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Cost of Living? Cost of a failing system

by Erica Young, CAS Social Justice team.

This article was first published in the Herald on 28 October 2023.

As the days shorten and temperatures fall, at least 835,000 households in Scotland who are receiving low-income benefits are due to receive a desperately needed lifeline. Between the 31October and the 19 November, eligible claimants of these benefits should automatically receive a boost of up to £300.  

This is the latest of the so-called Cost of Living payments, one of three distributed across the year to help low-income households weather the inflationary storm. To qualify for this instalment, claimants must have been receiving a relevant benefit between 18August and 17September this year. The details matter and there are exceptions, so it is vital that everyone receiving a low-income benefit seek advice about whether to expect the payment. You can check your entitlement here. Those who believe that they are eligible and haven’t received it by 19 November should report it missing to the DWP.

Sadly, when it comes to failing to cast this safety net to all of those who most need it, the system has form. When an equivalent scheme was in place last year, the Citizens Advice network in Scotland received numerous reports of workers, pensioners and disabled people missing out due to system error. As food and energy prices soared and the government finally agreed that targeted help was needed, many in acute need were left behind.   

This year, many more will be missing out simply because they claimed benefit after the cut-off dates. Those who start a new claim to benefit after17 September, who are in equal financial need, will not be eligible for this month's payment. DWP data for this year so far indicate that on average approximately 12,000 people start claiming Universal Credit every month in Scotland.      

These fresh claimants will be facing numerous threats to their financial security without the lifeline of a Cost of Living Payment. As we’ve written here many times before, a key flaw in Universal Credit is that when an application is made claimants must to wait five weeks for their first payment. The only support on offer to manage that wait is a repayable loan.  

These claimants will also be contending with restrictions on the amount of benefit payable, such as the two-child limit and benefit cap, and a stringent debt recovery regime. Meanwhile, the basic rate of Universal Credit is already pitifully small. It is currently at its lowest ever level as a proportion of average earnings.  

A combination of system design and suppression of payment rates has created a level of chronic inadequacy in our benefits system. Analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that even for a claimant in receipt of the full basic allowance without deductions, Universal Credit is still £35 short of what is needed for a single person to be able to cover essentials, i.e., food, energy, hygiene etc. 

So as preparations are made for the vital £300 Cost of Living Payment to be issued over the next few weeks, we need to make sure that everyone who is entitled to it receives it.  

Equally urgent is a reflection on why this scheme is so vital, and what a longer-term solution that allows everyone to live in dignity might look like.