Policy in Practice has submitted evidence to the Scottish Social Security Committee on the role of Scottish Social Security in Covid-19 recovery. In our submission, summarised in this blog post, we shared recommendations based on our research and data analysis, as well as our work with frontline organisations, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Read our evidence submission.

Four recommendations for the Scottish government on the role of Scottish Social Security in Covid-19 recovery:

  1. Collect and analyse administrative benefits data held by Scottish local authorities. This data can be used to understand the localised impacts of Covid-19, and allow Social Security Scotland to make policy decisions based on accurate and up-to-date analysis.
  2. Prioritise paying the Scottish Child Payment sooner than the 2022 deadline, and consider working with local authorities as a way of doing so. (Since submitting our evidence, we’ve been delighted to hear that the Scottish government has brought forward the application date.)
  3. Increase the take-up of benefits by identifying, targeting and engaging with households who are eligible for but not receiving benefits. Devolved benefits should have clear eligibility criteria and should be automatically awarded wherever possible.
  4. Create a network of benefits advisors. The combination of Covid-19 and the rollout of Universal Credit makes personalised benefits advice more important than ever. Investing in benefits advisors is likely to be cost-effective, since most benefit income that Scottish households are eligible for is administered by the UK government.

The impact of Covid-19 is different between Scottish regions

To fully understand what the economic downturn looks like for different people in Scotland the Scottish government should collate and analyse administrative benefits data from Scottish local authorities. In doing so, the government would be able to track individual households over time and understand how their financial situation has changed throughout 2020 as a result of Covid-19.

It would also allow the government to undertake accurate policy modelling at the household level to evaluate the effectiveness of different policy options aimed at supporting low-income households affected by the recession. 

The Welsh Government recently took this approach to analyse the impact of Universal Credit on low-income households in Wales. It worked with Policy in Practice to collect Housing Benefit and Council Tax Reduction data from every Welsh local authority. Policy in Practice then analysed this data to research the impact of Universal Credit on low-income households’ eligibility for Council Tax Reduction.

The data was used to model different Council Tax Reduction schemes that could be adopted by Welsh local authorities to support households as they move from legacy benefits onto Universal Credit. Policy in Practice also matched the data with council tax and rent arrears data to identify the impact of Universal Credit on arrears.

Read our report for the Welsh Government.

Using household-level administrative data would allow the Scottish government to take regional differences into account when planning how best to support people affected by Covid-19. This is vital, since we know that the impact of the economic downturn differs across Scotland.

By analysing data on the number of people claiming jobseeker benefits (both Jobseeker’s Allowance and those claiming Universal Credit who are required to seek work), we can see that in all areas of Scotland many more people are claiming benefits in August 2020 than in March 2020. However, as shown in the chart below, the percentage change varies considerably between local authorities, from 49% in Inverclyde to 162% in the City of Edinburgh.

Graphic showing the percentage change in jobseek claimant count March - April 2020 as part of Policy in Practice's evidence on the role of Scottish Social Security in Covid-19 recovery

Different areas of Scotland saw different rises in people claiming benefits as a result of Covid-19

As well as reviewing the role of Scottish Social Security in Covid-19 recovery we also recommend that the Scottish government continues to support local authorities in their response to Covid-19. The allocation of such funding should take account of up-to-date evidence of the local impacts of Covid-19.

The allocation of the £350 million Support to Communities funding announced in March 2020 did not necessarily benefit local authorities with a historically low number of benefits claimants, such as East Renfrewshire, Perth and Kinross and East Dunbartonshire, even though these local authorities have seen some of the most dramatic increases to their benefit claimant caseload.

The Scottish government should ensure that these local authorities are properly funded to support households who are claiming benefits for the first time after being affected by Covid-19, for example by creating or expanding benefits advice teams.

The role of Scottish Social Security in Covid-19 recovery:  Social Security Scotland should have high ambitions

We believe that Social Security Scotland should have ambitions that go beyond delivering on existing policy commitments.

1. Use local authorities to administer the Scottish Child payment

We are delighted to hear that the Scottish Government has brought forward the application date for the Scottish Child Payment, with applications now being accepted from 9 November 2020. In doing so, Social Security Scotland is making the most of an important opportunity to support children from low-income families when they need it most.

We encourage Social Security Scotland to explore all possible avenues to allow the payment to be paid more quickly.

We agree with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that working with Scottish local authorities would be an effective way for Social Security Scotland to administer the payment before the current 2022 deadline. Given that local authorities are experienced in administering benefits including Housing Benefit and Council Tax Reduction, they are likely to have the administrative capability to deliver the payment to eligible households quicker than Social Security Scotland.

2. Create a network of welfare rights advisors to help households maximise income

As well as working with charities and advice organisations, we recommend that Social Security Scotland creates its own network of welfare rights advisors to help households maximise their incomes and claim the benefits they are eligible for. Now more than ever, households need personalised advice to know which benefits they should claim.

Creating a network of advisors with access to benefit calculator tools such as the Better Off Calculator is likely to be a cost-effective investment. We know that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is in the process of rolling out access to the calculator across the organisation, thereby creating local points of access to benefits advice throughout Northern Ireland. A similar approach could be taken in Scotland.

By encouraging households to claim the benefits they are eligible for, Scottish households will receive more money from UK government departments (DWP and HMRC) and rely less on discretionary support from Scottish local authorities.

Welfare rights advisors can use administrative data to target support to households who are missing out on benefits they are eligible for. For example, advisors at the Royal Borough of Greenwich used their own administrative data via the LIFT Platform to identify households who were missing out on free school meals and Healthy Start vouchers. They encouraged these households to make an application for additional support. Encouraging the take-up of Health Start vouchers is especially important given the recent government announcement that the value of Healthy Start vouchers will increase from £3.10 to £4.25 per week (37%) from April 2021. Taking a data-led approach allows welfare rights advisors to use their time efficiently and engage with households who they know are in need of support.

Policy in Practice's evidence on the role of Scottish Social Security in Covid-19 recovery recommends the use of a benefit calculator

These alerts in the Benefit and Budgeting calculator give users information about Scottish benefits they are eligible for

3. Automatically award more benefits to increase take-up

Social Security Scotland should have the ambition to increase the take-up of benefits. As explored in detail in our 2019 evidence submission, Social Security Scotland can use technology such as the LIFT platform to target households who are eligible for but not claiming benefits.

Importantly, Social Security Scotland should also ensure that eligibility criteria for new devolved benefits maps onto the eligibility criteria for existing benefits.

For example, eligibility for the Scottish Child Payment is simply that the household is in receipt of Universal Credit, legacy benefits and/or Pension Credit. This means that by using data shared by the UK government, Scottish Social Security could automatically award this payment rather than relying on households making multiple benefit applications. Automatic award of benefits is currently happening for Carer’s Allowance Supplement payments; we encourage Social Security Scotland to commit to making this standard practice.

4. Make more radical changes to the Scottish Council Tax Reduction Scheme

Scottish Social Security should work with the Local Government and Communities Directorate to ensure that the Scottish Council Tax Reduction Scheme is effective and fair. We recommend that the Scottish government is ambitious in its amendments to the Council Tax Reduction Scheme. Whilst recent tweaks to the scheme such as the removal of the two-child limit in 2019 are welcomed, more radical changes should be considered.

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