Many people applying for benefits are unaware of how complex the UK system is and could end up in hardship as a result, Scotland’s Social Security Secretary has said.
Shirley-Anne Somerville gave evidence to a Holyrood committee on Thursday, discussing the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the welfare state.
She urged people to seek help from Citizens Advice if they are experiencing difficulties with benefits, and said she will write to the UK Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about the unintended consequences of certain welfare policies.
Social Security Committee convener Bob Doris said one of his constituents had found themselves without any government support after they applied for Universal Credit, only to find out their working tax credits would be cancelled automatically.
Ms Somerville responded: “As you say, if a person loses their job and claims Universal Credit the working tax credits are ended automatically, regardless of whether they have to stay off them or on them.
“And I think that is one of the challenges that we will have is people entering the benefits system for perhaps the first time – or perhaps the first time in a long time – and they will be absolutely unaware of the complexity and the unintended consequences.
“That’s why I certainly encourage people to seek advice themselves through, for example, their local Citizens Advice bureau, who are still offering online services and telephone services at this point.
“But also there is a role for the DWP to see what can be done to take away some of the complexities.”
She said the latest figures on benefit claims in Scotland are not yet available, but David Wallace, chief executive of the Social Security Scotland agency, told MSPs there has been a “significant” increase in the number of people applying for crisis grants.
Holyrood has devolved powers over a number of benefits, including the Scottish Welfare Fund. Ms Somerville said she expects applications for these to increase as time goes on.
Committee deputy convener Pauline McNeill said many people are “falling through the gaps” when it comes to housing support, with Ms Somerville promising the Scottish Government will monitor the situation closely.
During March and early April, there were around 110,000 Universal Credit claims in Scotland, up from an average of 20,000 a month last year.
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