Welfare secretary to meet MSPs as Universal Credit concerns mount

David Gauke MP
David Gauke MP

The roll out of the devolution of welfare powers to Scotland and concerns over Universal Credit will be raised by the Scottish Parliament’s social security committee when it takes evidence from secretary of state for work and pensions David Gauke MP.

The meeting comes as the committee considers one of the biggest transfers of powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament in the shape of the Social Security Bill. This Bill will see the devolution of 11 benefits leading to expenditure of £2.9 billion a year.

UK ministers are under increasing pressure to put the brakes on Universal Credit from local and Scottish Government who joined forces to demand a halt to the full service roll-out of the welfare reform in Scotland.

In a joint letter to Mr Gauke, social security minister Jeane Freeman and COSLA community wellbeing spokesperson, Kelly Parry, raise a number of “abject failures” of the new UK government system.

They also highlight new figures from COSLA showing the damaging impact on people and local authorities, in those areas where full service roll out has already taken place (Highland, East Lothian, East Dunbartonshire, and Inverclyde), including:

  • The average level of rent arrears for tenants in receipt of Universal Credit is at least 2.5 times higher than those tenants in receipt of housing benefit
  • An increase in discretionary housing payments by the four local authorities, attributable to Universal Credit full service, of £343,010, and in Scottish Welfare Fund crisis grant payments of £94,131
  • Additional administrative costs for the four local authorities of £832,612 attributable to Universal Credit full service
  • Ms Freeman said: “The Universal Credit system is fundamentally flawed and causing unnecessary hardship and suffering to families across Scotland. It is vital that the UK Government addresses these failings and that the roll-out is halted until problems are fixed.

    “Universal Credit is failing the people it is designed to support. The in-built six week wait for the first payment – which is often even longer – is unacceptable and pushing people into crisis and rent arrears, having to rely on food banks and emergency payments to get by.

    “The Universal Credit pilots have also highlighted problems with monthly payments, removing landlord direct payments and making a single household payment.

    “Despite the clear evidence of these failures the Department for Work and Pensions still refuses to acknowledge the severity of the problem. This incompetency cannot continue. It is time UK ministers faced up to the facts and stepped up to support people and stop the roll out of a failing system.”

    Just last week a council finance officer warned that the roll-out of Universal Credit will have a “major impact” on the level of rent arrears in Fife.

    Les Robertson, Fife Council’s head of revenue and commercial services, said the impact of welfare reform was already being seen in the number of bad debts being written off.

    “This can only get worse in the coming years with Universal Credit being rolled out in Fife from December, and a number of other welfare cuts having already hit, and will continue in the coming years,” he said.

    Of the 700 council tenants already in receipt of universal credit, 568 have seen their rent arrears increase to a total of more than £300,000.

    Mr Robertson added: “This does not bode well for the future as, in the coming years, we’ve nearly 14,000 working-age tenants who currently rely on housing benefit to meet their rental liability. These tenants will at some point transfer to Universal Credit.

    “This, in all probability, will have a huge impact on rent collection.”

    Ms Freeman will use a Scottish Government debate on Universal Credit on Tuesday to again call for a halt to the roll out until the system’s problems are fully addressed.

    More details on the secretary of state’s meeting, which will take place in early January 2018, will be published nearer the time.

    Committee convener, Sandra White MSP, said: “There is a process of huge change taking place with social security. Not only have we seen changes made by the Westminster Government but we also have the Social Security Bill before us. Amongst all of this change it is vital that we don’t lose sight of those most affected.

    “This is why it was crucial that the secretary of state appear before our committee in order that we can explore the UK government’s approach to welfare and the impact it has on people in Scotland and what is being done to ensure the handover of powers happens smoothly. We will also use this meeting to raise the many concerns we have heard around the roll out of Universal Credit.”

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