Security blanket: a look at social security over the past year
If 2020 has taught us anything, then right up there with the key lessons learned has to be an acceptance that a social security system that works is integral to society.
Anyone who ever thought differently just has to turn to the fact that more than 736,000 jobs in Scotland alone have been furloughed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s more than 736,000 workers receiving 80 per cent of their wages from the government.
More people than ever before have turned to the state for help, with many livelihoods brought to a complete halt during lockdown.
In a bizarre twist during these unprecedented times, the Conservative government, usually vilified for swingeing benefits cuts, was praised for its initial financial response to the pandemic, offering security to families up and down the country.
But while that immediate aftermath of securing salaries and employment was a welcomed response, it was only ever a short-term fix and now individuals and families are facing the bleak realities as the country attempts to return to some kind of normal.
In May, Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson, called on the Scottish Government to introduce a national direct payment scheme of £20 per week to support families.
His calls came after the Trussell Trust reported an 81 per cent increase across the UK in people needing support from food banks at the end of March compared with the same time last year. Demand from children for food bank services has increased by 121 per cent.
Adamson said: “Poverty and food insecurity was the biggest human rights issue facing children in the UK before the COVID-19 pandemic and this polling reiterates that the pandemic is having a disproportionate effect on those already most at risk.
“The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has warned of the grave physical, emotional and psychological effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and called on governments to activate immediate measures to ensure that all children have regular, permanent and unrestricted access to nutritious food.
“Despite the significant efforts of schools, charities and communities, we are still falling short of this most basic obligation to ensure children have enough food. It is clear that governments at all levels must do more, particularly through the provision of direct payments to families.”
The Scottish Child Payment is a benefit designed to do exactly what the Commissioner is asking for, which is why the delay, announced earlier this year, has been met with disappointment.
The national payment aimed at children in families on low incomes was due to start in autumn for some, but the delivery has been put on hold – somewhat ironically – as a result of the pandemic.
At the start of April, Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said she was announcing the delay with a “very heavy heart”, but explained that falling staffing levels as a result of school closures, self-isolation and caring responsibilities were a key factor.
In addition, to deliver Scottish Child Payment, which requires an application from claimants, recruitment of additional staff into the Social Security Agency was required.
“We simply cannot recruit and train the staff required and it is not possible to say when we will be able to do so,” she said.
The Fraser of Allander Institute said this raised some questions about whether the delivery method chosen was the most appropriate, and whether alternatives would have been more resilient either to the specific COVID-19 issues this year, or to economic crises more generally.
A number of delivery options have been proposed that could directly support family incomes using existing payments and mechanisms at local and national level, including those outlined in a recent letter from more than 100 organisations and academics to the First Minister, such as the use of school clothing grants payments and increasing the value of Best Start Foods.
The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland (CPAG) has called on the Scottish Government to continue to prioritise the development and delivery of the Scottish Child Payment, exploring all options for an accelerated timetable for full roll out ahead of 2022.
It is also asking that it bridges the gap to the initial roll out of the Scottish Child Payment by bringing forward proposals to provide further direct and immediate financial support to low income families.
John Dickie, director of CPAG, said: “With low income families hardest hit by the devastating economic effects of coronavirus, Scottish ministers’ commitment to continue to prioritise the development and delivery of the game-changing Scottish Child Payment is really welcome. It will provide a vital lifeline to struggling families and is more essential to meeting Scotland’s child poverty targets than ever.
“Resources must now be focussed on getting payments to families as soon as possible, and real consideration must be given to an accelerated timetable for full roll out ahead of 2022.
“In the meantime, the Scottish Government should respond to the extraordinary pressure on families and bridge the gap to the roll out of the Scottish Child Payment by bringing forward proposals to use existing mechanisms, such as school clothing grant payments, to provide direct additional financial support to low income families.”
As well as the delay of the child payment, Somerville delivered another blow when she announced the introduction of the Child Disability Payment and the Scottish Government’s replacement for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) would also be delayed.
It followed the positive news at the start of March that the Scottish Government was using its new benefits powers to remove the need for children to take part in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) PIP assessments. Under the Scottish Government changes, young people will continue to get DLA Child, as long as they remain eligible, up to the age of 18.
But as priorities changed as a result of the pandemic, Somerville delivered the unwelcome news.
“Our priority is maintaining our front-line services and delivering the seven benefits we have in place to support low income families, carers and people facing a bereavement,” Somerville said.
She continued: “Our approach to disability assistance was grounded in the professional judgement of health and social care practitioners and they are rightly needed elsewhere at this time.
“While I cannot make guarantees around a revised timeline for the introduction of these benefits, I can guarantee that the work will not stop.”
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government recently announced it would “actively inform” families that they may be eligible for Best Start Foods and the Best Start Grant using information obtained from DWP and HMRC.
Social Security Scotland expected to write to an estimated 22,000 families before the end of August inviting them to apply in a bid to help those who are under even more financial pressure due to the pandemic.
While this proactive approach is a positive step, it stops short of actually offering extra money to those families struggling the most.