We must do more to mitigate the effects of the benefit cap

The schools are back and a new session of Parliament beckons. While most people will have had a break with family and friends, summer isn't such an enjoyable time for all. Many families face the extra cost of meals and activities which would usually be provided at school.

Last July and August, Trussell Trust UK provided 4,412 more three-day emergency food parcels for children than during the previous two months. 27% of these went to children younger than 4, including newborns, and I fear that we will see similar numbers this year.

Sluggish wage growth and the rising cost of living make it harder for families to get by. And it seems everyone except the UK Government recognises the impact of cuts to benefits and tax credits.

Yesterday, I launched a report examining the impact of the household Benefit Cap, a ceiling on the amount of benefit households can receive. This was lowered to £384.62 a week from £500 for a couple or single parent with children from November last year and it has had a dramatic impact, affecting more than 4 times the number of households and children than the previous cap.

3,700 Scots families including 11,200 children are currently having their benefit income reduced below even what our unsympathetic system says they need. Some families can lose as much as £2,000 to £3,000 a year.

The Cap makes poor policy sense as the savings will be far outweighed by the additional costs that arise from child poverty, which Loughborough University estimates at £29bn a year across the UK.

Supporters of the cap try to make this an argument about working people versus undeserving benefit recipients, but that doesn’t hold water. The majority of the households contain at least one person who is not expected to work. This includes single parents with very young children, for whom the Benefit Cap was ruled illegal by the courts earlier this summer. Predictably, UK ministers intend to appeal.

If the UK government doesn't end the cap, which the Scottish Government has rightly called on them to do, we can use powers we now have in Scotland to reverse the damage. The Scottish Government already provides around £8m to mitigate the Benefit Cap, and a few more million would mean that Local Authorities would no longer have to refuse families extra help with their rent, as reported by the Child Poverty Action Group Scotland.

This week also saw the launch of the 'Give Me 5' campaign, which aims to get the Scottish Government to use its new powers to increase the value of Child Benefit by £5 a week. Research by the University of York suggests this could lift 30,000 children out of poverty. The campaign is supported by a wide array of organisations from across civic Scotland, and Greens were the only party to be elected on a pledge to introduce a top-up.

Earlier this year I amended the Child Poverty Bill so that governments must annually consider using the power to top-up Child Benefit. The current SNP government will soon have to decide whether to support my amendment, or try to block it.

The Scottish Government argues that a £5 top-up will not be spent exclusively on the poorest families but the same argument could be made against any universal benefit or service, including the State Pension and NHS. Child Benefit is one of the most effective benefits we have. We know it is spent for the purposes it is intended – on children's food and clothes – and it has the highest take-up of any benefit apart from the Basic State Pension, at around 96%.

Child Benefit is also a very reliable benefit, all that is left once other payments have been sanctioned or delayed. As well as being more expensive to administer, means-tested benefits tend to have a lower take-up, so we can't be confident that the money will get where it needs to go.

Any new system we build in Scotland needs to recognise the damage recent benefit reforms have done. Part of this will involve properly supporting our poorest families using the new social security powers, and a conversation about a more progressive tax system will have to come along with it.

We need to make benefits easier to access, even paying them without the need for an application and offering benefits advice along with health services, as now will be done nationwide as a result of Green action.

We need to reduce fear and bewilderment for people around the process of applying for social security. Perhaps most fundamentally of all, we need to challenge the divisive idea that social security is about 'us' and 'them'. Because when the poorest families can afford a good standard of living, everyone benefits.

This article first appeared in the National.