Radical and swift change needed in social security system

The social security system has been in a continual state of evolution ever since it was created in the 1940s, with the changing priorities of successive UK governments.

Andrew Strong, Assistant Director (Policy and Communication), Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (The ALLIANCE)

In 2011, a coalition of disability organisations coordinated Scotland’s largest-ever protest by disabled people against the creation of Personal Independence Payment and the attached 20 per cent cut to cost and caseload. The experiences of people coming through the ALLIANCE’s Welfare Advocacy Support Project show that, for many people, their families and unpaid carers, this transition has been hard, with negative impacts of a disjointed and complex welfare benefits system.

And now in Scotland we stand on the precipice of yet another major change.

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The devolution of elements of the welfare system, including disability benefits, means that for the first time a Scottish Government can set a new path if it chooses. The ALLIANCE published our views on how this could be developed, highlighting both the risk and opportunities inherent in any new approach but also a need for significant, radical and swift change.

Not just change that places respect at the heart of a new approach and moves us away from language like “scroungers” and “skivers”, which has for too long dominated headlines. But also change in supportive, understanding policies that recognise that people who use the system are experts themselves.

In recent weeks we’ve heard directly from a range of ALLIANCE members on their expectations for the new social security agency, through surveys and meetings. This has highlighted an array of stark experiences, including from the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability of the “daunting and intimidating” experiences of people with learning disabilities; MS Society Scotland reporting an overreliance on the appeals process to get an accurate decision; and a call from MND Scotland that progressive, terminal conditions should not require continual reassessments.

Approaches to supporting the rights, health and quality of life of disabled people, people who live with longterm conditions and unpaid carers are more pressing than ever. Independent advocacy plays a significant role, offering tailored support during processes to determine eligibility. We urge the Scottish Government to make independent advocacy more accessible, more visible and built into the very fabric of the new system.

Co-production can take time and may involve breaking down barriers between initiatives led by the state and people themselves. However, the potential benefits are great, not just to people’s experiences but the cost of administering and continual improvement of the new system. The Scottish Government has promised that dignity and respect will be at the heart of what comes next in social security – but people, unpaid carers and the third sector must play a strong role, not just in co-producing the new system, but scrutinising its progress and impact.

There is no doubt that a new social security system presents Scotland with a complex range of challenges. But devolving disability payments is a means to an end, not the end itself. The level of expectation is such that we must continue to demand a system robust enough to welcome scrutiny, involvement and change.

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