Poverty in Scotland: the impact of welfare reform on vulnerable claimants


As the welfare reforms begin to take effect in Scotland, there is growing apprehension in the care and support sector as to how vulnerable individuals will be affected. We already know from the Scottish Government’s own analysis (Welfare Reform Committee, 2013), and research conducted at Sheffield Hallam University (Beatty and Fothergill, 2013), that between £1.6 and 2 billion is going to be removed from the Scottish economy. “Consistent evidence and testimony indicates that disadvantaged and marginalised groups including women, children, disabled people, older people, ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees will be disproportionately affected by the measures” (Scottish Human Rights Commission, 2013). A number of third sector organisations have already voiced their concerns that the reforms will create further problems for the delivery of their services.

The change from a number of individual benefits to the single payment scheme being introduced under the Universal Credit (UC) will impact greatly on those that are unemployed in the short-term, or out of work in the longer term. The steady increases in forms of conditionality on social security could mean heavy sanctions for job seekers if they are not meeting specific targets. The prospect of sanctions puts claimants in an even more precarious position and introduces the necessity of relying on support services. The TUC (Trades Union Congress) produced a report (2013) to assess the effectiveness of the Universal Credit. Some of the findings strongly indicate that the unemployed would generally see a fall in their income under the new system. A single, unemployed adult with no children would see a £59 reduction in their income (TUC, 2013). The potential issues related with a fall in income are that claimants could be forced into a situation where they are unable to afford rent. The increased risk of homelessness is thus a concern as a result of the reforms to welfare. In particular, the services dealing with those living without shelter are expected to receive an increase in demand. While the numbers of those without permanent or temporary accommodation have decreased in Scotland, there are fears that people could be put in a position where they are unable to pay rent, therefore falling into arrears and facing eviction.

Another group facing a fall in their incomes are the disabled. Those in receipt of the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) are being moved to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). This change in the delivery of a key benefit will have an impact on those individuals already reliant on support to subsist. Estimates on the potential loss to incomes vary, but there is general agreement that the disabled will, in many cases, be worse off under the new system of welfare delivery. An Inclusion Scotland briefing (2012) examined the potential loss in income for the disabled. The briefing found that up to £268 million is expected to be lost in benefits for the disabled in Scotland. This represents a substantial decrease in individual incomes, especially where most are reliant on social security to pay for care, transport, housing and other associated living costs.

Families on low incomes will find the reforms impacting on weekly and monthly budgets. The household benefit cap, for example, is one area where families could see a dramatic fall in their incomes. Figures produced by the Scottish Federation for Housing Associations (SFHA) – in a report examining the impact of welfare reform – highlighted the cost to families as well as the Scottish economy. The report estimated that the cumulative loss to benefits would be in the region of £123 to £228 million. Additionally, the figures produced for the report identify 1,200 tenants in Scotland that risk losing up to £80 per week as a result of the benefit cap (Scottish Federation for Housing Associations, 2012).

Further to these concerns, there is clear evidence to suggest that women will face difficulty in accessing support as the reforms being to take effect. In a recent call for evidence by the Work and Pensions House of Commons Select Committee, Scottish Women’s Aid (2013) outlined some of the potential challenges for women as a result of welfare reform. Access to, and the cost of, housing was a particular concern, especially for women fleeing abusive partners. “The ‘bedroom tax’ is severely limiting the options for women moving on from refuge due to the lack of availability of one bedroom accommodation. In one area women in refuge have been told that the waiting list for one-bedroom properties is 3 years. The delay in women moving on from refuge means services struggle to accommodate women and children at the point of crisis” (Scottish Women’s Aid, 2013). This could present issues for women escaping abuse or domestic violence, and could especially be challenging for those that have children to care for.

Evidence from across the care and support sector is mounting, and the picture emerging is that welfare reform is placing vulnerable individuals in Scotland in a precarious position. For the organisations that work on the frontline, it is now imperative that responses are considered in terms of dealing with the various impacts that have been outlined above. Training for support and advice workers needs to reflect the complexity of the situation that such organisations face, but there is also a need to be creative in thinking about long-term solutions. Our project aims to share information across the sector about the experiences of a number of care and support organisations dealing with the impacts of welfare reform. We hope to make a number of recommendations that will enable other organisations to make the necessary preparations to deal with increased service demand, amongst other issues that will arise during the delivery of the reforms programme.


Beatty, C. and Fothergill, S. (2013) Hitting the poorest places hardest: the local and regional impact of welfare reform, Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University. Available at: http://www.shu.ac.uk/research/cresr/sites/shu.ac.uk/files/hitting-poorest-places-hardest_0.pdf

Inclusion Scotland (2012) Welfare Reform Briefing, October 2012. Available at: http://www.inclusionscotland.org/documents/InclusionScotlandWelfareReformBriefingOct2012PN.doc

Scottish Human Rights Commission (2013) Submission to the Welfare Reform Committee: Austerity & Human Rights, May 2013. Available at: http://www.scottishhumanrights.com/application/resources/documents/SubmissiontoWelfareReformCommitteeMay2013.doc

Scottish Federation for Housing Associations (2012) The Impact of Welfare Reform on Housing Associations and Housing Co-operatives in Scotland, August 2012. Available at: http://www.sfha.co.uk/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_download&gid=3127&Itemid=7

Scottish Women’s Aid (2013) Scottish Women’s Aid submission to the Work and Pensions House of Commons Select Committee Inquiry into support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system, September 2013. Available at: http://www.scottishwomensaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/SWA%20Work%20and%20Pensions%20Committee%20call%20for%20evidence.pdf

TUC (2013) Will the Universal Credit work?, April 2013. Available at: http://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/tucfiles/TUCcpag-report.pdf

Welfare Reform Committee (2013) The impact of welfare reform on Scotland, Welfare Reform Committee 2nd Report, 2013 (Session 4), Scottish Parliament. Available at: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/62069.aspx