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UK welfare reform has been a 'car crash', say those on the front line

UK welfare reform has been a 'car crash', say those on the front line

"I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I'd just walked away."

The words struck a chord with many people as they came to terms with the aftermath of the terrorist attack at a pop concert in Manchester which left 22 people dead, mainly children and young people.

The words were those of 35-year-old Stephen Jones, who rushed into the venue to help the wounded, wiping blood from children’s eyes, removing glass and shrapnel from their skin.

“We haven’t slept most of the night because of what we’ve seen,” he told ITV News.

Jones may be familiar with a lack of sleep. The former bricklayer has been sleeping rough for over a year.

“Just because I’m homeless, it doesn’t mean I haven’t got a heart,” he said.

Within a week, Jones had been offered a job, money and a home from well-wishers around the world. But in a country with a so-called welfare state, the question must be why these things were not already provided.

Universal Credit was launched in 2011 by the then work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to simplify the benefits system and “make work pay”.

But the roll-out of the scheme has been anything but simple. A built-in six-week wait for your first payment means the system has an automatic mechanism to throw people into crisis.

Figures from foodbank network the Trussell Trust show that in areas where the full Universal Credit rollout has taken place, foodbank referral rates were running at more than double the national average.

Responding to the figures, a Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “The reasons for foodbank use are complex, so it’s misleading to link them to any one issue. 

“Employment is the best route out of poverty, and there are now record numbers of people in work. Under Universal Credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.”

Indeed, the words were echoed by Prime Minister Theresa May when she told Andrew Marr: “There are many complex reasons why people go to food banks.”

Another central plank of the UK Government’s welfare reform has been the cap on benefits, which is having a direct impact on homelessness. The stated aim is to bring the country’s welfare bill down.

Last November the benefit cap was cut from £26,000 to £20,000. For single adults with no children, the cap is just £13,400. 

And although the cap also applies to child benefit, jobseeker’s allowance and income support, it is usually applied by reducing the amount of housing benefit paid to the claimant. Many find themselves no longer able to afford their home.

Rough sleepers like Stephen Jones are visible, but the real burden of homelessness is much bigger. More than 10,000 households in Scotland now live in temporary accommodation, with a household becoming homeless every 20 minutes.

Activists from North Edinburgh recently hijacked the first meeting of the new Edinburgh council to highlight the plight of a local woman and her children who had been made homeless after the benefit cap left her with a shortfall in her rent.

It later emerged the individual may have been able to apply for exemption, but the damage was done and a young family was put into temporary accommodation. 

Fellow members of the Making It Work group, which helps single parents in Edinburgh overcome barriers to education or employment, joined activists from North Edinburgh to lobby councillors.
One of the members is Johan Collins. 

“We went up to the city chambers and they were talking about air pollution. We were like, ‘Air pollution? What about the homeless?’” she says. 

“What about someone sleeping on a park bench with their three children and then back to the housing in the morning after you’ve spent the night in the park?”

Collins has not yet felt the impact of the benefit cap because she’s in a two-bedroom property and her kids aged five and six share a room. “I’m not sure how happy they’ll be about that when they get older,” she says.

But there are many others in the group who have felt the impact, she tells Holyrood.

“To be honest, there’s been about five or six women who have been affected – Rachel’s already had to stay in a number of different temporary accommodation all over the city. She’s got two kids.”

Another, Siobhan, is facing a £192 a week shortfall in her rent and has been served notice to quit. She has four children, the youngest of whom has spina bifida. Collins points out most of the women have jobs, albeit on part-time or zero hours contracts.

Edinburgh does have a system of discretionary housing payments which can make up shortfalls in rent, but if this is not awarded or does not cover the amount then people face temporary accommodation, sometimes on the other side of the city from their community.

“There’s going to be more people pushed out and going homeless,” says Collins. “The only place they can really go is the council and the council can only bed these people in bed and breakfasts and temporary. 

“They say they’ll take their things and put it in storage and they give them a timescale of about 18 months in temporary accommodation.”

And many of the places available are not suitable for young children, according to Collins, with mould, a shared bathroom and toilet and no access to cooking facilities.

“There’s another lady, Jade, who wasn’t part of the Making It Work group but she happened to be at the housing. Her story was very similar, she was in the same situation, and her son and partner have autism so they’re very particular about what they’d like to eat.

“[The hostel] really wasn’t nice. She had no access to any cooking facilities at all. These people are on a really limited income and if they have no access to cooking facilities, are they expected to eat out every night? Get food in that’s already made? It’s just expense over expense.”

Collins grew up in the care system, and recognises the impact being displaced can have on young children.

“You always have the memory of that, and I just feel it’s a shame it can’t be prevented, to stop these children going through experiences like that. The parents are strong enough, but I think when it’s your children and you’re having to explain, ‘We’ll have to stay here for a little while’ - ‘But why can’t we go home?’, it’s just so sad.”

The impact on children can be “profound”, she says. “A four or five-year-old, they’re not going to know why they can’t go home, why they’ve not got a bed, why they can’t stay where they are.”

Granton Information Centre is an independent advice agency which provides representation for people in the area facing financial challenges. This includes outreach work training support workers and at the Edinburgh access practice, a GP who supports homeless people.

Senior welfare adviser Michelle Lee tells Holyrood that Edinburgh just does not have enough accommodation for homeless people anymore.

“Literally, people queue up at half eight in the morning and probably the accommodation runs out by ten o clock. There’s none left,” she says.

Many cases are unnecessary, she suggests, if people could get the right advice from places with the right expertise. “With every benefit, there is always exemptions. [But] unless you’re an experienced advice worker, you’re not going to know.”

Granton Information Centre is well established and known in the community, but welfare reform has seen the caseload grow into what Lee describes as “a car crash”.

Every week Lee says the agency has cases in the sheriff court for evictions, alongside 10 to 15 mandatory reconsideration tribunals to overturn DWP decisions where people with a disability are refused employment support allowance or personal independence payments. 

Despite the fact 77 per cent of the cases are won, Lee describes it as a frustrating experience.

“Frustration that people in wheelchairs are getting refused PIP or employment support allowance at the assessment stage but when we take them to tribunal, we win them. 

“But what is that doing to those people’s health? They are already in crisis but it’s making them worse, and in fact, it has. People tell me over and over again, ‘I can’t cope with this, I don’t know if I can go through with this.’”

Lee says a letter from the tribunals service at the beginning of the year warned that the DWP expected the number of appeals to rise by 60 per cent this year. So, in an attempt to drive the welfare bill down to save taxpayers’ money, it would appear the DWP is prepared to spend a lot of taxpayers’ money on tribunals.

“They’re taking money out of these disabled people’s pocket and spending it on tribunal staff! It infuriates us,” says Lee.

The other thing which has grown as a result of welfare reform is the number of applications for foodbank vouchers, according to Lee. What then does she make of Theresa May’s claim that there are “many complicated reasons” behind this?

“Well, the main reasons for us are low income, or their benefits have been suspended or sanctioned, or they failed a medical for employment support allowance, so it is varied reasons why they come in. 

“But when they come through the door they are all actually saying: ‘I don’t have enough money to buy food.’”

The cuts are not over. April saw the work-related pay element from benefits paid to disabled people disappear. And the housing element of Universal Credit will be removed from people aged 18 to 21.

“I have no idea what we can do for them,” says Lee. 

“I don’t know how they’re going to manage. Unfortunately, especially in deprivation areas like this, a lot of families do break up, and the kids do leave home before they’re 21. Where are they going to go? It’s actually quite scary what’s going to be happening.”

And what can politicians do to help? Lee says the system needs to be easier to access and understand, something not helped by the fact Universal Credit uses online-only applications.
“If they could walk in their shoes for a week,” she says.

Collins has more blunt advice. “For people who get paid hundreds of pounds to sit and listen to drivel all afternoon, and fall asleep and not even bother opening their eyes, I just think you have no idea, really, of the reality of everyday, what people have to do to get by.”

Collins says she voted for independence after feeling “stuck”. 

“Because we can’t stop what happens, what changes are made. Regardless of what way we’ve been voting, it has clearly not been making a difference or an impact.”

But there are so many marginalised minorities now in the UK that it could become a majority, according to Collins.

“I hate the fact they make out that it’s the people on benefits, the disabled, that are taking all this money, when there’s all these corporations and stuff that aren’t paying anywhere near the amount of tax they should be paying. 

“They’re putting it on average people who are just trying to get by. It’s a really, really bad state of affairs, like.”

The question is, when faced with a tragedy, do we rush forward to help or do we walk away?  

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