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I am deeply concerned about the impact of universal credit in Scotland, not just on rent arrears but given the wider anxiety and hardship that it is undoubtedly causing. On 7 January, the Scottish Government published its second follow-up to the 2019 annual report on welfare reform, which assesses the impact of United Kingdom Government policy on housing. Although there is no region-specific data, the report makes it clear that, since universal credit was introduced, in 2013, rent arrears in Scotland have steadily increased.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities found that, between March 2016 and March 2018, rent arrears in full service areas in Scotland rose by an average of 26 per cent.
The UK Government must start to listen to the evidence, fix the problems with universal credit and make it a benefit that works for people, not against them.
Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership has told me that 75 per cent of tenants on universal credit have rent arrears, and the council has reported that the number of crisis grant applications has risen by 26 per cent in the past year.
It is a year since the cabinet secretary committed to an evaluation of Scottish choices, including the option of landlords receiving direct payments by default. Will the cabinet secretary listen to the many voices that are asking the Government to use its powers to ensure that payments are made to landlords as the default, to tackle the growing problem of arrears?
I recognise that there are calls for payments to made directly to landlords, but I stress to Colin Smyth that our policy about that being a choice for the individual was come to after consultation with people with lived experience of universal credit and of the benefits system. They asked to have a choice on the issue. I will, of course, listen very carefully to the landlord organisations, in particular, and to representatives who are looking to make the change, but I will also listen very carefully to the individuals who have asked for that flexibility to remain the same.
Will the cabinet secretary outline what impact Scottish choices has had on mitigating the impact of that policy? Does she agree that, without full control over welfare, the Scottish Government and this Parliament are unfortunately limited in what they can do to support people who are on universal credit?
We are using our limited powers to try to make the delivery of universal credit better suited to the needs of the people who claim it, including by giving people the choice to have their housing costs paid directly to their landlord or to receive their payments twice monthly. The changes that we can make are very small, however, and they do not take away the fundamental flaws of universal credit—only the full devolution of social security powers would achieve that.