Shirley Ann-Somerville: Universal Credit will exact a high price in Edinburgh

Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville
Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville
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This week the DWP introduced Universal Credit full service in Edinburgh. This means new claimants or anyone in receipt of one of the six benefits being replaced by Universal Credit who has a change in their circumstances must apply for this new benefit.

Edinburgh is one of the last areas in Scotland to see Universal Credit full service roll-out and the experience in other parts of the country shows that, with every passing day, there is more and more evidence of the damage and hardship this system causes. Other council areas have seen a sharp increase in both rent arrears and the need for foodbanks.

The timing of the roll-out in Edinburgh also means that anyone who makes a new claim for Universal Credit this month will not receive a payment until after Christmas.

The in-built wait of a minimum of five weeks before the first payment is just one of the many problems with Universal Credit, one which will hit households hard over the festive period. DWP do offer an advance payment to those making a new claim, if they know about it. However this needs to be paid back from future monthly payments. Families already struggling are therefore facing debt and misery from the very start.

Last month I visited Prospect Housing Association in Wester Hailes and listened to tenants speak about how frightened they were about the roll-out of Universal Credit. One tenant spoke about how he couldn’t afford to heat his home and buy food. So he relied on foodbanks and used a candle to light his flat in the evenings.

This is just one of many horror stories I have heard about the impact of Universal Credit. There is clear and mounting clear evidence that it leads to significant increases in poverty and destitution.

In his recent damning report on poverty in the UK, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Professor Philip Alston highlighted the scale of the cuts imposed by consecutive UK governments through welfare reforms. He noted that the UK Government is “determinedly in a state of denial” in the face of all the evidence. It is beyond my comprehension that the UK Government has chosen to design a welfare system so punitive that it is driving people to destitution.

The Scottish Government cannot change Universal Credit. It’s a benefit delivered by the UK Government. However, we do have limited powers to make the delivery of Universal Credit better suited to the needs of people. Since last year, our Universal Credit Scottish choices have given people the choice to receive their Universal Credit award twice monthly and have the housing costs paid directly to their landlord. If anyone would like to take up this option they should speak to their Job Centre Plus.

The Scottish Government will also continue to urge the UK Government to halt further roll out until improvements can be made to make the system fit for purpose. I have written to the new Work and Pensions Secretary to repeat our serious concerns about the impact of welfare cuts and Universal Credit. I hope that she will address these issues where her predecessors have clearly failed.

Shirley-Anne Somerville is the Scottish Government’s Social Security Secretary