, the Chancellor increased Universal Credit by £1000 for the next 12 months.

Though he gave with one hand, so too the system will take away that generosity with the other because of the benefit cap.

That additional £1000 will double the number of people in Scotland who see their benefits capped, because the cap hasn’t been upped in tandem.

It is just another pernicious quirk of a pockmarked safety net which sees families exposed to deep financial plight.

Though swathes of the country will have had their first furlough payments arrive in their accounts, I doubt many will breathe a sigh of relief; instead they’ll see this as the beginning of months of turmoil ahead.

And though workers here in Scotland will be relieved that they don’t have to crack the conundrum of getting to work while avoiding public transport at all costs as Boris Johnston’s announcement on Sunday has meant for people living in England, everyone on furlough is rightly asking is if there will be a job to go back to or an industry for their firm to operate in.

A “waiting room for redundancies” is how the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development have described the furlough scheme, if it is unwound in the summer as planned.

It’s obvious to see why: without further support bridging the gaps in the post-crisis economy, many firms will simply go to the wall – and with them people’s jobs.

Redundancies will only deepen the trauma many communities are already experiencing. A second surge of UC claims will result in thousands more suffering an agonising 5-week wait, the two-child limit and benefit caps.

Worse still, because many will struggle to break free of joblessness, things will get worse for them. When the DWP decides “normality” is re-emerging it will reintroduce sanctions, claimant commitments, and pressure to find work and hours that are unlikely to exist.

I do not want to see swathes of Scotland experiencing UC, but right now it looks inevitable for many. If that is the case, we need to make sure the support is there if people find themselves in that situation.

Across the UK and in Scotland, the information from Government about who precisely is being hardest hit is insufficient.

We remain in the dark about the types of families affected and flocking to UC and the Scottish Welfare Fund in the depth of their financial need.

We do not yet know who has been forced off Tax Credits onto UC, losing hundreds of pounds in the process, and we need more detail about which sectors are laying-off instead of furloughing.

Without this information it is hard to both target financial support and encourage people to get advice.

Unlike daily updates on Coronavirus cases, hospital admissions and, I’m afraid, deaths from the virus, the numbers of families moving onto benefits or seeking crisis grants are not reported regularly, but they should be.

Anti-poverty organisations from across Scotland have set out to the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee various of methods of bringing forward a lump-sum payment equivalent to the proposed the Scottish Child Payment, due early next year.

Instead of paying the weekly £10 payment, an option proposed is a lump-sum paid through existing mechanisms in rudimentary fashion until the Payment is formally rolled out for under 6s next year. Whether it is through lump sums or weekly payments, via the Best Start Grant or the Welfare Fund, ultimately the method does not matter so long as it can be paid.

It is the money that matters and the action taken.

The important thing is that funds make their way to families suffering financial hardship and that we prepare adequately.

In its latest Coronavirus Bill the Scottish Government has proposed a further boost to the Carer’s Allowance Supplement worth £230, and that is exactly the type of action that can be taken to help struggling families, at speed.

Yes, the solutions might seem like sticking plasters, but when people are hurting, they should not go without the treatment needed to support them.

Mark Griffin MSP is Scottish Labour’s social security spokesman

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