There are, of course, a great many things that are deeply wrong with the UK’s current social security system. The real-terms value of many benefits has been allowed to fall over time and no longer allows many people to meet a basic minimum standard of living—even to the extent that people cannot feed themselves. Just last week, the Scottish health survey revealed that 4 per cent of people who were surveyed had run out of food in the past year. The system of benefit sanctions leaves people destitute.
Further, with the benefit cap, the UK Government says to claimants that they need a certain level of benefit but pays them much less, on an entirely arbitrary basis, sometimes to the tune of £2,500 less. As a result, as the motion notes, trust and faith in the social security system have broken down.
How did we get here? In part, it is because so many welfare reforms have been drawn up by small groups of policy makers who have been working to a narrow cost-saving agenda, with views that are based on a crude caricature of the social security system and its users, and with no concept of what it is like to raise a child on a small and fluctuating income, for instance.
All that experience is out there to be used to make better policy, but the DWP has rarely taken much interest in it. From the on-going farce that is universal credit to the brutality of denying personal independence payments to tens of thousands of people, almost all the major problems in current welfare reforms could have been foreseen—just not by the UK Government. It was warned by multiple welfare rights organisations about the impact on rent arrears of having such long universal credit waiting periods.
Disabled people’s groups said that the PIP criteria did not reflect the reality of living with certain types of disabilities and health conditions, and that many people would lose out. Unfortunately, all those warnings have proved to be all too prescient. That is why the approach that the Scottish Government is taking, and which is set out in the motion, is timely and welcome.
It is important that we capture the lived experience of applying for and receiving—or sometimes not receiving—social security. In relation to disability benefits, there is the stress of going to PIP assessments—which can sometimes be held huge distances from claimants’ homes—the invasiveness of some of the questions that are asked and the bewildering complexity of the process. All those things are too often the experience of people when they ask for support to help them with the extra costs arising from their disabilities or health conditions. Their experiences should be brought to bear on how our new devolved social security system operates.
I am pleased to say that that is already happening. The experience panels have drawn more attention to the often highly stressful and sometimes damaging experience of having to go an assessment. One panel member said:
“The face-to-face assessment for PIP was honestly one of the most traumatic experiences of my adult life.”
The report “Social Security Experience Panels: About Your Benefits and You—Qualitative Research Findings” stated that assessments
“should only be carried out when necessary, and that evidence provided by medical professionals should be enough.”
That was the basis for a Green amendment—which I am pleased to say was supported unanimously by Parliament—that introduced a ban on face-to-face assessments if evidence can be found through other means. Another Green amendment, based on what PIP claimants said in the experience panels and elsewhere, ensures that the distance that a person has to travel for an assessment when that has proved to be necessary is taken into account.
I was particularly encouraged to hear all that being outlined by the cabinet secretary last week in her statement on disability assessments. The proposals on conducting only absolutely necessary face-to-face assessments, on audio recording of assessments to rebuild trust, and on giving people flexibility in choosing their assessment appointments were all set out. If it is implemented to its fullest extent—which, of course, remains to be seen—what was outlined could be a significant change to the disability benefits system and to people’s experience of it.
I am pleased that my colleague Alison Johnstone has played a constructive role in putting some of the measures into law, but ultimately such improvements are the work of the thousands of individual claimants who have spoken out about their treatment and their experiences. I am glad that their voices are now being heard.
We also need to think through some of the implications of what the motion says about how the system will be established. As I have noted, people’s lived experience has been used well to shape the founding legislation. However, that was the easy bit: none of the major benefits has yet been established. As that work proceeds, the people and organisations with whom the Scottish Government is co-designing the system will continue to call for changes that will not be cheap or easy, including benefit top-ups to reverse the benefit cap and the on-going freeze on the value of payments.
People with experience of PIP are likely to ask for a reversal of the staggering cuts to that benefit. Undervalued carers—especially those who care for more than one person, for example—may ask for that extra care to be recognised through the carers allowance. At that point, the response cannot simply be that such requests are unrealistic. As well as being untrue—because we have paid benefits at adequate rates before, and can do so again—that would not be in keeping with a truly co-designed system.
I am glad that we are moving away from the problematic term “welfare” and reclaiming the language of social security. The system should indeed be “social”: it is a sign and signal of our duty, compassion and respect for one another. That is why, as the motion rightly suggests, we need to build it together.
The Greens will support the motion and both amendments.