Forbes seeks radical improvement to Universal Credit as island claims soar


Kate Forbes is MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch and Scottish finance secretary

Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP and Scottish finance secretary Kate Forbes has called for the UK Government to “radically improve” its Universal Credit system amid a dramatic rise in welfare claims recorded by the Portree job centre and across the Highlands.

Figures from Highland Council showed a 183 per cent increase in claims for welfare recorded by the Portree job centre between March (411) and August (1,163).

Sixteen to 19 year-olds and 20-24 year-olds have been the worst affected groups, with the number of people within both claimant brackets having risen by more than 90 per cent between March and August.

In the 16-19 year-old age group the figure rose by a staggering 97 per cent — with 398 claims made in March and 783 made in August. The number spiked at 793 claims in July. 

Meanwhile the statistics for the 20-24 year-olds category also painted a worrying trend with a 93 per cent rise recorded between March and August. March saw 1,279 claims made, while that number escalated to 2,468 in August.

The overall figures show that Portree job centre experienced the greatest rise in claims between March and August at 183 per cent, with Fort William the next greatest at 110 per cent of the six centres listed.

The total number for the Highlands as a whole climbed from 11,301 in March to 20,212 in August. The greatest figure for the region across that period came in July when the number rose to 20,318.

On Monday, Highland Council Leader Margaret Davidson said that the region has been hit hard by the many shortfalls arising from the UK Government’s benefit scheme.

Reacting to the figures, Kate Forbes said: “The pandemic has a huge social and economic impact. Many people, particularly young people, have found themselves dependent on universal credit.

“Some of those who are reliant on universal credit for the first time in their lives have told me that they cannot believe the UK Government expects anybody to live off the small weekly sums.

“There have been some improvements to universal credit but these have been minimal and it is critical that the UK Government not only maintains those changes, but radically improves universal credit so that families and individuals can survive.

“As redundancies increase in advance of the end of the furlough scheme, the Scottish Government has sought to provide employability support. However, it would be far better to keep people in work in the first place.

She added: “If anybody is struggling to access universal credit or finds themselves with nowhere else to go, I would encourage them to get in touch with my office and I will do everything I possibly can to help.”

Changes are needed to stop “cycle of debt”: CAB manager

The bureau manager at the Skye and Lochalsh Citizens Advice Bureau has said changes need to be made to the Universal Credit system to halt the “desperate cycle of debt and destitution”.

Explaining the challenges facing those depending on the system, Morag Hannah  told the Free Press: “The Universal Credit monthly standard allowance for those  aged under 25 years is £342.72 – some people may get more money on top of the standard allowance – housing costs, if eligible, with the claimant possibly having to wait for around five weeks for the first payment. 

Morag Hannah is the bureau manager at the Skye and Lochalsh Citizens Advice Bureau

“They can ask for an advance, but this must be paid back. 

“Claims for Universal Credit must normally be made and maintained online. Alternative, offline options are only available in exceptional circumstances. Many claimants are in financial difficulty before they apply for Universal Credit, with some delaying making their claim until they are in difficulty.

“The department’s analysis of earnings data found that nearly half of claimants – 49 per cent — had no earnings in the three months before they apply for Universal Credit. 

“The initial five-week wait can exacerbate claimants’ debt and financial difficulties.”

She explained that since Universal Credit was introduced, evidence from the CAB has suggested that a significant minority of people do not have the internet access or digital skills required to make and maintain their claims online. 

She said: “Within this group, those with disabilities, mental or physical health conditions, learning difficulties, poor literacy skills and other complex needs, appear to face particular disadvantages and barriers to online claim maintenance. 

“In fact, some simply may never be able to do so without substantial support. Those living in rural areas can also face unique difficulties. Such claimants can therefore be at serious risk of sanction (and in some cases claim closure), which can result in significant hardship.

“The UK government does offer an advance loan system so people can access cash sooner. But that simply adds another line of credit to people’s outgoings and pushes them further into that debt spiral. Our evidence base tells us that it is difficult to get by on Universal Credit even before your advance loan repayments are deducted.”

Since 16th March this year the Skye and Lochalsh Citizens Advice Bureau have dealt with 2,553 client contacts, 24 per cent of these contacts – 309 client contacts — have been with regards to Universal Credit – people looking for advice on advance payments, reporting changes of circumstances, needing assistance with claiming and backdating, getting help with the housing element, how to supply medical evidence that they are unfit to look for work, online access issues, payment issues/schedules, reconsiderations and work capability assessments.

Ms Hannah added: “We believe that advance loans should be replaced by a non-repayable payment system that protects the most vulnerable from destitution – like having to rely on food banks – during the waiting period. 

“Alongside this, it makes much more sense for people to just get their first payment sooner; we say within two weeks. Provide suitable non-digital options for individuals to make and manage their Universal Credit claims and promote these options to claimants, particularly disabled people, people with health conditions and other complex needs.

“Get it wrong and we will continue to see people in the same desperate cycle of debt and destitution, but get it right and we can begin to reverse the trend of working poverty.”