The Impact of Welfare Reform in Scotland - Tracking Study - Year 1 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 year of the study by presenting results from the first two sweeps of interviews. Sweep 1 took place from September 2013 to January 2014 and sweep 2 took place from April 2014 to July 2014

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5 Conclusions

  • This chapter presents some conclusions from Sweep 2 of the study and considers the next stage of the research.
  • As this is a qualitative study, great care needs to be taken about generalising from the results, but they can be used to inform the development of policy, by showing where welfare reform is having a negative impact, and how this might be mitigated.

Key findings

Lone parent conditionality

5.1. The lone parent participants in this study stated that they did want to work, but struggled to find suitable job opportunities that could be reconciled with their caring responsibilities, or to find and pay for suitable childcare that would allow them to take up work.

5.2. For lone parents, being ready to work was not solely determined by the age of their children. In some cases, lone parenthood was precipitated by traumatic events, from which they felt they and their children needed time to recover before they were capable of returning to work.

5.3. Lone parents' interactions with Jobcentre Plus were generally perceived as unhelpful and negative. It was felt that a punitive atmosphere created stress and eroded confidence, and this was not conducive to successfully moving into work. There was often a lack of knowledgeable support from Jobcentre Plus staff, which contrasts with the support they received from specialist lone parent advisors whilst on Income Support.

5.4. Lone parents who had moved into work cited examples of services provided by third sector organisations that had been helpful in getting them into work. These services had helped in a variety of ways: by making them feel more confident about moving into work; by helping them to find job opportunities and childcare; and by offering advice on the financial implications of the transition to work.

Moving those with a health condition or disability into work

5.5. As with lone parents, it was not clear from the views of the participants that reforms were necessary to encourage greater labour market participation among those who are out of work due to a health condition or disability. Even participants with fairly debilitating conditions expressed a desire to work, but ill health and disability presented a huge barrier to work for many participants.

5.6. The reassessment of Incapacity Benefit recipients for Employment and Support Allowance was relatively straightforward in some cases, but a considerable struggle in others. Several participants were initially found fit for work, or placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), and subsequently appealed the decision. Most did so successfully, although it was stressful to prepare and wait for, and some found the experience quite traumatic.

5.7. Participants who had received support from advocacy organisations in the ESA application and appeals process found this extremely useful. They appreciated help with aspects such as filling in complex forms, gathering the required evidence, and having someone to accompany them to tribunals. Having access to this type of support made a difference to how effectively they were able to respond to changes in the benefits they received and to challenge decision makers.

5.8. Participants reported that knowledge about support available to those with a health condition or disability varied among the health, social care and social work professionals they had contact with. Where they were well-informed and proactive, these professionals were a valuable source of support and knowledge.

Support to move into work

5.9. Perspectives on the helpfulness of interactions with Jobcentre Plus with regard to helping to find work were lukewarm. Even those receiving support of the Work Programme did not find it particularly helpful.

5.10. Participants reported that some third sector organisations provided more useful and targeted support. JSA and ESA recipients were sometimes signposted to this by Jobcentre Plus, but often left to find out about these services for themselves.

5.11. Participants who were involved in volunteering found this to be helpful in developing skills and knowledge, and improving confidence and job readiness. It was most useful when it was something that the volunteer saw as positive and worthwhile, and preferably related to future employment ambitions.

5.12. Participants reported a need for help not just to find a job, but to be able to move into a job; for example help with finding suitable childcare, and minimising instability to household income during the transition from benefits.

Making work pay

5.13. Participants who had moved into work between the two sweeps felt that they were slightly better off, although they still did not necessarily find it easy to make ends meet. Over time, if they get pay increases or as they rebuild their finances, this may improve slightly. Those out of work were not always sure that they would be better off in work, partly because they found it difficult to envisage what their income would be due to the complexity of the system.

5.14. However, the participants' accounts of their barriers to employment suggest that the decision to work is not purely monetary, and work is valued for a number of reasons. Those who had moved into work, despite not necessarily being much better off, nonetheless reported a substantial increase in well-being.

Managing expenditure on welfare

5.15. Participants reported a lot of uncertainty regarding the transition to PIP, and many were worried that their entitlement would be lost or reduced.

5.16. The main issue with the time-limiting of contributory ESA seemed to be the way in which the transition to income-based ESA was managed. In some cases, a lack of information and support meant that the transition was not smooth, and this created financial problems.

5.17. Benefit freezes or restricted increases have meant falling real-term incomes; many participants found it difficult to meet basic needs, and noted that costs were rising but their incomes were not.

5.18. The removal of the spare room subsidy initially created hardship for some of those affected, but most successfully obtained a DHP, although in some cases this was not straightforward and took several attempts.

Communication from government and agencies

5.19. Some participants felt that the way in which the UK Government has communicated its rationale for welfare reform has unfairly represented benefit recipients as not wanting to work. They acknowledged that there are some who fit this description, but argued that this is a minority and did not represent them.

5.20. The DWP were reported to be poor at communicating changes to entitlements. Their correspondence was described as long, confusing and sometimes conflicting with previous correspondence. This made it more difficult for participants to understand the changes that were affecting them.

Differential impacts

5.21. Access to affordable basics such as food was found to vary geographically - although it did so along lines of whether the participant had access to a large, cheap supermarket or not, rather than along strictly urban-rural lines.

5.22. Participants' experience with Jobcentre Plus depended on which centre they attended and which advisor they got. Some advisors were more knowledgeable and helpful than others, and this affected things such as the tone of their interactions, and whether recipients were referred to useful services or not.

5.23. The findings suggested local variations in other support services. Participants with support workers or other advocates were better able to understand and respond to benefit changes than those without such support. If disabled working age people are subject to widely differing contributions towards their social care, but receive the same amount of benefits, then this potentially creates a substantial inequality in the standard of living of disabled people across Scotland.

Policy implications

5.24. The findings of this study show that, according to the views of participants, stronger conditionality is unlikely to get more people into work, but 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.

5.25. Current plans to extend free childcare provision are a welcome development, but do not address the gap identified by participants in provision outside of standard hours. To meet these needs, childcare provision needs to evolve to reflect the widespread expectation of non-standard hours in both the public and private sectors.

5.26. Some of the reforms have changed the way in which recipients interact with the system, requiring them to give different information, or go through new procedures, in order to access support. However, this kind of change does not necessarily cause intractable problems - the findings show that in many cases, it can be navigated with appropriate support, whether this is helping those affected to understand confusing correspondence, fill in forms, locate specialist services or provide support for a benefit tribunal. Those who are affected by welfare reform can be supported in understanding and responding to changes. This feeds into the Scottish Government mitigation work in the area of providing advice and support, through advice services, third sector organisations, social landlords and Health Boards.

5.27. The findings suggested that frontline services (such as health, social care and social work) could play a role in supporting those affected by welfare reform to access the support available to them, but that in places their involvement could be stronger and more joined up. For example, health services could advise patients who might be entitled to ESA or DLA that these benefits exist, and how to apply for them. This practice already exists for Child Benefit; new mothers are given an application pack in hospital, and take-up of this benefit is over 95 per cent among those eligible for it.

5.28. The impact of welfare reform appears to vary depending on service provision at the local level. This feeds into current mitigation work with COSLA and the Improvement Service about how local authorities can best support people. Best practice should be shared and adopted, and local authorities should be made aware of instances where their activities are creating problems for benefit recipients (such as high care costs).

5.29. The impact on benefit recipients 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. The Scottish Welfare Fund will be crucial in mitigating the impacts of welfare reform.

5.30. The experiences of participants in this study raise some questions regarding whether the WCA is effective at determining who is fit for work. The assignment of several cases here to the WRAG or fit for work categories - and their subsequent successful appeal - suggested that the assessment process has a high risk of 'false positives' with respect to assessing people's capability for work. In particular, the assessment should be revised to take better account of the impact of conditions that fluctuate over time and/or are less visible.

The next stage of the study

5.31. The study will continue to interview participants every six months for the next two years. The next round of interviews (Sweep 3) will take place from October to December 2014. These would 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;
  • 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;
  • A detailed module on social networks and sources of support, and the impact of having (or not having) this support on mediating the impact of welfare reform.


Email: Communities Analytical Services

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