UK and Scottish governments must address barriers to benefits, Scottish Parliament committee says
The UK and Scottish Governments are not doing enough to help those who qualify to access billions of pounds in benefits that are going unclaimed every year, a Scottish Parliament committee has found.
Further, the committee reported that, due to a lack of accurate data, “the full extent of the problem is not known”.
In its Benefit Take-Up report released on Wednesday, the Scottish Parliament Social Security Committee said the most up-to-date figures revealed that across the UK more than “£20bn of means-tested benefits were not claimed” in 2016/17.
Additionally: “As this does not include disability benefits, the total figure for unclaimed benefits is likely to be significantly higher.”
As part of its inquiry into “how take-up for both reserved and devolved social security benefits can be improved” the committee heard from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Scottish Government over four oral evidence sessions, and also visited the Wester Hailes Education Centre to hear from people with lived experience of the benefit system.
“We heard about many of the difficulties with estimating take-up, the reasons why people do not claim and what some of the possible solutions are,” the report said. “Surprisingly, much of this information was already known, yet very little appears to be changing. Our recommendations throughout this report set out what action we think needs to be taken next by the UK and Scottish Governments.”
The report called for the UK and Scottish governments to “work more closely together to ensure people get the benefits they are entitled to”.
It found that, while low levels of benefit take-up was not new, the extent of the problem was unknown “because of difficulties estimating the eligibly population”.
There was a “wide variation” in take-up across the types of benefits, with the child benefit “widely claimed” at a 93 per cent take-up rate, whereas the working tax credit for families without children only had a take-up rate of 31 per cent. Many of the written submissions to the committee inquire focused on the low take-up rate of pension credit, at 61 per cent.
However, when it comes to disability benefits “there are no official figures for the take-up rate”.
“Research for the DWP in 2007 described estimating the size of the eligible population and take-up rates for disability benefits as ‘a difficult, if not impossible, task’,” the report said.
“The DWP told us that the methodology used to produce take-up statistics is complex, drawing on DWP and local authority administrative data, and data from the family resource survey. However, several witnesses highlighted problems caused by using this survey.”
The report recommended the Scottish Government undertake research to establish the number of people likely to be eligible for Scottish disability benefits, as this will form the largest part of the Scottish Government’s social security budget.
Further, it said both governments should commission “joint research to improve the available data on eligibility for the reserved benefits that will be ‘passports’ for Scottish social security”,
The committee report highlighted “the continuing barriers” which meant people were not claiming the benefits they were entitled to, including “the stigma of claiming, people being unaware of what they are entitled to, onerous application processes, and those living in rural Scotland facing geographical barriers”. The committee wants all benefits to be available through multiple application channels.
The report warned that the Universal Credit’s “digital by default approach” was excluding people who are not IT literate or do not have access to the internet.
The committee welcomed the Scottish Government’s statutory duty to have a benefit uptake strategy, but “expressed alarm” at the DWP’s lack of such a strategy. It suggested that Social Security Scotland take the lead to drive forward uptake strategies for “both devolved and reserved benefits”.
Social Security Committee convener Bob Doris said it was “simply not good enough” that billions of benefits were going unclaimed every year.
“Given one of the DWP’s stated aims with Universal Credit was to increase take-up, the fact they have no strategy to achieve this is deeply alarming,” he said.
“It is absolutely vital we get more accurate data on the numbers entitled to benefits so that any communications strategies can be targeted at those in need who are missing out. Data sharing across governments and agencies is a key factor in improving take-up rates and we are adamant that GDPR must not be used as an excuse to not share data.
“It’s also crucial that welfare agencies are adequately funded, and we are seeking increased and sustained funding for these agencies going forward. Our evidence has made it clear that both governments must do more to work productively together to ensure people receive the benefits they are entitled to and remove any barriers which mean people miss out.”
He added that the committee had also heard concerns about a possibly spill over issue, where if the Scottish Government increases the uptake of a reserved benefit “then they may have to financially compensate the UK Government”.
“That’s unacceptable. We need urgent clarity on this issue and a far greater level of coordination for maximising benefit take-up, whether devolved or reserved, is required,” he said.
Citizen’s Advice Scotland (CAS) said the report’s findings showed “how much more we all need to do to ensure people claim the social security support they are entitled to”.
CAS Social Justice spokesperson Mhoraig Green said the £20bn figure was “just a drop in the ocean” and large numbers of people are not claiming their entitlements “because they don’t know there’s support available; because of complicated application processes; or because the only way to make a claim is online”.
“With a rising tide of people facing an income crisis in Scotland it’s essential that all parts of Government do everything they can to encourage take-up of social security support,” she said.
“This includes making application processes easier, giving the people the options of making claims in person or over the phone, and by providing funding for independent advice and advocacy.
“We want to see more people claim what they are entitled to. People who think they might be entitled to more should check with their local Citizens Advice Bureau.”