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

5. Conclusions

  • This chapter presents the key findings from Sweep 3 of the study.
  • It goes on to discuss the implications of these findings for policy, in particular around the way in which claimants could be better supported in navigating issues with the benefits system.

Key findings and policy implications

Issues encountered in dealing with the benefits system

5.1. Problems were identified with the language used on official forms. When completing an application for a benefit, respondents did not always find it obvious what information the question was seeking to elicit, and most had felt the need to seek some clarification on this.

5.2. 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. However, it should be acknowledged that in practice it may be difficult to frame the questions on official forms in a positive way, as entitlement to disability benefits is based on the inability to do certain things for oneself.

Policy implications: Forms should be reviewed by a panel of applicants, in order to test the accessibility of the language, the clarity of the requirements, and the appropriateness of the questions. When determining what information should be sought during the application, the benefit of additional information should be set against the increased strain on the applicant, and in the context of the overall burden of the form. Supporting information should be provided alongside forms, or at least clearly signposted, rather than left to the applicant to obtain for themselves.

5.3. 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. Although the current system ostensibly does so, via its regime of regular independent reviews, policymakers should demonstrate clearly how they have responded to this feedback.

Consideration also needs to be given to the suitability of polar questions in capturing the effects of fluctuating conditions. Entitlement to a disability benefit should not be predicated on the applicant being able to quantify a fluctuating condition, or attempt to predict its future course; this is simply not possible in some cases. Rather, the impact of the disruption and uncertainty created by a fluctuating condition should itself be taken into account as a limiting factor

5.4. The process of being assessed for disability benefits was stressful for respondents; even those who had been successful found the process arduous. Respondents also emphasised the futility of repeat assessments for unchanging conditions, and could not understand why they were subjected repeatedly to these stressful situations when their prognosis was that they 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.

5.5. 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 around issues such as council tax. Those who will be affected by changes should receive clearer information about what will happen, and when, during the transition to a new benefit. Communication of decisions should be clear and unambiguous.

5.6. Respondents (in particular lone parents and those in the ESA WRAG) 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 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 is in conflict with its enforcement role. The Work Programme also needs to be reassessed, especially for disabled people.

5.7. Those applying for benefits were often dealing with a number of other issues at the same time, such as poor health or disability, living on a low income, relationship breakdown, bereavement and other stressors. These compromised their ability to engage successfully with the process.

5.8. 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 damaging to their self-esteem.

5.9. Changing benefit criteria, or intensified requirements upon benefit claimants, have represented a threat to many respondents' incomes, and this has caused a great deal of stress and anxiety. There is a great deal of mistrust in the system and fear of future change.

Policy implications: The application and appeals process should be founded on the assumption that the applicant is genuinely in need, and potentially experiencing a range of life stressors that might constrain their ability to tackle the application process. It should be acknowledged that applicants might have few resources to fall back on, and that even temporary loss of benefit could have a substantial negative impact.

Financial insecurity and its impact on well-being

5.10. Around half the sample had experienced a change to their benefits since the previous sweep. These had been triggered mainly by moving onto new benefits, changes in circumstances, and errors by officials. In most cases, issues caused by these changes had been resolved and had caused only temporary upheaval, although they occurred within a context of considerable income insecurity for the individuals concerned.

5.11. Some respondents who had reported problems in previous interviews, such as having to appeal a decision, had noted at the time the considerable impact that these events were having on their financial and wider well-being. By the time of the third sweep, these issues remained unresolved for a few respondents, and this long time span compounded the negative impact that the situation had on their financial and emotional well-being of those affected. Those who had managed to positively resolve their issues reported that their situations had largely settled down.

5.12. Respondents who had moved into work reported an improved financial situation, but for many even being in work is a difficult and precarious situation. 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 occurred within a context of considerable income insecurity for the individuals concerned.

Policy implications: This demonstrates the importance of recourse to crisis funds, and access to support and advice to help manage change and adjust to new situations.

5.13. Respondents felt an underlying sense of precariousness and worried about any equilibrium becoming undermined by a job loss, changing benefit criteria, or 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 with which change is viewed by those affected.

5.14. 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 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

5.15. Respondents accessed a range of sources of support, for a number of different reasons. No one type of support was identified as the 'optimal' source; what respondents used depended on what their issue was, what was available to them, and what they felt comfortable using. However, some types were perceived as more useful than others. Table 5.1 summarises the key features of the different types of support.

5.16. Respondents sought advice and help with paperwork and procedures at certain key junctures in their interactions with the benefit system; when applying for benefits, and in the event of wishing to appeal against a decision. Respondents appreciated the way in which support could ease the burden of these demanding processes. They also felt that advice services acted as an interpreter in some ways, translating the language of the benefits system and helping them to understand what was required of them. Some respondents were also able to have a representative with them in situations such as appeal tribunals, thus providing them with both practical and moral support in situations that they found intimidating. They felt that this increased their chances of a successful outcome.

Table 5.1: Key features of different types of support

Type of support

Type of issue approached with by respondents

Advantages (as identified by respondents)

Disadvantages/barriers (as identified by respondents)

Government helplines (e.g. DWP, local authority)

Query regarding a particular issue, clarification of communications

Adept at answering specific and relatively straightforward enquiries

Telephone operators can be perceived as rude and unfriendly.

Not always able to help with more complex or general problems

Expensive and time consuming

MP, MSP or councillor

Support when something has already been rejected, other avenues generally exhausted ('last resort')

Representative can escalate issues

Can add weight to dealings with government agencies.

Representative may not be interested, or may not be from their preferred political party.

General advice services (e.g. Local Authority welfare rights, Housing Association, CAB, other local advice initiatives)

Support with applications and appeals

Support can be very good - especially Local Authority and Housing Association welfare rights teams

Support from organisations can be patchy - some received useful assistance, others noted poor quality advice or long waiting lists.

Health and social care services (e.g. GP, support worker, home carer)

Ongoing, from letting service users know about entitlements to helping them through the applications process (depending on role - e.g. GPs supply medical information, support workers can help with forms)

Useful and important point of contact with services. Can be a source of ongoing support

Support can be patchy e.g. GPs do not always have the necessary time or expertise to help.

Third sector organisations (e.g. organisations supporting people in specific circumstances - parents, those with specific conditions/disabilities or ill/disabled people more generally)

Source of advice and support with claiming process, and sometimes more specialist help (TSOs can tailor this to their client group's needs)

Proactive and well informed organisations can pass on knowledge via service delivery

Possibility of meeting others in a similar situation (depending on service provided)

Not knowing they exist

Finite scope to help

Online information (various sources - UK and local government websites, Third Sector organisations)

Finding out about entitlements and supporting information when filling in forms

Some respondents prefer to get information in this way

Information of varying quality and depth

IT barriers

Peer networks (in person or online)

Wanting to hear about experiences of those in a similar situation (benefits related or otherwise)

People do share information - potential free source of knowledge

Emotional support through hearing about similar experiences

Some find it difficult to share personal experiences

Hearing others' experiences can add to anxiety

Relies on people being able to maintain groups

Not knowing groups exist

Family and friends

Emotional support

Provides emotional support

Family and friends may not be knowledgeable about benefits issues, and in some cases not sympathetic

Some find it difficult to discuss personal issues with family

5.17. 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 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.

5.18. 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 a 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.

Policy implications: It is difficult - perhaps impossible - for services to be both an enforcement agency and a source of advice, from the point of view of approachability and gaining the trust of service users.

5.19. 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 do not have to 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. Lessons could be learned from the 'Healthier Wealthier Children' project - a partnership approach between health, local government and the voluntary sector to addressing child poverty across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.[11]

It is also necessary to recognise and support the role of GPs in providing necessary information to support an application for disability benefits.

5.20. Advocacy played an important role for some of those seeking to challenge a decision. Respondents who had received representation at an appeal, from a local authority welfare rights officer or an advocate from a TSO, were grateful for this, and felt that it contributed to a successful outcome. 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: All those experiencing issues with benefits should have access to appropriate advocacy services if they need them. For some people, the ability to raise or escalate issues may not be fully met by local political representatives. Fair and supportive independent appeal and advocacy processes are important.

5.21. Respondents generally sought advice when prompted to do so by some change or event; they were unlikely to seek proactive advice about entitlements. Some respondents had been reluctant to seek advice about entitlements due to scepticism that they would be entitled to anything, although in some cases they may simply have been unaware that they were.

Policy implications: 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.

5.22. Respondents were not always aware of advice services, or of entitlements more generally. This was especially the case around ongoing changes to the benefits system; in particular the more subtle but nonetheless important changes, such as the increase in the waiting time for JSA from three to seven days.

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 in place across the public service landscape. Signposting should also be part of the responsibility of those imposing the changes.

5.23. 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; 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 very 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 helpful and appropriate to the situation. 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.

5.24. Some respondents chose to access advice services in person, while others appreciated the availability of help 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.

The next stage of the study

5.25. The study will continue to interview participants for another three sweeps. Resampling will be used to correct sample attrition; this will be concentrated amongst participants with the characteristics that have seen the greatest degree of attrition. The next round of interviews (Sweep 4) will cover the following topics:

  • The ongoing impact of welfare reforms (and associated uncertainty) that have already affected participants, and whether participants have been affected by any changes to the welfare system that have occurred, or started to affect them, since the previous sweep;
  • The potential effects of any announced policy changes following the UK General Election on 7 May 2015;
  • Any changes in household composition or tenure;
  • Any changes in the employment status of the participant or other household members, and changes to the sources or amount of household income;
  • The physical and mental/emotional wellbeing of the participant and other household members, and whether this is different to the previous sweep.


Email: Alison Stout

Back to top