But who’s going to pay for it? Of the various proposals that we made in our petition to the Scottish Government, more support for benefit advice was perhaps the one that could have been most easily met. Instead, we were given a £600,000 cut in funding from the legal aid board, which hit the Citizens Advice Service hard, and continued squeezing of council budgets, which is transmitted down into pressure on advice budgets (especially as welfare advice is not a ‘protected service’). So the recent discussion of advice services by the Scottish Social Security Committee was doubly interesting.
The part of the discussion that hit the headlines concerned the DWP’s slight of hand when they transferred the administration of support for people signing onto Universal Credit from the local authorities to the Citizens Advice Service. When this was done through the councils, they were empowered to log a new claim as beginning from the date of first contact. A legal quibble means that CAB doesn’t have that power, so if – as is often the case – there is a delay in the claim getting submitted, the claimant will only get paid benefits for the period of the delay if they also log their claim with the jobcentre. Glasgow City Council has suggested that a great many people will loose out on vital benefits. They have also pointed out that the CAB contract, unlike the previous contract with the local authorities, does not provide for ongoing help after the first 6 weeks.
The CAB rep was given quite a grilling by the Committee for CAB’s failure to negotiate a better deal for benefit claimants – but third sector organisations are always compromised when they rely on bidding for contracts from government. I am reminded of the problems Shelter got into a decade back when they tightened up on their costs so much in order to win a government contract that their employees went on strike because they couldn’t afford their own housing costs.
The Social Security Committee also discussed the provision of advice services more generally, and it was good to see a general recognition of the growing need for them, and also for the wider benefits that can be gained from timely help before people’s lives unravel. Several speakers talked about the returns, both social and financial, from investment in welfare services. BUT, with the exception of Alison Johnstone for the Greens, no one talked about getting any more money to put into this potential investment. The right to ‘advocacy’ is mentioned in the Scottish Social Security Act, but it is not clear what this means – and there was concern that the Scottish Government is focused on help for people applying for the new Scottish-administered benefits and not the whole picture. There was plenty of valuable discussion about better coordination and the importance of being able to look at someone’s position in the round and not just one benefit problem at a time, but lack of resources seems to be generally accepted as a lamentable fact of existence. That needn’t be, and shouldn’t be, the case.