Why Universal Credit is prime example of UK Government getting it wrong

Universal Credit demonstrates exactly why we want to do things differently in Scotland, writes Jeane Freeman
By 2020/21 people in Scotland will have seen a £3.8 billion reduction in UK Government welfare spending in Scotland. Picture: Steven Scott TaylorBy 2020/21 people in Scotland will have seen a £3.8 billion reduction in UK Government welfare spending in Scotland. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
By 2020/21 people in Scotland will have seen a £3.8 billion reduction in UK Government welfare spending in Scotland. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
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I provided evidence this week to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee on the roll out of Universal Credit.

This is a roll out that the Scottish Government, along with many other organisations has continually called for a halt to. But the UK Government refuses to listen.

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When it became apparent that the UK Government were not going to take action to alleviate the hardship resulting from the flawed policy and delivery of Universal Credit, the Scottish Government used the limited powers available to us to try and give people back some control. We did this through developing Scottish Universal Credit choices.

And when we talk about how we developed Scottish Universal Credit choices, and how we are developing our wider social security system, this is where you see the fundamental difference in the Scottish Government and UK Government approaches to social security – we do it with people and not to them.

We are not able to fix all of the problems with Universal Credit. The four year benefit freeze that the UK Government has put in place sees the financial support that people are entitled to – both those in work and those not, become increasingly inadequate in the face of rising prices for food and fuel. By 2020/21 people in Scotland will have seen a £3.8 billion reduction in UK Government welfare spending in Scotland. This includes the four-year benefit freeze, cuts to Universal Credit Work Allowances and two-child limit applied to Tax Credits and Universal Credit and this pushing many people into poverty in Scotland.

The UK Government’s planned reduction to five weeks for the first Universal Credit payment does not go far enough and continues to push people into crisis and is resulting in significant rent arrears for local authorities and landlords. We have called for a maximum waiting time of four weeks to be set. Evidence provided to Cosla, suggests that average arrears for those in receipt of Universal Credit are more than 2.5 times average arrears for those on Housing Benefit. And around 24 per cent of new claims to Universal Credit did not receive their payment on time – waiting longer than six weeks.

However, through listening to people in organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland, Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and Child Poverty Action Group, COSLA and private landlords and from directly involving people with experience of the current system we were able to propose and test ways in which we could make things better for people.

This is what led to the introduction of the Scottish Universal Credit choices which give people the option to be paid twice monthly and to have the housing element of Universal Credit paid directly to their landlords.

This was made available to people taking up Universal Credit in full service areas from 4 October 2017 and we are extending this to existing applicants in full service areas and those transferring from Live to full service from 31 January 2018.

More than 2,500 people have already taken up one or both of these choices. I hope that as this becomes available to more people in more areas that it helps those on a low income manage their household budget in a way that better suits them.

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When giving my update to the Work and Pensions Committee on Scottish Universal Credit choices, the members seemed particularly interested in the research we have carried out and the feedback we had taken from stakeholders and people using services.

There were a number of requests to share this insight and this theme continued when the Committee moved on to questioning about PIP and health assessments.

The Scottish Government want to be as supportive as possible to the Work and Pensions Committee in their inquiry into the roll out of Universal Credit. If our insight can help inform any recommendations - which we strongly believe should be pause it, fix it and move on - we will provide whatever we can.

However, I think there needs to be questions asked as to why the UK Government wasn’t doing more of this work themselves in advance of the roll out of a major new benefit. If they had, could the myriad of problems have been avoided? I believe so.

This is exactly why we are doing it differently. In developing a social security system in Scotland we will be involving people in everything we are doing from where we are based and what any office space looks and feels like, to what is included in an application form and how this is processed.

We kicked off our engagement with people who have experience of the existing UK Government system by asking them what they thought of it and three out of five felt it was ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

This feedback focussed my attention on making sure that the experience they have of social security delivered by Scotland for Scotland is better and it will be from day one. We will then work over the course of this parliament to continue making improvements and make sure that our social security service is not just good but great and something that the Scottish public can be proud of.

These improvements will benefit the 1.4 million people who receive one of the 11 benefits being devolved to Scotland. However, we want to do more. We want everyone entitled to social security in Scotland to be treated with dignity and respect and receive a good and fair service.

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The the sooner that comprehensive social security powers are in the hands of the Scottish Parliament the better, because then decisions can be made in Scotland that are in the best interests of all of us who live and work here.