Coronavirus (COVID-19): Scottish Social Security

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Demand for social security has already increased because of the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19).  In just two weeks in March there were nearly a million new claims for universal credit.

The UK Government has responded with schemes to pay wages as well as changes to reserved benefits.  The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is also redeploying thousands of staff to ensure benefit claims are processed.

This blog focuses on the Scottish Government’s response in social security and related areas.

What powers does the Scottish Government have?

Scottish social security is far smaller in scale than that provided by the DWP and many systems and benefits are in the process of being established.

Eligibility for most current Social Security Scotland benefits depends on being in receipt of universal credit (or equivalent).  The Scottish Government has the power to ‘top-up’ reserved benefits – which it is using to bring in the Scottish child payment. The DWP is currently providing disability and carer benefits on the Scottish Government’s behalf.  Local authorities provide support through the Scottish welfare fund, council tax reduction scheme, discretionary housing payments and free school meals.

What has the Scottish Government done?

The Scottish Government has provided additional funds to local authorities, made changes to processes and has mirrored certain DWP changes.  The planned social security programme has been delayed but the delivery of the Scottish child payment is being prioritised.

Additional funds

The Scottish Government hasn’t increased Scottish social security benefit payment amounts but has made additional funding available as part of a £350m announcement on 18 March 2020.  This included:

The Cabinet Secretary indicated in Parliament this morning (1 April 2020) that encouraging take-up of existing entitlements was being considered ‘with some urgency.’

The increase in universal credit claims means that more families will be eligible for free school meals, council tax reduction, best start grant, best start foods and funeral support payment.  Additional budget will be needed to fund this although the scale of this is not yet known.  Depending on the economic impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19), this increased demand could continue for some time beyond the immediate crisis.

Changes to policy plans

The Scottish Government had been intending to launch child disability payment this summer followed by the Scottish child payment in December, and disability assistance for working age people in early 2021. These plans are delayed.

Scottish Child Payment

The Scottish Government is prioritising the delivery of the Scottish child payment, announcing today that:

“The aim is to start taking applications by the end of 2020 with payments being made from 2021, subject to sufficient staff being in place.”

The surge in universal credit claims will increase the numbers of families eligible for this payment.  The Scottish Government had already been planning a ‘staggered’ application process in expectation of initial high volumes of claim on the launch of the benefit.  This is likely to be even more of an issue now.

The regulations creating this benefit have yet to be laid in the Scottish Parliament.  In addition further primary legislation is needed before it can start.  Even before Coronavirus (COVID-19) this was already due to have an accelerated Parliamentary timetable and the time and resources for considering this bill are now even more constrained.

Child winter heating assistance

Provision for this £200 annual payment was included with the draft regulations on Child Disability Payment (CDP).  However, even though CDP is now delayed, the heating assistance element is due to go ahead as planned in winter 2020.

Disability assistance

The planned introduction of CDP this summer, disability assistance for working age people in early 2021 and disability assistance for older people in 2021 has been delayed.  The Cabinet Secretary said:

“UK Ministers have agreed that they will continue to deliver disability benefits to Scottish clients over a longer transition period.”

Ms Somerville was not able to give a new timetable, but will provide an update “as soon as I am able to do so.”

The recently announced provision that 16 year olds in receipt of child disability living allowance will continue to receive it until they are 18 has not changed.

Other relevant changes

The Scottish Government has revoked the planned increase free early learning and childcare.  This is not a social security measure, but the lower age limit for best start foods had been predicated on the expectation that three year old children would have access to free meals through expanded nursery provision.  Best start foods are available up to the age of three whereas the benefit they replace, healthy start vouchers, are available up to age four.  There is transitional protection available but the deadline for applying was yesterday (31 March 2020).

Changes to process

To take account of staffing difficulties due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) and recognising the need for flexibility for claimants, Schedule 7 to the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill  provides for certain deadlines to be extended.

The Bill allows decision makers some discretion where a claimant misses an application deadline because of Coronavirus (COVID-19).

It also allows ‘late’ requests for redeterminations and appeals to be accepted at any time, (rather than only up to a year) if the ‘good reason’ they are late relates to Coronavirus (COVID-19).  (Reserved benefit appeals can be accepted at any time if there is ‘good reason’ they are late). This change does not appear to cover what are called ‘process appeals’ under s.61 Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 which include appeals about whether or not something is a valid application.

The Bill would also give ministers an additional nine weeks to make a redetermination which is considerably longer than the current deadline of 16 working days. The policy memorandum states that:

“The Agency will still be expected to deal with redeterminations as quickly as the situation allows.”

Reflecting DWP changes

The DWP currently administer carer and disability benefits on the Scottish Government’s behalf under agency agreements.  These require the Scottish Government to follow DWP policy changes.  DWP changes made to take account of Coronavirus (COVID-19) include:

  • Suspending face to face assessments for disability benefits, which is also Scottish Government policy once Scottish versions of disability benefits start
  • Introducing flexibility to the rules for carer’s allowance. Reflecting England and Wales regulations which came into force on 30 March, the Scottish Government will allow carers  to continue to claim carer’s allowance if they have a temporary break in caring, because the person they or the person they care for gets Coronavirus (COVID-19)  or if they have to isolate because of it.

The Scottish Government also continues its policy of applying housing benefit rule changes to council tax reduction.  Scottish regulations laid today (1 April 2020) will mirror the change introduced on Monday to housing benefit to ensure that the additional £20 per week provided through changes to tax credits is not clawed back where a person claims council tax reduction.

What have charities and think-tanks asked for?

There has been little commentary so far on how the Scottish Government should use its social security powers to support people through Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Save the Children have asked for cash payments for free school meals and topping up benefits.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) have urged the Scottish Government “to build on new Scottish Child Payment and ‘use every tool in the Holyrood toolbox’ to protect struggling families”

Most commentary has focused on the social security powers of the UK government. MPs have asked for migrants with ‘no recourse to public funds’ to be able to claim benefits. Organisations such as Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Resolution Foundation, Institute for Public Policy Research and CPAG have asked for further changes to social security, including increases to child benefit and universal credit, improvements to contributory benefits and abolition of the two child limit and benefit cap.

These are mainly requests for top-ups, which would be within devolved competence.  The practicalities of doing this through a devolved route may be more challenging though. In addition to the capacity and staffing issues raised by the Cabinet Secretary today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has commented on how the Scottish Government’s lack of borrowing powers constrains its ability to increase spending in times of crisis.

Camilla Kidner, Social Security Research, SPICe