Benefits bill exposes north-south divide

THE yawning gulf between rich and poor is exposed in new government figures today that reveal the nation’s benefits bill is almost five times higher in some constituencies than in others.

Glasgow East has the highest cost per person of any seat in Britain, with unemployment, sickness and child benefit payments now amounting to £5 for every adult and child in the seat every day.

That compares to North East Hampshire, the seat with the lowest per head payments in the UK, where people receive less than a pound a day.

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The data, which shows the annual benefits bill by Westminster constituencies, also exposes a stark north-south divide. Only two seats south of Birmingham, both in inner-city London, register in the 20 seats in the UK with the highest costs. However, four seats in Scotland – all in Glasgow – are on the list.

By contrast, among the seats with the lowest bill, 18 of the top 20 are south of Birmingham. The only seat in Scotland on the list is the wealthy constituency of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

The data also reveals massive disparities within Scotland on benefits spending. While the average cost per seat in Glasgow is £124 million a year, the cost in Edinburgh works out at £70m.

The figures do not include housing benefit, tax credits, council tax benefit, or pension spending. For the first time, the study breaks down by Westminster seats the cost of unemployment payments, such as jobseeker’s allowance, sickness payments, disability living allowances and carer and bereavement benefits.

Unsurprisingly, the figures show the most costly seats are clustered in Britain’s poverty hot spots. In the 20 most costly seats for benefits, four are in or around Glasgow, four in or around Liverpool, three in Birmingham and two in London.

By contrast, most of the low-cost seats are in the rural Home Counties and south-east parts of the country, where unemployment can be close to non- existent.

The highest bill of all is the £178m being spent in the Liverpool seat of Knowsley. Another Liverpool seat, Walton, is costing £158m a year.

Next, Glasgow East costs £157m, while Glasgow North East costs £154m.

However, as Glasgow East’s population of 85,000 people is far lower than both Liverpool seats, the cost per head is the highest in the country – at £1,843 each per person.

Other seats in Scotland with high costs include Glasgow South West, with a bill of £130m, Rutherglen and Hamilton West at £129.5m, Glasgow North West at £124.4m and West Dunbartonshire at £122.1.

The Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland have the lowest benefits costs in the country due to their unusually low populations. However, the least expensive seat per head is North East Hampshire, where benefits spending is just £34.6m, or £363 per head.

The sixth “cheapest” by head is West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, at £39.1m, or £434 per head. The only other seat north of Birmingham in the “cheapest 20” is Sheffield Hallam.

Ministers last night said the figures illustrated the need to reform welfare across the country, but especially in areas of high deprivation, where a life of benefits has become endemic.

In recent years, the focus has been placed particularly on Glasgow. The new Department for Work and Pensions data confirms Glasgow and Liverpool are by far the biggest drains on the public purse for unemployment and sickness spending.

Recent studies have shown that in Glasgow one in seven people of working age is in receipt of a sickness benefit.

In Parkhead, within the Glasgow East seat, figures suggest more than 60 per cent of men aged between 55 and 60 are claiming it.

Controversial government moves to reassess claims for people on sickness benefits, with the aim of getting more people on to jobseeker’s allowance and back into work, were criticised by MSPs last month, who argue they are punishing the most vulnerable people in society.

However, UK ministers insist the reforms need to be enacted in order to help back into work people who may have become accustomed to a life on benefits,.

Employment minister Chris Grayling said last night: “These figures show how important the government reforms are through initiatives like our new Work Programme, the benefit cap and Universal Credit.

“We are building a system that is much more fit for purpose.”

But shadow Scottish secretary and MP for Glasgow East, Margaret Curran, said: “With unemployment rising and government spending increasing to pay for benefits, rather than investing to get our economy growing, these striking statistics highlight the failure of the Tory-led government’s policies.

“What the Tories don’t seem to understand is that the best way to cut the benefits bill is to grow the economy, create jobs and get people into work.”

Ms Curran added: “In light of these figures, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has a special responsibility to drop his role as Tory frontman in Scotland and come forward with a plan for welfare reform that helps our most disadvantaged communities and gets people back to work.

“If we are to see these figures change, we need fundamental action on the deep-seated causes of poverty. These figures should be a wake-up call for the Scottish government to redouble its efforts to tackle poverty – something that has unfortunately stalled under the SNP.”

The Scottish Government insisted last night that policies, such as its commitments to freeze the council tax, abolish prescription charges, expand free bus travel and offer heating help to families, were “easing the burden”.

A spokesman added: “We have been clear that the welfare benefit system should help and support those who can work to move into employment.

“For those who cannot work, due to ill-health or disability, adequate support must be provided to ensure vulnerable citizens are not relegated to a life of disadvantage, financial uncertainty and poverty.

“The UK government must pursue a welfare system that is properly financed, simple to understand, lifts people out of poverty and makes work pay. However, full control of the tax and benefits system will enable the Scottish Government to tackle inequalities more effectively.”

However, Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson said: “The changes currently being made are designed to make work pay and to ensure a fairer system for all.”