Tomorrow’s Scottish Budget comes during a period of uncertainty. While various levels of lockdown restrictions remain in place, the potential economic pain from the fallout of the pandemic still looms over us.
The rollout of the vaccine gives us all hope that some return to normality is coming, but going back to “normal” simply won’t be good enough for the thousands of people in Scotland struggling to make ends meet.
Decisions around the future of the furlough scheme and any increase to Universal Credit will be taken in the UK Budget on March 3, but tomorrow the Scottish Parliament has to consider how to balance funding for essential services with ensuring economic growth. For the Citizens Advice network in Scotland (CAS), we have seen first-hand the problems people were facing even before this unprecedented virus. In 2019/20 queries around food banks, debt and Universal Credit were all on the rise before the first lockdown last March.
Governments and industry moved quickly to protect people’s incomes during these months. But what comes next is now essential. CAS has been clear through this crisis that “build back better” needs to be more than a slogan. For us that means real action on the cost of living and boosting incomes.
On debt, for example, council tax remains the number one debt issue our network deals with. Last year clients seeking help for council tax debt had total arrears of more than £6.8 million. Worryingly, the average debt owed was over £3,000 – almost three times the average council tax bill.
Councils across Scotland showed a really empathetic approach to those who found themselves in difficulty, and the payment breaks in the first six months of the pandemic were extremely welcome. However, this has led to arrears building up that will be difficult to meet for the many who have during that period experienced an income drop due to unemployment or cut in working hours.
For others, problems are yet to become a reality when the economic squeeze on their personal finances is felt as the furlough scheme and payment support measures close at the end of April, ironically in the same month the first payments of council tax in the new financial year are due.
To that end, further action on helping people who are struggling to pay council tax would be extremely welcome in the Budget.
While the main sources of income protection for people – the furlough scheme and Universal Credit – have been delivered by the UK Government, the Scottish Government moved quickly last year to use its powers to deliver support, such as increasing the Scottish Welfare Fund, money for Discretionary Housing Payments and extra payments for carers. The Scottish Child Payment, an extra £10 a week for the poorest families, is also due to start next month. Further use of these powers to put more money into the pockets of the poorest families would make a real difference as people face increased living costs.
With many of us experiencing home schooling again due to lockdown restrictions, digital access is in the public consciousness. This concept of digital exclusion is something our CABs have seen on a range of issues – not just over education but access to Universal Credit and consumer choice and protections.
The Connecting Scotland programme has helped people, and the Programme for Government last autumn committed an additional £23 million on top of £20m to provide digitally excluded households with a digital and data safety net, providing them with a device and extending the offer of unlimited data, support and training from one year to two for everyone the programme has helped. This will bring the total number of people helped to get confidently online up to 50,000 by the end of 2021.
That good work should continue, to help more people get online and access the opportunities it brings – what was once a premium option for consumers and citizens is now an essential utility for many. However we also recognise that some people may always need support in the digital world and so a choice of ways to access key services must be maintained.
The issue of climate change has not gone away during the pandemic, and CAS believes that transitioning our economy to net zero must not mean additional costs being pushed onto the poorest people. If we get the infrastructure spending right though, the fight against climate change becomes an incredible opportunity to create jobs after the pandemic and cut bills for consumers at the same time, so further investment in this area is a down-payment on a better and fairer economy.
The local government settlement is often a talking point during the Budget, and in the long term we would like to see local councils afforded more flexibility in how they spend their money to deliver better outcomes for citizens. They should not need to choose between fixing potholes and fighting poverty, for example.
Last year the Scottish CAB network unlocked over £170m for people in Scotland, with every £1 invested in our core advice leading to £16 in returns. CABs across the country have delivered advice to tens of thousands of people during this crisis and we’ll be here to ensure people get the support they need once the vaccine rollout consigns coronavirus to the history books, or at a minimum it is seen as equivalent to the flu. What that support is depends on the choices made by governments at Holyrood and Westminster, and we believe this crisis can give way to an opportunity to build a fairer, greener society.
Derek Mitchell is Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Scotland.