After hearing from over 500 organisations and individuals about what should be done when Scotland gains new powers over social security benefits – including CAS’ substantial submission based on CAB evidence – the Scottish Government last week gave the clearest indication yet on what they plan to do when they gain control over the benefits, and how the new social security system might look. This includes new details about the shape of the new system as well as announcements on issues that CAB clients and advisers told us are top priorities for change.
So, what did we find out about the next steps from the Scottish Government’s response? The main announcement is that the Government intends to take a human rights based approach to the new system and the laws that shape it. This includes introducing a new principle recognising social security as a human right, as well as a duty to create a ‘Charter’ (previously referred to as a ‘Claimant Charter’) in partnership with organisations and people that use the system, which will allow people to hold the Government to account.
This is a welcome approach, and one that should help make sure that worthy principles are backed up by what happens in practice. CAB clients and advisers made more than 165 suggestions for what could be included in the Charter, when we asked them, so we certainly looks forward to being involved in helping develop it!
This will be at the heart of a Social Security Bill, due to be introduced before the Scottish Parliament in June which will set out the foundations for the new system. CAS is looking forward to working with MSPs to make sure that it creates a system that makes sure that the dignity and respect of people who need support from the system is reflected in applications, assessments, staff contact and processes for challenging a decision if necessary.
Another key development is more detail of the ‘Experience Panels’. In their response, the Scottish Government rightly recognises that people with direct experience of receiving benefits know the system best, and have committed to working with at least 2,000 of them as part of a series of Panels to help design the new system.
Half of these will be recruited as part of an open call for people with experience of receiving one of the benefits due to be devolved, which could be a great opportunity for CAB clients to be listened to and to help shape Scottish successor benefits.
In the next few weeks we can also expect a further announcement about what exactly the Scottish Social Security Agency, which is set to deliver the new benefits, will look like. The strong evidence from CAB advisers and clients and others was that an option of face-to-face contact with Agency staff is very important in helping people deal with social security issues. This recommendation appears to have been persuasive and looks set to feature in some form.
The need for advice and support has come through clearly in evidence and the Scottish Government has recognised it has a ‘crucial role to play’ in the new system. Pleasingly, they have begun to talk about public services providing holistic advice on benefits people may be entitled to, whether they are delivered by the Agency, the DWP or another provider.
Of course, this way of working is nothing new to Citizens Advice Bureaux, who provide this service to maximise clients’ incomes on a daily basis and advised on over 74,000 issues last year that related to the benefits that are due to be devolved. In their response, the Scottish Government agrees that independent advice has an important part to play and commits to making sure that information is given to independent services to allow them to provide advice that is detailed and accurate, and recognising the likely increase in demand for advice will review the support they provide for the sector.
Full details are still to emerge on top priorities for CAB clients and advisers as the rules for the Scottish successor benefits are due to be developed alongside the Parliamentary process and set out in regulations and guidance, rather than the main Bill. However, some further nuggets of information were announced by the Scottish Government.
On medical assessments for disability benefits, the Government recognised the evidence showing that assessments should be conducted by professionals who understand the conditions of people they are assessing. We will continue to present overwhelming evidence that the number of face-to-face assessments should be reduced to a minimum, and that the evidence from claimants and people who know them best should be given far more weight.
Following support from people who responded to the consultation, the Scottish Government is planning to work with DWP to increase the value of Carers Allowance to the same level as Jobseekers Allowance before the new powers are devolved. They are currently reviewing the eligibility criteria, and CAS will continue to highlight CAB evidence showing that carers who work part-time and in full-time education are disadvantaged by the current rules.
In their response, the Scottish Government pledges to make sure that people challenging or appealing a decision understand when they are likely to get a response. Given overwhelming evidence of lengthy delays for the current Mandatory Reconsideration system, we will continue to make the case for a clearer system for people who use the system, and for clear timescales for the Agency to deal with challenges for claimants to be set out.
Following CAB evidence showing the growing issue of funeral poverty, in its response the Scottish Government has committed to processing Funeral Payment applications within ten working days of them being received. This is good news, as CAS has highlighted that a streamlined process for making decisions on applications for support to pay the costs of a loved one’s funeral would make a considerable difference for thousands of Scots each year.
As previously announced, the Scottish Government plans to use its limited powers over Universal Credit to remove the Bedroom Tax, to give people the choice of direct housing payments and the choice of fortnightly payments instead of monthly ones. We welcomes these moves, which the Government have already launched a public consultation on, but given the acknowledged strength of evidence around splitting payments between members of a couple, and the preference of CAB clients for the choice of weekly payments as well we look forward to working with the Scottish Government to try and make these further changes sooner rather than later.
Finally, though analysis of the responses to the consultation from CAS and others showed that more should be done to protect people from unmanageable large deductions to cover overpayments, no specific commitments have been made at this stage for action on harmful direct deductions from benefits. CAS will continue to raise CAB evidence showing that high rates of deductions have caused gaps in people’s income and led to them running out of money.
So all in all some encouraging steps that have the potential to result in a new system that works well for people who need social security support. However, as benefits advisers know well, the devil is usually in the detail, so CAS plans to work with the Scottish Government to make sure the new system reflects the priorities of clients in the reality of Scotland’s new social security landscape.