Fri 10 Nov, 2017

Alison Johnstone MSP

Health & Sport, Social Security, Children & Young People


Waiting for universal credit payments may put over 23,000 low income families in the UK at risk of destitution this winter.  Demand on food banks is rising, and applicants are left distressed and confused by complex applications.  The calamitous roll out of universal credit shows our benefits system at its disjointed worst.

Instead of placing delay, confusion and complexity on people who need support and security more than ever, we should be designing a better system.  One which is capable of supporting people when their circumstances change – not scaring them – and which moves towards paying benefits automatically.

Back in 2007 the Select Committee on Work and Pensions in Westminster recommended the UK Government examine the feasibility of introducing automatic claims and payments to parts of the benefits system.  Recognising that the “onus to register entitlement” to benefits and comply with “complex rules” rests with claimants, the Select Committee highlighted Help the Aged’s call for “radical reform of the payment process for benefits” to overcome the “costly impact of error” and encourage more people to apply for them.  Help the Aged argued automatic benefit payments would protect claimants from complexity, and help stop people missing out on help they need – especially those who are “particularly isolated or face language or cultural barriers in accessing benefits”.

There are various examples of programmes to deliver benefits automatically in the UK.  In 2006, the Pension Service Solution Centre in Glasgow studied the feasibility of automating council tax benefit payments, and considered extending that approach to other benefits.  Winter Fuel Payment is usually paid automatically and “automatic triggers” are intended to notify people of their entitlement to Pension Credit.

But a decade on from the Select Committee’s recommendations, we are little further forward in seriously reshaping the UK benefits system to become more responsive to people’s circumstances and protect them from severe poverty.  In fact, since 2010, and even before, UK Governments have taken us in the opposite direction - with welfare reforms which restricted entitlement to benefits and made some even more arduous to apply for.  The hideous rape clause and bureaucratic cruelty in coercing a woman to disclose sexual abuse is the most regrettable example of a benefits system which is hostile to people who need support.

We have an unparalleled opportunity to design a social security system differently in Scotland.  Imagine the difference it would make to people’s incomes and wellbeing if our social security system was seamless.  If applying for one benefit led automatically to being considered for others – and being paid those benefits without having to manage multiple applications.   After all, the income delivered through our social security system is money we’re entitled to.   It safeguards minimum standards of living and protects our ability to participate in society.  Automatic enrolment in pension schemes, adjustments to PAYE taxation, changes to our financial products, are all everyday transitions: our social security system should not be any more cumbersome than those.

I’ll be calling on the Scottish Government to adopt this approach as the Social Security Bill progresses and the new Social Security Agency is designed.  In coming months, I’ll examine previous programmes in the UK which paid benefits automatically, and examples of good practice around the world.

There are signs that the Scottish Government is willing to develop a more considerate system.  In 2016, the consultation Creating a Fairer Scotland stated the Government would “seek to embed the Sure Start Maternity Grant with existing devolved support, for example, by looking at how the grant can be used to link applicants to other services”.  Now named the Best Start Grant, this support will be delivered by Summer 2019.  I believe we have a real opportunity to ensure that children born that year are the first generation to grow up with the support of a fully automated social security system.  The first generation who may never have to see their parents struggle with paperwork for tax credits, to fill in complicated benefit forms on their phone screen, to worry about the cost of that call to the DWP.

I’ve championed a national roll-out of income maximisation approaches throughout our maternity services and universal health visitor pathway.  Asking pregnant women and new parents about financial difficulties should be routine, and once families have been provided with initial support – the Baby Box, the Best Start Grant, Child Benefit – there should be a smooth path to the next stage.  As children grow up, each family’s entitlement to financial assistance should be considered automatically and paid when possible.  From the earliest years to the EMA, no young person should miss out on support they need.

This article first appeared in The National.

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