When it was announced that Holyrood would be getting more powers in this area, Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) made the point that this should not just be about applying technical fixes to an imperfect system, important though these are. It was also a unique opportunity to create a new social security network, one which addresses the particular needs of Scotland and its people.
We called for the new system to be fair, equal and responsive and the government’s commitment that it should indeed be based on dignity, fairness and respect is commendable.
However, making those statements a reality is not easy when it comes to designing and implementing services. That is why we have been engaging with the Minister and her team to ensure that appropriate checks and balances are built into both the bill and the new agency to ensure that these truly meet people’s needs. We are pleased the bill recognises the value of independent advice: there are some occasions when people want to sense-check what’s happening with someone independent of government.
At CAS, we are uniquely placed to see the problems that people face. Last year in Scotland our advice helped more than 300,000 Scots. Nearly 40 per cent of these were people who had problems with the social security system.
And the raw statistics don’t show the human tragedies that we too often see – like people on low incomes having to wait weeks for payments due to administrative errors; others being pushed into poverty or debt because they don’t fit precise criteria or because they have been wrongly refused support; and the distress that can be caused to vulnerable people by the way the system communicates with them. Scots deserve better. Social security is after all an entitlement, not a charity handout.
We have been pleased with a number of commitments now in the bill, but particularly the clear commitment to improving communication with people, which includes a statutory duty do this in an inclusive way. It is our view that a clear measure of a social security system is in the way it treats disabled people. For years we have been concerned about face-to-face assessments for disability benefits, and in particular CAB advisers have been reporting that these interviews have been causing enormous distress for many disabled Scots. We argued these compulsory interviews should end, and assessments should be made instead using existing evidence from people who know the claimant, including health professionals, carers and relatives. This important change is now part of the bill and will lead to a more compassionate and effective system of support for disabled people.
For years we have also been asking for an increase in funeral grants. It’s difficult to think of a more deserving cause than someone who can’t afford to bury a loved one. Yet our research shows that one in ten Scots are in this position, and the level of support available has been frozen for years, even as the cost of funerals has substantially increased. We are pleased to see this too addressed in the bill.
The challenge will be for the Scottish Government to implement the bill’s intent on a day-to-day basis. We hope that intent is met, and the Scottish CAB network will be there to tell them if it is not, working hard to make society fairer and ensure people’s rights are respected.
Rory Mair is chair of Citizens Advice Scotland