Social security: Edinburgh Council should be doing more to ensure people get the benefits they are due – Dan Heap
Imagine for a moment that 30 per cent of young people did not attend school.
Or 20 per cent of people could never get essential operations. Or that a large proportion of buses never arrived, but nobody really knew how many or why.
It sounds an incredible situation, and one which would cause outrage. But it’s exactly the situation we have in our social security system. Data suggests around £16bn-worth of means-tested payments went unclaimed across the UK in 2020.
The UK Department for Work and Pensions estimates that around a third of low-income older people do not claim pension credit, and 20 per cent miss out on housing benefit. For some payments made to disabled people, the data on take-up has never been collected, so we simply don’t know how many people go without vital support.
The Edinburgh Poverty Commission confirms this is a big problem in the Capital as well, with around £80m going unclaimed. So why don’t people claim what they’re entitled to?
It can be that people don’t know what they are entitled to and nobody has bothered to tell them. I know a family that had gone years without knowing their child might be eligible for disability living allowance, even though they had been in touch with the DWP, the payment’s administrators, and many other public authorities, none of which twigged the family would be eligible. They’d missed out on well over £10,000.
And the language of “scroungers”, spread by successive UK Governments, makes people feel like criminals for asking to be paid money they are legitimately entitled to. Others are ground down by a system that seems to make it as hard as possible to claim. It’s not a surprise that some people traumatised by the assessments for personal independence payments choose not to apply again or appeal.
Given the incredible pressures city families are facing due to the cost-of-living crisis, the UK Government, Scottish Government and the council need to do everything they can to ensure people are made aware of their entitlements and supported to claim, and make the process welcoming and non-stigmatising.
The Scottish Government, unique in the UK, has a legal duty to produce a take-up strategy, and this is starting to work. The Scottish Fiscal Commission estimated that take-up of the Scottish Government’s landmark additional £20 for low-income families will steadily increase over the next five years, reaching 87 per cent. We can’t rest until that figure reaches 100 per cent, but it’s a good start.
We need to be actively reaching out to residents to encourage them to claim, through putting welfare rights advice in even more GPs’ surgeries, schools, community centres and high streets.
This requires investment in advice services. As the city’s budget approaches, all parties should be mindful of the incredible return, sometimes as much as £20 in additional support for recipients, reduced demand for services and other positive outcomes, for every £1 invested.
Councillors need to take a lead on this issue. When I asked council in November to set a benefits take-up strategy, my proposal was delayed by councillors. But I won’t give up on this. With the cost-of-living crisis, we cannot stop until everyone gets the support they’re entitled to.
Dan Heap is Scottish Green Party councillor for Sighthill/Gorgie