Scottish Parliament slams Universal Credit ahead of UN inquiry into Tory austerity

Tory welfare cuts will result in £3.7b reduction of social security spending in Scotland

THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT united against both the Scottish Conservatives and the UK Government during a debate on the impact of Universal Credit and Tory welfare cuts on those in poverty in Holyrood today [6 November].

The debate comes as the United Nations special investigator on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, begins a two-week inquiry into the impact of austerity in the UK and its effect on human rights.

Cabinet Secretary for Social Security Shirley-Anne Somerville opened the debate by noting that, despite the Scottish Government’s efforts, child poverty is set to rise because of the UK Government’s “onslaught” of welfare cuts.

In Scotland alone, these cuts mean that social security spending will reduce by an “eye-watering” £3.7b in 2020/21, she said.

Somerville went on to say that, like many, she had hoped that last week’s UK budget would reverse some of the most damaging impacts of these cuts, but said that the “fundamental changes” demanded by many Universal Credit critics have not been made.

In an early intervention, Tory MSP Adam Tompkins challenged Somerville to describe what steps the Scottish Government would take with the welfare powers it already has to top up existing benefits or create new benefits, rather than simply “grieving” about cuts that “other people” are making.

Somerville responded that the Scottish Government intends to “stand up for the people of Scotland” and asked Tompkins to reflect of “what he would like us to cut”.

“In the face of these welfare changes, without the full powers of welfare, employment and the living wage, we are fighting poverty with one hand tied behind our back.” Cabinet secretary for social security Shirley-Anne Somerville

Somerville continued: “The two-child limit alone, in just its first year of implementation, reduced the incomes of 3,800 families in Scotland by up to £2,870. This is a situation which will worsen year on year. The welfare changes introduced by successive UK Governments since 2010 are set to increase child poverty in Scotland by around eight per cent. So while we try to lift people out of poverty, the Conservative government is determined to put more families into poverty.”

“In the face of these welfare changes, without the full powers of welfare, employment and the living wage,” said Somerville, “we are fighting poverty with one hand tied behind our back.”

All of this is compounded by the “systemic” failure of Universal Credit, Somerville concluded.

Somerville also cited recent figures from the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank charity, showing that it gave out 650,000 food parcels in the past six months, signifying a year-on-year increase of 13 per cent.

The Trussell Trust has attributed the rising number of benefit claimants using food banks on the UK Government’s insistence on their waiting at least five weeks for their first Universal Credit payment.

READ MORE: 'Money left for 2 weeks = £10.50': Universal credit diary goes viral

Speaking to press earlier this week, Trussell chief executive Emma Revie said: “The only way to stop even more people being forced to food banks this winter will be to pause all new claims to Universal Credit, until funding is in place to reduce the five-week wait.”

Speaking for the reversal of Universal Credit, Green MSP Alison Johnstone said that UK Government welfare cuts disproportionately target women, arguing: "Cuts to our social security system, including to Universal Credit, are taking money out of the pockets and wallets of some of our poorest households. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies notes, Universal Credit is quite deliberately creating millions of losers.

"We still have the Benefit Cap, which places an entirely arbitrary limit on benefits and breaks the link between assessments of need and what is paid out. We still have the two-child limit, which will mean families with more than 2 children will struggle to provide for their basic needs. And we still have the Benefit Freeze, which leaves people unable to afford increases in the cost of living as their incomes fall with food and energy price rises.“

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies notes, Universal Credit is quite deliberately creating millions of losers.” Green MSP Alison Johnstone

"Cutting social security reduces the incomes of women disproportionately. The Benefit Cap targets women and their children for cuts. The latest figures for August this year show that almost 90 per cent of the single claimants impacted by the Benefit Cap in Scotland are women.

"Poverty is a tragedy because it means that hundreds of thousands of Scots, including over 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 and are being made to Universal Credit, and these are welcome. But some families are still going to be worse off as a result of benefit cuts, and, if we are to be a fairer, equal and inclusive country, these must stop and be reversed."

Scottish Labour’s Social Security spokesperson Mark Griffin MSP also said: “Here in Scotland, we should have serious, thorough that discussion about how we can make people’s lives easier. 

“We have the powers to do so – and it is essential people across Scotland are reassured Holyrood does act and is better than this callous Tory government.  

“While Tory MSPs defend the rape clause, and the SNP refuse to support a child benefit top-up that would lift 30,000 children out of poverty, it is Labour that is fighting for a dignified welfare state that truly supports the most vulnerable.

“It is high-time MSPs across the chamber started backing their warm words with proper actions.”

READ MORE: Rising financial emergency in Scottish households as Universal Credit continues roll-out

Tory welfare spokesperson Michelle Ballantyne MSP - who last month faced widespread criticism and calls for her resignation after stating in Holyrood that “it is fair that people on benefits cannot have as many children as they like, while people who work and pay their way and don’t claim benefits have to make decisions about the number of children they can have” – reiterated her recent defences of Tory welfare policies, and stated that much of the criticism now being heard was “politically motivated.”

Despite their contention that Universal Credit was more “generous” than the benefit system it replaced, the Scottish Tories were nonetheless left isolated, with even the Liberal Democrats speaking against the welfare reform they had witnessed the genesis of, while in government.

The debate is the latest of the Scottish Parliament’s condemnations of Universal Credit since its inception, and follows more recent controversy in Scotland over the welfare reform, following the announcement by Edinburgh City Council that it expects to lose £9m in unpaid rent over the next five years thanks to Universal Credit, which was labelled as “cruel” by the capital’s housing chief.

READ MORE: Disabled Scots rage against Universal Credit and austerity as flagship Tory policy crashes

Edinburgh’s housing and economy convener Cllr Kate Campbell said: “The assumed loss of £9m of income through rent arrears demonstrates that Tory welfare reform is transferring costs from central government in Westminster onto local authorities.”

Elsewhere, the Greenoch Telegraph reported this month that figures obtained by the newspaper demonstrate that since the benefit was introduced in Inverclyde two years ago, £2.09m has been spent on a mixture of crisis grants, housing support and on staffing costs to aid claimants in their readjustment.

In October, during the Glasgow roll-out of Universal Credit, housing campaigners warned of a sharp rise in the number of applications for emergency aid to avert homelessness, with Scottish Government figures showing that between April and June 2018, 45,290 applications for crisis grants were made to local councils, amounting to a seven per cent increase over the same period in 2017.

Following the UK budget and the UK Government’s abrupt mid-October pause on Universal Credit’s rollout, pensions secretary Esther McVey this month announced a number of changes to Universal Credit, including an extension in the amount of time given to claimants to switch to the new benefit, a reduction in the amount that advance loans with be clawed back month-on-month, and a 12-month “grace period” for the self-employed exempting them from the limitations which would stop them getting any more benefits than they would on minimum wage, even if they are making a loss.

However, Labour and the SNP have dismissed these changes as both insufficient and too far down the line, with the adjustments to Universal Credit scheduled either for 2019 or 2020.

Picture courtesy of Helen Cobain

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