The Scottish Government has been working with a wide range of stakeholders in its plans for the new system of social security, including my organisation, the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE).
Taking charge of 11 entitlements is a complex business, not least because one of them – Disability Living Allowance/Personal Independence Payment – has been subject to intense scrutiny, with the UK Government severely criticised for its treatment of disabled people by the UN.
But we shouldn’t overlook the less visible payments also coming to Scotland. These are equally important in ensuring people receive what they are entitled to and can help a good life, like additional money for unpaid carers, financial support for lower-income families with young children, help with heating costs for older people and a new grant for young carers.
It is commendable that the Scottish Government has made a commitment to ensuring that the new social security system is based on human rights principles and safeguards the dignity, fairness and respect of everyone involved.
Serious efforts are being made to engage with communities and people who access social security on important, but often overlooked, issues like the design of new ‘user friendly’ buildings where assessments will take place, and how to move away from pejorative and demeaning language.
These issues go to the very heart of a necessary shift in culture and attitudes; from portraying people as ‘scroungers’ on ‘welfare benefits’, to seeing them as real people, actively engaged in their communities, with the same rights as everyone else – as will the law that underpins the new system and helps bring it to life.
The Social Security (Scotland) Bill – which recognises social security as a human right – is currently wending its way through the Scottish Parliament.
This process also allows for participation and influence by any individual or organisation with something to say about what the new law should look like. Alongside many members and partners, the ALLIANCE has provided evidence to the Social Security Committee, MSPs and the Minister for Social Security on what we think the Bill should cover.
Most recently, this has included an amendment to ensure access to independent advocacy services for anyone going through the new system that wants it. We have already gained the support of more than 20 other organisations.
Independent advocacy helps people participate equally in the system, combats discrimination, empowers people in situations like face to face assessments, where there is an inherent power imbalance between them and the state, and holds decision makers (like the new Scottish Social Security Agency) to account, while ensuring it works within the law.
Independent advocacy is different from, but complements, advice services. Advocates are specially trained professionals who know how the system works and help people to navigate it.
They are a vital resource for those who find it difficult steering their way through official and technical processes. Some people can’t articulate their needs, or find speaking up stressful, hard and intimidating. Independent advocacy safeguards people who are vulnerable and discriminated against and those the new agency might find difficult to serve. Not everyone applying for social security would want an independent advocate – and it’s not something that should be imposed on them – but it’s essential we have the service available if required. Robust information and signposting will ensure that people are aware of its availability, should they choose to use it. We don’t just think advocacy is the right thing to do – there are pragmatic reasons for making it available from the start.
Estimates of anticipated demand show that it’s affordable and there are organisations already operating where the service could be provided. Making this service available will support thousands of people across Scotland, and, as the number of face to face assessments is likely to go down to make the system less distressing and intrusive, so too will the need for advocacy.
Independent advocacy is a win-win: it’s a vital part of making social security accessible to everyone who needs it; and a practical tool to help the Scottish Government achieve a rights-based system for all.
Ian Welsh OBE, chief executive, Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE).