Imagine that 30% of young people did not attend school. Or that 20% of people could never get essential operations. Or that a large proportion of buses never arrived, but nobody really knew how many. It sounds unbelievable, but is exactly the situation we have in our social security system.
EntitledTo estimated in 2020 that around £16bn worth of means-tested payments, data that doesn’t even include other types of payments, went unclaimed across the UK.
The UK Department for Work and Pensions estimates tell us that around 30% of low income older people do not claim Pension Credit, and 20% missed out on Housing Benefit worth £2,900 per year each.
For some payments made to disabled people, the data on take-up has never even been collected.
The Edinburgh Poverty Commission estimated in 2019 that there were £70-80m of income related benefits going unclaimed in this city every year. Updating the figures for 2023, the true figure must surely be in excess of £100m: a missing investment in our city of £1bn over 10 years.
But why don’t people claim what they are entitled to?
Some people do not know what they are entitled to and nobody has bothered to tell them. I know a family that went years without even knowing their child might be eligible for Disability Living Allowance, even though they had been in touch with the DWP, the payment’s administrators, and other public authorities, none of which twigged the family could claim. They had missed out on well over £10,000.
And the language of ‘scroungers’, used by successive UK governments, makes people feel like criminals for asking to be paid money they are entitled to, is another reason.
Others are ground down by a system that sometimes feels set-up to make it as hard as possible to claim.
Given the incredible pressures Edinburgh families are facing due to the cost-of-living crisis, the UK Government, Scottish Government and the council need to do everything they can to ensure they are made aware of their entitlements, supported to claim and to make the process welcoming and non-stigmatising.
The Scottish Government, unique in the UK, has a legal duty to produce a take-up strategy, and this is starting to work. Take-up of the Scottish Government’s additional £20 for low-income families is projected to increase over the next 5 years, reaching 87%. We can’t rest until that figure reaches 100%, but this is a good start.
We also need to be actively reaching out. Having met the council teams that help our residents with social security issues, I know how hard they work to find out what residents might be entitled to and to help them claim.
And there’s more we can do to be putting welfare rights advice in even more GP surgeries, schools, community centres and high streets.
This requires investment in advice services, and as the city’s budget approaches next month, all parties should be mindful of the incredible return – sometimes as much as £20 in additional support for recipients, and reduced demand for services for every £1 invested.
Councillors also need to be stepping up. That’s why I have called on the council to adopt a take-up strategy that they oversee and take ownership of. That was put off by councillors when I brought a vote on it in November, but I won’t give up.
With the cost of living crisis raging, we cannot stop until everyone gets the support they are entitled to.
Dan Heap is Green councillor for Sighthill-Gorgie