4. Review of Winter Heating Assistance
Principle (g) requires that “opportunities are to be sought to continuously improve the Scottish social security system in ways which— (i) put the needs of those who require assistance first, and (ii) advance equality and non-discrimination.” The current proposal is to reform support with winter heating costs in a way that unquestionably improves provision from the perspective of those who are not deemed to require support under the DWP’s CWP criteria, but that represents a diminution of support from the point of view of at least some of those who are.
The Scottish Government has made clear that some issues remain too complex to resolve in time for ensuring the newly devolved benefit is in place for winter 2022/23. In response to questions from the Commission, the Scottish Government has noted that its initial priority for LIWHA is to ensure safe and secure delivery of the replacement of CWPs in 2022, however any potential improvements, for example, through alignment of eligibility criteria, may be considered once the new benefit is being delivered and its initial evaluation completed.
In correspondence with SCoSS, the Scottish Government noted that “major development work… could not be carried out in time to launch the benefit in 2022/23 and would require capacity to be diverted from other areas risking the commitments made with regards the delivery of other benefits this year.”
SCoSS accepts that there is a justification for acting at pace, considering the dramatic increase in heating costs being experienced by people across Scotland. We note, however, that this limits the Government’s ability to resolve issues that, in the medium term, should be addressed. In this respect, SCoSS has a number of recommendations that are specific to LIWHA. However, it may also be desirable to undertake a broader review of how the Scottish social security system supports winter energy costs once all three forms of winter heating assistance – targeting disabled children, low income households and pensioner households – have been launched. As currently envisaged, a single household could receive multiple forms of winter heating assistance – all three in the case of a family including someone in receipt of pension credit and a disabled child – and there may be scope for administrative streamlining.
Observation 3: SCoSS recognises that, due to the tight legislative timetable, it may not be possible to implement all recommendations in this report in time for winter 2022-23. Those that are not feasible at present should receive due consideration in the future review of LIWHA or (following the introduction of the winter heating assistance for people of pensionable age) of the various forms of winter heating assistance.
In response to the SCoSS scrutiny report on Child Winter Heating Assistance, the Scottish Government noted that removing the qualifying week would greatly increase complexity but said this was something that would be considered in a future review of the benefit. In response to further questions from SCoSS, the Scottish Government noted that this increased complexity would include “a significant review of the technical solution that has been designed and agreed with DWP, alongside the operational approach being implemented by Social Security Scotland to ensure appropriate resources are available and trained to support Scottish clients.”
SCoSS notes this, and recommends, for consistency that a similar approach be adopted for the LIWHA.
Recommendation 8: The review of LIWHA should cover the ongoing need for a qualifying week, its impact on affected individuals and the feasibility of replacing this with an alternative.
The prospect of a review of eligibility criteria is to be welcomed. It is desirable for the Scottish Government to reach its own view on how payments should be targeted and not simply retain by default the eligibility criteria inherited from the DWP. More specifically, the criteria as currently drawn excludes large numbers of people in receipt of low-income benefits, notably in-work claimants of Universal Credit. There is no obvious, objective justification for excluding (most of) the working poor from support and there is a risk that doing so could fuel negative perceptions of LIWHA and stigmatise its recipients – something the Scottish Government aims to avoid. SCoSS acknowledges that the Scottish Government is committed to running the devolved social security system in a way that offers value for money (principle h), but there may be ways of delivering a modest extension of eligibility while continuing to control costs.
Recommendation 9: The commitment to continue to review the eligibility criteria for LIWHA is welcome and this should prioritise consideration of in-work benefits.