by Ruth Patrick
Too often, we are told that welfare traps people in dependency, discouraging individuals from making the right choices, and enabling a culture of irresponsibility and inactivity. This lazy, stigmatising narrative has been mobilised to defend wave after wave of cuts to the UK’s social security system, leaving us with a hollowed-out, punitive safety net completely unfit for purpose.
As we witness the harm caused by welfare reform, it can be hard to believe in the possibility of a better future in which the original promise and intent of social security are reclaimed. And yet, that is exactly what is happening north of the border. Scotland is making historic use of its new powers under devolution to set out a distinctive social security agenda.
In April 2018, the Social Security (Scotland) Bill was unanimously passed into law to applause from all parties. The Bill sets out a rights-based approach to the administration of the 11 benefits devolved to Holyrood and is underpinned by seven principles. These include the recognition that social security is a human right, which represents an investment in the people of Scotland and will help to reduce poverty. It also features the principle that ‘respect for the dignity of individuals is to be at the heart of the Scottish social security system’.
Such principles have been notably missing from Westminster government interventions over recent years. In research with people directly affected by changes to the benefits system, I have heard again and again how the UK social security system is characterised by disrespectful and undignified treatment. This leaves people feeling stigmatised, belittled and treated as part of a problematic and deficit population. People, like young jobseeker James, pick up on the dehumanizing nature of claiming benefits: ‘You’re just another number, you’re not a person.’ In an exercise to draw an imaginary, good, back-to-work adviser, they call for advisers who are polite, friendly, listen and are less forceful. Susan, a single parent jobseeker, simply wanted someone to say: ‘would you like to’ rather than ‘you must’. These small asks hint at all that is absent from the current UK system.
The Scottish principles seem to recognise and work with — rather than against — the experiences of claimants of social security. This is, in part, because of the Scottish Government’s active involvement of both the third sector and people with direct experiences of poverty in the Bill’s development. Again, a marked divergence is notable here from the approach at Westminster, where the Department for Work and Pensions so often seems to be proceeding in spite of the evidence base, rather than because of it. Sometimes, as we have seen most recently in Esther McVey’s response to a damning report by the National Audit Office on Universal Credit, Westminster politicians even openly dispute and misrepresent evidence where it counters their own policy presentation of ‘welfare’.
Scotland’s Bill sets out a framework for a new way of doing things. The involvement and engagement of key stakeholder groups in Scotland will continue during the implementation phase, most notably in the creation of a new social security charter. This charter will set out what people can expect from the new system and is to be written in a clear and accessible style. It is currently being developed by the Scottish Government working in partnership with experts with experience in social security, drawing upon the expertise captured by Scotland’s relatively new ‘Experience Panels’. These Experience Panels were established to support the consultation and involvement of claimants in Scotland’ social security policymaking. It is hard – if not impossible – to imagine a similar initiative being set up by the current incumbents at the Department for Work and Pensions.
In translating the Bill’s principles into action, there will be opportunities and challenges as Scotland creates processes for determining eligibility for devolved disability benefits (including Personal Independence Payments), develops its Scottish Social Security Agency and creates employment support programmes underpinned by voluntary participation. Holyrood will also start to make use of its powers to top up benefits by providing an income supplement for families and has pledged to use devolution to increase support for carers. In each case, there are possibilities for Scotland to deliver real improvements to the status quo and for the rest of the UK to learn from all that is done and the difference it makes.
At the same time, though, it is important not to create a caricature of Scotland as a land of milk and honey. Significantly, even under the increased devolution, the Scottish Government will have control of only 15 per cent of its total social security spend (described by Sharon Wright as Scotland’s slice of hope). What this means in practice is that two social security systems will operate in tandem north of the border. Scottish claimants will have to navigate Universal Credit administered by Westminster as well as new benefits and, eventually, devolved disability benefits administered by Holyrood. They may well enjoy more dignified and respectful treatment from the Scottish Social Security Agency, but it may be incredibly difficult for individuals to disentangle this experience from their rather different (and quite likely less positive) treatment when visiting a Job Centre to process a Universal Credit claim. This could be hard for claimants to make sense of, and for the Scottish Government to effectively communicate to its residents where the Scottish social security approach begins and ends.
Perhaps even more significant is the challenge of implementing a new rights-based approach when the relatively cautious stance taken by Holyrood to raising expenditure on social security means that so many claimants will still be struggling with poverty, poor housing, and in some cases, destitution. As one Edinburgh resident said during a meeting with the then-Social Security minister Jeanne Freeman, ‘respect and dignity disnae feed the bairns’ (For those not familiar with Scottish local dialect, this translates as ‘respect and dignity don’t feed the children’.).
Despite these and other enduring challenges, Scotland is showing that another way is possible on social security — one that does not start from the degradation of ‘welfare’ and the lives of those who receive it. The Bill is not without its flaws, but it is radical in its underpinning principles and in its recognition of social security as a force for good and as an essential human right. As Jeanne Freeman MSP said during the passage of the bill: “today, I think we have achieved something that is not only important, it is also a bit special…” It is both special and important not just for Scotland, but for all of the UK and for the future of social security, something which matters to us all.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Guardian and is here reproduced with their kind permission.
Ruth Patrick is a Lecturer in Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York and the author of For whose benefit? The everyday realities of welfare reform. She tweets at @ruthpatrick0.