Obituary: Andrew Strong on getting serious about changes to social security

The aftershocks of recent events in Scottish politics continue to reverberate. New local government administrations are still bedding in in town and city halls across Scotland, June's snap election resulted in significant changes in personnel at Westminster and, of course, there is the looming spectre of Brexit. In an immediate sense, however, the most significant of these developments remains the fallout from September 2014's independence referendum and the evolution of the Smith Agreement.
Andrew Strong Assistant Director (Policy and Communications) Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE)Andrew Strong Assistant Director (Policy and Communications) Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE)
Andrew Strong Assistant Director (Policy and Communications) Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE)

At the heart of what Lord Smith set out was a new era for devolution in Scotland. The new Social Security (Scotland) Bill, which will come under scrutiny from all sides in the coming months, undoubtedly marks that. It seeks to change the role of the Scottish Government and the level of involvement it has in the lives of many disabled people, people living with longterm conditions and unpaid carers. Our organisation, the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the Alliance, for short), has welcomed the Scottish Government’s warm words related to this change. Terms like “human rights”, “dignity” and “respect” have surrounded the groundwork undertaken to reach this stage. But now is not the time to simply celebrate the rhetoric – strong duties must set out how this will be realised in practice.

The early signs are good – with the Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman MSP, repeatedly speaking of her personal commitment to co-production. The recruitment of over 2,000 people to panels in order to support this aim brings with it the opportunity to gain direct insight from people with experience of social security to inform design and development.

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Shared power between the Government and the people is notoriously tricky – but must become an essential part of a system which seeks to respect the rights of the people who use it and address the concerns of the many who feel unheard and powerless in existing social security assessment processes. Recent research by MS Society Scotland, for example, highlighted “unfair assessments” which made people feel “invisible”.

Over the last six months the Alliance has been discussing what an improved system would look like with people who are “seldom heard” in existing consultation processes. For example, we spoke to refugees and people who are seeking asylum in Glasgow about how they could better find information on entitlements. Meanwhile disabled people in remote and rural areas like Boat of Garten noted the need to take travel time to and from assessments into account and for all to have the option of a home assessment.

Such a change in tone requires a change in the culture and language at the heart of social security – not simply a change in the way Government delivers entitlements. Rights-based rhetoric is central to the new draft legislation, but to pass the test of Article 9 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, availability, adequacy, affordability and accessibility must be key components of the approach. In our view, an independent accountability mechanism could support this approach – a means of redress for people where it is required.

Alliance members consistently tell us that independent advocacy is a form of supported decision-making that people value, and indeed depend on, through the assessment process. This is a model that relies upon an informed, trained and knowledgeable advocate supporting and attending assessments with people to ensure that an accurate and rights-based approach is followed. Our Welfare Advocacy Support Project, which introduced four independent advocates to the social security processes in communities across Scotland, proved that not only does this create an enhanced level of support for people during assessment processes, it helps empower people in an inherently unequal situation.

Disappointingly, the draft Bill lacks any commitment to independent advocacy. Undeterred, the Alliance, alongside other third sector organisations, intends to challenge the Government to ensure people have a right to access it. As we stand on the precipice of one of the biggest changes of the post-devolution age, now is the time to challenge our thinking about social security. If we are serious about a process of continual improvement, any social security system needs to work both with and for the people who access it. Dignity and respect must be fundamental aspects of Scotland’s approach, but empowering the people of Scotland to continually be at the heart of the decision-making process is the bigger prize.

Andrew Strong, Assistant Director (Policy and Communications), Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland