MPs praise devolution of welfare but good working relationship between governments is ‘crucial’
The UK Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee has published its report into welfare policy in Scotland in which MPs have called on the UK Government and Scottish Government to improve information sharing to implement policy and to work together to improve benefit take-up.
In a wide-ranging report, MPs said while the devolution of welfare powers to Scotland has worked well, it remains complex and a good working relationship between the governments is crucial. Where the two governments had different approaches to social security/ welfare there was little evidence that this presented a problem in the administering of benefits on the ground.
The Committee urged the UK Government to find a solution to providing Social Security Scotland with data to enable Scottish Child Payments to be distributed to families for 6 to 16-year olds. Without this data, the Scottish Government would be unable to deliver its commitment to extend the child benefit to this age group.
The Committee found that often claimants are unaware of what benefits they are entitled to from both the Scottish and UK Governments. The Committee, therefore, recommends that new communications materials should be distributed, that are updated annually, offering a ‘one stop shop’ of benefits that may be available.
The Committee also expressed its disappointment in the delay in the rollout of the devolved benefits until 2025. Although this delay can be blamed in part on Covid-19, the Committee regrets that the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland have been unable to become fully operational within the originally proposed timeline.
On Universal Credit, the Committee heard how the paying back mechanism for advance payments often make paying for essentials more difficult. To address this, the Committee has recommended that a starter payment be given to claimants two weeks after the initial claim – rather than waiting five weeks.
Finally, the Committee has urged the UK Government to review its move to end the £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit payments.
Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Pete Wishart MP, said: “The covid-19 pandemic has led to rocketing unemployment, resulting in more people in Scotland than ever before turning to the social security system. This has therefore been an opportune time to examine the full environment and eco structure of social security/welfare in Scotland.
“What we heard was that the devolution of benefits is working well, and we commend the Scottish and UK governments working together to make this a success. However, we also heard that it is incredibly complex to unpick what claimants can access under both systems. Communications must be improved, and staff appropriately trained to offer consistent advice to claimants in their time of greatest need.
“Worryingly, our Committee heard how the support provided by benefits such as Universal Credit is simply not enough for families to feed themselves, and we urge the UK Government to review making the £20 weekly uplift permanent. Based on what witnesses told our Committee, it is incomprehensible that sanctioning for failure to adhere to a claimant commitment during such a challenging year for people must stop immediately for at least the remainder of 2021.”
Some of the Committee’s recommendations are:
- The UK Government should closely review the issue of making permanent the £20 uplift in the run up to the expiration of this policy at the end of September 2021. The UK Government should again review whether this uplift should be extended and back dated to legacy benefit recipients.
- The DWP should 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, to allow them to work their way out of poverty.
- The DWP should consider alternative arrangements to the five week wait for a first payment and associated advances system (which currently acts as an interest free loan) and should consider again the recommendation from the Work and Pensions Committee of implementing a ‘starter payment’ to a claimant two weeks after their initial claim.
- Whilst the economy is in the midst of recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, now is not the right time to sanction claimants should they fail to meet their claimant commitment. Reflecting what witnesses told the Committee, sanctioning of claimants should be paused for at least the rest of 2021 with immediate effect.
- Jobcentre staff in Scotland should be aware of the principles of both the DWP customer charter and the Scottish Social Security Charter to provide information, signposting and advice on how to apply for reserved benefits as well as Discretionary Housing Payments and the Scottish Welfare Fund.
- The DWP should prioritise delivering the 6-16-year old data required by the Scottish Government, or work with the Scottish Government to find an alternative type of data, so that the Scottish Government are able to roll out the Scottish Child Payment for this age group.
- Social Security Scotland should consider all mechanisms for acquiring their own data where possible if they are requesting data which DWP does not hold. DWP and Social Security Scotland should develop a shared protocol and agreement about data sharing to ensure swifter data sharing on a benefit-by-benefit basis.
- The Joint Ministerial Working Group should consider developing new communications materials and guidance in the form of a Scottish welfare service directory to be updated annually.
- Social Security Scotland should provide more information on how they will gather the relevant data required to make decisions on the amount of money given to claimants in order to ensure that the move away from face to face assessments works in practice.
- There should be an increase in resources and support for claimants who struggle or cannot make a claim online – for example telephone and or video call appointments.