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.

This document is part of a collection

3. The Impact Of Welfare Reform

  • Chapter 3 presents the findings from the third sweep of data collection on the short and longer term impacts of welfare reform on the study participants.
  • The chapter presents changes since the previous wave of interviews, the ongoing impact of changes reported in earlier interviews, and attitudes towards anticipated changes.
  • Around half of the sample had experienced some change to their benefits since the previous sweep.
  • Some respondents reported a more stable financial position relative to the one they had reported at previous interviews. However, it remained the case for most that it was difficult to meet basic needs on benefits or low wages, and many felt their situation to be precarious and uncertain.
  • The impact of change on respondents has been emotional as well as financial. This negative impact on well-being was due in part to financial instability, but also to negative or upsetting interactions with the system in the course of applying for or claiming benefits.
  • Carers have reported little change in their situation throughout the study. They feel stuck on low incomes, unable to work but only entitled to a small amount of financial support.
  • There was considerable trepidation about the move to PIP. Concerns were raised about the adequacy of the assessment process, and the perceived tightening of criteria relative to DLA.
  • There was also a widespread expectation and fear of more change to the system in general.

3.1. This chapter considers the immediate and ongoing impact on participants of benefit changes. It also considers expected future changes, their predicted impacts, and attitudes towards them.

The immediate impact of change

3.2. Fourteen respondents had experienced no change to their benefits at since their previous interview.

3.3. Three respondents reported a temporary change, but were now receiving the same benefits as previously. Of these, one change had been precipitated by a temporary move into employment but the other two were a result of administrative errors. One respondent had had their ESA temporarily suspended due to an error by DWP (who wrongly identified the money the respondent received for their care package as personal savings); and one respondent's Housing Benefit had been temporarily stopped due to an administrative error by their local authority (who had changed the format of the respondent's address in their records and then stopped payments due to a 'change of address').

3.4. Eleven respondents were receiving a different level of benefits than they had at the previous interview. The reasons for these changes were:

  • Three respondents had experienced a change in their economic status: from work to JSA; from JSA to work and tax credits; and from ESA to a student bursary.
  • Four respondents had moved from Incapacity Benefit to ESA, capturing the tail end of this migration process. None had needed a face to face Work Capability Assessment (WCA), although in two cases this was as a result of challenging an initial decision that one would be necessary.
  • Two respondents had had a pending issue from a previous sweep resolved or partly resolved: one was now receiving the Severe Disability Premium they had initially not been awarded when they were placed on ESA; and one respondent whose ESA had been stopped was now getting National Insurance credits, but was still engaged in an appeal to claim ESA payments.
  • Two respondents had had minor adjustments to their tax credits, reflecting the lag between a previous income change and the annual change in tax credits in July.

The financial impact of change

3.5. In most cases the financial impact of these changes was not severe. In some cases, the change had no impact overall. Where there was a negative effect, this was generally experienced in the transition period between two situations, and had been resolved by the time of the interview. Some respondents had seen an improvement in their situation, for example because their income had increased by moving into work, or being awarded a new benefit. However, even those who felt comparatively better off still did not necessarily feel financially secure:

"We're actually doing all right, don't get me wrong we're still struggling to some extent, but we're a lot better than we were last time."

3.6. Those respondents experiencing small changes to tax credits did not report any major impact on their household finances, and those who had experienced temporary changes to their benefits had experienced some financial stress at the time, but ultimately weathered these incidents fairly well, sometimes with some help from family members.

3.7. The transition from Incapacity Benefit to ESA had resulted in those affected receiving effectively the same income as before. The migration itself was not straightforward in every case, with respect to the necessary form filling and information gathering, but once awarded the benefit, the actual transition was relatively smooth in most cases. However, in one case it was poorly communicated and did cause problems, when an award letter was not sent until several weeks after the migration had taken place:

"We weren't told that ESA had been successful, we didn't know what was happening at all… then all of a sudden we went and there was no money in our bank account, so we phoned them and asked why there was no money in our account… and they said the Incapacity Benefit claim was closed... We were given a number to phone for some centre, who were a bit snooty and cheeky about it, and they said you should have received a letter... but the first we knew about it was when there was no money in the account."

3.8. A respondent who had moved from employment back onto JSA also had some issues around this transition. They had been unaware of the seven-day delay in being able to claim JSA; fortunately they made their claim shortly after being paid, and had enough money to manage on during this period. They also found their local authority slow to react to being notified of the change in circumstances and restarting Housing Benefit. Overall the respondent felt that their situation was more precarious as a result of being back on JSA, and that they were only managing financially because they were also working within the permitted limits.

The impact of change on well-being

3.9. Interruptions, delays and changes to benefits did not only have a financial impact on some respondents, but also an emotional impact. One respondent had their ESA payments stopped when the DWP wrongly interpreted the direct payment for their care package as personal savings. The respondent's payments were stopped for two months while an investigation was carried out. Although the respondent's family was able to help them survive this period financially, the emotional impact of the situation was quite severe; they became depressed, and their family were concerned about their emotional state during this time:

"I felt like I was a criminal, I was really depressed for a while, and really paranoid, the fact that they had looked into my bank accounts and I didn't even know, I thought well what else are they doing, am I [under surveillance]? I'm ok now, but at the time I was just really stressed, and I didn't deal with it very well, and I was just hating my disability, and hating the fact that I was on benefits."

3.10. Another respondent described the previous six months as the most stressful in a long time. During this time they were co-ordinating their spouse's transition from Incapacity Benefit to ESA. Not only did this not go smoothly, it occurred within a context of other issues that compounded the pressure of the situation. The household struggled to pay utility bills over the winter, and did not receive the warm homes payment as they had in previous years; their application for this payment had been unsuccessful, for reasons that they did not understand. The respondent was also hospitalised during this time, with symptoms that they have been advised may have been triggered by stress. As a result they did not feel able to challenge over the warm homes payment:

"We got a letter to say we hadn't provided enough information so we didn't qualify. So that was a bit of a blow, considering the weather we've had, and it's prepayment meters, so it was a continual struggle over winter. So I don't know why it didn't qualify, but it didn't, and we just weren't in a place physically to challenge, so it's just been left. [If I'd been well] I'd have pushed it, but I was just so worn down with the whole situation, and there were other things that were more pressing, so it just didn't happen."

3.11. Even some respondents whose situations had largely settled down expressed some continuing anger at what they had been through:

"It took less than five minutes [at appeal] for that decision to overturn, and it's wasted nearly five grand of taxpayers' money, just for me to be subjected to that for nine months, worrying. It was affecting my mental health. And I can't understand why if you're appealing, why should you be subjected to work focused interviews? It's as if they don't want to believe."

The ongoing impact of change

3.12. This section looks across the data collected over the three sweeps to date (representing a little over a year in time), to establish what has emerged so far about the longer term impact of benefit changes.

Those claiming or attempting to claim disability benefits

3.13. Those who had been placed in the Support Group for ESA, without having to challenge or appeal this, had not experienced a great deal of change in their material circumstances over time as a result of the transition from Incapacity Benefit to ESA. Of the eighteen respondents in the sample with a health condition or disability, seven could be said to fall into this category. Although some found the reassessment process itself demanding, the transition ultimately occurred without issue, and in many cases without the need for a face to face WCA.

3.14. For a further five respondents, the process of moving from Incapacity Benefit to ESA was more fraught; these respondents were initially placed in the WRAG, but successfully appealed and were placed in the Support Group. Things had now largely settled down for this group, although one respondent subsequently had their benefit temporarily suspended due to an error by the DWP, demonstrating the fragility of any equilibrium that is achieved by those dependent on this source of income. The impact of this instability on respondents' emotional well-being has been notable, with reported levels of well-being strongly linked with the status of their benefit claim.

3.15. The remaining six respondents with a health condition or disability were dealing with unresolved issues that had been present since the first interview in late 2013 or early 2014, and in some cases these had already run for several weeks or even months by this point. This group encompassed a variety of situations. For example one respondent was awaiting a second-tier DLA tribunal, having been awaiting a first-tier tribunal at the first interview, which they subsequently failed. Another respondent had an ongoing challenge to a tax credit repayment demand, which by the third sweep was further compounded by a PIP appeal. The respondent argued that this long time frame compounded the stress of the situation, which in turn exacerbated their condition:

"If you are someone who has a disability of this kind, you can't be waiting months and months to hear whether you're going to get a little bit of money, and in the process be stressed out which makes your condition worse."

3.16. There has been little evidence that disabled respondents felt that changes to the welfare system have been beneficial to them. The WCA was intended to shift the focus of the assessment process from incapacity to capability; rather than assume that a person cannot work because they have a disability or health condition, it assesses the extent to which an individual could be considered capable of work (Harrington, 2010). This rhetoric was one of empowering disabled people by not assuming they are incapable of work. However, evidence from this sweep, as well as the previous two sweeps, has suggested that this change in emphasis has not been received in such a positive light by the study respondents. Most of those who had been declared fit for work or placed in the WRAG did not feel empowered by the decision; they felt that it had happened due to a failure of the WCA descriptors to capture the way in which their condition prevented them from working, or due to the improper application of these criteria by assessors and decision makers. They did not feel they were being supported into employment, but rather that they were being pushed off benefits.

3.17. Furthermore, the process of applying for ESA still required applicants to present themselves in terms of what they could not do. Respondents commented on the difficulty of having to be so negative about themselves on paper; presenting their own limitations in such a stark way undermined their attempts to stay positive and see themselves as capable:

"You feel like you're making it sound like you can't do anything, whereas you can do a lot, and it makes you feel like you're going backwards in terms of ability… I felt like I can't do anything on paper! And [advocacy worker] would say yes you can, but you just need to be realistic. You feel like, especially if you're being reassessed all the time, it kind of makes you feel like you can't do things, it's constant."

3.18. Overall, respondents perceived little positive impact of the new system relative to the one it replaced, and the upheaval and uncertainty involved in moving between the two had been a source of stress, as this and previous reports in this study have made clear. There was also a strong sense among those with permanent conditions that regular reassessment was pointless; they could not perceive any benefits to putting repeated strain on people in this way.

3.19. These findings reflect those of the most recent independent review of the WCA (Litchfield, 2014). The review noted that attitudes among disabled people towards the assessment process have not softened over time; they have not become used to the new system, nor do they believe that it is being improved.

3.20. Respondents with a disability who did want to work did not necessarily feel that being placed in the WRAG was inappropriate for them. However, there was little evidence that recent innovations such as work-focussed interviews for those in the WRAG, or participation in the Work Programme, did anything to help them move closer to work. For those who did not feel capable of work, these obligations were a source of stress without any advantage.

Those with caring responsibilities

3.21. For the lone and low income parents in the study, the overriding picture seemed to be that there are two possible states - work or benefits - both of which are precarious and leave the household struggling on a low income. Previous reports in this study have described respondents' fear of the JSA regime, and their relief at escaping it. However, the stress and guilt of being unemployed had been replaced by stress and guilt over their work and childcare arrangements:

"[Daughter] comes back from school about quarter to 4, I get in about half 5, so she's in herself, but she can do that now... My mum's only a phone call away and I've got my neighbour upstairs, I just have to do it… the way I look at it you feel guilty either way, if you don't work you feel guilty about not working cause you don't give them enough money, and if you do work you don't get to spend enough time with them, and you are neglecting them slightly by leaving them in by themselves, so you can't win. So it's just what I have to do."

"[Daily breakfast and after school club] is not our preferred option, but it's the only way we can make things work shift wise… It's not good… [daughter's] at school from 8 in the morning till 5 at night, which is not her preferred choice… [after school club] is too noisy, there's nowhere she can do her homework, which seems crazy to me."

3.22. Moving into work had generally resulted in a slightly stronger financial position for lone or low income parents. However, although respondents reported managing better, they still experienced some financial difficulty, and remained in a precarious situation:

"I'm finding it tight, and I'm having to really juggle things… I'm so aware that it's a temporary contract and I can't just dish out money."

"One of us getting sick, that would just put the complete kibosh on [our arrangements]."

3.23. These findings suggest that families are feeling the effects of the substantial income losses incurred as a result of welfare reform, such as the changes to Housing Benefit rates and freezing or limited uprating of benefits. Other research has estimated the average loss due to these policies at £1400 p.a. for a couple with children, and £1800 p.a. for a lone parent, once all the reforms are in place (Beatty and Fothergill, 2015).

3.24. The situation for carers by the third sweep was essentially unchanged from the first sweep; all were experiencing the ongoing stress of carrying out caring responsibilities and living on a low income. Although some felt that their local authority had in recent years been making more of an effort to consider the needs of carers, there was a unanimous sense that Carers Allowance itself undervalues carers and the work they do. Respondents felt trapped on the low income provided by Carers Allowance, unable to increase their income through employment, because their care work is not compatible with employment and is a full-time job itself, but not eligible for any further assistance. One respondent caring for a disabled child had recently been obliged to attend a Work-Focused Interview at the job centre, which they felt was a waste of time:

"Let them get up during the night and all the rest of it and barely have a night's sleep, and see if they don't think that's an actual job… We've got it into a routine now and it works, but if [husband] went back to work or I went back to work, I don't know how it would work. I've been called in to have these back to work meetings and the woman I got last time said I don't know why we're even reviewing you… I said you find me a job that can work around [daughter's needs], and she kind of laughed… Fair enough I know it's my responsibility to look after my child, but it's hard going, and when you've got the pressures of the unemployment calling you in, and I've got to go thirty odd miles there and back, and then hospital appointments back and forth, and then you've got the added stress of being called into stupid meetings like that… I think for the work we do, we deserve that sixty pounds."

Expectations of, and attitudes towards, future change

3.25. Almost all participants expected some kind of change to their benefits over the coming year, from specific events such as ESA reassessments, to longer term upcoming changes such as PIP and Universal Credit, to more abstract beliefs that some kind of change was likely or inevitable.

3.26. By the third sweep of interviews, some participants had already experienced their first ESA reassessment. Those who had previously been placed in the Support Group on the first attempt had managed to do so again. Of those who had previously appealed in order to be placed in the Support Group, one had been re-placed in this group without issue, while four had not yet been reassessed. Two respondents mentioned that they were expecting a reassessment in the near future. Both expressed some concern about the new Mandatory Reconsideration procedure, and the prospect of being without money, or having to apply for JSA during this time. Their previous experience of having to appeal, and their fear of having their benefit stopped if they had to appeal, meant that they viewed the prospect of reassessment with some trepidation:

"I'm due for a [ESA] review in September…I'm a bit nervous, I feel my mental health starting to go a bit down when I think about it… I'm a bit concerned as well, the next time if I have to appeal, policies have changed and if you appeal they stop your money… so that's one of my worries as well, if I appeal, they might stop my money."

3.27. Respondents who were receiving DLA were mostly aware that they would be reassessed for PIP, but had not been given any specific notification of when this would happen. Two respondents had already started the application process for PIP, having previously been rejected for or not claimed DLA. One respondent had just recently applied and was awaiting an assessment. They felt that many of the criteria were relevant to their situation, more so than had been the case with DLA, and so was relatively hopeful that it would be awarded. The other respondent who had applied for PIP had already been rejected at the assessment, and was awaiting an appeal. They had found the process difficult to reconcile with the way that their condition affected them, and were not optimistic about a successful outcome:

"They kept asking me questions like 'on average' and 'what percentage of the time do you feel like that', and I kept saying I can't, it doesn't work that way… She has had absolutely no training in people with mental health problems. I knew the system was going to be bad, I knew it didn't really work properly for people with mental health problems. I didn't realise it was going to be as awful as it was. The whole process made me more depressed. They dragged it out, did the mandatory reconsideration, dragged it out, we've now got the appeal in a few weeks… I haven't even been able to look at [the appeal paperwork] because it's stressing me out so much, but I have to do it because it's in 3 weeks' time … At the moment I doubt highly that I'm going to get it."

3.28. Among those waiting to hear about a PIP reassessment, attitudes towards the change varied. Two respondents said they were relatively confident that their need for support would be recognised by the new system, but others could not estimate their chances of a successful application, or expressed doubt about whether it would be awarded.

3.29. Two main types of concern about PIP were identified. The first was about the ability of a brief face to face assessment to capture the impact of fluctuating or hidden disabilities. One respondent hoped that sending considerable amounts of medical evidence would obviate the need for an assessment, as it was not clear to them what additional information could usefully be gathered from what they were expecting to be a brief interview. Another respondent was concerned that the process was not going to capture the reality of their son's condition:

"Unless they're very good assessors they're not going to understand [son's] problems... It's very difficult because you're keen for his benefit not to over-exaggerate it, and we don't, in fact if anything sometimes we understate it. But you really have to live with him, because it's little things like [his strange behaviours]."

3.30. The second type of concern was around the PIP criteria themselves. Respondents expressed some concern because they had heard that these criteria were more strict than for DLA, and that this might result in losing their entitlement:

"I know the criteria is way harder under PIP than it was under DLA… I have a fluctuating condition, I have good days and bad days, so we'll see."

"DLA recognises my disability with visual impairment, because campaigners pressured [the previous government] to give visually impaired people high mobility, and that's still in place with the DLA, but with PIP it's withdrawn… That's my fear about PIP, that I'm going to lose some of the descriptors."

"I don't really know much about the PIP thing, except that the criteria seem to have been, the distance that you can walk has been tightened up, basically if you can stagger a step or something, and that's worrying me. And I'm thinking what on earth is the point of reassessing me? …In theory I could walk about… but I don't know where I'm going, I could fall off kerbs, walk into people, all sorts of things, but I've a feeling that PIP won't take that into account."

3.31. These concerns expressed by respondents about PIP are similar to those raised in the recent independent review of PIP (Gray, 2014). The review identified concerns on the part of claimants and their representatives that the impact of fluctuating and mental health conditions may not be appropriately addressed, and questioned the potential effectiveness and transparency of the assessment process.

3.32. The loss of this benefit as a result of the transition to PIP potentially had a considerable financial and practical impact on respondents. Some relied on their DLA payments to cover the cost of household bills, or to enable them to get around and manage on a day to day basis:

"You've got to prepare for the worst case scenario, and for me that would be the worst case, if they took away my DLA completely, I would be completely snookered, financially and everything."

"[PIP] is a big worry, because we're just covering the basics at the moment, so for any change or reduction there's a big anxiety."

"Losing the car is the main concern because that would be a major problem."

3.33. One respondent also noted that the delay in the roll-out of PIP was itself a source of stress:

"It's always in the back of your mind that it's coming, and it's going to have to be dealt with. And the constant moving, I wish when they said they were doing it two years ago they just got on with it, rather than drag it out and keep moving it and moving it… who the hell knows when it's coming? But it's been a constant hassle for people all this time. Very unfair."

3.34. Although respondents' concerns about losing their DLA entitlement were hypothetical, and they may ultimately be awarded PIP, the UK Government's own estimates are that the projected total PIP caseload will be 500,000 lower than it would have been with DLA, a fall of around twenty per cent (Department for Work and Pensions, 2012b). This therefore implies that, if successful, the replacement of DLA with PIP will result in a loss of entitlement for some claimants. It is estimated that 120,000 working-age individuals in Scotland will be adversely affected by changes to DLA, with an average loss per affected individual once PIP has been implemented of £2600 p.a. (Beatty and Fothergill, 2015).

3.35. Regardless of whether they were expecting specific changes, there was a sense among respondents of change more generally being inevitable. Respondents' experiences of welfare reform over the previous few years, in conjunction with ongoing political rhetoric about continuing change, meant that changes to benefits was something that was expected in the abstract as well as specifically. This made it difficult for those reliant on benefits to plan or to relax:

"You can't say, well, if I do this I'll be ok for the next year, you cannot know that, because things are changing so often, which makes it hard to relax."

3.36. Respondents' previous experiences made them nervous about upcoming changes, and in some cases even reluctant to challenge decisions or apply for other benefits they might be entitled to. One respondent, who had previously had to appeal a rejection for ESA, felt extremely cynical about PIP, partly as a result of these experiences, and also what they had heard about others' experiences. Three respondents mentioned that they had not applied for something they might be entitled to, despite struggling financially, out of fear that they could end up with less. They preferred to struggle on a known amount rather than take this risk.

3.37. This lack of trust in the continuity of the system, and fear about the future, could be said to be one of the most enduring impacts of welfare reform for respondents.


Email: Alison Stout

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