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Disabled people are citizens with rights, not medical cases with needs

by Rob Gowans, CAS senior policy officer.

This article was first published in the Herald on 19 August 2020.

As we continue to focus on how we can ‘build back better’ after covid-19, there is one area where Scotland has a huge opportunity to make a new start that will transform people’s lives: social security for disabled people.

In 2014, it was agreed that disability benefits would be devolved from Westminster to Holyrood. A big change, which is about to be fully implemented, and which brings challenges as well as opportunities.

Every year, the Scottish Citizens Advice network gives advice in tens of thousands of cases related to disability benefits. The issue is consistently in the top three that we see. And from that huge case-load we know there are big problems with the current system that need to be fixed. These include stressful and undignified assessments, high numbers of inaccurate decisions on applications, and a complex and off-putting application process.

To their credit, the Scottish Government has committed to addressing many of these problems when they start administering the system in the next year. But rather than building a new system from scratch they’ve pledged a ‘safe and secure transition,’ aimed at making sure people’s payments aren’t disrupted by the change.

This is a sensible approach. We’ve seen too many cases in the past where administrative transfer between different benefits has meant that peoples’ payments have suddenly stopped, plunging them into financial crisis.

However, the downside of this approach is that many of the problems in the existing system will be replicated in the new one – at least initially. There hasn’t been an opportunity to consider what might be possible if we were looking at this with fresh eyes.

If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, would this be the system we would come up with? Are there better ways of protecting and enhancing the rights of disabled people? And. after a long transition to a new system, is there a risk of this being seen as ‘job done,’ with these questions remaining un-answered?

With that in mind over the past year, Citizens Advice Scotland has been working with our partners in the Scottish Campaign on Rights to Social Security (SCORSS) – which contains the leading charities who work with disabled people - to try and answer some of these questions.

Today, SCORSS has published a report setting out an ambitious long-term vision for social security for disabled people in Scotland. We’re calling on Scotland’s political parties to back our report in the upcoming Scottish Parliament election, with a view to making this vision a reality.

So what is our vision? Well, the top priority is of course to make sure that social security payments for disabled people are adequate; that the amount they receive is enough to enable them to live with dignity, and overcome the barriers society places in their way.

Non-disabled people are often shocked to learn the extent of these barriers. For instance, disabled people face extra costs because they often need to take cars or taxis because of inaccessible public transport. They may also need extra heating in their home, or expensive adaptations to make their house accessible. These costs add up: research by Scope has calculated that on average disabled adults in Scotland face additional costs of £632 per month more than non-disabled people, with some academic research suggesting the costs could be even higher.

So our long-term vision starts with making sure social security payments are enough to meet the additional costs disabled people face. Sadly this is not always the case currently. We must make sure that in Scotland no disabled person faces poverty due to their condition.

Another key part of our vision is that the new system should be based on rights. The human rights of disabled people - including the right to social security - are long-established in international agreements, but the current system here in the UK (some of which dates back several decades) often takes a medical and needs-based approach.

In other words, it sees a disabled person not as a citizen with rights but as a medical case with needs. This is wrong, and leads to the sort of fundamentally reductive thinking which has resulted in the problems identified above.

Working with disabled people in Scotland, and learning from international examples, we believe the Scottish Government should take a rights-based approach when developing eligibility rules and assessment processes, to make sure the new system truly embodies dignity and respect. In short, we must treat disabled people as citizens, not medical cases.

Looking to build back better means being ambitious, aiming for the best, and looking at our existing structures with fresh eyes. Social security for disabled people is a perfect example of where Scotland could lead the world – and there’s no better time than now to get started.