Talking to the Scottish Government

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Yesterday I went to one of the public consultation meetings for the new Scottish Social Security system – and, within the constraints of our miserly devolution, I have to admit to being cautiously optimistic.

Bob Scott of Inclusion Scotland, who were hosting the event, reminded us that governments don’t implement progressive change without pressure from below, but I think that Jeanne Freeman, the Minister in charge, is genuinely pleased to have that pressure, and, of course, politically this is an opportunity to demonstrate how much better a Scottish system could be. Having said that, only 15% of the Scottish welfare budget is being devolved, with the Scottish Government being put in charge of the disability benefits – DLA, PIP, and Attendance Allowance – and Carers Allowance, and also winter fuel and cold weather payments, funeral payments, maternity grants, and discretionary housing payments. In addition, we will get the ability to make minor improvements in the way Universal Credit is delivered, the management of systems to replace Work Choice and the Work Programme, and the freedom to add to existing benefits and create new ones (though with no extra money).

Jeanne Freeman said all the right things about ‘fairness, dignity and respect’, and ‘social security’ as a ‘collective investment’; about the need to avoid terms such as ‘strivers and skivers’ and ‘hardworking families’; and about the need for people with lived experience to help government design services that best meet need, and to hold government to account so that Scotland can be an exemplar. And she stayed long enough to get round the tables and talk with folk.

When it comes to concrete proposals for the future of the disability benefits, the discussions already seem promising. They are looking at making much more use of clinical evidence rather than face-to-face assessments, at making long-term awards for chronic conditions, and at investing further in helping people get good advice and advocacy; and there is a serious question mark over using private companies. But, of course, whatever is done has to be coordinated with other benefits still being administered by the DWP, and the logistics of transfer and change even of these limited benefits will be very complicated.

Our three workshops looked at advocacy, assessment and the transition phase. Very full notes were taken by Inclusion Scotland as part of the report back. We will be putting together our own more detailed response to the whole consultation, but here are some initial thoughts coming out of those discussions:

1/ The Scottish Government already provides money for advocacy (eg for Dundee Independent Advice Service). We need to stress the importance of the support provided by friends and family and self-help groups such as ours. The Scottish Government can help this by ensuring that the right to be accompanied is well known and acknowledged, and by ensuring there are readily accessible back-up services such as that provided by the CPAG phone-line for advisors. (I was able to make both these points to the Minister.) We also need to persuade the government to speak to Police Scotland so that they stop acting as the DWP’s minders.

2/ When it comes to assessment, the folk around our table were keen on the idea of a greater role for GPs but also that there should be flexibility in the type of evidence people might provide. We also felt that the criteria for qualification should not be so limited and should take account of ability to be included in social activity. We discussed the possibility of linking the benefit with a more holistic and proactive approach to health planning. At present, if people get a bit better they may lose their benefit and get worse again; a more holistic approach could help address this. There was instant agreement that there should be no role for the private sector.

3/ In looking at the transfer period – which could be quite some years – we agreed that the Scottish Government could straight away provide more help with advocacy and could set a limit on the time taken to process mandatory reconsiderations and appeals. The Scottish Government has tried to calculate the amount of money that is being lost by people currently on DLA losing all or part of their award on being reassessed for PIP. This is difficult as recent statistics are not available, but the sum is very large and they are not inclined to think that mitigating this is the best way to spend their limited budget. This might be a situation that could be helped by more Scottish Welfare Fund money given on a case-by-case discretionary basis.

There will be lots more consultation events of this kind as well as the opportunity to comment in writing . They do seem to want to listen, and we are going to make sure they can never say they were not aware of all the problems with the current system or of better approaches. The Living Rent Campaign have shown how effective a strategic response can be, and I think we could emulate their example of a detailed written response as an organisation together with a mass campaign where lots of people can sign up to supporting a few key points. (Watch this space.)

The replacement for the work programme was not discussed, but I have spoken to some very helpful civil servants about this since. I learnt that it falls under the remit of a different department and minister: Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Employability and Training. The consultation on this was last year – and we sent a short submission . Westminster has since decided that the money available for the replacement scheme will be much less than is being spent at present, and that people will only be sent on it after they have been signing on for two years. The current system will stop in March 2017. From 2017 to 2018 the only ‘employability’ schemes in Scotland will be for people on ESA, and they will all be voluntary. The Scottish Government is currently putting together plans for a new programme for the long-term unemployed that will start in 2018. They are concerned that if they make it voluntary almost no-one will use it, as that was the experience in Northern Ireland. It seems to me that the answer to this is not the stick, but the carrot. Why not give people a small financial reward for the time spent on courses etc.? As well, of course, as making sure the courses are actually useful. In our experience, the great majority of people do want to find work, but they will only be interested in activities that are genuinely helpful and not just box-ticking exercises. The Minister is currently arranging meetings with ‘service users’ to discuss what should be in the new service, and we have asked to meet him. We hope that he will be able to see us, and urge others to contact him too . We can also let him know a lot of things that are wrong with the current system, and pull away the happy mask put up by various members of the poverty industry.

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