Outrage as Whitehall Admits 'Two-Tier' Benefits System for MP's and MSP's

Sunday 04 November, 2018 Written by  Alistair Grant, The Herald
Outrage as Whitehall Admits 'Two-Tier' Benefits System for MP's and MSP's

Outrage as Whitehall admits 'two-tier' benefits system for MPs and MSPs

Whitehall  officials have been accused of a “cynical attempt to diminish the status of MSPs” after confirming they will face extra barriers if they want to help constituents struggling to claim benefits.

New guidance limits the powers of MSPs seeking to make representations on their constituents' behalf regarding Universal Credit.

SNP MSP Linda Fabiani

Image: SNP MSP Linda Fabiani.

The UK Government took three months to confirm the changes after being questioned by SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, who accused it of treating the Scottish Parliament with “contempt”.

Ms Fabiani said she and other MSPs would previously contact the Jobcentre's complaints resolution team when a constituent was having problems claiming benefits.

However following a shake-up at the Department for Work and Pensions, she now has to email any enquiry and wait for a response.

MPs can still contact Jobcentre staff directly without needing the consent of claimants.

Ms Fabiani first raised the issue earlier this year, insisting the DWP was “wilfully making it more difficult for vulnerable people to get the help they need”.

Officials previously failed to confirm whether rules had changed – at one point even blaming the summer holidays for the delay.

But updated guidance shows the policy is now set in stone.

Rules formerly stated: “Any correspondence, (letter, email or phone enquiries) relating to Universal Credit will be answered directly to the MP without the need for the claimant’s consent. This includes members of Scottish Parliament and Assembly Members in Wales.”

However this has now been changed to read: “Any correspondence, (letter, email or phone enquiries) relating to Universal Credit will be answered directly to the MP without the need for the claimant’s consent…. Members of Scottish Parliament and Assembly Members in Wales can still represent claimants using explicit consent.”

Ms Fabiani said: “It has taken months of for the DWP to come clean, but now we have it in black and white.

“They’ve changed their rules in a cynical attempt to diminish the status of MSPs and put up needless barriers to us in helping the constituents we are elected to serve.

“The sad reality is the number of people in my constituency seeking help with benefits issues has risen because of Tory welfare cuts.

“Having a two-speed system where MSPs are treated as second class could leave vulnerable constituents at a real disadvantage.”

The veteran MSP insisted Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey “should be deeply ashamed of herself in presiding over a department which seeks to hammer, rather than help, those in need”.

She added: “But if she thinks this underhand change to the rules will stop MSPs from standing up for our constituents and continuing the fight against Tory cuts, she’s very much mistaken.”

The roll out of Universal Credit – which merges six working-age benefits into a single payment – has been plagued by controversies, with campaigners even claiming it is fuelling a boom in food banks.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said MPs are allowed to represent claimants without their explicit consent “in recognition of the strong existing relationships between their offices and Jobcentre Plus district managers and their teams”.

However as MSPs are not elected representatives of the UK Parliament, this cannot be extended to them. Instead, they are treated like any other third party.

The spokeswoman said: “MSPs and Welsh Assembly Members can make enquiries through explicit consent arrangements.

“This system is working well and provides the right balance between protecting the security of claimants’ information and the quick resolution of any issues raised by claimants or their representatives.”

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