Scottish welfare body seeks to prove it can do things differently

Scotland’s social security agency wears its ideals on its sleeve: Large signs in the corridors of its Dundee seafront headquarters proclaim the values ​​the three-year-old body promises to live by: ‘dignity’, ‘fairness’ and “respect”.

Such overt idealism at Social Security Scotland is part of what the Scottish government intends to be a radically different approach to social benefits from what it sees as the parsimonious policies of UK ministers.

Since 2018, the ruling Scottish National Party has launched seven benefits, including a soon-to-double £10-a-week payment for children from low-income families, and is currently reforming financial support for people with disabilities.

Ben Macpherson, Scottish Social Security Minister, said the intention was to increase support for those in need, while making it easier and less stressful to access benefits. He insisted the targets reflected widespread dissatisfaction with Westminster’s welfare policies, including the scrapping of a temporary £20-a-week increase in the Universal Credit Benefit.

“What we’re doing in Scotland is reinstating the idea that social security is something people shouldn’t feel stigmatized about,” Macpherson told the Financial Times. “In Scotland . . . social security is seen as a shared and collective investment in our society and ourselves.

Ben Macpherson: ‘What we’re doing in Scotland is re-establishing the idea that Social Security is something people shouldn’t feel stigmatized about’ © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

The fortunes of Scotland’s social security system, introduced using delegated powers from Westminster after the 2014 independence referendum, could have far-reaching implications.

Scottish independence supporters hope it offers a vision of how Scotland can do things differently.

Much could hinge on how Social Security Scotland will deliver on its promises to make it easier to claim the benefits people are entitled to by offering advice and applications online, over the phone or face-to-face.

While claimants of Department for Work and Pensions benefits often have to endure long waits on the phone or struggle with complex written forms, the Scottish agency promises simplicity, clarity and recognition that people’s time is valuable . “We’re starting from a position of trust,” Macpherson said.

The introduction from March of Disability Allowance for Adults, replacing the UK Government’s Personal Independence Allowance, will be a big test for the Scottish system.

The new benefit is designed to be easier to access than the Personal Independence Payment and will not depend on disability assessments by third-party companies. Ending pro forma benefit end dates will reduce the need for stressful reassessments, especially for those whose conditions are unlikely to improve.

David Wallace, chief executive of Social Security Scotland, explained how he decided disability eligibility would be a ‘totemic’ issue for the body.

“Stakeholders were really, really clear that the current [personal independence payment] assessment process was something that kind of robbed them of their dignity,” he added. “So I think this will be the ultimate test for us.”

Bill Scott, senior policy adviser at Inclusion Scotland, a disability organisation, said a more compassionate approach could greatly improve a benefits system which he described as “an almost hostile environment”.

“If you can show that you can run the system in a humane and consistently efficient way, hopefully that will influence how benefits are administered elsewhere in the UK,” he added.

According to the UK Ministry of Justice Data, more than two-thirds of personal independence payment decisions that are challenged in court are overturned in favor of the plaintiff. Channel 4 Dispatches program last month cited evidence that many claimants believe the process has harmed their mental health.

Column chart of £m showing the increased cost to the Scottish devolved budget of existing and new benefits

The DWP said it supports millions of people. “Our priority is that they get the benefits to which they are entitled as soon as possible and that they receive a supportive and compassionate service,” he added.

“That’s what happens in the vast majority of cases, but when unfortunately it doesn’t, we take it very seriously.”

Wallace insisted that a softer approach to claims would not necessarily cost more to administer, but efforts to encourage uptake of benefits and the creation of new ones would have significant implications for Scotland’s budget, according to the Scottish Tax Commission, the independent financial watchdog.

Introducing new benefits and changes to the way those transferred from the DWP work could cost the Scottish government an additional £760million a year by 2026-27, the commission said in December.

It would reduce the resources available for other areas at a time when Scotland is already planning to spend heavily on health but is struggling to raise income tax revenue.

Carrie Duggan has joined Social Security Scotland as a Trainee Team Leader on a scheme for young people who have lived in the care system
Carrie Duggan has joined Social Security Scotland as a trainee team leader on a scheme for young people who have lived in the care system © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

Such worries fuel doubts among some claimants about how enduring Scottish idealism will turn out.

John Grafton, 64, a Highland-based psychotherapist who has autism and has struggled to get the benefits he is entitled to, said: “I would like to see Scotland have a much more humane system. … But I’m a little cynical about politics and politicians, and their need to get votes and manage budgets.

Much will also depend on the culture of Social Security Scotland. Wallace said he seeks to recruit people who are less likely to be employed, for example because of their ethnicity or because they come from a disadvantaged area.

Carrie Duggan, 24, who joined as a trainee team leader under a scheme for young people who have lived in the care system, said she went through the process ‘tough and long’ access to Universal Credit after losing a previous job due to the coronavirus lockdown.

“I appreciate, now that I’m in this job, helping people who are going through what I’ve been through, but for years,” she added.

About Sharon Joseph

Check Also

Government urged to release funds for welfare of special people – Journal

KOHAT: Amjid Afridi, District Social Welfare Officer, has asked the government to release funds for …