The latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that in May 2017, around 3,700 households in Scotland, containing more than 11,000 children, were subject to the benefit cap, losing on average £57 per week. Almost two thirds of those households are lone parents, with around three quarters having a child under 5 years old.
The Scottish Government continues to oppose the benefit cap. It is clearly impacting hardest on low-income families with children, which is why we have repeatedly called on the UK Government to reverse the policy.
I certainly echo the call on the UK Government to reverse the benefit cap and a long list of its other vindictive and unnecessary welfare changes.
Although the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government should not be left in the position of merely mitigating the effects of the policies, the Scottish Government has a role in protecting people. It has currently allocated £8 million for mitigation of the lowering of the benefit cap, but we have shown that the resulting gap—the reduction in overall spend through the benefit system—is £11 million. Given that the cap’s impact on households is even more severe than that of the bedroom tax, but the overall budgetary impact of fully mitigating it would be less, is not it clear that the Scottish Government should strain every sinew to fill the gap, which currently stands at just £3 million? Would not that make a massive difference to the people in Scotland who are affected by the policy?
I am grateful to Mr Harvie for that supplementary question. I completely agree with him that it is not the role of the Scottish Government or, indeed, of the Scottish Parliament “merely” to mitigate the worst effects of what the United Kingdom Government’s policies inflict on the people whom we represent, so I gently and respectfully say to him that it is a little ironic that he went on to suggest that we do precisely that.
Future spending is a matter for the budget. As Mr Harvie rightly said, we have allocated £8.1 million to local authorities for discretionary housing payments in order to mitigate, in part, the damaging impact of the lowering of the benefit cap. That is a £6 million increase on last year’s Department for Work and Pensions allocation, and local authorities retain their discretion to top up the discretionary housing payment funds. As I said, future spending is a matter for the budget, so the allocation for DHPs will be discussed by the Scottish Government with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. We are happy to hear suggestions on the DHP allocation and overall spending, but those suggestions should come with suggestions on how additional funding commitments can be met.
If the Scottish Government is so concerned about the effects of the benefit cap, why is there no provision in the minister’s Social Security (Scotland) Bill to deal with it? In particular, why is there no provision in the bill to provide for the creation of new benefits, which was a key part of the Smith commission package on welfare devolution?
Members are certainly upping the irony stakes in today’s portfolio question time. I am almost speechless—but not quite.
As Mr Tomkins well knows, ministers have the powers to create new benefits. That is precisely what we are doing in replacing the sure start grant with our best start grant, which will bring a considerable increase in financial support to mothers for not only their first child, but for all subsequent children. That is unlike the UK Government’s grant, which stops at the first child.
Mr Tomkins is quite wrong to say that there is somehow a failing in our condemnation of what the UK Government is doing around the benefit cap. I concur completely with Mr Harvie that there are many other areas of the UK Government’s welfare approach that require condemnation—if members of that Government would but listen to us. Mr Tomkins is quite wrong to suggest that we are deliberately and wilfully choosing not to act in this regard. We do not require the Social Security (Scotland) Bill to provide us with powers that we already have.