The latest act of heinous sadism from Welfare Minister (and perfect caricature of an evil Tory) Iain Duncan-Smith is to charge people 45p per minute to claim benefits over the phone for Universal Credit.
Everyone who has had any contact with the benefits system (obviously not exceptionally posh Duncan-Smith) will know that phoning the DWP can be a marathon, sometimes taking 20-30 minutes for the call even to be answered. To charge people 45p per minute for the loathsome activity is beyond repugnant.
It’s likely the move is a deliberate attempt to reduce the number of applicants, and therefore reduce the welfare bill.
‘If they won’t put up with 45p per minute, let them starve!’ You could imagine Duncan-Smith, who quite closely resembles evil nuclear plant owner Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, stating to his DWP minions, followed by a ‘mwuhahahaha’.
Of course this is no joke. The UK welfare system has become gradually more difficult to access, more confused, and more punitive, precisely in order to force people to give it up. The Tories ignorantly believe that will encourage people to ‘get a job’ – more likely is that it will lead to greater despair and penury.
The statistics on the impact of Duncan Smith’s reforms are truly shocking. One, on benefit sanctions, should paint the appropriate picture of immiseration: the number of people sanctioned with mental health problems has risen over 600 per cent in the past four years.
And for those of you who don’t know, if you get sanctioned (for turning up late or not filling in your job applications properly) that’s it – you get nothing for a couple of weeks or a month, or longer.
What can be done? Common Weal has published a new report today looking at the possibilities and limitations of social security powers set to be devolved under the Scotland Bill. The report is written by Professor Paul Spicker; an expert on the UK welfare system.
The first thing to note is that the limitations outweigh the possibilities. Let’s take Universal Credit as a case study: the benefit will still be delivered by the DWP, administered by the DWP, the amount received set by the DWP and who it is received too and when is decided by the DWP.
Any changes to Universal Credit – for example if the Scottish Government wanted to end phone charges for claiming the benefit – would have to be negotiated with the DWP. If the DWP did agree, they would likely set high administrative costs to do so, as they have done with the Scottish Rate of Income Tax. Even then it would be complex – there is no singular computer system for the processing of Universal Credit, making it difficult to separate out Scottish recipients from elsewhere in the UK.
Of course there is also more widely understood restrictions on the Scottish Government – a falling block grant from the UK Government year on year means room to manoeuvre in cash terms is limited.
All in all, as Spicker states in the report, “everything the Scottish Parliament does will have to be done with an eye to what is happening elsewhere in benefits and they will be subject to continued direction, and control of resources, from central government.”
However, this does not mean that nothing can be done. Indeed, there is two areas in particular where the Scottish Government could make serious anti-poverty strides without getting tangled in the mess of the UK means-tested system (where raising one benefit can often mean the loss of another).
First, the Scottish Parliament will have the power to create a top-up to Child Benefit, that everyone with children receives based on birth certificates and place of residence and is therefore not means tested and does not affect other benefits. By making the top up 50% of existing Child Benefit, the benefit could be integrated into the income tax system, meaning the poorest would benefit most and the better off would have it deducted from tax, making it more affordable.
At approximately £325 million, this measure could cut a hole through Scotland’s persistent child poverty, with 1 in 5 (over 200,000) children still impoverished.
Second, a ‘Citizens’ Pension’ could be created, which would act as a top-up to those who do not currently receive the full state pension. This benefit would not have to be applied for, and could replace the means-tested Pension Credit, which one-third of Scots pensioners (100,000 people) who should claim it don’t do so because it’s so confused. The cost of the Pension Credit in Scotland would then be transferred to the Scottish exchequer under the ‘no detriment’ principle, reducing the cost of the Citizens’ Pension to the Scottish Government.
This would be a strong anti-poverty measure for the elderly community in Scotland as it would ensure no one receives less than the state pension, and – crucially – the benefit would actually reach all of those who need it.
Both measures are contra Duncan-Smith in that they don’t make you jump through hoops to receive the benefit: in other words, a dignified approach to social security, very much unlike the DWP’s latest phone charge sham.
If the Scottish Parliament use the new powers to help the poorest children and pensioners, and restore a bit of dignity, then that will be something worth doing.