The Impact of Welfare Reform in Scotland - Tracking Study - Sweep 3 Report

The aim of the study is to explore the impact of on-going welfare changes on a range of households in Scotland over time. This report provides the findings from the first three sweeps of interviews, conducted between September 2013 and March 2015. It looks at cumulative impacts over time as well as findings from an in depth module on support accessed by those claiming benefits.

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Executive Summary

The aim of the study is to explore the impact of ongoing welfare changes on a range of households in Scotland. The study consists of six interview sweeps over a three year period (2013-16) and is being carried out by the Employment Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University and the University of Stirling. This report covers findings up to sweep 3.

The study uses a longitudinal qualitative methodology to explore participants' perspectives on how welfare reform affects them, and to follow their experiences over time. The study draws on the real life experiences of those in receipt of benefits to provide rich, in-depth insights into the impact of welfare reform. Forty-three individuals took part in Sweep 1 of the study, thirty-five in Sweep 2, and twenty-eight in Sweep 3. The sample design sought to represent the experiences of benefit recipients across a range of locations and socio-demographic characteristics, including lone parent and low income families, disabled claimants, and those in rural areas.

Interviews in Sweep 3 updated the information collected in previous sweeps, and also included an in-depth module of questions about the way in which services, organisations and individuals support those claiming benefits.

Issues encountered in dealing with the benefits system

When filling in forms, it was not always clear to respondents what information was being sought, and most had felt the need to seek some clarification on this.

Respondents applying for disability benefits also reported the difficulty of presenting themselves in a negative light - emphasising everything they could not do - for the purposes of applying for benefits. This negativity undermined their own attempts to be positive and see themselves as capable.

Policy implications: Forms should be reviewed by a panel of applicants, in order to test the accessibility of the language, clarity of the requirements, and the appropriateness of the questions.

Supporting information should be provided alongside forms, or at least clearly signposted, rather than left to the applicant to obtain for themselves.

Some respondents felt that their ESA assessment did not adequately capture the impact of their health condition or disability on their ability to work. In particular, it was felt that the impact of 'hidden' or fluctuating conditions was not adequately understood and captured in the process. For example, whether a person can carry out a particular activity may depend on how their condition is affecting them at that particular time; therefore a simple 'yes or no' question is not an appropriate way to elicit information about the impact of their condition. These experiences with ESA meant that respondents were similarly concerned about the ability of the new PIP assessment to capture the impact of their condition on their daily lives.

Policy implications: Reflexivity and responsiveness to feedback from claimants regarding the appropriateness of the assessment criteria and process should be built into the disability benefit system.

Consideration needs to be given to the suitability of polar questions in capturing the effects of fluctuating conditions.

Respondents generally could not understand the need to be subjected to repeat assessments for disability benefits in cases where their situation would not improve.

Policy implications: Repeat assessments should be limited only to those whose condition is expected to improve. Even for those in this category, frequency of assessment should be balanced against the cognitive and emotional toll of assessment on respondents.

Official errors and long delays in awaiting decisions or progress with cases caused substantial financial and emotional upset for affected respondents. Poor communication from benefits agencies about benefit decisions and changes also caused stress and uncertainty for respondents. These have been consistent themes throughout the study.

Policy implications: Mistakes should be minimised, but are inevitable to some extent; so how the relevant agencies respond to these situations is important. Their response needs to be efficient, and should give claimants a reasonable benefit of the doubt. In the event of a dispute, assumption of liability should be with the state until the matter is resolved, and there should be an interim payment in place. All systems should be regularly reviewed to ensure that they are performing as efficiently and accurately as possible and continuous improvement in efficiency and accuracy sought.

There is a need for much improved official communication about benefits and benefit changes, not only by DWP, but also by Local Authorities regarding issues such as council tax.

Respondents (in particular lone parents and those in the ESA Work Related Activity Group) reported increased pressure to seek work as a result of changes to benefit conditionality, but no improvement in the support available to them to move into work. Jobcentres were described as places of conflict rather than help, and the Work Programme was often not found to be particularly helpful by those participating in it. Respondents reported feeling either written off or pushed into unsuitable jobs, while their own skills, interests and constraints were given little consideration.

Policy implications: The primary purpose of Jobcentre Plus should be to provide meaningful support rather than enforcing conditionality. At present this support role can be in conflict with its enforcement role. The Work Programme also needs to be reassessed, especially for disabled people.

Respondents' perception of the application process for benefits was that they felt inherently under suspicion. Those who had been refused a benefit, or accused of not trying hard enough to find work, felt insulted by the implication that they were lazy, or lying about the nature of their condition or their attempts to find work. This was upsetting and sometimes damaging to their self-esteem.

Policy implications: The application and appeals process should encourage the building of trust between applicants and officials, and should be founded more on the assumption that the applicant is genuinely in need.

Financial insecurity and its impact on well-being

Around half the sample had experienced a change to their benefits since the previous sweep. In most cases, issues caused by these changes had been resolved and had resulted in only temporary upheaval.

For some respondents, issues reported in earlier interviews remained unresolved, such as ongoing disputes over benefit entitlement and overpayment demands. This long time span compounded the negative impact that the situation had on the financial and emotional well-being of those affected.

Respondents who had moved into work reported increased well-being and a slightly improved financial situation, but continued to face difficulties.

Whether in or out of work, participants found it difficult to meet basic household needs with the income provided by benefits, or by a wage supplemented by tax credits. Even temporary difficulties had significant impacts as they occurred within a context of considerable income insecurity for the individuals concerned.

Policy implications: It should be acknowledged that applicants might have few resources to fall back on, and that even a temporary loss of benefit could have a substantial negative impact. This demonstrates the importance of recourse to crisis funds, and access to support and advice to help manage change and adjust to new situations.

Respondents felt an underlying sense of precariousness and worried about any stability becoming undermined by a job loss, changing benefit criteria, or a change in household circumstances, causing them a great deal of stress and anxiety. There is a great deal of mistrust in the system and fear of future change.

Policy implications: Upheaval in the form of changes to the system should be minimised. Language and policy rhetoric should be carefully considered, as it may affect the degree of fear and uncertainty with which change is viewed by those affected.

Carers reported little change in their situation over the three study sweeps. All articulated a similar sense of feeling devalued, and stuck on a low income, unable to work but only entitled to a small amount of financial support.

Policy implications: The amount payable to carers does not adequately value the work that they do, nor acknowledge their constraints on taking paid employment, and should therefore be increased.

The use of external source of help and advice by respondents

Respondents accessed a range of sources of support, for a number of different reasons. Respondents sought advice and help with paperwork and procedures at certain key junctures, such as applying for benefits, and in the event of wishing to appeal against a decision.

Respondents appreciated the way in which support services could ease the burden of these demanding processes, and help them to understand what was required. Some respondents also had a representative with them in situations such as appeal tribunals, and felt that this increased their chances of a successful outcome.

Advice services are offered by a number of different types of organisation, including general advice services such as local authority or housing association welfare rights services, Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB), and through specialist Third Sector Organisations (TSOs). Of these, local authorities and TSOs were found to have been generally well-informed and helpful. Experiences among our interviewees of the services provided by CAB were more mixed, with some respondents finding the service to be under-resourced and not always of satisfactory quality.

Policy implications: The findings of this study demonstrate a range of situations in which people might seek advice. It also shows that there is no ideal or 'one stop shop' solution; advice needs to come from a range of services. It should be considered how services that are currently perceived as not operating effectively can be improved. This is particularly important for CABs which form a large part of the support infrastructure.

Some sources of support were more trusted than others. Some respondents were afraid to ask for advice in case it triggered some change in the benefits they received. For this reason, more 'official' sources such as Jobcentre Plus or government telephone helplines were not always trusted by respondents. However, trust was not determined solely by the type of source of advice; it also came from a perception of competence and accuracy.

Respondents generally sought advice when prompted to do so by some change or event; they were unlikely to seek proactive advice about entitlements.

Policy implication: As well as providing a reactive service, a comprehensive advice service should have a proactive element - including efforts to raise awareness both of entitlements and sources of help.

Respondents were not always aware of advice services, or of benefit entitlements and ongoing changes to these.

Policy implications: Different ways of advertising services and entitlements should be considered; different media, different types of places and services, public and private venues, etc. Robust referral arrangements with advice services should be in place across the public service landscape. Signposting should also be part of the responsibility of those imposing any changes to benefits.

Respondents' experiences with advice services have suggested some characteristics of good quality advice; namely that it is available quickly and that the information is accurate and complete. Respondents also favoured continuity in terms of having access to the same adviser until their situation was resolved.

Policy implications: These findings can help to identify best practice for those providing advice, and what is important to get right. Advice should be timely and accurate, provided by well-trained and approachable staff, with whom users can have some continuity where this is beneficial to them. This quality element is key to the service being helpful. Not all providers are sufficiently competent and well-resourced to provide this high quality service.

Some respondents chose to access advice services in person, while others appreciated the availability of help that was provided online or over the telephone. Not all forms of help were physically accessible to all. Those with disabilities or those in rural areas could not necessarily access support services in person. Others were unable to access information provided online because they did not have the confidence or IT literacy to access information in this way, or because their disability prevented them from doing so.

Policy implications: Best practice is to provide support in multiple formats - in person, by telephone, on paper and online - in order to reach those who may not be able to access one or more of these formats. Online information can provide a useful source of support, but it cannot replace other delivery modes completely.

Health and social care professionals played a key role in accessing benefits for many respondents, alerting them to potential entitlements, and supporting the application process, in particular through the provision of specialist information. GPs also play an important role in providing and co-ordinating relevant information with regard to disability benefit applications. However, there was some variation in the extent to which respondents reported these professionals to be well-informed and helpful in this regard.

Policy implications: There should be more joined-up practice between health, social care and welfare services. Health and social care professionals need not be experts, but should at least be aware of the kind of support that people might be entitled to, and referral mechanisms between health and social care and advice services should be established. It is also necessary to recognise and support the role of GPs in providing necessary signposting and information to support an application for disability benefits.

Local representatives such as MPs, MSPs and councillors also played an advocacy role for some respondents, in pursuing and escalating issues. However, one respondent reported that their MP had been uninterested in their issue, and another reported some discomfort with approaching an MP who was not from their preferred political party, suggesting some limitations to the use of representatives in this way.

Policy implications: For some people, the ability to raise or escalate issues may not be fully met by local political representatives. Fair and supportive independent advocacy and appeal processes are important.


Email: Alison Stout

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