Tackling child poverty delivery plan 2022-2026 - annex 6: what works - evidence review

This annex to the second tackling child poverty delivery plan 2022 to 2026 summarises the latest evidence on what works in tackling child poverty.

4. What works around increasing income from Social Security and benefits in kind

Social security is designed to supplement the income that households receive from other sources, primarily employment. For some families, all of their income comes from social security. Social security is important for all the priority families, and particularly so for some. For example, single parents and young mothers get a greater proportion of their income from social security, on average, than others.

Key findings – what works to increase income from social security and benefits in kind?

The current Social Security provision in Scotland is valued by families and is effective at increasing many families' incomes, but is not always sufficient to keep them out of poverty. Suggested ways for increasing income from social security and benefits in kind include:

  • Increasing take-up of benefits. This could be achieved through increasing awareness; providing support and guidance on what families are entitled to; making the application process simple for example via automation or through simple application forms and accessible language. Embedding advice and support around social security in places and services that families already use can be very effective, such as GP practices, schools or nurseries. Automating receipt can also work well for some benefits.
  • Maximising benefit eligibility. This means making sure that benefits are available to as many people who need them as possible, particularly those that are used as passported benefits to other support.
  • Getting benefit generosity right. Evidence has shown the significant impact that changes to Universal Credit can have on poverty rates. For example, by increasing child-related elements or by levelling up payments for those aged under 25 to the level of those who are 25 and over. While Universal Credit is a reserved matter, in Scotland, there is scope for support through the Scottish Child Payment and Child Disability Payment, for example.
  • Service delivery. The evidence highlighted potential areas for improvement in the service delivery at a UK level. This include: payment timing and accuracy, payment consistency, fewer sanctions, policy values and staff attitudes, information provision and communication channels. The flexible 'Scottish choices' on Universal Credit have had some positive impacts for recipients. Although, for some, this has come with operational difficulties, and many recipients decide not to take up the flexibility, e.g. they would rather receive a larger payment every four weeks or not to have their rent paid directly to their landlord.
  • Child maintenance can help to reduce poverty, but only a minority of parents currently receive it.

This chapter provides an overview of the current social security system for families in Scotland, before setting out key challenges in increasing families' income through social security and the evidence about what works to tackle each of these challenges.

Overview of the current system

The provision of social security and benefits in kind for families in Scotland is delivered between the UK Department for Work and Pensions, Social Security Scotland, and Scottish local authorities. This means that any proposed changes to benefits delivered at UK level would mean, for the Scottish Government, lobbying for either the changes themselves, or for further devolution of powers in these areas.

Social security usually takes the form of a monetary transfer aimed at increasing household income. Benefits in kind aim to reduce household costs. Some provision is targeted specifically at families, including Child Benefit, the Scottish Child Payment, Best Start Grant and disability payments for children. Other provision is not only for families although families can also benefit, including standard allowances for Universal Credit, adult disability payments, Carer's Allowance and Discretionary Housing Payment. The majority of provision is means tested, but there are some benefits that are available regardless of income, such as disability benefits and free school meals for certain age groups.

On average, social security accounts for just over 40% of income for families in poverty in Scotland.[192] However, this varies significantly for the different priority family types, as Figure 9 shows. Households in poverty with single parents and young mothers are the most reliant on social security, followed by households with three or more children, and those with disabled household members. For these family types, social security payments are, on average, their largest income source.

Figure 9: Income breakdown for households with children in relative poverty, (all, with a priority characteristic, or with none), Scotland 2014-20

All: 52% earnings, 43% social security
Single parent: 23% earnings, 70% social security
Young mothers: 35% earnings, 63% social security
Disabled person: 39% earnings, 55% social security
3+ children: 43% earnings, 52% social security
Baby under 1: 50% earnings, 47% social security
Minority ethnic: 64% earnings, 31% social security
None: 82% earnings, 15% social security

What is working and not working?

Evidence has shown that social security is an important lever in tackling child poverty.[193] The current provision in Scotland is valued by families and is effective at increasing many families' incomes, but not always sufficient to keep them out of poverty.[194] Around three quarters of respondents to the Social Security Scotland Client Survey 2018-21 who had at least one child in their household indicated strong agreement with the statement that 'benefit payment(s) help you to pay for what you needed'.[195] However for a wide range of reasons, many families do not claim the benefits that they are entitled to. The current value of the benefits package available for families is also insufficient by itself to keep those who do take it up out of poverty. We also know that, while many aspects of the current delivery system work well for people, there are also a number of key areas for improvement.

What works? Increasing take-up of benefits

It can be difficult to measure take-up of benefits, particularly where eligibility is determined case by case (such as for disability benefits). Still, we know that many families do not claim the benefits that they are entitled to. Initial estimates of take-up for Scottish benefits are:

  • Scottish Child Payment – 77%
  • Best Start Grant – 79-84% (for the different payments – better than for Sure Start Maternity Grant, which it replaced)
  • Best Start Foods – 77%.[196]

For in-kind benefits, the question is not only whether families are registered to receive them, but also whether they make use of the goods – thereby reducing their costs of living. While not all children eligible for free school meals are registered to receive them, we also know that not all those registered actually take them, with variations by year group.[197] Take-up is generally higher in smaller and more rural schools, although there is significant variation between different schools and local authorities.[198] Higher take-up is also associated with primary schools with greater free school meals registration, but secondary schools with lower free school meals registration.

There are many reasons why families do not claim the benefits they are entitled to, including:

  • Knowledge gaps: Parents report confusion or a lack of knowledge about what benefits they are entitled to, and some report feeling that they discover information by chance and that they have missed out on benefit income from not knowing about them sooner.[199] Difficulties can be exacerbated for those with language barriers and learning disabilities.[200] Evidence suggests that parents' awareness of the two-child limit, for example, may be quite low.[201]
  • Complex application process: Even if families know that they are eligible for benefits, the application process can sometimes be hard to navigate.[202] Some claimants report a lack of information about decisions made about their benefits, or not knowing how to challenge these.[203] Mental health needs and trauma, including for domestic abuse survivors, can also make it more difficult to navigate the benefits system.[204] So too can language difficulties, for those of minority ethnicities.[205] Financial circumstances can also themselves be barriers to accessing support, for example through a lack of digital devices, electricity for charging them, or being in employment with irregular hours that make it difficult to access in person advice or support.[206]
  • Social barriers: Some families may not apply due to social barriers, such as stigma, feeling undeserving or not identifying themselves as someone eligible for the benefit (for example, as a carer).[207] Stigma can be a significant barrier, and can include parents fearing stigma or embarrassment for their children.[208] Individually tailored support from frontline workers can help to overcome stigma and help people to recognise benefits as an entitlement. This can be difficult to overcome even by organisations with specialist knowledge.[209] Many families report that the design of the Universal Credit system can contribute to recipients' feelings of stigma, anxiety and insecurity, and questioning their deservingness of support.[210]

What works? Improving awareness to increase take-up

Many sources highlight the importance of both advice services and frontline support workers in helping parents to access and navigate the benefits that they're entitled to.[211] Embedding advice and support in places and services that families in poverty already use can be very effective, although centrally located services can also be effective if well signposted, efficient and trusted.[212] Many people find independent sources of advice more approachable and trustworthy than official government sources.[213]

The Healthier Wealthier Children project is one example of a successful healthcare-based initiative to improve benefit take-up among families experiencing, or at risk of, child poverty. The project improved benefit take-up by developing referral and information pathways between early-years health staff (mainly health visitors and midwives) and locally-commissioned money advice services.[214]

Local authorities report that GP practices and other healthcare settings can be successful sites for social security advice for adults overall, and child healthcare and maternity services, such as midwifery and Family Nurse Partnership, for parents specifically.[215]

There are successful examples in both Glasgow and Edinburgh of school-based advice and support services for parents developed in partnership with the local authority and third sector.[216] They offer advice across the different drivers of poverty and, though not yet fully evaluated, report notable financial gain for families and good involvement of lone parent, large and minority ethnic families. Glasgow City Council also report that checking, and assisting with, Best Start Grant applications when parents register their child's birth supported over 1,200 families to make an application in the first year.[217]

The Child Poverty Action Group's work developing, organising and delivering welfare rights training, information and casework support to advisers and other frontline workers. They do this to increase their capacity and capability to give accurate and effective advice and information on benefits to households. The Child Poverty Action Group work has been positively evaluated.[218] Areas for potential further improvement have also been identified. These include further expansion of the e-learning platform, increased capacity of the Advice Line, online versions of major handbooks, letter templates, development of key training, and more effective communication of their range of services.

There is some evidence that communication campaigns to raise awareness of specific benefits, perhaps particularly local ones, can increase take-up and Scottish Government plan to build the body of evidence on what works as their current campaign unfolds.[219]

Partnership working, good leadership, flexibility, good data sharing, tailored support and the use of trusted services/intermediaries are factors commonly cited as key to services successful in increasing families' income through social security and benefits in kind.[220]

What works? Making it simple to increase take-up

In some cases, benefits can be automatically provided, or partial automation can streamline the application process.[221]

Many parents appreciated receiving the COVID-19 Hardship payments directly into their bank accounts, without having to apply, and some felt that they would have missed out if it had not been automatic. [222]

Glasgow City Council report that even limited automation of benefits, primarily for the school clothing grant and free school meals (via housing benefit and council tax records), has notably increased take-up.[223]

The take-up of child tax credits in the UK has been much lower among families in employment compared to those who are not, and therefore more likely to be receiving social assistance (66% compared to 93% respectively in 2016-17).[224] This is likely to be because they have to apply for it, whereas it is otherwise automatically included in benefit claims.

Simple application forms and accessible language have been shown to boost take-up of UK benefits.[225] It can be argued that this is particularly relevant for minority ethnic families.

Although some applicants report issues, generally they seem to find Social Security Scotland payments quite easy to apply for.[226] Ninety-four percent of respondents to the Client Survey 2018-2021 who lived with at least one child found application processes clear.[227]

Some parents find that children being eligible for different benefits at different ages, such as with Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods, can be confusing.[228] Having to ensure that application happens at the right time for each child can make take-up of benefits harder for some families.

What works? Some other approaches to increasing take-up

For some single parents, financial pressures are made worse by the lack of child maintenance paid by their child's other parent. Research shows that child maintenance does help reduce poverty to some extent for parents who receive it, and that it currently decreases poverty among single-mother families more than it increases poverty among fathers paying support.[229] However, only a minority of single parents do receive child maintenance payments from their ex-partner. It has been estimated that less than half of lone parents in the UK receive child maintenance. The current UK system relies on a mixture of encouraging parents to reach voluntary arrangements on child maintenance, and on a statutory Child Maintenance Service (which requires from claimants a £20 upfront payment) when this is not possible.

Since 2010, the UK child maintenance system has allowed parents to exclude any child maintenance payments they receive from benefit entitlement calculations. Evidence shows that this has improved incentives to pay child maintenance and maximises its potential to reduce poverty.[230] However, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee found a number of other issues with the child maintenance system in 2016-17, and lone parents in Scotland report facing a range of difficulties with it.[231] Research found that approximately three months after the closure of cases on the previous system (closed between 2014-16), over half of receiving parents didn't have a maintenance arrangement in place (56%), and only half of arrangements that were in place (54%) were deemed effective.[232] Difficulties affording the £20 Child Maintenance Service Fee and fees for the Collect and Pay service, paying parents refusing to pay, domestic violence issues and not being eligible to pay are among the factors cited in parents' lack of arrangements. The Committee also found a lack of payment enforcement and loopholes allowing non-resident parents to hide income as additional concerns. The UK Government recently consulted on proposed improvements to the current Child Maintenance Service.[233]

One potential alternative system can be found in Finland, where the government provides child support, up to a guaranteed amount, if payments are not received from non-resident parents (except to those receiving social assistance). This appears to have a greater poverty-reduction effect than the UK system.[234]

What works? Maximising benefit eligibility

Maximising benefit eligibility for those most in need is a key step in supporting low income families out of poverty. This means, making sure that benefits are available to as many people who need them as possible.

The case of free school meals. Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has calculated that around 17% of school aged children in poverty in Scotland (25,000 children) are not eligible for free school meals. [235] Being eligible for free school meals is dependent on the receipt of certain other benefits. The proportion of children in poverty not eligible for free school meals is far lower than in England (37%) and Wales (42%) due to greater extension of automatically provided free school meals to certain year groups. CPAG notes that receipt of free school meals is also used by schools and government as a 'gateway' benefit to receiving other forms of support, making it essential that children who need support are registered to receive them.

Variable income sources. Benefit eligibility can be affected by variable earnings. For example, if people work fluctuating hours, such as those on zero-hour contracts, 'bogus' self-employment, and undeclared work.[236] People in the UK earning less than the lower earnings limit do not currently qualify for Statutory Sick Pay or any financial support from their employer. Women, those in insecure paid work and younger workers are among those most likely to miss out.[237] Those seeking or refused asylum are ineligible for mainstream benefits.

In-work poverty. Evidence shows that tax credits can be highly effective at reducing in-work poverty for households that receive them.[238] However it should be noted that this kind of targeting of benefits can have implications for not only how many children they move out of poverty, but also which specific poverty measures they affect. For example, benefits targeted at parents who do (more) paid work will not benefit those furthest from the labour market – while Earned Income Tax Credit in the US has been shown to significantly reduce the overall poverty rate, this is likely to be related to the fact that recipients tend to be closer to the poverty line and therefore require less additional income to move over it.[239]

What works? Getting benefit generosity right

While ensuring that all families receive the benefits they are entitled to is an essential part of maximising families' income, it is only half of the story. The extent to which benefits contribute to keeping families out of poverty is also determined by their generosity – how much families receive.

Analysis of the impacts of different social security systems in EU countries, including the UK, suggests that there is a clear relationship between the generosity of the social security system (measured as a percentage of average earnings) and child poverty.[240] Consideration must also be given to the potential for increased generosity to have knock-on effects, such as disincentivising parents to take on (more hours of) employment – although evidence is mixed as discussed in Chapter 1.

As mentioned above, the Scottish Government has control over the generosity of some, but not all, of the benefits available to families in Scotland.

Benefits delivered by the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities

At a rate of £10 per child per week, the Scottish Child Payment was expected to reduce relative child poverty by 3 percentage points once fully rolled out.[241] Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) analysis previously suggested that extending eligibility for Scottish Child Payment to children under 16 and doubling the payment per child to £20 would see child poverty at 19% in 2021 rather than the 24% estimated level of child poverty with no Scottish Child Payment (a total reduction of 5 percentage points).[242] However, this assumes that a high level of take-up is achieved (80% for families with children under six and 75% for families with children aged 6-15).

The most recent cumulative modelling from the Scottish Government, published alongside this report, estimates that the impact of a package of Scottish Government policies will be to reduce the relative child poverty rate by 10 percentage points in 2023/24, compared to a counterfactual situation where these policies did not exist[iv]. The projection is for the poverty rate to fall to 17% in 2023/24, thus meeting the interim target of 18% by a narrow margin. This impact is in large part due to the introduction and changes to the Scottish Child Payment in 2022/23.[243] These figures are subject to a high degree of uncertainty.

Should be noted that not all the support provided by Scottish Government can have a visible impact on the child poverty targets. For example, although Best Start Grant does affect household incomes directly, it is not a regular payment and may not be necessarily visible in the child poverty statistics.[244] However, it has had a positive impact on households finances and enabled some people to meet key expenses – it may therefore have an impact on the material deprivation measure by providing more income for parents and carers to buy some of the items that are on the list that determines material deprivation.[245] Recipients of the Carer's Allowance Supplement have identified positive impacts but tended to say that the payment had not helped their day to day finances.[246] Although many parents are positive about the school clothing grant, some think that it is not sufficient for secondary school age children, and that it should also be available for nursery pupils.[247]

Grants available through the Scottish Welfare Fund have made a positive difference for some people, but are not always sufficient to cover recipients' urgent needs.[248] Parents report that the additional assistance offered during the pandemic, such as free school meal replacements and the COVID-19 hardship payments, made a difference but there remained some gaps, such as a lack of free school meals replacement for nursery-age children.[249]

Scottish levels of private rent are often not fully covered by Local Housing Allowance, which in effect can reduce the volume of private rented accommodation available to low income households.[250] For example, only 11 out of 90 Local Housing Allowance rates in Scotland were set at the level allowing families to rent a home in the 30th percentile of the rental market, as of 2019. It appears that some households, where the highest earner is of a minority ethnic background, may be less likely than those with a white Scottish highest earner to claim housing benefit.[251] There is also some indication that visible minority ethnic tenants may find it harder to rent.

Benefits reserved to the UK Government

Any proposed changes to benefits delivered at UK level, including changes to their generosity, would require the Scottish Government to lobby for either the changes themselves, or for further devolution of powers in these areas.

Benefits for families have been cut substantially by the UK Government since 2010, including via cash freezes, more stringent eligibility criteria and increased waiting times for benefit receipt to begin, and are often insufficient by themselves to keep families out of poverty.[252] Benefit generosity in the UK was close to the average for OECD countries in 2020, at 74% of minimum wage earnings for a parent with two children and whose partner was also unemployed.[v] This is significantly higher than Hungary (30%) and the US (51%), for example, but far lower than Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Estonia or Latvia (all 90-100%).[253]

Cumulative impact assessment of the distribution of tax and social security reforms in the UK (from the 2010 general election up to measures announced in the Autumn 2017 Budget) shows that households with children have experienced much larger losses, as a result of the reforms, than those without children.[254] The changes were regressive, and expected to result in average losses of more than 10% of net income for families in the bottom two income deciles and sharp rises in relative child poverty.[255] Loses have been particularly dramatic for lone parents, and average cash losses greater for households with more children. Households with disabled members have also experienced particularly negative impacts. Some priority family groups have therefore been among the worst affected.

Universal Credit is often insufficient to keep children out of poverty, even when parents are working the hours that the policy expects of them.[256] Evidence has shown a correlation between the roll-out of Universal Credit and increased homelessness and demand for food banks.[257]

The benefit cap, that is the limit on the total amount of benefits one can get, disproportionately affects families with children. Especially those for whom the cap is applied through Housing Benefit.[258] Of benefit capped households in August 2021:

  • 97% had children
  • 68% were lone parent families
  • 29% were couples with children.[259]

It is estimated that thetwo-child limit (which restricts the child element of Universal Credit and Child Tax Credits to two children) will push 300,000 children in the UK into poverty by 2023-24, and one million children already in poverty will be pushed even deeper into poverty.[260] 95% of respondents to a CPAG and Church of England online survey said that the two-child limit had affected their ability to pay for basic living costs. Their research also found that victims of domestic abuse are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of the two-child limit. Orthodox Jewish and Muslim communities are also disproportionately affected due to strong cultural norms and deeply held religious beliefs that favour larger families. Refugee families have also been reported as disproportionately affected by the benefit cap and two-child limit.[261] There is some indication that the two-child limit may be influencing the decisions of some mothers with two or more existing children about whether or not to continue with a new pregnancy.[262] Modelling has shown that for non-working or very low-earning families, however, removing the two-child limit will have a limited effect unless the benefit cap is also abolished.[263]

While families report the £20 pandemic uplift to Universal Credit as being 'lifesaving', they also note that this was offset by increased living costs.[264] The Scottish Government estimated that withdrawing the uplift (and the suspension of the Minimum Income Floor) would mean child poverty would be two percentage points higher than if it was retained.[265] For asylum seekers, it has been suggested that the weekly allowance provided by the National Asylum Support Service (£39.63 per person as of March 2022) is not enough to meet a person's basic needs such as transport, food and clothing.[266]

Deductions to social security payments to recoup prior overpayments do not systematically take account of the effect on recipients' ability to afford essentials.[267]

CPAG report that the poorest 10% of families with children pay a higher percentage of their income in tax than any other income groups, with indirect taxes such as VAT falling heavily on low income families.[268] The current tax system has also been found to disproportionately disadvantage women.[269]

Where would increased generosity have the biggest impact?

SPICe and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) both report that additional spend on existing benefits would be more effective in reducing child poverty if spent on the child related elements of Universal Credit rather than on Child Benefit directly. The rationale would be that targeting families in need through Universal Credit would be able to reach the poorer households with children.[270] IPPR calculated that this would have more than twice the impact of increasing Child Benefit for around the same investment. On the other hand, CPAG have noted that one advantage of prioritising investment in Child Benefit (in addition to maximising take-up) is that families can rely on this as regular income unlike any potential issues that may arise through their Universal Credit claim.[271]

IPPR modelling commissioned by CPAG finds that the single most beneficial change for families in the lowest equivalised income decile in the UK would be to increase the under-25 rates in Universal Credit to match the 25-and-over rate.[272] Reversing the two-child limit or the benefit cap would have the greatest impact on families in the second income decile. Changes which benefit working families tend to have their greatest effects slightly higher up the income scale, meaning that they are most effective for those borderline in poverty and unlikely to reach those deeper into poverty.

In terms of the priority family groups, the IPPR modelling suggests that the most impactful changes, if made from 2013/14, would have been as follows:

  • Larger families: maintaining the level of the child element and applying a triple lock in line with the state pension,[6] abolishing the two-child limit, or abolishing the benefit cap.
  • Lone parents: maintaining, and applying a triple lock in line with the state pension to the child element.[6]
  • Families with a disabled member: investment in children's benefits, more than changes geared specifically to working families.

In terms of Scottish benefits, modelling from the Fraser of Allander Institute and Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has shown that by itself, an increase of the Scottish Child Payment to £40 per week would be required to meet the interim target for relative child poverty (and an increase to £165 per week to meet the final target).[273] However, it is possible that this type of increase could also have knock-on effects such as disincentivising parents to take on (more hours of) employment – although evidence is mixed as discussed in Chapter 1. Using this lever alone to meet the targets would also have a high price tag for the government. An estimated £600 million annually would be needed to meet the interim targets, and £3 billion to meet the final targets – with diminishing returns in terms of cost effectiveness. Fraser of Allander note that these could be funded through 1- and 4-percentage point increases to income tax across all bands, respectively.

Increases to Carer's Allowance are likely to have relatively small impacts on overall poverty rates due to the relatively small proportion of families who receive it.[274] However, it does have scope to reduce the poverty rate for those who do.

What works around the delivery system

Certain characteristics of the social security system, set out below, may influence take-up but they also importantly contribute to how families experience the system. These may not all have a direct impact on poverty, but can contribute to making life easier or harder for families.

Overall, there are many positive stories of parents for whom the UK and Scottish social security systems do work well.[275] Initial feedback from Social Security Scotland clients has been largely positive, and suggests that, although not directly comparable, client satisfaction may be higher than for DWP. While the majority of claimants were 'fairly satisfied' or 'very satisfied' with DWP services overall in 2018/19 (81%), a higher proportion (94%) of Social Security Scotland clients rated their experience as 'good' or 'very good'' in 2018-21.[276]

Potential areas for improvement relevant to both the reserved and devolved social security systems include:

  • Payment timing. The five-week wait for Universal Credit payments may leave many families at risk of hardship and debt.[277] Some recipients of Best Start Grant also report having to wait longer than advertised.[278] COVID-19 also led to additional delays for some families who were waiting for a disability diagnosis or assessment.[279] Many parents receiving the childcare element of Universal Credit report not receiving this on time (and in full) and report difficulties paying upfront childcare costs.[280]
  • Who benefits are paid to. Benefits being paid to only one parent in a couple can have negative impacts. Where a father is the recipient, this can result in mothers having restricted access to the income, being financially dependent on their partner and having less money to spend on their children.[281]
  • Information provision. As noted above, some claimants report lacking the information needed for them to challenge decisions.[282] A review of the assessment process for Personal Independence Payment also found that communication could be inconsistent and advice provided to claimants incomplete.[283] Some lone parents in the UK report being given incorrect information about their work requirements under Universal Credit, and other parents about their childcare costs.[284] Parents with limited English or who are not digitally connected can find it harder to find out about available support.[285] Just 77% of respondents to the Social Security Scotland Client Survey 2018-21 with at least one child in the household agreed or strongly agreed that they got enough updates on the progress of their application, whilst 11% disagreed or strongly disagreed.[286]
  • Flexibility. The flexible 'Scottish choices' on Universal Credit have had some positive impacts for recipients who decided to take advantage of the flexibilities, including simplifying their money management; ensuring their rent was paid; making it easier for claimants to make their money last; and helping people manage their money in a way that suited them; and reducing their worries about their housing and money.[287] The flexible 'Scottish choices' do not suit everyone. For some, this has come with operational difficulties, and many recipients decide not to take up the flexibility, e.g. they would rather receive a larger payment every four weeks or not to have their rent paid directly to their landlord. We do not have specific findings for families, however single adults with children on More Frequent Payments were the most likely both to have reverted to default four-weekly payments and to have reverted on Direct Payments to Landlord. The reasons for this have not yet been explored.

Key areas for improvement of UK Government benefit delivery include:

  • Payment accuracy. The vast majority (84%) of DWP claimants said that their recent payments had been correct in 2018-19, although this fell to 76% for Universal Credit claimants.[288] Other research reports incorrect payments as a significant issue for many families.[289]
  • Payment consistency. Variable or unpredictable payments can make it harder for families to budget.[290] The monthly assessment system used for Universal Credit can mean that many working claimants' awards vary month by month because of when their paydays and assessment periods fall, and because many people's earnings fluctuate throughout the year.[291] As well as making budgeting difficult, this can also lead to knock-on effects on work allowances, the benefit cap, passported benefits and discretionary housing payments.
  • Fewer sanctions. Sanctions can have a wide range of negative impacts which can further compound poverty, including going without essentials, increased debt and borrowing, and even 'homelessness, destitution and disengagement from the social security system.'[292] They may be harder to avoid, and have particularly negative impacts, for people experiencing multiple forms of vulnerability and social exclusion, such as language barriers, mental or physical health conditions, homelessness, domestic abuse or addiction.[293] Research indicates that benefit changes, delays and sanctions are a common reason for food bank use.[294]
  • Policy values and staff attitudes. Many, though far from all, parents report feeling that they are not treated with respect by the reserved social security system.[295] There are some positive reports so far of people feeling treated with dignity and respect by Social Security Scotland.[296]
  • Conditions of receipt. Some requirements of benefit recipients – such as the online journal aspect of Universal Credit and the regular evidencing of childcare payments – can be stressful and challenging for parents to meet, for example due to digital accessibility issues and childcare.[297]
  • Communication channels. Around 9 in 10 users of Universal Credit online accounts found them easy to access and maintain or easy to use, although other research indicated that some families have problems.[298] While online works well for many people, research has also highlighted the importance of having alternatives available, for example for people without reliable and affordable internet access, good literacy or digital skills.[299] 97% of the (small proportion of) DWP claimants who received texts about their Universal Credit said this was a helpful way to be kept updated.[300]

Broader potential improvements

Analysis of the impacts of different social security systems in EU countries (measured by the percentage reduction in the child poverty rate before and after social security transfers) did not find any clear relationship between child poverty rates and benefit types/structure (targeted social assistance vs universal, for instance). The stronger relationship appears to be between child poverty and the generosity of benefits, as noted above.[301]

Spending on family services (for example, childcare) has had a consistently stronger impact on child poverty in European countries than spending on cash benefits, according to research.[302] This is likely to be because of spending on services' capacity to facilitate parental employment.

In the context of Scottish capacity to effect change at UK level, as a means of challenging social security reforms, the courts are an uncertain route according to a paper from the Northern Ireland Assembly.[303] Judicial opinion is divided on the lawfulness of benefit cuts and children's right to social security, and legislature retaining primary responsibility for protecting social security rights.

Alternative ideas to the current system of benefits have recently been gaining in popularity, and support from across the political spectrum.[304] These include Universal Basic Income, and a Minimum Income Guarantee. Modelling has shown that a Citizen's Basic Income has the potential to significantly reduce child poverty in Scotland. However, it is a far more expensive option than alternative changes to social security which are focused specifically on child poverty reduction and not also the wider potential benefits of a Citizen's Basic Income.[305]


Email: TCPU@gov.scot

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