Scotland’s Missing Billions

Scotland’s Missing Billions

16th May 2024

What impact would Scotland’s missing billions make?

As Social Justice spokesperson for Citizens Advice Scotland, I look at the issues that are coming through the doors of CABs and work out what changes we need in public policy.

There’s no doubt we need significant change. Bold, radical policies that will deliver systems change. The pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis will cast long shadows. People have had their financial resilience wiped out and, in many cases, forced into debt because the cost of essentials has been so high.

But the genesis of these issues stretches back over decades for households on the lowest incomes. Welfare reform and austerity have not just forced people to endure destitution and desperation, but robbed people of their dignity as they endeavour to stay afloat.

We need a reset. Big bold ideas, like a minimum income guarantee, or a social tariff for energy costs, anchored in our shared values of justice and compassion. Alongside this we need to do the things that are working better. New ideas are necessary, but so too is effective delivery.

A new report from Policy in Practice estimates almost £23 billion in social security payments and cheaper deals are unclaimed across the UK by around 8 million people. The report doesn’t give a figure for Scotland but highlights areas where people may be missing out – like 179,000 eligible people in Scotland not claiming Council Tax Reduction.

This report makes me reflect on two things – first, delivery can be hard. Giving people a right to social security does not guarantee they will receive it. All of the reasons why people don’t claim payments they are entitled to stigma and shame remains perhaps the hardest barrier to remove.

An insidious narrative, often propped up by politicians and journalist alike, prevails. It’s the flipside of the ‘American Dream’: that anyone can make it if they just work hard enough. And so, if people are architects of their own success, they must orchestrate their own failure. Shirkers. Scroungers. The rhetoric rings loud and clear. Is it any wonder people don't want to enter a system that writes them off before they have got started?

The second thing is the transformative potential of what full take up could do. What would a UK economy look like if 8 million people had their spending power increased by £23 billion pounds? How many people would sleep and eat better? How much stress could be relieved on household finances, public services, and people themselves?

Last year the Citizens Advice Network unlocked £142 million for people, with people on average £3,700 better off. CABs are providing an essential service, while facing increasing demand, often from people in crisis with complex circumstances. Many people get access to payments they are entitled to, sometimes backdated years and see their lives transformed. Unlocking these missing billions matters.

Yet we must remember the growing number of people still don’t have enough after getting everything they are entitled to. Like a flashing light on a dashboard, this must cause us to stop. Reset the system.

That’s why we need a twin track approach. Both the big, bold radical ideas that will make a difference long term, but ensuring those ideas are delivered properly, so people can access their rights and all they are entitled to.


Emma Jackson is Social Justice spokesperson for Citizens Advice Scotland. This column first appeared in the Herald on Saturday 11th May 2024.