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Today’s debate takes place in the week that Professor Philip Alston, who is the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, will visit Scotland as part of a wider UK visit to consider the links between poverty and human rights. As Professor Alston and the UN believes, the Scottish Government believes that poverty is an urgent and pressing human rights concern that requires action from all of us. Therefore, I hope that his visit enlightens him about the reality of poverty across the UK for so many people; about the concerted work of this Government, our local authorities and the third sector to tackle poverty and inequalities, particularly child poverty; and about Scotland’s record on standing up for human rights. I hope that he will also realise that, despite those efforts, child poverty is set to rise because of the UK Government’s continued onslaught of welfare cuts—cuts that in Scotland alone will mean that social security spending will reduce by an eye-watering £3.7 billion in 2020-21.
Like many members, I had hoped that last week’s UK budget statement would reverse some of the most damaging impacts of UK Government welfare cuts. Unfortunately, despite improvements to work allowances, the fundamental changes that the Scottish Government along with many others called for have not been made, and the UK Government’s approach to welfare is set to continue to drive more people into poverty.
Will the cabinet secretary explain how the Scottish Government proposes to use its ample powers to top up reserved benefits and to create new benefits, rather than just grieving about welfare cuts that other people are introducing? What does the Scottish Government propose to do about it?
The Scottish Government intends to stand up for the people of Scotland in the face of the UK Government’s cuts. Perhaps, when is considering what is said today, Adam Tomkins will reflect on what he would like us to cut from our current budget, since he would like us to use those powers.
We will continue to press the UK Government to ensure that the changes are made.
The UK Government scrapped its own child poverty targets, so it is particularly disturbing that the welfare cuts have hit families hard. In particular, larger families and lone parents are badly affected. In its first year of implementation, the two-child limit alone reduced the incomes of about 3,800 families in Scotland by up to £2,780 per year. That situation will worsen year on year.
The welfare changes that have been introduced by successive UK Governments since 2010 are set to increase child poverty in Scotland by about 8 per cent. While we try to lift people out of poverty, the Conservative Government is determined to push more families into poverty, thereby making it more challenging to meet the ambitions of the Scottish Government and Parliament on child poverty. In the face of the welfare changes, and without having full powers over welfare, employment and the living wage, we are fighting poverty with one hand tied behind our back.
All that is compounded by the systematic failure of the UK Government’s universal credit programme. When I visited Prospect Community Housing Ltd in Wester Hailes last week, tenants spoke to me about their fear about the roll-out of universal credit. One tenant spoke about how he already could not afford to heat his home and buy food, so he relies on food banks and uses a candle to light his flat in the evenings. Presiding Officer, how has it come to this?
Convention of Scottish Local Authorities evidence shows that rent arrears for people who are in receipt of universal credit in full-service areas are two and a half times higher than the average arrears for people on housing benefit. Furthermore, new figures that came out today from the Trussell Trust show that there has been a 15 per cent increase in food-bank use in Scotland in just six months, compared to this time last year. Benefit-payment delays and the five-week wait are key reasons for that increase. That is against a backdrop of an average increase of 52 per cent in food-bank use in areas that have had universal credit in place for a year or more. [
I know that this might be difficult for Adam Tomkins to hear, but he would do well to listen to the Trussell Trust instead of carping from the sidelines during the debate.
The fact that universal credit is causing avoidable and unnecessary harm is beyond doubt. The long list of the failings of universal credit means that the situation is set to get bleaker.
The minimum in-built five-week wait for a first payment causes much of the harm. The National Audit Office found that a fifth of all clients are not paid their full universal credit entitlement on time, and that about 13 per cent did not receive any payment at all. The Department for Work and Pensions does not expect the situation to improve significantly. If universal credit is supposed to mirror the world of work, it should be paid on time and in full.
The minimum income floor for self-employed people, which makes unreasonable assumptions about the amount of money that a person must earn while on universal credit, is a clear disincentive to people who might be considering self-employment.
As I have mentioned, the two-child cap policy and the rape clause are completely unacceptable, deeply harmful and fundamental violations of human rights—despite what members of the Conservative Party might think. In June, it was revealed by the DWP that 190 women across the UK had had to fill in an eight-page form to prove that their child was conceived as a result of rape, in order that they could receive the financial support to which their child was entitled. That is a disgrace. The two-child limit must be scrapped with immediate effect, and the abhorrent rape clause with it.
In addition, evidence shows that the UK Government’s punitive approach to benefit sanctions and conditionality is not only ineffective but is having a damaging effect on the health and wellbeing of people, as well as pushing them into poverty.
During another recent visit, I was told about the case of a man who had phoned his local citizens advice bureau to arrange to get a food parcel. The man had been sanctioned after missing an appointment at his jobcentre, which was several miles away in a different town, and he could not afford the fares to go there. The client had mental health issues and the CAB was aware that he had gone without eating for days at a time and had received food parcels in the past. He also wanted to know whether he would be able to get some toilet paper and cleaning products at the food bank. The CAB marked his case as “starvation while waiting for universal credit”. It is simply beyond comprehension that our welfare system, which is supposed to be a safety net, has become so punitive that it is driving people to destitution.
A Westminster Work and Pensions Committee report that was published today recommends that the DWP
“work with experts to develop a programme of voluntary employment support” for disabled people. That is exactly the approach that we are now taking in Scotland in our main devolved employability programme. Today’s committee report highlights once again the failings in the whole conditionality and sanctions regime, which is why it needs urgently to be reviewed.
Next year will see the managed migration phase of universal credit begin to be rolled out. It will require people who are claiming working tax credits to make a new claim for universal credit or risk losing their benefit entitlements. In addition, by the UK Government’s own estimate, a third of those who are due to switch to universal credit during managed migration will be people with disabilities or long-term health conditions. Given what we know about the state of universal credit so far, that is extremely concerning.
Before Conservative members rise to defend the changes that were announced in the budget, I ask them whether they really know what those changes mean in practice. Many of the changes will not come into force for years. The repayment period for advances will increase by six months, but not until October 2021, which is three years away. The two-week run-on in legacy benefits will not be in place until July 2020, which is 21 months away. Universal credit needs to be fixed now, not to have the smallest of sticking plasters applied over the next couple of years.
The increases to work allowances for people with children and people with disabilities are welcome as far as they go, but they undo only half of the 2015 cuts.
Devastatingly for many households, the benefits freeze remains in place. It has led to a reduction in spending of about £190 million in the current financial year. To have increases in the cost of living with no increase in the level of benefits that people rely on is unfair and illogical. So much for the end of austerity.
The Scottish Government is using the limited powers that we have to try to make delivery of universal credit better suited to those who need to claim it. Since October 2017, our universal credit Scottish choices have meant that people have had the options to receive their universal credit award twice monthly, and to have the housing costs element in their award paid directly to their landlord, whether they are in the private or social rented sector. Take-up has been high, with about 32,000 people, or almost 50 per cent, taking up one or both of those options. That provides us with good evidence that people want more flexibility and adaptability in how they receive the support that they are entitled to, which adds weight to the argument that further changes to the DWP benefit system are needed.
Scotland is also committed to introducing split payments to provide an independent income to all universal credit claimants, and to promote equality in the social security system. We continue to engage with a wide range of stakeholders and people who are in receipt of universal credit in order to help us to develop the policy on how payments should be split. We will make an announcement on that in due course.
I know that there will be calls from some people—we have heard them already today—for the Scottish Government to do more to mitigate the cuts that are coming from Westminster. This year, we are spending £125 million on welfare mitigation alone. However, we cannot get ourselves into a position where the UK Government continues to slash and burn its way through our welfare state while the Scottish Government is expected to take money from other budgets to somehow paper over the cracks of that crumbling system. This Parliament, which most of us campaigned long and hard for, is here to do so much more than just pick up the pieces from failed Westminster Tory austerity policies.
I therefore once again urge the UK Government to listen to the evidence, to make the necessary changes to universal credit, to reverse the cuts that it is inflicting and to help us to raise people out of poverty.
That the Parliament welcomes the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights to the UK and in particular to Scotland this week as part of his visit to investigate the link between poverty and the realisation of human rights in the UK; condemns the unacceptable damage that the UK Government’s welfare reform policies are causing across Scotland, and the subsequent negative impact on poverty levels; agrees that Universal Credit is causing debt and hardship across Scotland’s communities and calls on the UK Government to immediately halt the roll-out of this; notes the conclusions of the Scottish Government’s 2018 welfare reform report, which highlights that the UK Government’s welfare cuts will lead to a £3.7 billion fall in social security spending in Scotland in 2020-21, including a £370 million reduction due to the benefit freeze; further notes that the appalling two-child limit has already reduced the income of 3,800 families in Scotland and this number is set to grow year on year and will result in a £92 million cut for families by 2020-21; raises concerns that UK Government tax and welfare changes since 2010 are estimated to increase the number of children living in relative poverty in Scotland by 8%; believes that the UK Government failed in its autumn Budget to support the poorest in society by lifting the current benefit freeze and addressing the fundamental flaws in Universal Credit, and welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to ensuring that dignity, fairness and respect are at the heart of Scotland’s new social security system.
A great deal has been said about universal credit since last Monday’s budget. Much of the commentary has been balanced and constructive, but some of it has been less so and has—dare I say it—involved points that are more politically motivated than related to the situation on the ground.
Much of the rhetoric has again implied that the systems that universal credit has replaced were working well and addressing issues of poverty. That is not the case. Experts at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have pointed out that, with working tax credits, working for more than 16 hours a week made little sense, because the gain from earnings was negligible as benefits were withdrawn. That system was driven by the wrong incentives.
By 2011, the UK was one of the worst-performing countries in Europe for workless households—it ranked 28th out of 28. The system was far too complex and error prone. Claimants had to deal with layer upon layer of interacting benefits, which all had their own rules and procedures.
I will not at the moment. I need to make progress.
In 2009-10, error and fraud were estimated to have cost the taxpayer about £5.2 billion a year. In the same year, underpayments left customers without entitlements of an estimated £1.3 billion a year in benefits and £260 million a year in tax credits. That was the legacy of Labour Government and the old systems, which the coalition Government inherited in the midst of the most damaging financial crisis of recent times.
Simplification of the system was drastically needed but, sadly, previous Governments failed to take decisive action and instead merely tinkered around the edges. Universal credit is the bold reform that we need—a system that reflects working life as it is, allows for changes to circumstances and flexes with the individual’s needs.
Work is the fundamental route out of poverty, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighted this week, and universal credit is the right vehicle. We see that in the statistics—the level of youth unemployment has fallen by more than 50 per cent since 2010; we have a record employment rate of 75.7 per cent; and, since 2010, our policies have meant that an average of 1,000 people have moved into work every day. The United Kingdom and universal credit are working.
Michelle Ballantyne said that 1,000 more people have moved into work each day over the past decade. Is not it true that the population has increased by 3 million, so the fact that more people are in work has nothing to do with the benefits system and everything to do with the population increase? Is it not also important to talk about quality work, rather than universal credit forcing people into exploitative zero-hours contracts?
I have just taken one, so I will continue.
The policy’s fundamental principles of simplifying welfare, making work pay and ensuring that those who need support receive it, are sound. I hope that few in the chamber would disagree with those aims.
Of course, universal credit has its problems. Attempting to untangle the web of previous benefits and tax credits, which are split between Her Majesty’s Treasury and the DWP, is a challenge. However, one of universal credit’s strengths is its test-and-learn approach. When something went wrong with the old system, there was no flexibility to change it. Now, changes are tested so that problems can be identified and solutions found. The UK Social Security Advisory Committee has praised that approach and welcomed the stated intention to test and learn. On numerous occasions, that approach has lent UC a flexibility that is light years ahead of any process that the previous benefits system offered.
However, it was clear that universal credit required extra funding. I raised that with Esther McVey and her colleagues, and I know that many Conservative colleagues, as well as Scottish National Party colleagues, shared that opinion. That is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement last Monday was welcome: it will boost universal credit before the roll-out of managed migration.
I know that the Scottish Government wants to talk about cuts to the welfare budget, but I believe that it will find that universal credit is more generous than the system that it is replacing. Analysis from the Resolution Foundation and the IFS confirms a boost for families on UC that is worth about £630 a year. With £1.7 billion earmarked to increase the work allowance, the UK Government is making sure not just that work pays but that it pays more, which will help 2.4 million families to work their way out of poverty.
Mr Hammond included a further £1 billion to assist with managed migration, and yesterday, we heard from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions just how that money will be spent. The debt that people are carrying when they come on to UC is a real concern. I am delighted that repayment rates will now be reduced from 40 to 30 per cent of standard income, which will help more than 600,000 families—a move that was backed by Frank Field MP.
Equally, the repayment period for advances will be extended from 12 months to 16 months, which will give people extra breathing space to get on top of their finances. For self-employed people, there will be a 12-month grace period before the minimum income floor comes into effect, which will provide 130,000 families with the best opportunity to grow a successful business. Managed migration will now happen over a longer period and in smaller batches in order to ensure a smooth transition, and there will be added protection for 500,000 people who claim the severe disability premium. Existing decisions or verification will now be used to make aspects of the process easier.
Given that the waiting period has been of concern to many members, perhaps most welcome of all is the announcement that the DWP will begin a two-week run-on for people who are in receipt of out-of-work benefits. In practical terms, that means that when an individual moves on to universal credit, they will receive an additional two weeks’ payment, which will reduce the waiting time for their first universal credit payment and help vulnerable claimants to make a smooth transition to the new system. Although universal credit is already working for the majority of claimants, that is a clear sign that the UK Government is working to resolve issues where they occur.
No one is suggesting that the change is easy or faultless, but once the reforms are complete, the system will be much less unwieldy, and we will have a social security system that reflects modern life—a system that is genuinely designed to help people to move out of poverty.
I move amendment S5M-14621.1, to leave out from “condemns” to end and insert:
“believes that a social security system should simplify benefits, encourage those who can to work and support those who cannot, and that therefore the principle of Universal Credit is correct; acknowledges the difficulties that have been experienced during the roll-out of the system; welcomes changes, such as the £1.7 billion announced in the 2018 autumn Budget, which make Universal Credit more generous than the system it replaces, and believes that, with the powers under the Scotland Act 2016 to create new benefits and top up reserved benefits, the Scottish Government can no longer justify simply criticising UK Government policy, and must now focus on its own implementation plans.”
The timing of this debate is very welcome, following the UK Government’s budget and Esther McVey’s statement, but it seems that the UK Government thinks that the debate about universal credit can be put to bed for this year. As we welcome the UN special rapporteur, I hope that we can make it clear today that more must be done and that both MPs and MSPs must act to help people who are suffering.
Although much of what I will say today will focus on universal credit, I thank third sector organisations for their briefings, which cover all aspects of welfare reform. The MS Society again makes an urgent call to end the 20m rule for personal independence payments and Inclusion Scotland makes a broader point about how disabled people have been targeted by reforms. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Human Rights Consortium Scotland remind us to take a broader view of poverty and human rights.
Scottish Labour will support the Government’s motion, but we want to amend it to urge MPs to vote down the managed migration regulations, and to urge Holyrood to look at how it can go further.
The Scottish Government often claims that we cannot mitigate all of Westminster’s cuts and that it would be better if all welfare powers were devolved. However, neither of those claims help the 120,000 people who have suffered the roll-out of universal credit to date, or the 90,000 people who have gone to food banks since April. Scottish Labour’s amendment calls for cross-party talks about what we can do right now. Looking at last week’s budget and yesterday’s announcement, it is clear that the UK Government has not gone far enough: Philip Hammond’s £1,000 boost to work allowances and Esther McVey’s failure to tackle brutal, systemic flaws are a set of fudges that do not fix universal credit.
In my Central Scotland region, 21,000 people have moved on to universal credit over the past year. They are suffering rent arrears, which have quadrupled; they are having to pay back almost £8 million in advances at a rate of 40 per cent; and they are suffering a brutal conditionality system, which is forcing workers to find more work. Those people need support now—they do not need constitutional rhetoric or for the DWP to take years’ more time.
On its own, the £1,000 partial uplift to work allowances is a welcome improvement, but it will help some people more than others. The Resolution Foundation points out that lone parents and disabled people who are toiling to pay a mortgage or do not get help paying their rent will still be worse off by £2,000 and £1,200 respectively.
Mirroring UK Labour’s 10-point action plan on universal credit, the Poverty Alliance calls for the lifting of the £370 million benefit freeze, the ending of the two-child cap and the ending of sanctions, conditionality and weeks of waiting. All those moves are urgently needed to cut through the misery of universal credit.
Yesterday’s announcement that there will be help for the self-employed and that a new lower 30 per cent collection rate will be implemented was welcome. However, although the two-week run-on payments shorten the initial wait to three weeks, people in receipt of child tax credits—again, lone parents and the working poor—are penalised, because those run-on payments will not apply to them. The delay in the implementation of those changes will not help any of the people who have already moved on to universal credit.
MPs must halt the Tories’ managed migration because, bluntly, there is nothing managed about it. There will now be more time to claim or to have payments backdated, but inherent to the design of the process is an attempt to catch people out. People on tax credits will get a time-limited invitation to apply. If they do not do so, they risk losing their transitional protection. Surely the process has to be better than that.
Here in Scotland, we should have serious, thorough discussion about how we can make people’s lives easier. Call it mitigation, but people have to be reassured that Holyrood will act and is better than this callous Tory Government. A child benefit top-up is a starting point that the give me five coalition advocates, although I know that the SNP refuses to support that call. We could also consider fast-tracking the income supplement for lone parents and the disabled—those who are still losing out because of George Osborne’s work allowance cuts.
Last week’s figures on the Scottish welfare fund and Scottish choices show that they are being well used by families across the country. We should heed the call of the Social Security Committee and increase the funding that is available in that regard—not through an uprating but through a substantial increase that not only reverses the real-terms cuts that there have been since 2014 but ensures that people in crisis can get the support that they need.
The fact that, after being asked, half of people in receipt of universal credit have taken up universal credit flexibility is good progress but, with arrears still growing, the Government must look to improve that further. The cabinet secretary mentioned split payments, but should landlord payments not be automatic, with an opt-out?
On the two-child cap, I was not here for the debate when Michelle Ballantyne set out her reasons for supporting that, but I watched it later. As I did so, I reflected on my family’s circumstances. I was one of four children. My parents worked hard—my father as a welder and my mother as a bank clerk—to support the family that they chose to have. My dad was diagnosed with a serious heart condition at the age of 37 and was unable to carry on doing the work that he was trying to do and had been doing for 20 years. Who plans for such situations when they plan to have more than two children? Who in Dundee planned for the situation that they have woken up to this morning? Where is the support network? Where is the state support that children depend on day in, day out when circumstances change beyond anyone’s comprehension?
In the talks that flow out of today’s debate, we must look at how we can use our new powers to either eradicate welfare reforms or depart from the UK Government’s direction. Just as we have banned the private sector from involvement in assessments, thereby securing dignity and respect for the terminally ill, we should consider ending the 20m rule in relation to PIP and putting in place the certainty of automatic entitlement. We should be looking to lift the earnings limit and allow full-time carers to access full-time education, providing real freedom to work and study.
Today, we can condemn the Tory Government as we have many times before. However, I hope that MPs of all parties act on the issue of managed migration. We should do so, too.
I move amendment S5M-14621.2, to insert after “roll-out of this;”:
“further agrees that MPs must act to halt the Universal Credit managed migration; notes the contribution of Scottish Choices, the Scottish Welfare Fund and mitigation of the so-called bedroom tax to help counter the impact of welfare reform; believes that cross-party talks should now take place to consider the extent to which the income supplement can protect people from the Conservative administration’s welfare reform, and how Scotland’s new powers will be best used to support carers, older people and disabled people;”.
Mark Griffin spoke of some of the organisations that have briefed us for this debate, and I think that the notable amount of briefings that we have received demonstrates the level of interest and concern that exists around universal credit.
In passing the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017, Parliament took an important step in saying that it is unacceptable to have hundreds of thousands of Scottish children growing up without access to the basics of life, such as a good diet, a warm and safe home, and toys and activities that allow them to grow and develop.
As the motion notes, we have already made some progress towards reducing poverty by setting up the new Scottish social security system. The new best start grant, which will launch shortly, will more than double the income that is available to low income families. The changes to the devolved disability benefit assessment process, made by the Green Party and supported by the Scottish Parliament, intend to ensure that people get the support that they need in as non-intrusive and dignified a way as possible.
There is positive change, but the cuts—let us call them that, not reforms or changes—risk undermining that ambition and the progress that we are making. In March, Landman Economics projected that relative child poverty will soar to 38 per cent by the late 2020s. It said:
“the forecast increase in poverty is driven by the substantial cuts to social security for families with children legislated for in the previous UK Government’s July 2015 Budget—in particular the four-year freeze on social security uprating and the two-child limit for Housing Benefit, tax credit and Universal Credit claims.”
Let us be clear. Cuts to our social security system, including to universal credit, are taking money out of the pockets and wallets of some of the poorest households in Scotland. Yes, last week’s budget reversed some of the 2015 work allowance cuts, which should never have been made in the first place, and that is welcome. However, the reversal does not apply to all universal credit recipients. For those who do not have children or who do not have disabled people in their household, the cuts remain.
That represents only £1.7 billion of the £3 billion work allowance cuts that were made by the 2015 budget. As Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies notes, universal credit is
“quite deliberately creating millions of winners and millions of losers.”
A third will be £1,000 a year worse off under universal credit, and that is not taking into account other cuts. We still have the benefit cap and the two-child limit. We still have the benefit freeze. Taking those into account, some families will lose many thousands of pounds a year. The IFS projects that, in the long-term, the poorest 10 per cent of households with children will lose £3,000 annually, as a result of tax and benefit changes. In the worst case, for a family unfortunate enough not to have parents in work, the long-term impact of tax and benefit changes is a loss of more than £4,000.
I turn to the gendered nature of the cuts, which is mentioned in the Green Party amendment. Cutting social security reduces the incomes of women disproportionately. Over the decade of austerity from 2010 to 2020, 86 per cent of net savings raised through cuts to social security will come from women’s income, placing women at a greater risk of deeper and sustained poverty. IFS figures show that, by 2022, lone-parent families, which are overwhelmingly female, will lose more than £3,000.
To take just one example, the benefit cap, in effect, targets women and their children for cuts. The latest figures, for August this year, show that almost 90 per cent of single and 91 per cent of capped households have at least one child.
Policy in Practice’s research shows that for every claimant who managed to move off the cap, more than one household is stuck on the cap for six months or more. For six months, that is a cut of £360. The average shortfall between rent and housing support for those trapped by the cap is £3,750 per year. The research shows that
“The majority of capped households showed no change in their circumstances other than a significant worsening of their living standards following the introduction of the benefit cap ... It is unlikely that the benefits of this policy, both in terms of the savings generated and the positive impacts on employment outcomes, have offset the financial costs, or crucially, the human and social costs associated with rising levels of economic destitution.”
The design of paying universal credit to only one person in a household is deeply problematic. Close the Gap argues that the single household payment of universal credit has left many women with no independent access to an income. The Women’s Budget Group is concerned that the reduction of women’s financial autonomy could result in main carers—in practice, they are usually mothers—losing clearly labelled child payments, which currently are often paid separately and can provide a lifeline to survivors of domestic abuse.
Poverty is a tragedy, because it means that hundreds of thousands of Scots, including more than 200,000 children, are growing up without access to the resources, opportunities and life chances that everyone else takes for granted. I accept that some improvements have been and are being made to universal credit, and those are welcome, but some families will still be very much worse off as a result of benefit cuts. I agree with Mark Griffin that the Parliament has a strong role to play, and I look forward to addressing that further in my closing speech.
I move amendment S5M-14621.3, to insert after first “benefit freeze”:
“; believes that these cuts are highly gendered, impacting the income of women disproportionately, and that, contrary to assurances given by the UK Government that Universal Credit would not cut incomes, some low-income families are expected to lose an average of £200 per month”.
I am grateful to the Government for bringing the motion to Parliament and to Labour and the Greens for their amendments, both of which we are happy to support.
As a Liberal, I often lean on the words of William Beveridge when we talk about social security and the welfare state, but I recognise that we have still failed to meet Beveridge’s challenge of addressing the five giant evils of ignorance, idleness, squalor, want and disease over the 60 years since he wrote those words and since my party first embarked on the project of welfare reform.
It might be surprising that my party is so full throated in its backing of the Government motion, as it is true that we were there at the genesis of the universal credit project—we embarked on it in good faith, although I admit that, had we had different partners, things might have been different. However, looking over our shoulder and gazing at what has become of the project, we do so with no small degree of abject horror at the evisceration of the work allowance; at the stubborn incompetence and the inability to address the real, practical problems associated with the roll-out; and at the two-child limit and the rape clause that stems from it, which we blocked continually in our time in office because we believe that the provision of a safety net should never have such a precondition attached to it. I associate myself with Mark Griffin’s remarks and powerful personal testimony on that. We do not believe for a second that normal family life should be denied to people who happen to fall on hard times. That is why we resisted the two-child limit throughout our time in office.
To go back to first principles, for us, it was about the provision of a national minimum by the state, which in turn should be a catalyst for social mobility. The system should be a safety net when needed, as well as a catalyst for social mobility to allow people to haul themselves out of their position. Welfare reform was a necessary undertaking in achieving that end, and many poverty campaigners agreed with that underlying principle. Our support for the motion does not mean that we abandon the principle that a degree of welfare reform was needed. However, the motion is right, and it speaks to the values that we share. We should listen to the casualties who have suffered as a result of the botched roll-out so far, heed their warnings and recognise the tremendous capacity to harm some of the most vulnerable constituents we represent.
In the first days of the roll-out, warning lights started to wink to life across the dashboard of delivery. In the debate on the same topic last month, I quoted Frank Field who, in his capacity as the chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, rightly said that Wonderland visions of welfare reform collapse on contact with real life. That is not about the original intentions of welfare reform; it is about the fact that the centre of gravity has inexorably shifted away from the original vision, as evidenced in the cuts to which my amendment refers.
Throughout our participation, we were clear that the first priority should be to protect and assure a national minimum family income—that should be the alpha and omega—and that, thereafter, the simplification and streamlining of the process would lead to savings through reduced bureaucracy; and, above all, it would incentivise work. However, the Conservatives, governing unencumbered by our influence, have demonstrated that the money-saving aspect of welfare reform has supremacy over all other considerations. We see that in the £3 billion that has been slashed from the work allowance, which undermines family income and routes into work. The theoretical starting point has been corrupted by an ideological shift away from the original intent.
To add insult to injury, the roll-out has been beset by a catalogue of errors, to demonstrable human cost: in the rent arrears that we see mounting for those who are already in direct receipt of the housing benefit component; and in the unintended penalties for the self-employed that we have heard something about.
I associate myself, again, with the remarks of Alison Johnstone, who is right to point out the iniquity of having a system that is not fleet of foot enough to recognise that families are not always united—that, by necessity, we sometimes have to divide payments between claimants, particularly in abusive spousal relationships where finance is still used as a tool of coercive control.
Above all, the plans afford no comfort to families in Edinburgh who, this Christmas, face the roll-out with an understanding of the problems that have befallen those who have gone before them; the delays are legion and they will happen over the festive period, when household incomes and budgets are already stretched to capacity.
In previous debates like this one, I have taken criticism—rightly—about my party’s role in welfare reform when in coalition. However, like in those, I point to what the Conservatives are doing now, unencumbered by our influence. There is the uncertainty about the benefits available to people and their reduction; the erosion of social mobility; and the two-child limit, which, by extension, created the rape clause.
For my party, this was a project of reform, which started with the best of intentions but now has been hopelessly derailed and corrupted by ideological right-wing intent. It needs to be stopped.
I move amendment S5M-14621.4, to insert at end:
I joined the Scottish National Party in my late teens, when I was 18 years old. At the time, my community was under siege from an uncaring Conservative Government at Westminster. The years move on but some things never seem to change.
What happened then probably defined me politically; it was at that point that I knew the type of future that I wanted for Scotland. I have changed—I have got older and have mellowed slightly—but the Tories do not seem to have done so. Even in the chamber today, we have heard Michelle Ballantyne say that universal credit is a system that tests and learns. Tests and learns—honestly, how can anyone say that? She should say that to the families in my constituency who are suffering because of universal credit. Tests and learns? It is more like tests and ignores.
What we are discussing today is one of the foremost issues that people in our country face. Although not everyone is directly affected by the introduction and implementation of universal credit, the threads run through our society.
We were told that merging the benefits would streamline the system and make it simpler and easier to access and that the transformation from benefits to work would be simpler. I do not think that I have ever come across a Government programme such as this one, which not only does not meet any of its objectives but targets those who are most in need of its services.
A social security system is something that a modern, forward-looking nation should be proud of—a helping hand for people at a time of need, whether because they lose their job or because of other changes in their circumstances that are beyond their control. Mark Griffin gave a perfect example of that when he spoke about the people in Dundee today who may have a major change in their circumstances in the near future—none of it will be their fault, but their lives could change dramatically. Every one of us could face such changes at some stage in our life; and all of us in this chamber must have been contacted by people who face such hardships.
The flaws that are to be found throughout the system are incredible. The issues have been highlighted by the National Audit Office, Citizens Advice Scotland, the Poverty Alliance, Child Poverty Scotland and many others. Whether with the migration of benefits, the loss of income, the issues with passported benefits, the reliance on online claims or the predicted increase in poverty and child poverty, universal credit has fundamental flaws.
Of the many flaws, one of the most incredible is the length of time that it takes to get an initial payment, which pushes families into debt and rent arrears. Many of those people have never been in arrears in their entire lives, having worked, paid their bills and made sure that their homes were secure. This is the first time that they face the prospect of being behind on their rent, and it is due to the delays that are inherent in the system; 73 per cent of those on universal credit are in rent arrears compared with 29 per cent of those not on universal credit.
It is easy to see what is happening in our communities because of the introduction of universal credit; usage of food banks has increased by an average of 52 per cent in areas where universal credit has been in place for more than one year. That is not insignificant. Nevertheless, we hear from the Conservatives that there are many reasons for the increased use of food banks. I would say that the issue is poverty—poverty that is brought about by a failed and flawed welfare reform programme. Can we imagine having to go to a collection office to ask for a referral, exposing ourselves to feelings that no one would wish to experience, and having to present ourselves to ask for food to feed ourselves and our family? I would like to know what the other reasons for the increase in food bank use that the Tories sound so keen on are. I find it hard sometimes to understand the mindset of those who are determined to make other people’s lives more difficult, particularly when it is those in society who need our help.
We parliamentarians have experience of dealing with people with long-term health conditions who have been affected by the welfare changes. We have seen the targeting of people with disabilities through the introduction of PIP and universal credit for those who previously claimed employment support allowance.
Presiding Officer, the life chances that you and I have been given are often harder for others to obtain, or even think of obtaining. The disability living allowance and ESA were there to provide people with the ability to lead a life with equality of freedom and access.
I am not the only one who has witnessed the changes over recent years. The removal or reduction of DLA has changed many people’s lives. There are stories of those who are unable to work being pressured to take employment. One of my constituents served in the Army and got a medal for his time in Afghanistan. He was assessed for work on the Tuesday and informed the assessor that he was being treated for cancer and was having an operation two days later. That young man was immediately passed fit for work.
The sanctions associated with the system are another way in which people in need are targeted. What do we do with people in hard situations who have little money and find it hard to get by? They get sanctioned. Most members in the chamber will know the story of my constituent who had a heart attack and could not sign on. He told that to the jobcentre, but he was sanctioned nonetheless. Even if someone has a heart attack and is in the hospital, they are still sanctioned under this uncaring Tory Government. That is what Tory welfare reform is all about. Where is the dignity? Where is the respect? Where is the understanding that life’s events happen?
The Scottish Government should not pay for Westminster’s mistakes. Our Scottish Government will continue to make the right decisions. A social security system with dignity and respect should be at the centre of a truly fair society. I might have changed since I joined the Scottish National Party and things might have moved on, but one thing that we can guarantee is that we can never trust a Tory.
It goes without saying that there has been renewed discussion about the impact of universal credit and its effectiveness in recent weeks and months, and I welcome that discussion. We all agree that the roll-out should be done as sensitively as possible and that it should consider, first and foremost, the people whom the system set out to support.
As the Chancellor of the Exchequer said last week:
“Universal credit is here to stay”.—[
, 29 October 2018; Vol 648, c 667.]
It is our duty to make sure that it becomes the success that it was designed to be.
A couple of weeks ago, I put on record my concerns about universal credit and called on the UK Government to implement it in a way that saw no one left behind. I called for measures to be put in place to reform the system before its full roll-out, and I asked that the most vulnerable in our society be reassured that their concerns would be listened to.
It is clear from today’s debate in the chamber that concerns will continue to be raised, but it is important that we recognise that there is fundamental support for the principle behind universal credit and that the UK Government will listen and respond—as it has done—to concerns as it is rolled out.
I have seen the effects of being trapped in a benefits system, with little opportunity to enter the workforce. When lain Duncan Smith MP visited Easterhouse in 2002, he recognised that the policies that were in place at that time simply did not work. He saw the need to give people an alternative to a life on benefits, and one that provides a safety net when it is needed most and that ensures that work will always pay.
That is the point: work is essential to tackling poverty. People who are out of work are much more likely to fall into poverty when they live in a workless household. We must support simplifying a welfare system that ensures that it always pays to work. It made no sense that, under Labour, the benefits system was so complicated that, for some people, there was little point in working more because they would lose more in benefits than they would earn in work.
Third sector organisations have supported the principle of universal credit. Just this week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that universal credit had
“large potential benefits from simplification and getting rid of the weakest work incentives.”
Last month, the Resolution Foundation said that the prize of a far simpler social security system was “well worth holding onto”.
The implementation of universal credit is as important as its guiding principles. The UK Government has listened to concerns and changes have been made over time. In 2017, the UK Government recognised the practical difficulties of implementing the system and made a number of changes totalling £1.5 billion in investment. An interest-free advance of up to a month’s worth of universal credit was made available from January 2018; the seven-day waiting period was removed from February; and from April 2018, those already on housing benefit could receive their award for the first two weeks of their universal credit claim.
Two weeks ago, changes made during the 2018 budget were welcomed: according to the IFS and the Resolution Foundation, the changes made universal credit more generous than the system that it replaced. The chancellor announced that, as of April 2019, universal credit claimants will benefit from a £1,000 increase in in-work allowances, meaning that working parents and people with disabilities on universal credit will be £630 a year better off.
I am sorry, but I have a lot to get through.
From October 2019, claimants will be able to repay overpayments and debt more slowly; and from October 2021, people will no longer have to repay advances. Having listened and responded to concerns about the roll-out, the UK Government has extended the managed migration schedule to conclude in December 2023.
Only yesterday, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey, announced new changes, including extending the deadline for claimants to move on to universal credit from one month to three months. As universal credit is rolled out, the UK Government will continue to listen to concerns.
Let us not forget that the Scottish Government has significant new powers when it comes to welfare policy. The Scotland Act 2016 devolved to the Scottish Parliament the power to introduce new benefits and to top up any reserved benefits as it sees fit. If the Scottish Government is serious about developing a fair and affordable welfare system, now is the time to prove it.
As has been said, the Scottish Government is facing its own hurdles when it comes to social security.
I am in the last minute of my speech.
The SNP Government has talked up its new social security bases, but now we learn that it has no idea where staff are going to be working across Scotland. The Government has been stalling for so long on a timeline for the plans for new benefits that the independent Office of Budget Responsibility has been unable to work out how much they will cost.
To finish, I stress again that the principles behind the UK Government’s welfare reforms are the right ones. The extra support in the budget is very welcome and I hope that it can alleviate many of the concerns that have been raised so far, including mine.
Today’s debate gives, I hope, a real opportunity to hear from the SNP Government about its genuine proposals to deliver welfare reform, now that it has significant powers to do so. That would be a positive move in the right direction on welfare.
This debate on universal credit is vitally important, although the matters that we must discuss are deeply unwelcome.
Universal credit sits at the heart of a UK welfare reform agenda—in reality, it is a cuts agenda—that will remove around £3.7 billion from social security spending in Scotland by 2021. These are not simply numbers in a budget line; rather, they are cuts that will push families below the breadline. That is simply unacceptable.
Let me say from the outset that I believe that universal credit is an ideologically driven endeavour by the Conservatives. It is deliberately punitive and will inflict harm on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
There are many aspects of universal credit that I consider cruel and unreasonable, but what really gives the game away is that a new claimant must wait at least five weeks before they can receive any of the cash that they are entitled to.
The system is deliberately designed to ensure that those who are most in need are left waiting without funds. The minimum is a five-week wait.
In its June 2018 report, the National Audit Office stated that
“in 2017, around one quarter (113,000) of new claims were not paid in full on time.”
Late payments were delayed by four weeks on average; staggeringly, from January to October last year, 40 per cent of those who were affected by late payments waited 11 weeks or more.
This year, as universal credit rolls out across my city of Glasgow, the National Audit Office estimates that up to 338,000 new claimants will not be paid in full at the end of their first assessment period. That is the reality. Many of my constituents are already being told by the new and harsh universal credit system to wait for five weeks before they get even a single penny of what they are entitled to. Although they are entitled to it, they will still not get their money—
Let me make some progress.
They will still not get their money after that five-week wait.
I note that, in certain circumstances, the DWP can provide an advance payment, but that is a loan that must be paid back. Claimants are often not aware of that potential advance. When they inquire, they are asked whether they can borrow money from family or friends or whether there are other sources from which they can get money. What a question to ask one of my constituents. Delay a vulnerable family’s cash or deny them their cash and then suggest that they lean on others, who may well be experiencing poverty, too. Further, some “other sources” of income in a community charge eye-watering interest rates. After delaying unemployed people’s benefits, are we asking them to seek a payday loan when they are out of work? Worse still, there are some very unsavoury people out there and desperate constituents could ask them for an advance of money when the DWP advises them to go to “other sources” before getting anything from it. Forty per cent of the claimants who have to wait at least five weeks do not receive an advance loan. Some may have personal funds or have family members who can afford to assist, but I worry about where the others are turning—
I want to make progress. I have probably heard enough of Mr Tomkins, to be fair.
Those claimants have to go elsewhere to survive—I worry about where they are going.
As currently constructed, universal credit is, to many, a cruel system that is deliberately delivering indebtedness by design. I grew up in the 1980s; in my house, a provy cheque was how birthdays were paid for and a catalogue was how we paid for Christmas, but people got their benefits. Some of my constituents will go for the provy cheques and catalogues but will not get their benefits. The system is ridiculous and inhumane.
The reality for too many individuals and families is the 15 per cent increase in food bank use in Scotland in the five months to September this year, due to that in-built minimum wait of five weeks. The Trussell Trust has said that, when universal credit goes live in an area, there is a demonstrable increase in demand at local food banks. On average, food banks see a 52 per cent increase in demand 12 months after the roll-out of universal credit.
On Friday last week, I held a universal credit information event in Possilpark in my constituency. I thank Glasgow North West Citizens Advice Bureau and NG Homes for their support, councillors Gow and McLaren for attending and Possilpoint community centre for hosting us. It was one of five events that I have held to date, working in partnership with Citizens Advice Scotland, local housing associations, Patrick Grady MP and local councillors. The concerns that were raised at those events illustrate the other deep flaws in the universal credit system. The people offering support at the information events have witnessed at first hand how individuals and groups with poor literacy skills, low or non-existent information technology skills, limited or no access to computers and a lack of affordable broadband have often been left high and dry due to the digital by default aspects of making a claim for benefits or the need to maintain an online journal evidencing their attempts to seek work. Inclusion Scotland has spoken about disabled people being targeted. Thirty-five per cent of disabled people have no access to the internet, whereas the general figure across the country is 10 per cent. That is cruel and inhumane, and it is by design.
I ask why sanctions are not abolished, given that, frankly, they are counterproductive. The Public and Commercial Services Union, whose members have to handle the system, wants sanctions to be abolished. We must not make my vulnerable constituents wait for five weeks. This can change, and we must change it.
I worked as a front-line housing officer for around six years. It was a very rewarding and, at times, tough job, and it offered a good grounding for becoming a councillor and a member of the Scottish Parliament, because I saw at first hand the daily struggles and challenges that are faced by people who are just trying to get by.
In that job, dealing with the benefits system—in particular, the housing benefit system—took up around half my workload. Helping tenants to complete new claim forms, providing evidence of income or changes of circumstances, advising when people started or ended a job and dealing with errors, mistakes and overpayments dominated my work. All those aspects impacted on the ability of the tenant and their family to afford their rent, feed their family and, ultimately, keep a roof over their head.
Like almost every housing officer in the country, I had to go through the formal process of evicting people. If I recall correctly, I think that I did it a dozen times. On only two occasions was the tenant still at the property when the eviction took place. Every other time, the tenant had abandoned the property in desperation; on the odd occasion, they had never moved in. The occasions when someone was there were awful. It was a horrible experience and a desperate situation. Every housing officer in the country bends over backwards to avoid such a scenario.
Today, those staff are dealing with people who are in crisis. They are dealing with individuals or families with illness or disability, people who might be suffering a mental health crisis and people in debt, who cannot feed themselves or their family and who are at risk of destitution. Many families in such a position have working parents who are doing their best but are having to battle a system that is broken.
Universal credit is in chaos—the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, the Poverty Alliance, Citizens Advice Scotland, councils and charities all tell us that. The only people who pretend that it is not are members of the Tory party, who appear to be saying that all those organisations must be telling lies. There has been a series of problems with delivery. People lose out because the conditionality goal posts have moved. The use of sanctions is increasing. There are delays in payments: there is a five-week wait for initial payment as well as delays in on-going payments. There is a lack of support for people who do not know how to use IT systems. Those are all very real problems in the here and now.
I am sure that all of us support the principle of simplifying the social security system, but simplification is just a cover story for what the welfare reform process is really about. It is about the systematic slashing of the benefits safety net for the most vulnerable people. It is about a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. It is all part of the Tory class war on the poor, which was so cruelly articulated by Michelle Ballantyne in her offensive and discriminatory comments of two weeks ago, which were passively endorsed by every Tory member—not one of them has spoken out about those comments.
No one in Scotland or across the United Kingdom should face destitution or abject poverty—the UK is the sixth richest country in the world, for God’s sake. We should be ashamed of that fact, and we should be ashamed that life expectancy is falling for the first time in decades and that one in four Scottish children lives in poverty.
We hear a lot of clichéd talk about the state being a corporate parent. What kind of parent, as an act of policy, inflicts such misery on their children? What kind of parent forces a £28 a week cut on households with a disabled child? What kind of parent penalises their children because their mother was raped? What kind of parent supports a policy that results in an increase in the number of evictions of families with children? I will tell members what kind of parent—an uncaring, neglectful and abusive corporate parent.
The welfare reform process is an all-out assault on the low paid, the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. Families are losing thousands of pounds a year. In Scotland, 470,000 people are not getting the real living wage of £9 an hour. That represents an increase of 30,000 on the previous year. We have heard about the rise in the use of food banks. Kettle packs are being distributed to allow people who do not have a cooker or cannot afford to put it on to feed themselves. The need for crisis loans is up and rent arrears are up. In local government, support services such as lunch clubs, breakfast clubs and youth work are being decimated. There is a crisis in mental health, whereby desperate people are unable to get the support that they need. It is the toxic combination of low pay, benefit cuts and the erosion of essential public services—the ones that hold our society together—that is causing so much damage.
Tory politicians have the brass neck to come to this Parliament and talk about mental health, inequality, poverty and housing. It is the duty of every one of us to call them out on their hypocrisy, their unwillingness to face reality and their disregard for people in our society whom they deem unworthy of support.
The Tories exist to increase inequality. They exist to attack the low paid, the disabled and the vulnerable. Let me tell the Tories this: we will not give them a moment’s peace until this appalling system is scrapped.
It is with a heavy heart that I rise to speak. I am ashamed, angry and despondent that, in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, we have in the 21st century a situation in which the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting even richer.
That situation is solely due to the Westminster Government’s policy choices and is so bad that it attracts international attention and condemnation from the United Nations and other bodies concerned about human rights. I am mortified.
The roll-out of universal credit began in Aberdeen last Monday and, to be honest, all of us who are in any way involved are just dreading the consequences. The public sector agencies involved, Citizens Advice Scotland locally, food banks, housing providers and my own staff all expect to see a rise in demand for their services. Regardless of how well prepared we are in terms of attending courses or reading up on the changes, we are all fearful. I am especially grateful to Stuart Reid, money adviser in Aberdeen City Council’s financial inclusion team, for all his efforts to keep us informed of all the likely consequences of the roll-out of universal credit in Aberdeen
No one would disagree that the social security system needed to be simplified, as different benefits were changed over time and the system became overly complicated, but no one—no one apart from the Tories—agrees that it should be an opportunity to make the poor poorer by reducing the amount of money available.
It needs to be remembered that the biggest part of the social security bill is pensions and, even then, we have in the UK one of the lowest state pensions in Europe. Westminster needs to reorganise its finances to meet the electorate’s demand to live in a society that looks after those who fall on hard times and need the safety net that a universal social security system provides, as Neil Findlay so graphically illustrated.
Instead, along with its supporters in some of the red tops, the Westminster Government loves to give the impression that the burden of social security payments is doled out to the “feckless poor”, who just want to live on benefits for their whole lives. Exceptionally few people want to live with the indignity of living on benefits—I have never had experience of people wanting to live on benefits in all my time as an elected politician, whether as a councillor for one of the poorest parts of Aberdeen or as an MSP with a very diverse constituency.
I ask the member to be careful in the language that she chooses. It is not an indignity to live on benefits; for some people, it is their only option. I ask her please to be careful when she says that.
I take the member’s point. What I meant was that people do not want to live on benefits—that it is not their choice.
The downturn in the oil industry demonstrated starkly the need for a universal social security system, when quite a number of my constituents who had been in well-paid jobs contacted me to say how appalled they were at how little they were expected to live on when they became unemployed.
Until they needed it themselves, they had not realised just how poor the pay-outs were, and that was before the introduction of universal credit. That is why we saw a man come to access the food bank in his Porsche, and before the Tories ask why he did not get rid of it, it was probably on some finance scheme.
In the week in which the roll-out of universal credit began in Aberdeen, a Community Food Initiatives North East food bank was already distributing centrally its highest-ever level of food parcels. CFINE is considering cutting its wider distribution in the north-east. Whether the Trussell Trust, my local food banks or anyone else says so, there is, as the cabinet secretary has said, no doubt that universal credit increases food bank use and makes the poor even poorer.
The cabinet secretary and others have mentioned the punitive rape clause and other punitive sanctions. Nothing illustrated those matters more starkly to me than what happened to one of my constituents, who fostered the child of her brother, who had died, and then went on to have two children of her own. She was caught by the two-child rule. The Child Poverty Action Group took the Government to court on that issue and won, but we have still waited for months for the Government to take corrective action. What message does that send out to people who might consider fostering?
I cannot for the life of me understand why the Tories think that it is acceptable to wait for five weeks for universal credit or what folk are supposed to do in the meantime. Even though people can expect an advance, they are expected to pay that back, which will further reduce their income. The Tories must think that everyone gets a large redundancy payment, although the opposite is the case, especially if the person is on a zero-hours contract, a short-term contract or the minimum wage.
Universal credit is causing misery to thousands of people across Scotland. We have already demonstrated in Scotland that we can treat people with dignity and respect with the benefits that we control. It is time that we had control of all of them.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
We are talking about a welfare system that exists as a safety net for those who need extra help and support and to help people into work, where possible.
I wanted to discuss the roll-out of universal credit, because being a list MSP can have its advantages. I get to work across several constituencies. Some time ago, I visited a couple of offices to see how they were rolling out universal credit and met people who had moved on to it.
One of the offices that I went to see has a fantastic approach to universal credit. It has a very good outreach programme, and there is recognition of people who may have mental health issues or related issues. People go to them rather than insist that they go into the office. Meetings are sometimes held in people’s houses or on walks, and they are working towards eventually taking the meetings back into the jobcentre. It is recognised that there can be stages in people’s development prior to their being fit for work, and that office has not applied a single sanction in over two years. When I spoke to the group, it came across strongly that there was an initial fear around universal credit because of the rhetoric in the media, led by politicians, but there was relief and recognition that the system that people are now in was much improved compared with the complicated system that they had left.
In contrast, I visited another office in which there was an insistence that all applicants appear at the jobcentre. That leads some people into anxiety, missed appointments and all the issues that ensue.
Why have two jobcentres that are not too far apart and which receive the same instruction and framework developed two completely different policies? If we are really interested in developing a fair welfare system, that is where we should be doing our work. We should be working out why jobcentres can take the framework and come up with two different approaches.
Millions of pounds go unclaimed every year. That is a failure of the system, and another area that we could and should be focused on if we have a genuine interest in those in the system at the core of our thought process. No social security system will ever be perfect, of course—there will always be cracks in the system, and people will slip through them—but we need to ensure that we work to close the gaps.
I thank Keith Brown for that intervention, because that is a topic that I wanted to intervene on earlier. East Ayrshire is in my South Scotland region. When I visited its food bank centre recently, we were informed that the centre has managed to reduce the use of the food bank by 30 per cent. That message is not getting out. The centre has managed to gather services, including the DWP, so that, when someone meets the eligibility threshold, they understand what help is available to them and that all the help that should be available to them is available to them.
We should be learning from the different approaches across all areas. As I said, the message about the work that is under way is not getting out, because it does not fit in with certain political rhetoric and agenda.
Last Friday, I visited a local credit union. Credit unions do not get enough oxygen. They help in a small way to start with, by providing small loans and helping people to develop money management skills. That in turn helps them to develop a better credit rating. Many of us take such life skills for granted, but developing those skills is a must for those who have not had that opportunity.
It is obvious from the mess that Labour created when it was in power that the system had to change. Keith Brown, who was then the minister responsible for welfare, said:
“We agree that reform is needed. We also agree that the system should incentivise work, that it should be simpler and, of course, that it must be affordable ... It is worth restating that we believe that the overall model of universal credit has some merits”.—[
21 March 2012; c 7498, 7500.]
It seemed to me that every Gordon Brown budget endeavoured to complicate the system more and more. A large proportion of the working population was eligible for tax credit, even those who were on a decent salary. The system was unwieldy and massively complicated, and was responsible for many claimants falling into debt.
As for the SNP, it has some gall to bring this topic to the chamber. All that it has done, at every opportunity, is duck the issue. Let me be frank: the subject has been on its agenda since the announcement of the independence referendum in 2012. I remind members that the SNP said that it could devolve a working welfare state in 18 months. After much carping, the SNP gained control of a third of working-age benefit, which is about £3 billion. The first thing that it did was hand back the powers for an initial three years, then for a further two years to the end of this parliamentary term. After nine years of consideration, we have still to hear an SNP policy. It is easier for the SNP to discuss with warm words what it intends to do than it is for it to explain the consequences of taking responsibility. As the SNP is discovering, that is hard, but so is government.
This should be a debate about welfare but it is not; it is a debate about deflection, the abdication of responsibility and grievance. It is poor fare, and Scotland deserves better.
So far in this debate, I have heard that universal credit has three aims. The first is to allow those people who are fit and able to work to get back to work. The second is to ensure that work pays, and the best way to do that is to pay a living wage—a real living wage and not the Tory version. The third is to simplify the benefits system. I think that everyone across the chamber agrees with those three objectives.
However, there is a fourth objective, which is very important to any benefits system. When people are on benefits, whether that is for a short period or for a lifetime, we must use the benefits system to ensure that their standard and quality of living is as good as that of the rest of the community. It is not a safety system that gives people only the minimum so that they must live hand to mouth. Every other country in Europe has a social security system that prides itself on ensuring that, during a period of unemployment or sickness, or during any other period when people have to live on benefit, their quality and standard of living is up to scratch.
Those countries have such a system for two reasons. First, in principle and from a humane point of view, it is absolutely the right thing to have. They also have it for the benefit of society. Report after report shows, for example, that as with the Danish social security system—which is one of the highest paying in terms of unemployment benefit—it pays the state to pay higher levels of benefit during unemployment than the pittance that people get in the United Kingdom. The evidence shows that people take the time not just to find a job, but to find the right job for them; to retrain; to get a new career; and to make sure that, when they go back into work, it is work of the right kind.
The system in this country forces people into short-term work, antisocial work and low-paid work; it forces them into inappropriate work for their skills. The result is continual churn. In Denmark, when people go into work they are usually in that job for years before they become unemployed again; in this country, we see our people end up back on the buroo very shortly after getting into work. That is because it has been done in completely the wrong way.
Therefore, it is not just universal credit that we need to deal with. In Scotland and in the United Kingdom, we need to completely rethink what we need our social security system to do.
Even in terms of the UK Government’s objectives of simplifying the system, getting more people into work and incentivising people to work, universal credit—
I will do so in a minute.
Universal credit fails in all three objectives. Proportionally, it has not got more people into work. As the cabinet secretary said, we have seen an increase in population of 3 million and many of the people going into work are those who are coming into the labour market for the first time, either through immigration or by reaching working age. In reality, what has universal credit done? It has driven hundreds and thousands of people into dire poverty and, in some extreme cases, to suicide.
I always enjoy listening to Mr Neil in these debates; although I did not agree with his last point, I agree with a lot of what he said.
Does Mr Neil agree that, under universal credit, claimants are more likely than they were under the legacy system to be in work, to stay in work longer and to be earning higher wages? Those are three reasons why, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, universal credit is working on the ground.
I do not think that, overall, the evidence has proven that. I see quite the opposite with universal credit. If we take the example of people not getting money for five weeks, it is driving people into poverty.
I am not saying that the Tories are evil. I am absolutely sure that, when Iain Duncan-Smith designed this benefit, he was well intentioned. However, George Osborne completely ruined it by making £12 billion of cuts to universal credit, only a small percentage of which was reinstated by the chancellor in last week’s budget.
If someone is in a low-paid job, as most people who are on universal credit are, they have no savings. They usually have debt when they go on to benefits; they have nothing to rely on. They do not own their own home, so they cannot raise money on the value of their house. Even when they are in work, these people typically live hand to mouth—70 per cent of the children in poverty live in households where somebody is in full-time work.
Not only are these not rich people. They are typically already poor people, and to starve them for five weeks before they get a penny is one of the cruellest things that could ever be done. One of the things that the Scottish Government is doing—I was responsible for this as a minister—is that we are going to pay universal credit within two weeks. We looked at whether it could be done within one week, but the computer systems that we are inheriting from the DWP do not allow us to do that. Otherwise, we would have made it one week. That is just about being more humane. There is no more money involved, but we do it humanely.
The reality is that this is not being done humanely. It has been a shambles from day 1, it continues to be a shambles, and it utterly fails every basic test that the Conservatives themselves have set for it.
This week, I had the pleasure of visiting a local business, Professional Office Supplies in Motherwell, to celebrate living wage week and see the wonderful job that it is doing in supporting its employees in fair work and decent employment. However, it is very different for the many people who struggle on the minimum wage and work in the gig economy, many of whom will also be dependent on benefits. We must remember that many people who are living in poverty and reliant on benefits are in work.
I am very sad to be here again talking about the problems with universal credit. In the previous session of Parliament, I served on the Welfare Reform Committee, and we did extensive work on the impact of welfare reform on people in our society. Many of the problems that members have discussed today, including the issues of single payments and housing benefit not being paid directly to landlords—something that we have fixed in Scotland, thankfully—were highlighted in the pilots. The Welfare Reform Committee visited one of the pilots in Highland Council to see some of the impacts that the reforms were having on people. None of the problems is new. We are just faced with them repeating and repeating and causing misery for our citizens in Scotland.
I want to highlight some of the work that the Welfare Reform Committee did. We identified that we cannot consider a simple identification of what a claimant looks like. People fall into many different categories. People can be in work or out of work, and they have different personal circumstances. However, one of the bits of work that we did was about women and social security, and the committee heard in evidence that the existing inequality for women had been aggravated by the reforms in the social security system. That includes issues of childcare; occupational segregation; pink-collar jobs, as they are called; the gender pay gap; and women’s role as primary carers in society.
Research at that time by the House of Commons library stated that, since 2010, £26 billion-worth of cuts had been made to benefits, tax credits, pay and pensions and that 85 per cent of that had fallen on women and been taken from their incomes. We also know that women are twice as dependent on social security as men, with 20 per cent of women’s income coming from benefits and what was the tax credits system, and they have fewer financial assets to fall back on when life happens. Many of my colleagues have talked this afternoon about how unpredictable life can be, and people can lose their jobs unexpectedly.
We have talked a lot about the five-week delay. I am very conscious that we have just had a major announcement about job losses in Dundee. For some people facing redundancy towards Christmas, that could mean five weeks in a period over Christmas and new year when they are faced with absolutely no recourse to an income. That is a shocking state of affairs for people in any country to be in.
Some of my colleagues have mentioned the impact on children. I feel so strongly about that. A child should not be means tested or valued according to their parents’ circumstances when they were born. Each and every child should be entitled to the same benefit. That is why I find it so disappointing that the two-child limit has not been addressed. Support for children is about keeping them out of poverty and helping their families.
I will address some points that I have heard this afternoon. Brian Whittle said that he visited DWP offices and saw differing policies being implemented. I hope that he has written to his Government about that, because that is his Government’s responsibility. The variation that he described is an indictment of how broken the system is and how badly his Government and the DWP have administered it.
The use of food banks has been referred to. It is unbelievable that we talk about them as if they are part of what society should be about. It is to our shame that any food banks are needed, so a reduction in the need for and use of food banks is of course welcome. A food bank was said to be bringing in agencies, but the agencies are probably using the Scottish welfare fund to help people. The Scottish Government provides funding of £100 million a year to mitigate the situation and clean up the mess that universal credit is creating for people in our society.
Children in particular have been hit hard. A lone parent with one dependent child is likely to lose about £1,770 a year because of welfare reform, and a lone parent with two or more dependent children will lose even more. Let us look at the effect on individual incomes. Brian Whittle mentioned North Ayrshire, where the average family will lose £540 a year. The impact per household is greater in poorer areas.
I do not understand how broken and morally bankrupt a system must be before that is recognised, but I do not think that the United Nations engages in rhetoric or promoting political agendas, and it is the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that has called out the UK Government for its failure to look after people with disabilities in this country. Is everybody wrong?
Poverty in Scotland is getting worse. About 1 million people, including about 230,000 children, live in poor households, and the majority are in working households. What a damning indictment of our economy and the precarious nature of employment that is. It is a simple fact that salaries have not kept pace with inflation, while the cost of living has been rising. People are struggling to get by.
What is the Tory UK Government’s response? Instead of pursuing tax dodgers who owe millions of pounds, it is intent on penalising the poor. Universal credit is probably the worst example of Tory welfare reform. It was rolled out in Argyll and Bute last month and it is being rolled out in West Dunbartonshire this month.
As others have said, when universal credit was introduced, it had three aims: to simplify the system, reduce poverty and support people into employment. It fails on all three counts. The system is still complicated and is beset with delays. Claimants have to wait five weeks, if they are lucky, before they get their first payment. Food banks report increases in the numbers who need help, and that correlates directly with the roll-out of universal credit.
Levels of p overty have increased, not reduced, under the Tories. They have cut the amount of benefits that are paid to some of the most vulnerable in our society. Two examples of that are the cutting of disability premiums by two thirds and the introduction of the two-child cap. The cap reminds me of Communist China’s morally abhorrent one-child policy. Now, even the Chinese have abolished that; perhaps the Tories can bring themselves to follow China’s example and abolish the two-child cap.
A s for supporting people into employment, in-work conditionality is totally inflexible. For people who work in precarious employment, the stress of searching for more work while holding down an insecure job creates financial pressure. The Tories do not understand that.
In short, universal credit is an unmitigated disaster. It is making people who are already in poverty poorer. The UK Government needs to stop the roll-out now and halt the managed migration of existing claimants who are on in-work benefits.
I will point out another flaw, which was touched on by Clare Adamson and Alison Johnstone. The context is that poverty is gendered. The majority of poor people are female. Women are twice as dependent as men on social security and the gender pay gap contributes to women being low paid and facing poverty.
In a recent report, the Work and Pensions Committee noted that the default policy of single monthly payments per household risks the entire family income—including money meant for children—going into an abusive partner’s account. The woman can feel trapped and dependent on an abusive partner for money, which he then uses to control the relationship. It makes it much harder for the woman to escape from the abuse. In its briefing for today’s debate, Close the Gap noted that 89 per cent of women who experience domestic abuse also experience financial abuse. Dual payments therefore need to be the norm, not the exception.
I turn to the roll-out of universal credit in West Dunbartonshire, and I say to Michelle Ballantyne that this is the situation on the ground. I pay tribute to the West Dunbartonshire citizens advice bureau, West Dunbartonshire Council and West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare for their efforts in preparing for the roll-out. Although there is immediate concern about the delay in payments, the real concern is for January and February, when the consequences of spending choices over Christmas will come home to roost. There is a real fear about housing debt becoming an issue, particularly for people who are receiving their rent directly instead of it going to their landlord. I ask that that issue be looked at again.
The two principal mechanisms that we will use to help people locally are food banks, which are gearing up for the roll-out, and the Scottish welfare fund. The UK Government should of course halt the roll-out of universal credit and, to quote John Swinney, we should not let it off the hook, because its welfare reforms have been nothing short of brutal. However, the Scottish Government has the power and the means to help, and we cannot in all conscience wring our hands and say how terrible it all is but stand by and do nothing.
I therefore have one final request of the Scottish Government. I say this as gently as I can: instead of cutting money for the Scottish welfare fund in my constituency—which is the consequence of reprofiling and the real-terms freeze that there has been—making a little more money available to help those experiencing immediate difficulties as a result of universal credit would be in order. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee has recommended that, and I believe that it was right to do so. At the centre of this debate are people and families who are struggling to cope. They need practical assistance and they need it now, and we must not lose sight of them.
As we have heard, the UK Government’s tax and welfare changes since 2010 are estimated to have increased by 8 per cent the number of children living in relative poverty in Scotland. Citizens Advice Scotland estimates that the primary reason why the people it works with are in rent arrears is that they have been moved on to universal credit. Citizens Advice Scotland recorded that 79 per cent of people on universal credit were in arrears, compared to 29 per cent of the other people it deals with.
Over the past couple of weeks, members of the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee have heard evidence from food banks, which anticipate a rise in demand for their services in every area where universal credit is being rolled out. In my constituency, universal credit went live at the end of September, and the food bank there is braced for growing demand.
Others have also alluded to the Conservatives asking members of other parties to suspend their disbelief and to see no connections among any of those facts. Last week, the Social Security Committee heard shocking evidence from the Public and Commercial Services Union about the apparent unpreparedness of the DWP to cope with the changes that lie ahead. To take just one example of the union’s concerns, it is unclear how the tax credit system is to be moved seamlessly from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to the DWP. Just as concerning is the fact that many people in receipt of tax credits, who do not presently see themselves as being part of the benefits system, will suddenly be dealing with the DWP. In many cases, they may have to reapply for something that they thought that they had already been awarded.
As others have also mentioned, there is, of course, the five-week wait for payment of universal credit. I know that I cannot be the only member of this chamber who has encountered a family trying to live off literally nothing whatsoever for a period of five weeks. The Trussell Trust has found that 70 per cent of people in that situation found themselves in significant debt as a result. It would be surprising if it had found anything else.
Today, the Tory social security spokesperson quoted the IFS and the Resolution Foundation as confirming that universal credit is more generous than the old system. I feel that the member might have been quoting rather selectively, because the IFS notes that, under universal credit, a third of households that are entitled to it will be at least £1,000 a year worse off. Those facts speak for themselves.
It is worth considering what all that means in human terms. In the view of Inclusion Scotland, UK welfare cuts have had a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on disabled people. It says:
“Over 50% ... in cuts ... are falling on disabled people and their families.”
Inclusion Scotland, which represents Scotland’s disability organisations, has made a strongly worded representation to all parliamentarians on this. It calls the UK Government’s welfare agenda a grave and systematic breach of disabled people’s human rights. Of course, the UN has said something similar, warning of a “human catastrophe”.
Inclusion Scotland concludes that the cumulative impact of the UK Government’s welfare cuts is resulting in deepening levels of poverty and destitution, worsening mental health, suicides and deaths. I noted that there was much heckling from the Tory benches when somebody else quoted such a scenario earlier on, but I should say that those are the views of Inclusion Scotland.
The first question to ask is, what can this Parliament do about the situation? Perhaps the broader question is, does this Parliament care?
On the first question, we have power in Scotland to make changes in extremely small areas around the edges of universal credit, important though that power may be. Beyond that, there are regular calls—we heard them today—for this Parliament to mitigate all the effects of the UK Government’s benefits reforms on some of Scotland’s poorest families. As we know, the Scottish Government has spent £125 million on such mitigation this year, and it is only right that the Government did that, to try to take the edge off the most extreme of Westminster’s measures.
However, we need to be straight: some £3.7 billion is expected to come out of the UK Government’s social security spend in Scotland by 2021. No amount of mitigation by this Parliament from the resources that it has to spend on devolved public services can possibly mitigate that or make the Tories’ damaging benefit reforms go away.
As I said, the wider question is, does the Parliament care? I wish that I could say that there was unanimity across the chamber in answer to that question. However, having listened to what the Tories have had to say today, and some of their recent revealing outbursts about people on benefits, I have to conclude that I cannot with any honesty say that all parties in this Parliament care about this matter. However, I hope that the rest of us who do will continue to make our views loudly known.
My constituency of Clackmannanshire and Dunblane was an early adopter of universal credit in 2015, so I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and highlight the impact that the policy has had on the people I represent.
There is no doubt that, as part of the wider welfare reform agenda, the introduction of universal credit has been the biggest change that the welfare system of this country has undergone. In order to assess the impact of the roll-out in my local area, I hosted a summit in our town hall on 7 September. It was well attended by councillors from various parties, officers from Clackmannanshire Council and Stirling Council, and members of Stirling and Clackmannanshire citizens advice bureaux, local food banks, the Poverty Alliance and the local third sector.
I also invited the two Tory MPs who represent my constituency at Westminster, and who are more than willing to stand up in the House of Commons and extol the virtues of universal credit. For example, just a few weeks ago, Stephen Kerr MP stated:
“I am grateful to be a proponent of universal credit.”—[
House of Commons
, 17 October 2018; Vol 647, c 709.]
and Luke Graham MP said earlier that
“universal credit is a positive and transformational reform”,—[
House of Commons
, 5 December 2017; Vol 632, c 964.]
which I suspect will be news to many of my constituents. Unsurprisingly, both Tory MPs declined the opportunity to attend the summit. Perhaps they were unwilling to listen to the facts about this toxic Tory policy.
Does the member agree with these words?
“We agree that reform is needed. We also agree that the system should incentivise work, that it should be simpler and, of course, that it must be affordable,” and
“It is worth restating that we believe that the overall model of universal credit has some merits”.—[
, 21 March 2012; c 7498, 7500.]
Those are the member’s words—uttered in this chamber—praising the virtues of universal credit.
What a complete waste of an intervention. You have already heard from all around the chamber about our shared values of trying to make the system simpler and encourage people into work. We understand that point, but it does not excuse the effect of the policy that you and your party are supporting.
It was clear from the evidence presented by all those who attended the summit that I mentioned that the system is fundamentally flawed and penalises the most vulnerable people in our communities, causing financial hardship and extreme distress to many claimants.
Since the full roll-out of universal credit in my area, and despite what Brian Whittle said, both council areas have seen a significant rise in the level of claimants who have rent arrears, with nine out of 10 tenants in Clackmannanshire who are claiming universal credit accruing rent arrears in 2017, and the average debt per universal credit case is nearly double that of the non-UC cases. A similar situation can be observed in Stirling Council, where rent arrears rates are also on the rise. In 99 cases, Stirling Council tenants had arrears accumulated solely while waiting for their first universal credit payment to arrive. A record number of people have applied for crisis loans and there has been a steady increase in the use of food banks. Brian Whittle’s denial that the Trussell Trust might be saying something other than rhetoric when it points out the direct link between universal credit and the increase in the number of food banks will come to haunt him. There has also been a surge in the number of people using local services such as citizens advice bureaux.
I thought not. Nobody in my constituency believes it, and certainly nobody on universal credit believes it. As we heard from the cabinet secretary, it will take two to three years for some of the most basic changes to happen, so austerity will still exist for those people.
The system is not simple. Adam Tomkins pointed out that we should support the system’s simplifications, but it is not simple. The House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee reported that it is not simple. It is unreliable, even for the most capable of claimants, with little or no support built in for those who need additional help, and it leaves local councils, food banks and voluntary advice services to pick up the strain.
I will highlight just a few of the issues raised by those in attendance at the summit that I referred to earlier. The fact that claiming universal credit is a difficult and complex process for everyone was highlighted repeatedly. I should say that local councils and the Scottish Government have to improve the way in which we make universal credit as accessible as possible. Simply telling people that they have to use an IT system is not enough. We have to make sure that they have support. The representative from Clackmannanshire citizens advice bureau stated that it can take hours to make a claim even for those who have IT skills and that it is a nightmare for most people, not only for those who have complex needs. We will see it bite when people who have complex needs are exposed to the system.
Representatives from the third sector shared their experience of supporting vulnerable people through the process of claiming UC, highlighting the difficulties faced by people who have learning disabilities.
There is also the issue of bank accounts. People can get trapped in the difficult situation of having no money to get an ID in order to get a bank account, in order to receive benefits. As I have said before in the chamber, in my constituency, we do not have a single RBS or Clydesdale bank in the first place.
It is alarming to note that sanction rates in the two Jobcentres that are relevant to my constituency have risen significantly and progressively since they received full roll-out and as the claimant count has grown.
The Tories in my constituency and across the country continue to be enthusiastic cheerleaders for universal credit, denouncing any criticism as mere rhetoric. The UN, the Trussell Trust and the House of Commons select committee are all just using rhetoric, according to the Tories. That could be the only way that they feel that they can deal with this situation. The five Tory members who are here have barely lifted their eyes during the entire debate. I think that you are thoroughly ashamed of the situation, and if you are ashamed of it, you should be speaking up.
If you feel that it is a bad system, because people are committing suicide and there is real misery among children—some of you must feel that it is—I suggest that, instead of sitting there saying nothing, you go down to Westminster, grab your colleague Tracey Crouch and see whether you can borrow the Tory spine for a day. At least she had the spine to stand up for something that she knew was having an effect on poverty across the country. We should see some of that spine in the Tory group in the Scottish Parliament. You know that it is not working—you can see that for yourselves. You never said it before your chancellor agreed to it a couple of weeks ago, but you should say it now. It is not working. You should halt the roll-out and admit that you have the policy completely wrong.
I am pleased to close this illuminating debate for my party, because it offers me the opportunity to restate my party’s support for the amendments in the name of Mark Griffin and Alison Johnstone, and for the motion.
The cabinet secretary set the tone and described the landscape in which the debate is being conducted when she evoked the image of a gentleman being forced to light and warm his home by candlelight. I am haunted by that. In particular, the five-week delay before any cash is forthcoming has led to such images and to the increasing demands on food banks that we have heard about. The structural flaws in universal credit and its roll-out have created such situations. It is astonishing that we should be using bureaucratically words such as “starvation”—that is Dickensian.
I am most struck by how far away we are from introduction of the aspects of mitigation that the UK Government has hinted at. The cabinet secretary was right to point out that those measures will come in three years hence, because people are suffering right now. Put simply, if the Tories recognise that the system is already broken, they should either fix it now or stop the roll-out entirely.
Michelle Ballantyne started by suggesting that debates such as this are politically motivated, and Brian Whittle echoed that point. However, when her Government refuses to acknowledge complaint after complaint and calamity after calamity in the roll-out of the system, I am afraid that calling it out in a political arena such as this is all that we have left to us. She laid out the original drivers, and I agree with them now as I agreed with them in 2010, but they are no longer the drivers behind the system. There is no recognition of things such as in-work poverty, the delays that have been referred to or the iniquities of money being paid into one bank account in situations in which spousal abuse is a factor.
Bob Doris addressed empirically the way in which we have moved from a reform agenda to a cuts agenda. He referred to the £3.7 billion that is now gone from the system. That is exactly what my amendment speaks to, because it underscores the difference between the intention of the Government of which my party was a part and that of the Government that followed immediately after in 2015 and which has brought about that punishing cut to universal credit.
I commend Neil Findlay on the passion of his contribution. His reflection on our dereliction of duty as a corporate parent really spoke to me. I have long argued that case, since before I became a member of Parliament.
Mark Griffin offered a powerful speech, and his family example was compelling. He showed an understanding of the lived experience of the reforms and what they mean. Neil Findlay’s and Mark Griffin’s experiences of the system have clearly shaped a good part of their lives, and I am glad that they are channelling that to this day.
The debate is no longer about a system that is unravelling; it is about a system whose fundamental fabric is ruined and unmendable. George Adam picked up on that in addressing Michelle Ballantyne’s ill-chosen words about our needing to “test and learn”. I have two points to make about that. First, we are talking about human lives—they are not lab rats. Secondly, we are trying to show that her Government still refuses to learn from cases in which the system has failed those tests and pushes back. She should reflect on that.
Alison Johnstone anchored her speech in the not-insubstantial cuts that the July 2015 budget brought about. Our amendment also speaks to that. I appreciate the fact that the Green amendment refers to the gendered nature of the impact of the reforms—a point that was eloquently picked up by Jackie Baillie and Clare Adamson. I reiterate that finance is still used as a tool of coercive control in abusive relationships. The system has to recognise that it exists to serve the most vulnerable people in our society. I can think of very few who are more vulnerable people than those who are abuse survivors, or are still stuck in abusive spousal relationships.
Again, Annie Wells took us back to basic principles. Once again, I say that we support those principles, but they are far adrift from where we are today.
One of my favourite speeches in the debate was from Alex Neil. I enjoy his contributions immensely. The international comparison that he made is very important. He reminded us that social mobility in Denmark and in some other European countries is not just about moving people out of the unemployment column; it is also about giving them a meaningful new start in life, and economic self-management and sustainability. It is important to hang on to that point when we consider the early foothills of our social security system in this country.
The system is clearly broken, as is evidenced in the early roll-out areas—Keith Brown’s constituency, among others—and we have to listen to the lived experience of those who have suffered because of it.
I am not a particularly religious person, but there is a passage in the scriptures that I have reflected on before when talking about the welfare state and social security. The book of Jeremiah says:
“‘For I know the plans I have for you’, declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you’”.
I repeat that I am not religious, but that really speaks to me in respect of the first principles—the important starting-point to which any social security system or any other public policy that we design in this place should cling. We are a country mile from that point now.
The cabinet secretary focused on many of the flaws of universal credit, not least the five-week wait, and pointed out—rather alarmingly—that the DWP does not expect any significant improvement. That is rather horrifying. She also spoke of the uncertainty that self-employed people will experience under the policy—people whose earnings vary from month to month.
Among the most daunting things in the cabinet secretary’s speech were her informing Parliament that 190 women have had to fill in a form to prove that conception of a child was not consensual, and that a CAB had filled in a form noting that one of its clients was suffering from
“starvation while waiting for universal credit”.
Michelle Ballantyne pointed out that no one is suggesting that universal credit is faultless and that, of course, universal credit has its problems. Really?
Alex Cole-Hamilton picked up on the fact that the Greens have focused on the gendered nature of the cuts, and pointed out that finance is used as a tool of coercive control. I cannot think of a better example of that than the two-child limit and the rape clause. I am not entirely surprised by Michelle Ballantyne’s response on that. I notice that she is not responding now.
“As a minister, are you comfortable with the idea that a woman has to prove non-consensual conception to access an entitlement?”
In her response, Esther McVey said:
“There is potentially double support there—they will get the money that they need and perhaps an outlet that they might need.”—[
Official Report, Social Security Committee
, 16 April 2018; c 23.]
That is not the outlet that women who have been traumatised in such a shocking way need.
Mark Griffin’s speech was very powerful. He pointed out that this Parliament has to step in. That is absolutely right—I agree. This is a devolved Parliament and we have a responsibility to ensure that the people who live in this country have every opportunity to succeed. Equality is key, but it is difficult to experience the opportunities that friends and neighbours have when one is suffering abject poverty. This Parliament should and must do all that it can. However, it is very frustrating—I speak as someone who joined the campaign for a devolved Parliament before I joined a political party—when this Parliament is constantly called on to sort out the chaos that is inflicted on people in this country by another Parliament. [
That said, I will continue to push strongly in asking the Government to adopt a universal child benefit top-up. At the very least, as Mark Griffin said, the income supplement should be fast-tracked.
Annie Wells spoke about devolved powers. I would like to know what she thinks is the point of this Parliament. I hear little vision coming from Conservative members; instead, I always hear a cry—Brian Whittle joined in—for the Scottish Parliament to mitigate Westminster’s cuts. Surely, they should have more vision than that.
Alison Johnstone will find that I discussed the way in which universal credit is being rolled out and the framework. What should we have done? The Parliament was given £3 billion, and the first thing that it did was to give it back to Westminster. How can she complain when that is what happened?
I am sure that Brian Whittle is well aware that what is being delivered to this Parliament and through universal credit is nothing but cuts—cuts to living standards, cuts to quality of life and cuts to the most vulnerable people in society.
Bob Doris and Neil Findlay spoke about sanctions. We need to remember that what is happening under universal credit is unprecedented. For example, we have never had in-work conditionality. Now, even when someone gets a job, they are still not trying hard enough. Do the Conservatives not realise that, if higher-paid work was available, it is highly likely that the people who are seeking work would be in those higher-paid jobs? Last week, the Public and Commercial Services Union spoke to the Social Security Committee about the impact of cuts in the number of jobcentres and in the number of staff who work in jobcentres. How can work coaches help people to find higher-paid jobs when they are struggling under ludicrous case loads?
Neil Findlay pointed out that no Conservative member has picked up on Michelle Ballantyne’s speech from a week or two ago. That is because what she said is Conservative Party policy and Conservative members are quite comfortable with it.
I agree whole-heartedly with Alex Neil that we should not offer people the bare minimum on which to survive when they need support. We should ensure that they have support that enables them to contribute in a way that maintains their human dignity and helps them into well-paid jobs.
Jackie Baillie spoke about people budgeting for Christmas. On universal credit, that is a big ask. As a Parliament, we have a role in ensuring that everyone can enjoy a decent quality of living. We will continue to campaign for increases to child benefit, and we will continue to condemn Westminster’s cuts when that is the right thing to do.
Universal credit is in crisis. What is more, Conservative members know that it is in crisis. Only a few weeks ago, Esther McVey contradicted the Downing Street line, when she, at least, admitted that there are losers under the universal credit system. I agree with Keith Brown on that point. During all the debates on the matter in which I have participated in Parliament, I have hardly heard a word of real criticism from Conservative members.
The seven or eight reforms that we have heard about indicate that the test-and-learn approach is utterly failing. As George Adam does, I find it quite insulting that Conservatives say that we should support a system that tests and learns. Who are the people about whom we are talking? The people whom the Conservatives are testing in order to learn from them are the people who need most support from the state. It is not acceptable to say that that is how we are going to adjust a deeply flawed system.
Heidi Allen, who is the MP for South Cambridgeshire, has been most outspoken on the matter, and says that even the injection of £1.7 billion is not enough. We need to be honest with ourselves: universal credit is not working. Michelle Ballantyne said that Conservative members made representations behind the scenes. I would like to hear about them.
Analysis from 38 Degrees found that 39 Tory MPs have seats in which the number of universal credit claimaints outweighs their majorities, so there have been some accusations that political rhetoric is involved. I wonder who is playing politics.
Iain Duncan Smith was the architect of universal credit. At least he had some ambition. The system that the Tories are defending is nothing like the system that Iain Duncan Smith wanted—it is a million miles away from it.
Michelle Ballantyne said that the Tories did not just want to tinker with the previous welfare system. They certainly have not tinkered: they have removed billions of pounds from the welfare system. There are mounting rent arrears, use of food banks is up and the entire system for people who rely on tax credits and child tax credits has been completely overturned. As we heard from Alison Johnstone and others, the waiting times that are built into the system are, on their own, inflicting deep poverty on thousands of people daily. The Tories certainly did not just “tinker” with the system, that is for sure.
The design flaws are hurting people. The facts speak for themselves. The Resolution Foundation has said that, on average, families will lose £1,200 a year by 2020.
I have said that the system has some good features—the online system is not all that bad, although it penalises many people who are not on the internet—but there is still a lot to fix.
It is extraordinary that anyone would build a system in which people will get transitional protection unless their family circumstances change. If someone’s partner leaves them, they leave their partner, they stop work, or they join households with another person who has children—incidentally, I note that the two-child cap would apply to them—they will lose their transitional arrangements. What kind of system does that to people? Everyone knows that people’s lives and circumstances do not stay the same, but change. Why would anyone build that into a system?
I have heard that the inclusion of self-employed people in the universal credit system came about because the Conservatives had forgotten about self-employed people and put them in only when they remembered them. That is borne out because anyone who has been self-employed will know that it is not really viable for them to assess their daily needs on a monthly basis. That must fundamentally change.
Members talked about gender issues. What has shocked me most about universal credit is that it is well known that when single payments are made to a household, it is likely that the benefits will go to the male earner in the household. Thousands of women will suffer if that is not fundamentally altered.
In 2014, the director general of the universal credit programme, Neil Couling, said that many people were unaware that they would be changing from receiving from the HMRC to receiving from the DWP. I am talking about people who have worked for 20 or 30 years, but who have relied on the tax system for a little bit of help. Have the Tories forgotten about those people? They will all be affected by the change. It seems strange to take them out of HMRC and move them on to the DWP. I would bet any money that when the letters arrive it will—mark my words—be a shock to people who have never been unemployed and have only taken some credit from the state. Why would the Conservatives apply conditionality to people who have paid their taxes as working people? It is extraordinary.
I was very concerned to hear last week from the PCS evidence that management of universal credit and all the changes in relation to staff are as nothing compared to management of the work that the change will take from the HMRC. The affairs of thousands of people who are on tax credits will now be administered by the DWP, but no account has been taken of that.
Universal credit must be halted: too many changes to it are needed before it could work to tackle poverty in Scotland.
Universal credit is the biggest and most fundamental reform to the welfare state since its creation after the second world war. It is a modern benefit based on two sound principles: work should always pay, and those who need support should receive it.
The change is necessary because we simply cannot go on with the legacy benefits that universal credit replaces. They were a legacy of failure: they were complicated to use, completely outdated and unaffordable, and, most important of all, they did not work for the people who used and relied on them.
Not at the moment.
Under the last Labour Government, spending on welfare increased by almost 65 per cent and, at the same time, the number of households in which no one had ever worked almost doubled. That is a legacy of failure and why universal credit is a necessary reform. Labour Governments had the opportunity to reform welfare in the Blair/Brown years, but they did not take it. As Alex Cole-Hamilton said, it was right that the coalition Government grasped that nettle, took responsibility and governed, but that is not what we hear from those on the SNP front bench.
Universal credit is revolutionary. The old system was one size fits all—[
.] It is a significant change; there is no argument from the Conservative benches about the magnitude of the change that universal credit seeks to achieve, nor the magnitude of the problem that was created under the last Labour Government, which needed to be addressed. We now have a system that is not one size fits all but which is tailored to each claimant’s individual needs, abilities and skills and which recognises that every person is unique.
I will in a minute if I can.
Even before last month’s autumn budget, universal credit has helped people to get into work faster and stay in work longer than the old system did. Alongside that, figures released last week showed that the number of children who live in a household without working adults is the lowest ever. A working role model in a child’s life is immeasurably important, and if that is one of the achievements of universal credit, we should welcome it.
Adam Tomkins said that the policy is tailored to individual needs, but the report from the House of Commons select committee said that the human cost is simply too high and that the policy is “arbitrarily punitive”. Does Adam Tomkins accept any criticism of the policy, or is it all dismissed as rhetoric?
I do not dismiss all criticism of the policy as rhetoric—I hope that Mr Brown knows me better than that. I have been in and out of jobcentres all over the Glasgow region, which I seek to represent in Parliament, and I have heard work coaches, whose work is immeasurably to both the Government’s credit and their own credit, enjoying the new and unique flexibility that universal credit has given them and which they did not have with the legacy benefits. I will be interested to know whether Mr Brown has heard the same in jobcentres in his constituency.
Of course, there have been significant issues with the roll-out—this is the biggest single change to the welfare state in 60 years. However, under successive secretaries of state—starting with Damian Green, then David Gauke and now Esther McVey—we have seen a DWP that is listening, learning and seeking to make the changes that we have called for and welcome. The seven-day waiting period has been removed; interest-free advances have been added to the system; and freephone telephone numbers have been introduced—Pauline McNeill called for those when I served alongside her on the Social Security Committee. In last month’s budget, the chancellor also reintroduced £1.7 billion to universal credit.
Universal credit has always ensured that work pays, and now it pays even more. That has been welcomed by stakeholders and charities across the board, from the Resolution Foundation to the Trussell Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and more. The Trussell Trust, which the cabinet secretary mentioned, said,
“By restoring work allowances and increasing support to those moving onto Universal Credit the Government has listened to evidence from the frontline and from foodbanks. These are significant improvements that will make a real difference to many people supported by Universal Credit in the future.”
The key point is that those changes will “push the expected cost” and the expected
“generosity of Universal Credit higher than the system it replaces”.
Those are not my words but the words of the IFS, and they are supported by the Resolution Foundation, which said last week:
“This will mean that the government’s flagship welfare reform is now more generous than the benefit system that it is replacing”— not that we have heard any of that from members on the Opposition benches this afternoon.
The Resolution Foundation also pointed out that the increase in work allowances—which is not coming back for everyone—and the decrease in income tax will not compensate the average household in the bottom 30 per cent of income distribution for the amount that they will lose because of the benefit freeze. What is being brought back—which is not a lot—will not cover what the UK Government has already taken away from the poor.
The point is that, under the reforms, universal credit is now more generous than the system that it is replacing. It is not a scheme of cuts; it is a scheme of welfare reform.
We have heard nothing at all from those on the SNP front bench about what the Scottish Government wants to do with its powers. We have heard nothing about what it intends to do on employment services or discretionary housing payments, which have been fully devolved since 2017. We have heard nothing about how the Scottish Government proposes to use the power to top up reserved benefits or the power to create new benefits. Today’s debate was an opportunity for the SNP to lay out exactly how it sees devolved welfare powers working in Scotland, and we have heard nothing from those on the SNP front bench about that.
The Scottish Government still has no idea where hundreds of new social security staff will work, despite having advertised for some 400 workers. [
.] It has been so slow to set out a timeline for the delivery of new benefits that the Office for Budget Responsibility has been unable to forecast the cost. [
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is absolutely right to say that, for those who can, work represents the best route out of poverty. That is why it is critical that universal credit is designed to get people off welfare dependency and into the world of work. That is the argument that I was trying to have with Alex Neil. His view is that universal credit is not doing that, whereas my view is that it is doing exactly that. It is for that reason—and, if I am honest, for that reason alone—that I support it. I believe passionately that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is entirely correct in saying that, for those who can, work represents the best route out of poverty.
That is why universal credit is working. It is working because, under universal credit, people are more likely to be in work; under universal credit, claimants work more than they did under the legacy benefits; and, under universal credit, claimants earn more in wages for the work that they do. That is why I support universal credit and why I support Michelle Ballantyne’s amendment.
It has been a passionate debate, which has been informed by the many organisations and third sector groups that have contacted MSPs to describe the impact of welfare reforms and universal credit on people and communities. The cuts have not affected just anyone—they seem to have targeted the most vulnerable in our society, and as Alison Johnstone pointed out, they have had a pernicious impact on women.
The debate coincides with the visit to Scotland of the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. It is a timely visit and a timely debate. We have all had the chance to talk about the impact on people of the cuts and to highlight the hurt that they are causing and the punishment that is being endured by families for daring to have more than two children. Despite the chancellor’s rhetoric and the claims that austerity is over, more and more children are being pushed into poverty.
Universal credit, which is the UK’s flagship welfare policy, is in crisis. Successive UK Governments have failed to develop and resource universal credit properly over the past eight years, and they have failed to learn crucial lessons about its disastrous impacts on households across the UK. As the UK budget made clear, the UK Government has failed, even now, to take the action that is needed to sort out the mess. That is why the roll-out of universal credit must be halted until it is made fit for purpose.
No Government should pursue policies that are so clearly causing harm, yet the prospect of ideological cuts seems too irresistible for a UK Government that is hell-bent on ignoring facts and figures on the devastation and hurt that the welfare cuts are causing. The truth is that people are hurting.
As we have heard, the Trussell Trust has told us that there has been a 15 per cent increase in the use of food banks in Scotland, which it has related directly to shortfalls in universal credit. George Adam talked about a constituent of his who was sanctioned while he was in hospital recovering from a heart attack. Mark Griffin described how family circumstances can suddenly change, yet the welfare system is no longer designed to help provide the safety net that so many families up and down the country require. Maureen Watt spoke about her constituent who was caught by the two-child cap after fostering a member of their family after a bereavement and then having two children of their own. Those are horrifying examples of what is happening in the here and now as a result of Conservative action.
Michelle Ballantyne called those people “customers”. Therein lies the problem: the inhuman, transactional opinion that the Conservatives and the UK Government have about our welfare state. Maybe keeping it inhuman—keeping it separate somehow—helps them cope with the pain that is being felt by others. There certainly seems to be no care and no understanding.
Annie Wells suggested that somehow we in Scotland should ignore the root cause of the poverty that is caused by her Government’s social security cuts and not bother that the finger of blame points squarely at the UK Government and the disruption that it is creating. She suggested that, to right this wrong, the Scottish Government should absorb it by continuing to soften the Tory blows and by taking money from elsewhere in our budget to plug the gap. That is unsustainable.
It is estimated that annual social security spending in Scotland will be £3.7 billion lower in 2020-21 than it would have been without UK welfare reform. To put that into context, that is the equivalent of three times our annual police budget, or the entire annual budget of both NHS Glasgow and NHS Lothian together. That is one heck of a sticking plaster that Annie Wells and Brian Whittle expect this Government to find.
Let me be clear that, although the chaos of welfare cuts is the fault of the Conservatives, we will not sit blithely by. That is why we have taken significant action, with the powers and resources that we have. We have spent £125 million on welfare mitigation and on other measures this year to help protect those on low incomes, which is more than £20 million more than we spent last year. That includes fully mitigating the bedroom tax, helping people to keep their homes. It also includes our Scottish welfare fund, which has helped 306,000 individual households, a third of them with children, with awards totalling £173 million over the past five years. That money simply lets us stand still, mitigating the worst impacts of another Government’s policies, set by another set of politicians who are blind to their impact.
On universal credit specifically, we have given people in Scotland the choice of receiving their universal credit award either monthly or twice monthly and of having the housing costs in their award paid direct to their landlord. We are also committed to delivering split payments in Scotland.
Free school meals are available to all children in primaries 1 to 3 and to children of families on low incomes. We know that many families struggle with the cost of feeding their children when that provision is not available during school holidays. That is why in the programme for government we announced that we were increasing our fair food fund to £3.5 million. Of that, £2 million will provide targeted support for children and families experiencing food insecurity during the school holidays. Last week, I launched the financial health check with Citizens Advice Scotland, which seeks to reduce household costs. That is just a flavour of the action that we are taking to help protect the people of Scotland.
In response to claims that we have not used the powers at our disposal, let me set the record straight. Guided by an approach that ensures a safe and secure transition, we are already delivering a better service in Scotland—a service that is designed with people.
Following the passage of the Scotland Act 2016, we started extensive consultation. In 2017, we started delivering Scottish choices for universal credit to give people flexibility over universal credit payments. In 2018, the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed, and Social Security Scotland was established. The agency has started to deliver the carer’s allowance supplement, and it will deliver the best start grant before Christmas, despite the DWP not having changed its IT system to aid us in delivering that. We have also announced that the disability benefits assessment will be fairer. All that suggests to me that a lot of action is happening as a result of this Government’s priority for and commitment to help for those who are most vulnerable in our society.
The UK Government and the Tories talk about testing and learning. They should learn from this Government how to run a social security service that is based on dignity and respect.
There is, of course, more that we have to do. We need to make good on our child poverty targets, and we are working on the development of a new income supplement to lift children out of poverty.
Tonight, we will again vote to send a message to the UK Government. I have no doubt that everyone bar the Conservatives will unite to say to the UK Government that it should scrap its policy of a two-child limit and its morally bankrupt rape clause, halt the chaotic roll-out of universal credit, and—please—treat people as people, not as customers and certainly not as a target for its ideological drive to stigmatise those in poverty.
It does not have to be like this. We as a country have the potential to take a different path. We are showing a glimpse of what is possible through our new social security agency. Another Scotland is possible: one that is based on fairness, equality and protecting those who are most vulnerable. Unfortunately, that is not a message that we see the UK Government taking forward. It needs to heed the will of the Scottish Parliament, listen to what we tell it, stop its callous cuts to our social security system, and treat people with the dignity and respect that they deserve.