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The last year shows the need for a better social security system

by Debbie Horne, Senior policy officer.

This article first appeared in the Herald on 20 April 2021.

A year into the pandemic and we’ve seen a glimpse of the potential of the welfare state to financially support people. Now it’s time to consider how to build a social security system that truly works for everyone.

While the social and economic impact of the pandemic has touched us all in some form, some groups of people have been hit much harder than others, with pre-existing inequalities sharpened.

This includes the disproportionate numbers of disabled people and carers who were already locked into poverty before we had even heard of Covid-19.

Every day, advisers from Scotland’s Citizens Advice network provide social security advice to people living with a disability and to carers.

Our network gives advice on a range of issues – from housing to debt, energy to employment - but social security remains the single largest area that people come to us for advice. 

In fact, in one single year, our advisers give out almost 100,000 pieces of advice on disability and carer related social security issues.

The links between disability, caring responsibilities and poverty are widely recognised.

We know disabled people are three times more likely to live in poverty than those who are not disabled; the evidence shows the current rates of disability payments aren’t enough to cover the additional costs of overcoming barriers faced by disabled people.

We also know that carers are more vulnerable than those without caring responsibilities to finding themselves living in poverty. Without ambitious action going forward, this will remain the case. And surely, we can all agree we can and must do better than this.

So, what needs to change?

Citizens Advice Scotland advocates for a fairer and better system on behalf of people who come to us for advice. Part of that work is our membership of the Scottish Campaign on Rights to Social Security (SCORRS).

SCORSS is a diverse coalition of organisations with collective expertise across a range of different aspects of the social security system. Whilst coming from different areas of expertise, all members are united in our belief in a social security system that prevents poverty and supports those in need whilst also protecting their dignity.

Our vision is for a progressive and ambitious model of social security. Payment rates should be set at a level where no one is left in poverty and everyone has sufficient income to lead a dignified life. Respect for human rights and dignity should be the cornerstone of the system.

We also want to see a radically simplified social security system to ensure it is easy to access, with barriers to entitlement removed. And we should invest in the support needed to enable everyone to participate fully in society and make social security work for Scotland.

Achieving that vision should start with a commitment to an independent review of social security for disabled people, with the aim of creating a world-leading system of support. The review must be based on the principles set out in the report, ‘Beyond a Safe and Secure Transition – A Long Term Vison for Social Security,’ published by SCORRS last year. One of these principles is ensuring that disability payments are adequate. Research has estimated the additional cost of having a disability is £632 per month, but current payment rates are lower than this.

The review should also seek to ensure the system supports equal participation in society and the right to independent living, as well as providing whole of life support. 

We also need to recognise the value and contribution of unpaid carers to our society. That’s currently one in five people in Scotland.

Research published by Oxfam last year estimated that the value of unpaid care work in Scotland was a staggering £36 billion, and polling shows 72 percent of people in Scotland think governments should spend more on social security benefits for carers.

Under existing rules, a carer – including young carers aged 16-18 – are only able to study for up to 21 hours a week before losing entitlement to carer’s social security support. This means an almost always impossible choice between education, caring and financial hardship. A similar choice is faced when it comes to paid employment. Carers face a cliff edge of losing their eligibility for Carer’s Allowance if they are earning just over a low earnings limit. Committing to changing these rules in the new Scottish Carer’s Assistance should be a priority.

With almost 1 million people in Scotland - including 1 in 4 children - living in poverty, we would like to see the new Scottish Child Payment doubled and its roll out for children over 6 accelerated.

The scandal of poverty holds our people back, but a social security system that has fairness and dignity at its heart can ensure a safety net, so that no one is swept into destitution.

That would also mean reviewing the Scottish Welfare Fund, an essential means of support for people facing financial crisis prior to and during the pandemic. The review should lead to easier access to, as well as greater consistency in, the delivery and promotion of the fund across Scotland.

Even though we’ve all been apart in our own homes and socially distanced over the past year, in some ways we have all come closer together to look out for each other during this pandemic. That spirit of community is something we can harness now into building a new, fairer system of social security support. 

Scotland has the chance to create a world-leading system. The next Scottish Parliament must seize this moment to deliver positive change for disabled people, carers and those living in the grip of poverty.

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