The aim of this study was to explore the impact of ongoing welfare changes on a range of working age households in Scotland. The study consisted of four interview sweeps over a three year period (2013-16), and was carried out by the Employment Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University and the University of Stirling. This report presents the findings from the final sweep of the study, and reflects on the study findings as a whole.
The study used a longitudinal qualitative methodology to explore participants' perspectives on how welfare reform affected them, and to follow their experiences over time. The study drew on the real life experiences of those in receipt of working age 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, twenty-eight in Sweep 3, and twenty-four in Sweep 4. The sample design sought to represent the experiences of working age 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 4 sought to establish any changes in participants' circumstances since the previous sweep. Participants were also asked to reflect on how their situation had changed since the first interview around three years earlier, and on how they felt benefits issues could be handled differently in the future.
The policy implications of the findings from Sweep 4 and across the study are grouped together under two main headings: mitigating actions that the Scottish Government could take to reduce the impact of welfare reforms that sit outside its jurisdiction; and issues to consider in the design and implementation of new devolved benefits. It should be noted that these recommendations are not definitive suggestions, but they reflect the experiences of the participants in this study.
Improving the implementation of existing policies
Information, advice and support
The findings of this study show that those affected by welfare reform are not always aware of how changes to benefits will affect them, and that there are a range of situations in which people might seek advice. It also shows that there is no ideal or 'one stop shop' solution; support and advice need to come from a range of services.
Policy implications: Efforts should be made to raise awareness, via a range of media, of entitlements to different benefits. There should also be a centralised opportunity to check all entitlements.
It might be helpful if those potentially affected by changes were able to find out how proposed changes might affect them personally, and also to know about what support is available to them if they were to be negatively affected.
Key third party information and advice agencies play an important role across a range of benefits issues and should continue to be supported by the Scottish Government.
Frontline health and social care services could play a role in supporting benefit recipients to access support. Referral mechanisms between such frontline services, and advice services, should be developed.
Families with children
Childcare costs posed an issue for some participants, due to them no longer receiving a contribution if both partners were not working over 16 hours per week, or having to pay the 30% contribution towards childcare, which may represent a substantial proportion of the household's weekly income. Throughout the study, the need to increase the amount of childcare that parents can access cheaply or free of charge has been stressed. This could make a considerable difference to how low income families cope with intensified work requirements, and cuts to their financial support, as a result of welfare reform.
Policy implications: Plans to extend free childcare provision are welcome, although a particular gap still needs to be addressed; that is to improve provision outside standard hours, including pre- and after- school and holiday care.
An issue was identified around the loss of entitlement to certain forms of assistance (e.g. Warm Homes Discount, free school meals) after a small increase in income, with the net result of a loss for families already struggling to get by on a low income. Some families may actually be worse off in work for this reason.
Policy implications: Family circumstances should be reviewed holistically before entitlements are removed. The criteria for receiving these should be reviewed, particularly in relation to whether they have a perverse impact on work incentives.
It could be beneficial to low income families for policy makers to consider more broadly the costs incurred by families with children - such as school uniform, and other costs associated with attending school - and ways to offset these, in order to leave more room in the family budget.
Participants caring for disabled children and adults have themselves remained relatively unaffected by welfare reform, but they have played a key role in managing the benefit changes of those they care for.
Policy implications: The devolution of Carers Allowance to the Scottish Government provides an opportunity to ease the financial strain on carers, by considering increasing the level at which it is paid.
The Scottish Government should consider the needs of those caring for more than one person, perhaps offering help with their transport costs.
The considerable dislike and distrust that participants have developed of the benefits system is in part a result of the UK Government and media rhetoric around the delivery of welfare reform. The language used has made them feel stigmatised, and fearful that they will lose their entitlements, and this has contributed to the stress they have experienced as a result of welfare reform. Participants have also reported feeling stigmatised by some of the officials they deal with in the process of claiming benefits.
Policy implications: Language and tone matters. 'Talking tough' on welfare reform instils fear and distrust. The Scottish Government should seek to use terms and statements that help foster good relations between the system and claimants, and do not stigmatise those receiving benefits.
Stigmatising messages from the media need to be countered by public education campaigns about those on benefits and of the true (limited) nature of benefit fraud.
It is important that those in client facing roles in the benefits system deliver services in a non-prejudiced way.
The findings of this study suggest that, according to the views of participants, stronger conditionality is unlikely to get more people into work. However, there are a number of interventions that can help, by addressing barriers to work, in the areas of education, skills, employability services, childcare, and health.
There is a gap between being deemed 'fit-to-work', or undertake work related activity, and the opportunities available in the labour market. Participants with less severe or fluctuating conditions have often found themselves trapped or moving between different states; into and out of work, and/or between ESA and JSA.
Policy implications: This gap could be partly bridged with better, more targeted training and employability support for those with mental and/or physical health conditions and disabilities.
Issues in benefits system design
Reducing unnecessary pressure and stress
Many participants experienced a range of life stressors that constrained their ability to tackle the process of applying for benefits, and had few resources to fall back on, which meant that even temporary delay or loss of benefit could have a substantial negative impact. The length and repetitiveness of forms, and the amount of information required, was also cited as being burdensome. The devolution of the Personal Independence Payment ( PIP) provides an opportunity for the Scottish Government to implement an application process that imposes less of a strain on claimants.
Policy implications: The application and appeals process should be founded on the initial assumption that the applicant is genuinely in need, and take into account the potential complexity of their situation.
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.
Life or long-term awards could be considered for those whose conditions are permanent, and some may not need to go through an assessment at all if their needs are clear cut. Repeat assessments could be limited only to those whose condition is expected to improve.
Building in feedback from clients
Participants did not find the process of claiming benefits very user friendly. They appreciated being listened to about their needs, and wanted to be involved in the design process of any future changes to the system.
Policy implications: Reflexivity and responsiveness to feedback from claimants regarding the appropriateness of the application process and assessment criteria should be built into the welfare benefit system.
The Scottish Government could consider opportunities for some form of co-production in the development and implementation of a devolved PIP.
Application 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. Policymakers should demonstrate clearly how they have responded to feedback.
User experience should be embedded in the targets that providers are expected to meet. The system should be evaluated (among other things) on whether claimants feel they are being treated fairly, and with dignity. Claimants should have the opportunity to provide feedback on their experiences, either online, by phone, or in person.
Improving client assessment
Participants who considered themselves to have fluctuating conditions or 'hidden' disabilities felt that the assessment process for disability benefits did not adequately capture the impact of these on their lives. They found it difficult to quantify or predict the effect of a fluctuating condition in the straightforward way required by the polar questions in the assessment.
Policy implications: The suitability of polar questions in particular needs to be reviewed. The impact of the disruption and uncertainty created by a fluctuating condition could itself be taken into account as a limiting factor.
Improving the way in which benefits are administered
Participants often found official communication about benefits and benefit changes - not only by DWP, but also by Local Authorities - to be confusing and poorly or negatively worded.
Policy implications: Those who will be affected by changes need to receive clearer information about what will happen, and when. Communication of decisions should be clear and unambiguous.
A number of participants had been caused problems not (or not solely) by the welfare changes themselves, but due to errors and delays on the part of the agencies responsible for their claims.
Policy implications: How the relevant agencies respond to mistakes is important; they should be efficient, and should give claimants a reasonable benefit of the doubt. In the event of a loss or delay of a benefit, it is important that claimants have recourse to a well-funded crisis support service that can respond quickly to financial emergencies.
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