Single financial assessment for benefits would be ‘leap forward’

A single financial assessment to decide what benefits people are entitled to would be a “huge leap forward”, it has been suggested.

At Holyrood’s Social Security Committee on Thursday, MSPs heard from local authority and welfare advice representatives about the provision and funding of welfare rights services in Scotland.

It followed a report on publicly-funded advice services, commissioned by the Scottish Government and published in February last year, which showed that demand for advice is growing but that funding was limited.

The UK Government introduced a new benefits system – universal credit – in an attempt to simplify the system by merging six different benefits for working age people into one monthly payment.

However there have been concerns raised over the accessibility of advice services for people looking to make a claim.

Legislation was passed by MSPs last year to establish a devolved Scottish social security system, with responsibility over 11 welfare benefits being given to Holyrood.

Speaking at the Committee, Sandra McDermott, head of financial inclusion at Glasgow City Council, told MSPs that introducing an effective method of calculating what benefits a person or their family are entitled to would be a “fantastic step forward”.

“We’ve got real aspirations about having a single financial assessment,” said Ms McDermott.

“I’ve got this vision that if you take a person or a family that claim for benefits through the local authority or through one of our partner organisations, that there’s some kind of algorithm that takes account of all the family’s circumstances.

“We actually give people what they’re entitled to, instead of having to jump through a number of hoops to get what they’re entitled to.

Craig Mason, Dundee City Council, said that he had had previous experience with a similar type of assessment method.

Mr Mason said: “I came from a voluntary sector organisation in the late 90s and came to Dundee City Council at a time when it was three years into the introduction of charging for non-residential care.

“But as part of the process of working out the individual charge of a household for the social work services they were getting, there was a systematic approach to both looking at the income of the individual, maximising that income to best effect and I was blown away by it at the time.

“And I think this is part of what Sandra’s suggesting, but on a much larger scale and certainly making it simple – go to people before they actually have to apply for a particular benefit or an entitlement.”

Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnston said: “If you have got that sort of one-stop shop approach, then you would imagine that we can use the welfare rights expertise that we have more efficiently, instead of someone having to make lots of different applications.”

Scottish Labour MSP Pauline McNeill added that work being carried out by Glasgow and other local authorities on automated benefits is “cutting edge”, and indicated her belief that such a method would be the “way forward” in Scotland.