by Erica Young, from the CAS social justice team.
This article was first published in the Herald on 18 November 2023.
This time last year the UK government made a significant decision which caused unnecessary misery for tens of thousands of people in Scotland, and millions across the UK.
They announced that they were going to uprate social security payments to match the rate of inflation, which of course was a good thing. But they delayed the upgrade until April this year. This left many people to struggle through a cold winter, just at the point where the cost of gas and electricity bills was rocketing to unprecedented levels.
As we pointed out at the time, it seemed inexplicable that ministers could on the one hand, acknowledge the reality that financial support had to match the actual cost of living, and on the other hand delay the implementation of it so that vulnerable people didn’t get the money in their pockets when they needed it most.
With the Chancellor set to make this year’s Autumn Statement on Wednesday, we urge him not to make the same mistake twice. He must again announce that benefits will match inflation, but this time the increase must take effect immediately.
And beyond addressing that urgent issue, we have another request. We believe it’s high time for the government to instigate a serious review of the value of social security payments altogether.
How many times have you seen myself and my CAS colleagues in this column and elsewhere talking about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis? About how every CAB now spends much of its time trying to help people who literally don’t have enough to live on? Such cases used to be relatively rare. Now they’re commonplace.
Believe me, we don’t keep clamouring about this because we want to. We’re trying to sound the alarm that social security, the safety net that we’ve always been told is there for us if we should ever need it, is no longer working. And we’re not warning that it will start to fail sometime in the future: it is failing right now.
In the three months up to October, Scottish CABs helped people with food insecurity more than eight and a half thousand times. Just think about that. Every one of those cases is a human being, many trying desperately to support a family. And they can’t get enough to eat.
Over the same period, demand for advice on crisis grants increased by 33 per cent, compared to just the previous three months.
Little wonder that this is happening though, since working age benefits are at their lowest ever level as a proportion of average earnings, at just 13 per cent. And contrary to popular belief, many people who claim benefits are in work – they just need help to supplement their low wages and fluctuating shift patterns. Indeed, 40% of Universal Credit recipients work. We can’t ignore the fact that inadequate wages and suppressed benefit levels are colliding, with dramatic consequences.
So, we want to see three things in the Autumn Statement. Firstly, benefits must be uprated to reflect the cost of living. Secondly, that uprating should be delivered immediately, not delayed until the spring. And thirdly, there should be a serious review of the adequacy of social security, so we can take the first steps towards repairing the safety net that we all deserve.