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Cutting benefits during a cost of living crisis was a bad, bad idea

by David Scott, former CAS policy officer.*

This article was first published in the Herald on 18 July 2022.

It’s not often in life that you get a proper swan-song. But after 18 months at Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), this column marks my last chance before I leave to champion the incredible work our Citizens Advice Bureaux do every day. It’s also a chance to get reflective: how have things changed over the past 18 months?

When I joined CAS, we were still in the depths of the pandemic. The number of people across Scotland on Universal Credit (UC) had doubled from its pre-pandemic levels – a figure which still holds true today. The economy was still closed down and people were looking for support. Everyone’s lives were on hold.

In an acknowledgment of the need for further support, the UK Government had introduced an ‘uplift’ of £20-per-week to UC. That might not sound like a lot, but for CAB clients across the country it was making a real difference. We saw people who had been struggling with their debts finally clearing their arrears and balancing their budgets. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start – the first proper uprating of UC in a long time.

But the Government kept trying to remove it – first in March 2021, which we successfully campaigned against, and then later in October 2021, just as energy and food prices started to rise.

At the time, we warned of the disastrous consequences of this cut. Even with the uplift, people on UC were still cutting back on heating, food, and other essentials. Stripping that income away, just as prices were going up, was a recipe for disaster.

I don’t think any of us could have predicted how high prices would go. The war in Ukraine has placed immense pressure on food prices, while just last week Ofgem admitted that its estimates of an £800 increase to fuel bills in October were too low. The ‘cost of living crisis’, as we’ve all come to term it, is like nothing we’ve seen before.

CAS wanted to check in on how our clients on UC were coping with the crisis, so last Thursday we published research into their experiences since the uplift was cut. The findings in our Perfect Storm report are stark. Food bank referrals across the network are up a third and other forms of charitable support are up a fifth.

We also shared some real CAB client stories, and those were the parts of the report I found hardest to write. One client told us he had prioritised repairing his phone over buying food, for fear of getting sanctioned. I can’t wrap my head around a system that allows this. This should not be a choice anyone has to make.

I know that our CABs across Scotland will continue to help people. I’ve been so proud to uphold their work, and I hope this final report achieves that. The CAB network is an essential service and anyone who is struggling should know they can come to us for help.

But this kind of poverty is beyond what our network should be dealing with. We help people where we can, but we can’t fix the root causes.

The UK Government must give dignity to people on UC. Sustained investment is needed now.

* David Scott wrote this piece as his last act as a member of the CAS policy team.