Universal Credit is failing – ‘let Holyrood decide benefits’

Further cuts to welfare payments opposed by Scots, think-tank finds.

Holyrood should be in control of Scotland's welfare system, the report finds. Picture: User: Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Most Scots believe the Scottish Parliament should decide “most or all” aspects of social security policy north of the Border and that the “Universal Credit” system has not worked, a new report has found.

The introduction of new benefits north of the border by the Scottish Government have the backing of the majority of Scots who also oppose any further cuts to the welfare system, according to the paper entitled Separate support?

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The issue has been thrust into the spotlight as hundreds of thousands of Scots workers have been forced to turn to Universal Credit during the coronavirus outbreak as the lockdown leaves them out of work or with drastically reduced income.

The report by the Bright Blue Scotland think tank published today is based on a wide-ranging survey of 3,000 Scots on their attitudes to social security policy. It was conducted in December, before the existing Covid-19 pandemic, but shows that a shift in approach to the benefits system in Scotland has growing support.

The overhaul of the UK welfare system towards the Universal Credit scheme has been phased in over the past decade, but has been “unsuccessful”, according to a majority (54 per cent), of Scots. Amongst those who hold this view, a slim majority (52 per cent) believes the idea behind Universal Credit itself is poor as opposed to the implementation of it.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has unveiled a £7 billion expansion of the benefits system, including a £1,000 rise in Universal Credit allowances. But the system has been overwhelmed with almost one million workers seeking to sign up in the first week and online queues of more than 100,000. Some have been told they must wait up to six weeks for telephone interviews.

But the introduction of the “Scottish Choices” for Universal Credit, which allows flexibility for claimants in relation to frequency of payments and the ability to have their housing element paid directly to their landlord, has the backing of a clear majority of Scots.

The creation of a range of Scottish benefits for those on low income, including for fuel (79 per cent), funeral (71 per cent) and council tax costs (73 per cent) has the backing of most respondents to the survey, along with the expansion of various grants to low-income parents of young children through the Best Start scheme.

A majority of Scots also support introducing the Scottish Child Payment, believing the level of payment is set at the right amount of £10 a week for each child (40 per cent), or that it should be higher (32 per cent).

Dr Jim McCormick, associate director for Scotland with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said the Scottish Parliament now had to examine the “adequacy” of welfare in Scotland.

“The coronavirus outbreak has further exposed the need for social security to provide a firm anchor, in and out of work,” he said.

“This report reveals broad public support for how new powers in Scotland are being used, including the Scottish Child Payment. But it’s also clear that a majority of people want to see increased support for disabled people and carers.

“The social security system now being designed in Scotland is built on principles of dignity and respect, but the question of adequacy will also have to be addressed in the next parliament.”

More than two-thirds (70 per cent) of Scots believe there is quite a lot of real poverty in Scotland, the survey finds. A firm majority (62 per cent) also say poverty has increased in the previous decade and almost half (47 per cent) that this will continue over the next decade.

A clear majority (60 per cent) of Scots want the Scottish Parliament to decide most or all of Scotland’s social security policy, including a majority of Labour (62 per cent) and Liberal Democrat (57 per cent) voters.

Labour MSP Pauline McNeill, deputy convenor of the social security committee, said the report provides “food for thought”.

“It may be now that everything will be seen through the prism of Covid-19 in terms of types of benefits and level of benefits given the number of people who have no support or been forced on to Universal Credit,” she said.

“Policy makers and politicians will have to make these judgments in time to come.”

The Scottish Parliament was handed control over a raft of new benefit controls in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum, some of which are still in the process of being devolved. Social security secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville announced its replacement for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and the introduction of the

Child Disability Payment will be delayed as a result of coronavirus. The £10 Scottish Child Payment, due to be introduced from this autumn, has also been halted.

The report today is based on a poll of 3,002 Scots adults and was conducted online by Opinium between 6-9 December last year.Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) agree any further cuts to social security will be damaging.

Welfare spending should be increased for some groups such as carers (72 per cent) and disabled people (67 per cent), the survey finds, as well as low-income working parents (61 per cent).

The prospect of a universal basic income (UBI) has significant support (45 per cent) among Scots, but falls short of majority backing.

Alternative policy ideas such as an additional income supplement for those on low incomes based on previous National Insurance contributions is backed by 59 per cent, while 57 per cent back an independent compensation scheme for benefit claimants that have been failed by the DWP, such as on timeliness of benefit payment.

Tory social security spokesman Graham Simpson said: “The Covid-19 crisis has, of course, seen a massive expansion in Universal Credit and that’s to be welcomed.

“The UK Government handed Scotland a substantial package of devolved welfare powers. It has not proved simple for the SNP to deliver these powers and the outbreak of Covid-19 has added another hurdle in the way of rolling out the wave two benefits.

“It’s important that we see those devolved benefits up and running here first before we talk about taking on anything else and that has proved a huge challenge.”

Greens social security spokeswoman Alison Johnstone said:

“The report demonstrates that the Scottish Government should be using its new powers to build a radicallyfairer and more generous social security system and it should do so in the knowledge the Scottish public supports these aims.”

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