The Government must urgently reconsider the planned £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit (UC) next April. Further measures also need to be taken immediately – the five-week wait for UC should be ended, the benefit cap suspended, the two-child limit in UC and tax credits abolished, and the savings limit should be removed.
It is also important that legacy benefits (pre-UC benefits) should be uprated in line with UC. Back in May, the Government said it would not increase legacy benefits because it would take several months to change the system. However, we are now well into the pandemic and beyond the point where that uplift could have come online.
The Government recently announced a winter package, including a £170 million scheme which will allow councils to help those hardest hit, as well as provide food for children who need it over the holidays until the end of March 2021. It also includes the expansion of the Holiday Activities and Food programme, covering Easter, Summer and Christmas in 2021 and an increase in Healthy Start payments from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from April 2021. This package of support does not apply in Scotland as it is a devolved issue. However, I welcome any move that will stop children from going hungry over the tough months that lie ahead. I believe that the Government should have acted weeks before, to stop children going hungry over the October half term. You might like to contact your MSP about this matter.
In July 2020, the National Food Strategy published a report which states, “One of the miserable legacies of COVID-19 is likely to be a dramatic increase in unemployment and poverty, and therefore hunger.” It recommends for the Government to ensure that all children get the nutrition they need. I believe the Government must consider this report carefully.
Education is devolved and therefore UK Government decisions on free school meals would not apply in Scotland. In Scotland, every child who attends a local council school is eligible to get a free school lunch in primary 1, 2 and 3, regardless of their family’s financial circumstances. The Scottish government extended these schemes until Easter on the back of the Marcus Rashford campaign. It shouldn’t take a footballer and a public outcry for the U.K. and Scottish Governments to do the right thing.
I know that throughout the pandemic, many families have been unable to access the childcare support that they are entitled to, at a time when they need it most. A report by the Children’s Commissioner notes that people on UC have to wait weeks to be repaid for upfront childcare costs. She compared this with the tax-free childcare scheme designed by HMRC for higher-earning families, stating “some of the different parts of the system do seem to operate in unfairly disparate ways”. However, childcare support is also devolved to the Scottish Government.
The SNP Scottish Government announced in June last year that it would use its devolved powers to introduce a new social security payment for children in lower income families. This has been delayed several times and the Scottish Government’s plan is to now start taking applications for these payments from November 2020, with first payments being made from the end of February 2021. The Scottish child payment will be £10 a week per child, payable every four weeks. The current pandemic should not be an excuse to delay introducing this benefit, but the reason it needs to be introduced immediately.
The immediate priority is to make sure that people get the support they need now. However, longer term, we need a new social security system which provides a proper safety net with dignity and respect at its heart.