- This chapter presents the key findings from sweep 4 of the study, and their implications for policy, as well as policy implications from across the study.
- Based on the findings of the study to date, there are a
number of steps that could be taken to mitigate the impact of
reserved welfare reforms:
Increased access to free or cheap childcare, to help parents cope with intensified work requirements and cuts to family support.
Improved support for carers: financial support, such as help with transport costs; practical support, such as advice about benefits changes; and emotional support.
Improved targeted employability support to help those expected to seek work move closer to the labour market.
Comprehensively available advice services to offer both practical (information) and emotional support. It could also be made easier for people to check their entitlements and find out about how proposed changes would specifically affect them.
- There are also a number of issues to consider in designing
and implementing the benefits that are expected to be devolved to
the Scottish Government as part of the Scotland Bill 2015-2016:
Consider the overall impact of the assessment process across a number of benefits that a person may be claiming, and the stress it can cause.
More or better use could be made in the process of medical supporting evidence, and previous benefit applications.
Consider the possibility of lifetime and/or automatic awards for those with serious and/or permanent conditions.
Improve the assessment process to better capture the impact of invisible and fluctuating conditions.
Ensure that the language used to communicate with claimants is clear and non-stigmatising.
- In summary, based on the experiences of the participants in
this study, policy areas where improvements should be considered
Improving the implementation of existing policies around information, advice and support, caring and childcare, stigmatisation, and employment support.
Issues in benefits system design; reducing unnecessary pressure and stress, building in feedback from clients, improving client assessment, and improving the way in which benefits are administered.
This chapter presents the key findings from sweep 4 of the study, and their implications for policy, based on the experiences of our participants. It then sets out the recommendations from across the study to date, under a number of key headings.
Sweep 4: Conclusions and policy implications
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.
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.
Childcare costs have posed an issue for some participants, whether this is due to 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.
Increase the amount of childcare that parents can access cheaply or free of charge, including pre- and after- school and holiday care.
Carer's Allowance has been untouched by welfare reform, but its low level means that participants who are carers have experienced financial hardship.
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. This does not necessarily imply awarding multiple allowances, but perhaps offering help with their transport costs.
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.
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.
Participants facing the prospect of being assessed for PIP have already been subject to many challenges as a result of welfare reform, and as a result of the impact of their condition generally. They are approaching the assessment with some trepidation.
The devolution of this benefit provides an opportunity for the Scottish Government to implement a scheme that could better meet claimants' needs, and impose less of a burden on them.
User experience could be embedded in the targets that providers are expected to meet. The system could be evaluated (among other things) on whether claimants feel they are being treated fairly, and with dignity.
In designing the assessment process, the impact on claimants should be a key consideration. 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. The burden of assessment should lie with the assessors; the requirement upon ill or disabled people to make long journeys to assessment centres should be minimised.
Future cuts to tax credits and disability benefits were found to be a source of stress and concern for participants.
It might be helpful if those potentially affected by changes were able to quickly find out how proposed changes might affect them personally, and also to know about what support is available to them if they were to lose entitlements.
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.
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 does not stigmatise those receiving benefits.
Participants appreciated being listened to about their needs, and wanted to be involved in the design process of any future changes to the system.
Consider opportunities for some form of co-production in the development and implementation of the devolved version of DLA/ PIP.
Previous rounds of the survey have found, and this final round has confirmed, the importance of support and advice in shaping participants' experiences of welfare reform.
Offer a centralised opportunity to check all entitlements, so that anyone can make sure they are receiving everything they are entitled to.
Offer support and advice at all stages of the application process.
Reviewing the policy implications from across the study
Across the four sweeps of the study, a series of policy recommendations and implications have been outlined (see Graham et al., 2015; Graham et al., 2014; Lister et al., 2014). In this section, these policy recommendations and implications are drawn together in order to highlight the key messages for policy from this study. A full list of the policy recommendations and implications from each sweep is provided in Appendix 4.
The Scotland Bill 2015-2016 has been proposed to put into effect the recommendations made by the Smith Commission - which includes the devolution of a range working age welfare benefits such as Carer's Allowance, DLA, PIP and DHPs (Smith Commission 2014; Sandford 2015). The devolution of these benefits provides an opportunity for the Scottish Government to implement a scheme that could better meet claimants' needs, and impose less of a burden on them. The Scottish Parliament will also have powers to create new benefits in devolved policy areas; and make discretionary payments in any area of welfare without prior permission from DWP.
The policy implications of the findings from across the study can be 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
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, so that anyone can make sure they are receiving everything they are entitled to. 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 lose entitlements.
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; support and advice need to come from a range of services. 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.
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. Best practice is also 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 findings suggested that frontline services could play a role in supporting benefit recipients to access support, but that in places their involvement could be stronger and more joined up. It is particularly necessary to recognise the role of GPs in providing information to support an application for disability benefits. Health and social care professionals, and other frontline services, do not have to be experts, but should at least be aware of the kind of support that people might be entitled to. Referral mechanisms between frontline services, and advice services, should be developed.
Caring and childcare
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. The plans to extend free childcare provision are welcome but a particular gap still needs to be addressed; that is to improve provision outside standard hours, including pre- and after- school and holiday care. This would enable parents, particularly lone parents, to compete for jobs that do not fit around school opening and closing times.
Carers could be better supported in their role, through the provision of practical advice, emotional support, and help with expenses such as travel costs.
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. Participants have also reported feeling stigmatised by some of the officials they deal with in the process of claiming benefits, therefore it is also important that those in client facing roles in the benefits system are able to 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 also appears to be a need for specialist employment services and staff who more fully understand the employment barriers facing specific groups, such as lone parent advisors in Jobcentres.
Issues in benefits system design
Reducing unnecessary pressure and stress
The application and appeals process should be founded on the initial assumption that the applicant is genuinely in need, and potentially experiencing a range of life stressors that might constrain their ability to tackle the process of applying for benefits. It should be acknowledged that applicants might have few resources to fall back on, and that even temporary delay or loss of benefit could have a substantial negative impact.
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.
Building in feedback from clients
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. 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. 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.
Improving client assessment
There should be more sophistication in the assessment process for disability benefits, especially in relation to fluctuating conditions and 'hidden' disabilities. Entitlement to a disability benefit should not be predicated on the applicant being able to quantify a fluctuating condition (the suitability of polar questions in particular needs to be reviewed), or attempt to predict its future course. Rather, the impact of the disruption and uncertainty created by a fluctuating condition should itself be taken into account as a limiting factor.
Life or long-term awards should 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 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.
Improving the way in which benefits are administered
The findings from across the study suggest a need to improve the administration of benefits, including more sensitive service provision by departments and better administration of benefit changes. The study has found that there is a need for much improved official communication, not only by DWP, but also by Local Authorities, about benefits and benefit changes. Those who will be affected by benefit changes need to receive clearer information about what will happen, and when. Communication of decisions should be clear and unambiguous. Further research could identify examples of good practice in this respect.
Language and policy rhetoric should be carefully considered, as it may affect the degree of fear with which change is viewed by those affected. The Scottish Government should seek to foster good relations between the system and claimants, and set out to provide a service to those who need it, not deny one to those who do.
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. The impact on those who fall foul of new rules - or who are affected by a mistake on the part of a benefits agency that is not their fault - can be severe. When things go wrong, it is important that there is recourse to a well-funded crisis support service that can respond quickly to financial emergencies.
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.
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