PARLIAMENT: RURAL COMMUNITIES AND PEOPLE ON UNIVERSAL CREDIT HIT HARD DURING PANDEMIC

By Bill Heaney

The Scottish Government has written to the UK Government on eight occasions during the pandemic with calls to address the myriad of issues that affect universal credit, according to The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, Shirley-Anne Somerville.

She told the Holyrood parliament: “We have repeatedly urged the UK Government to confirm that it will make the £20 per week uplift to universal credit and working tax credit permanent and extend it to legacy benefits.

“We have also called for urgent fixes, including offering non-repayable grants for new applicants and scrapping punitive policies such as the benefit cap, the bedroom tax and the two-child limit. We will continue to urge the UK Government to make universal credit a system that works for people and not against them.”

The SNP’s Linda Fabiani MSP told her: “Despite the recent ruling in what has come to be known as the Johnson case, which was supported by the Child Poverty Action Group, the Department for Work and Pensions is continuing with the practice of penalising workers who are paid four weekly because they are paid twice within one assessment period.

“There is also the issue of employees who are paid monthly being paid early, perhaps because of the weekend or a public holiday, and who face the same situation. I have previously written to the appropriate UK Government ministers about that, but I have had no satisfactory response that protects constituents. “

Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “I agree with the High Court judgment that the treatment of claimants who are paid on anything other than a monthly basis is terribly inflexible and unfair. In effect, it leads to an imposition of a benefit cap. To quote the ruling, that approach is one that no reasonable Secretary of State would have taken.

“Last year, the number of households in Scotland that are subject to the benefit cap nearly doubled, to 6,400, and 97 per cent of those households had children. The UK Government urgently needs to fix a myriad of issues with universal credit, but Linda Fabiani is right to point out that concerning issue, and I urge the DWP to look at it seriously.”

Rural communities like this one and and the one pictured above have poor communications and the people, o0ld and young, suffer from loneliness and social isolation. Pictures by Bill Heaney

Meanwhile, Dr Alasdair Allan, Na h-Eileanan an Iar,  SNP, asked what is being done to tackle loneliness and social isolation resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Minister for Older People and Equalities, Christina McKelvie, told MSPs: “I know that the new, tougher restrictions are hard. We are all very well aware of the social harms of social isolation and loneliness, which we have spoken about a lot this afternoon.

“That is why, as part of our £100 million winter funding package, we have invested nearly £6 million in promoting equality and tackling social isolation and loneliness. That includes £4.3 million of additional funding for our connecting Scotland programme specifically to get an additional 5,000 older and disabled people online, as well as funding for befriending helplines.

“For example, Age Scotland’s helpline, which has now received more than £1 million since the start of the pandemic, has been expanded to meet that need.”

Dr Allan pursued his point. He said: “As I am sure the minister will confirm, there are particular dangers of loneliness among people who do not have access to a car and who live in rural areas, where public transport is limited at the best of times and might now be non-existent. What is being done to reach out to people who find themselves in that specific situation?”

Ms McKelvie said: “As part of our £5.91 million winter support package, Befriending Networks Scotland has been awarded £100,000 for a scheme to award small grants of up to £5,000 to tackle loneliness and isolation. Grants will be balanced across rural and urban locations, as well as age groups and other specific groups. We are well aware of the rural aspect.

“We know from the Scottish household survey that people in the 16 to 24 age group are most likely to report experiences of isolation and loneliness, and our evidence base suggests that some groups within that group can be at particular risk, such as young mums.

“That is why we have funded YouthLink Scotland, which already has a role in distributing grant funding to a range of youth work organisations that work on the ground, by providing it with £150,000 to administer a grant scheme to help young people across Scotland—including those in rural and island communities—to get the support that they need to communicate.”

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