The UK Government has pledged the biggest shake-up of the benefits system in 60 years under plans unveiled yesterday.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said the proposals would benefit 2.7million households across Britain and almost 1million people would be taken out of poverty.
Under the Welfare Reform Bill, existing benefits will be replaced with a universal credit scheme to make it easier for people to see that they would be better off for each hour they work and for every pound they earn.
Tougher “one-strike, two-strike and three-strike” rules would come into effect which means people who refuse to take up job offers could lose their benefits for up to three years.
And a single investigation service and a new mobile regional taskforce will be set up to investigate every claim in high-fraud areas, with so-called civil penalties of £50 for more minor offences.
Official statistics show there are currently about 473,200 benefit claimants in Scotland as of May last year – equal to almost 14% of the population aged 16-64.
Scottish Housing and Communities Minister Alex Neil last night claimed many measures within the bill would penalise the poor. He said: “In Scotland we have established a Welfare Reform Scrutiny Group, bringing together national and local government with third-sector groups to go through the impact of these changes on vulnerable people with a fine-tooth comb.
“We will take the strongest possible case to the UK Government to think again.”
The SNP MSP said Westminster-enforced budget cuts were having an adverse impact on vulnerable people who needed protecting most.
Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said the UK Government plans would “take away support from people who are out of work through no fault of their own”.
Mr Duncan Smith claimed the new bill would restore the UK’s welfare system to its founding principals of meeting the demand for a fairer society.
“Our reforms will end the absurdity of a system where people too often get rewarded for doing the wrong thing, and those who strive to do the best by their families get penalised,” he said.
“The publication of the Welfare Reform Bill will put work, rather than hand-outs, at the heart of the welfare system. It will ensure we continue to provide appropriate support for those genuinely unable to work, as we must and as we should, and it will provide a fair deal for the taxpayer.”
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and housing and homeless charity Shelter Scotland welcomed the decision to scrap plans to cut housing benefit by 10% for people on jobseekers allowance for more than one year.
Citizens Advice Scotland chief executive Lucy McTernan said it welcomed, in principle, proposals for a new universal benefit.
“If it simplifies the benefits system, removes bureaucracy and makes it easier for people to receive the support they need, that has to be a good thing provided it does not involve cuts in the money that people will receive.”
Mr Neil claimed the welfare system needed to be streamlined but budget cuts were penalising the “very people we should be protecting”.
“Thousands of families in Scotland are going to feel the full force of savage welfare cuts by the UK Government, on top of the rises in VAT and inflation,” he added.
John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, said: “It is right to want to simplify welfare and help people into work.
“But lack of Treasury funding means this bill risks making millions of households in Scotland and across the UK even worse off as a result of higher benefit withdrawal rates and reduced childcare support,” he added.
Mr Gray said welfare to work schemes will not work without jobs and only his party had a “credible plan” for getting people working again.
“There is a real risk that the Tory plan will push people into poverty when they need help getting into work,” he added. “Labour will stand up to the Tories if they take away support from people who are out of work through no fault of their own.”
Scottish Trades Union Congress general secretary Grahame Smith said the UK Government was pushing an agenda of “welfare to work without the work” and added: “The strategy is predicated on there being enough jobs, sufficiently flexible and of the right kind to justify changing the employability status of hundreds and thousands of people. No one will object to sensible proposals designed to simplify the benefits system, neither will they object to genuine measures to reduce poverty traps. But no amount of spin can hide the fact that along with changes come the stripping of billions of pounds in benefits to the detriment of sick and disabled people and families with children across Scotland.”