This is our response to the current Scottish Government consultation on the (limited) soon-to-be-devolved welfare powers. This consultation doesn’t include the schemes that are replacing the Work Programme as they are covered by a different minister. We addressed these in our recent letter to Jamie Hepburn. Thank you to everyone who signed our petition, which we have included with the response – and thanks to our activists for promoting it (especially Ronnie, who would win the prize – if there was one).
CONSULTATION ON SOCIAL SECURITY IN SCOTLAND, A RESPONSE BY THE SCOTTISH UNEMPLOYED WORKERS’ NETWORK, OCTOBER 2016
Thank you for setting up this important consultation. We are glad of the opportunity to make known our views, and hope that the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network can contribute to the on-going discussion on policy development and take part in the planned ‘user panels’.
We are very encouraged by the discussion so far on changing the nature of the PIP assessment process away from the current tick-box, try and catch you out and show you are faking, approach back to one based on evidence from a person’s doctor and other social services. We hope assessors will be able to be flexible as to the type of evidence they receive and that weight will also be given to the testimony of the claimant and their family and friends, as not all doctor/patient relationships are equally supportive.
We are sure that you are already well aware of the origins of the current punitive system, but feel it is important that it is not forgotten that the assessments used for both ESA and PIP were developed as a result of a long relationship, dating back to the 1990s, between the UK Government and a health insurance firm notorious for arguing that people’s problems were fake or psychosomatic and for not paying up on claims, and that they were deliberately conceived to remove large numbers of people from claiming the benefits.
Evidence from GPs
We would also urge you to work closely with your colleagues in Health to ensure that claimants do, indeed, get the help they need from their GPs. Like you, we welcome the introduction of welfare rights officers into GP surgeries (so long as this is done with appropriate safeguards on patient privacy), but there are only welfare rights officers in a few places. In others, claimants for both PIP and ESA have to ask their GP directly for a supporting letter, and most GPs are charging for producing this. As benefit claimants don’t generally have the money to pay, they are putting in applications without medical evidence, severely affecting their chances of getting the money they need and deserve. As health is devolved, the Scottish Government have the power to intervene and make sure that people are getting free access to the support they need.
Advice and Advocacy support
While Scotland is much better provided with welfare advice than many places in England, we could benefit from increased investment in advice services, both face to face and over the phone, including more welfare rights officers in doctors’ surgeries and more stalls in public places such as shopping centres. We would also like to see a positive recognition and encouragement of the role of friends and family and of volunteer citizen advocates and self-help groups (like ourselves) in accompanying people to appointments, helping them ask the right questions and acting as witnesses to their encounters with an often unsympathetic bureaucracy. This should include prominent and clear recognition of a claimant’s right to be accompanied and for the person with them to be able to ask questions on their behalf if they require it. While such advocacy is already recognised in DWP rules, it is often denied in fact; but there could be a requirement for the rules to be prominently displayed in all Scottish offices, with contact details for an independent ombudsman. It should also mean that Police Scotland would not allow themselves to be used to shut down all questioning of DWP staff, as has frequently been experienced by both claimants and advocates, especially over the right to be accompanied. We have found that both the DWP and their subcontractors are very quick to call the police if anything they say is challenged, and that the police are very reluctant to listen to any other view of events. Better advocacy could also be assisted through the provision of a freely accessible, well publicised, telephone advice service dedicated to providing back up to the non-professional friends, family and volunteers who help claimants; something similar to the CPAG advice line for advisors, but more widely available.
Transfer from DLA to PIP
Of course many people have already lost out due to the UK Government’s insistence on instigating the transfer from DLA to PIP before the benefit was devolved. We would propose that after April no more people are transferred from DLA until the new systems are fully in place. We would also like to see the Scottish Government use its powers to provide additional help to assist those who have lost out through this transfer. We would recommend automatic reinstatement of mobility benefits lost through the cut-off for eligibility being dropped from walking 50m to walking 20m. We would also like to see additional help for people who have lost out on the transfer, perhaps through an enhanced Scottish Welfare Fund on a case by case discretionary basis.
A fairer initial assessment system should reduce the number of appeals, but we would ask in addition that the Scottish Government takes out the Mandatory Reconsideration stage, which primarily serves to delay the appeal process and to discourage people from taking their appeal through to conclusion.
A petition on key points
We have drawn up a petition that highlights five key points for the newly devolved welfare services – both those covered by this consultation and those under the auspices of the Minister for Employability and Training. We will send the 551 signatures by post as many are on paper, but the petition is reproduced below:
‘When more welfare powers come to Scotland, please can you make sure that:
- No-one can get sanctioned for not attending or complying with any devolved ‘employability’ scheme, and this is made clear to everyone affected so that these schemes are effectively voluntary.
- Scottish health services and other social and community services are kept completely independent of any DWP schemes that pressure people to apply for jobs. (We especially don’t want to see anything like the placing of ‘work coaches’ in GPs’ surgeries recently trialled in Islington).
- The new Scottish PIP assessment process takes full account of evidence from health and other care professionals, and the GPs etc. have to provide this evidence.
- Everyone who has lost benefits as a result of the cut-off for Higher Rate Mobility having been dropped from walking 50m to walking 20m can apply to get them reinstated.
- There is no role for private companies in any devolved service.’
(We are emailing the pdf of the comments made on the online version of the petition along with this response)
Finally, we would like to give some additional responses to specific questions in the consultation that have not already been covered:
- Benefits should be provided in cash, but with the option of paying the rent directly to the landlord. There should also be options of using the benefit for reduced cost schemes e.g. for energy or mobility, and continued schemes for free public transport etc.
Digital applications should always be an option not a default expectation, and free phone numbers should be easily available.
Social services should be delivered through the public sector and should never be contracted out to private profit-making companies.
Third sector organisations should be seen as a source of additional help and not part of the public social security service.
- There should be some permanent independent body or ombudsman that one can approach with complaints and that could ensure that decision making is clear and transparent.
We would also like to see prompt publication of fully detailed statistics on claims/awards/appeals etc. (statistics not targets)
- (Please also see comments above)
Yes, there should be timetables set for assessments and decision making.
Yes, people should be asked to give consent to allow access to personal information including medical records as part of their application process; they should also be able to give consent to access some parts of this and not others.
In looking at the impact of a person’s impairment or disability, an assessment should include the impact on their ability to take part in social activity.
We are supportive of the idea of developing a consistent approach to disability benefits across all ages and ending the current arbitrary transfer from one benefit to another.
All assessments should be carried out by professionals within the public sector (see 3.)
People with long-term conditions should not have to undergo reassessment.
The option of reduced energy tariffs and other dedicated support is welcome.
We would like to see greater investment in public transport to help people more generally.
We support the continuation of some sort of motability scheme but are concerned that the present system may not always provide good value to those who use it.
- We are pleased that the Scottish Government is raising the Carer’s Allowance and hope that this is just the first step towards a Carer’s Living Wage. Caring is, after all, deemed to be a full time job.
- We are pleased that the extra help proposed for young people who have been unemployed is going to them and not to their employer, as schemes that pay the employer simply mean that younger people are taken on at the expense of those who are older.
- We are pleased to see that people in receipt of Universal Credit will be able to get this paid twice monthly rather than monthly, and that they will be able to choose to have the rent element paid directly to their social landlord. This should certainly be extended to private sector landlords. The risk of eviction is worse in the private sector and without those guaranteed payments, many private landlords will refuse to rent to people on Universal Credit at all.
We would like to see individual payments of Universal Credit as the default position. This could be crucial in any household where there is abuse, and also in cases where a partner has difficulties controlling their spending, e.g. through an addiction to shopping or gambling.
With respect to the housing element, one of the worst injustices that should be addressed is the meanness of the allowance given to single people under 35 who are in private rented housing. This is only enough to cover a room in a shared house, which is especially difficult for those who would like to be able to have their children come and stay.
- In looking at eligibility for PIP, any new system should be more responsive to long-term Scottish residents who have returned from a prolonged time abroad.
- We welcome the commitment not to recover overpayments that are the result of official error
- We are glad that you have acknowledged how relatively rare benefit fraud is and ask that all investigation is done so as not to create unwarranted alarm – unlike in the current system of random checks and computer-generated letters.
- Benefits should rise at least in line with the greater of the consumer price index or average earnings.
This is one of the carved stones set into the parliament wall
 Foot, Paul (1995) ‘Doctor on Call’, Private Eye, 16 June 1995, reproduced here: https://beastrabban.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/private-eye-from-1995-on-unum-and-peter-lilley-in-the-tory-government; Rutherford, Jonathan (2007) ‘New Labour, the market state, and the end of welfare’ Soundings 36, Lawrence and Wishart; Stewart, Mo (2016) Cash not Care: the planned demolition of the UK welfare state, New Generation Publishing
 Unemployment benefits used to be increased in line with earnings or prices, whichever was higher, but since 1980 have been tied to prices, which have risen more slowly. Average consumption and living standards have risen with earnings, but people on benefits have been left far behind.