Dignity and Respect: workshop on new Social Security arrangements in Scotland

Blog on Carnegie UK/Policy Scotland workshop on embedding Dignity and Respect in the Scottish Social Security system

Des McNulty

The Scottish Government has identified five principles underpinning its approach to devolved social security:

  • Social security in an investment in the people of Scotland
  • Respect for the dignity of individuals is at the heart of everything we do
  • Processes and services will be evidence-based and designed with the people of Scotland
  • We will strive for continuous improvement in all our policies, processes and systems putting the user experience first
  • We will demonstrate that our services are efficient and value for money

The Carnegie UK/Policy Scotland workshop, held in conjunction with the Scottish Government’s disability and carer’s benefit expert advisory group on 14th September, was an opportunity to hear from leading experts on what might be involved in putting these objectives into practice and to engage with the difficult questions that arise. The audience for the event comprised members of the expert group, government officials, academics and people from the local government and voluntary sectors.


Dr Mark Simpson from Ulster University reported on research undertaken for the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Scotland Committee which set out what basing social security on principles of dignity and respect might mean in human rights law terms. The commitment the Scottish Government has made:

  • Less reassessment for people with long-term conditions
  • Possible direct payment of disability benefit to service providers
  • Carer’s allowance to be raised to level of jobseekers allowance
  • Young carer’s benefit
  • Voluntary participation in employment support schemes

were acknowledged by the Ulster team as appropriate, but uncertainty remains e.g. about how eligibility and payments will compare to PIP. At this stage, although Mark and his fellow authors felt the rhetoric is promising, the detail remains sparse. Mark’s own blog on these issues can be found here http://slsablog.co.uk/blog/blog-posts/embedding-dignity-and-respect-in-a-scottish-social-security-system/


In his contribution, Nick Watson, Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Glasgow highlighted research in health that suggested that the outcome rather than the process was the vital factor in determining whether people were satisfied with the service they received. Whether treatment worked was the vital factor in patient satisfaction, not how they felt that staff responded to them. That is not an argument against prioritising dignity and respect but, according to Nick, a warning that what matters ultimately to people is how much they receive.


Nick also highlighted some of the complexities involved in assessment, which he argued was needed to determine what level of additional support people with different levels of impairment should be entitled to. Losing entitlement as a result of reassessment might be justifiable provided the assessment itself was conducted properly (and conditioned by dignity and respect) but particular problems arose when there were sudden changes and consideration should be given to maintaining stability of income for a period even where entitlement changed in order to allow people with disabilities time to plan and make adjustments.


Discussion at the tables picked up on specific issues that arose from Mark and Nick’s contributions, recognising the good intentions of the government in moving to a rights based system in which dignity and respect were embedded but also acknowledging the many complex issues that arise even in dealing with those limited elements of the overall benefit system that are devolved. In particular, the need for realism in what can be delivered was emphasised.


In the afternoon session, David Wallace, the new head of the Scottish Social Security Agency provided an overview of the process of establishing the new agency (which it was subsequently announced would be headquartered in Dundee with a significant component being located in Glasgow). The approach in terms of what benefits the agency would deliver was incremental – starting with smaller benefits such as Funeral Expenses Assistance and Carers Allowance supplement. Once they had developed their operating model, the new agency would strive to deliver where possible through co-location and working with local delivery partners as opposed to being a remote provider.  Key to the success of this approach, David suggested, was the culture of the agency and the attitude of staff towards their role and the people the system is intended to support.


The final presentation was given by Regional Tribunal Judge Jessica Burns, the senior judge in Scotland for Social Security and Child Support appeals. Jessica was able to draw on her extensive experience of hearing appeals against decisions of the Department for Work and Pensions to highlight a number of issues that have not yet been fully taken into account in designing the new system, in particular the role of independent advocacy and the need for well-designed checks and balances to preserve the integrity of appeals hearings. Jessica compared the way in which the tribunal system is currently working in Scotland with her previous experience working in England and highlighted interesting trends in the volumes and nature of cases being taken through the tribunal system.


What was clear from the day is Scotland is still at the beginning of a process – the laudable aspirations which have been put forward will require a great deal of work to be realised in practice. In the process, very complex issues will arise that have a direct bearing on the outcomes people get from the system. The Chair of the expert advisory group, Jim McCormick said in his closing remarks that the presentations and the discussion generated had been extremely useful in focusing thinking on issues the group had identified but also in highlighting new issues that had not been previously part of the debate. The hard questions raised by Nick Watson from a disability perspective and the fascinating insights provided by Jessica Burns were particularly useful in that regard.