Scottish social security system - seldom-heard groups: research

Evidence review setting out the current seldom-heard groups across the Scottish social security system and the barriers they face to accessing their entitlements.

Executive summary

About this research

The Scottish Government commissioned the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen) in November 2023 to undertake a Rapid Evidence Review (RER) to provide robust information on the seldom heard groups at particular risk of being marginalised from the Scottish social security system. Evidence dating from 2018 to the present from peer-reviewed articles, UK and Scottish governemnt reports and statistics, and reports from third-sector organisations and non-governmental research agencies was eligible for inclusion in the review. Evidence searching, screening and extraction was carried out between November 2023 and January 2024.

Findings from the research will support the Scottish Government in the implementation of its Benefit Take-up Strategy by providing information that will help develop new approaches to support people to access social security benefits. The findings will also inform subsequent market research on how best to communicate and promote devolved benefits to the identified seldom heard groups.

Take-up rates among seldom heard groups

One of the aims of this evidence review was to explore the current take-up rates of social security benefits in Scotland among seldom heard groups by reviewing data on current levels of participation, representation and engagement to understand the impact of the Scottish Government’s efforts to date to increase take-up in these groups.

The Scottish Government publishes take-up rates for many of the devolved benefits. For the financial year 2022-2023, take-up rates varied widely, from 97% for the Best Start Grant to 15% for the Job Start Payment.

It is very difficult, from current data, to accurately estimate the take-up rates of social security benefits in Scotland among seldom heard groups. The challenges of estimating accurate take-up rates for many benefits are widely discussed in the literature and include:

  • Limited data on marginalised groups are currently collected by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Social Security Scotland.
  • Difficulties in identifying the number of people potentially eligible to claim non-universal benefits makes it difficult to calculate the take-up rates of these benefits.
  • Changing and complex eligibility criteria for some benefits such as, disability benefits, makes it difficult to calculate who is eligible for some benefits.

These challenges are exacerbated for seldom heard groups who are frequently missing from the data. To improve the understanding of take-up rates among marginalised groups, better collection of data from these groups are required.

Identifying seldom heard groups with low rates of benefit take-up

Another aim of the evidence review was to assess the evidence for the ongoing accuracy and relevance of the seldom heard groups identified by the Scottish Government in 2019 and to identify whether there are additional seldom heard groups with low rates of benefit take-up.

In 2019 the Seldom Heard Voices Programme identified five seldom heard groups: mobile populations, vulnerable groups, end of life, carers and care experienced, and survivors of abuse. It is clear from the current evidence that these five groups are still relevant. However, there is also evidence of additional seldom heard groups, including:

  • People from established minority ethnic communities who are at risk of marginalisation due to prejudice, language barriers and cultural differences.
  • People with long-term physical and mental health impairments or conditions, including fluctuating and/or less visible conditions.
  • People with learning disabilities and/or learning difficulties.
  • Socially isolated older adults.

Barriers to claiming benefits among seldom heard groups

The review also sought to identify evidence that can help describe the groups of people who are likely to face barriers to accessing social security, and set out what these barriers are, the reasons why these groups face these barriers and the likelihood, or not, of these groups taking up their entitlements.

There is a large and robust body of evidence identifying barriers to claiming benefits, all of which increase the personal costs of applying for and maintaining a benefit claim. Barriers can be categorised into three groups:

  • Psychological barriers, including stigma and prejudice, fear and distrust of authority, and experiences of trauma and violence.
  • Learning barriers, including the complexity of the social security system, inaccessible information, a lack of support to make claims, and misinformation.
  • Compliance barriers, including inaccessible or unavailable support, complex and inaccessible application processes, challenges in providing evidence or proving eligibility, decision-making delays, and difficulties in complying with conditionality.

There is less evidence on who is marginalised by these barriers to claiming, primarily due to a lack of data and the absence of the voices of seldom heard groups. However, there is evidence of challenges faced by marginalised people that may exclude them from the benefits system. People who face the greatest barriers to accessing benefits can be identified by first identifying people who are at increased risk of poverty, ill-health, low educational attainment, violence, insecure work and housing, or marginalised from public services such as healthcare, education and financial services.

Interventions that support benefit take-up among seldom heard groups

As part of the review, ScotCen reviewed existing evidence to identify interventions that might support the needs of the seldom heard groups to access social security.

A lack of data on marginalised groups creates challenges for designing and judging the effectiveness of interventions to improve benefit take-up. However, there is evidence of approaches that, while rarely formally evaluated, appear to be effective in improving access to benefits for a range of marginalised groups.

  • Strategies to help overcome psychological barriers to claiming include: positive and sensitive messaging around benefits, and culturally aware support services.
  • Strategies to help overcome learning barriers include: improved data collection, joined-up approaches such as automatic enrolment and data sharing, targeted and culturally responsive awareness raising, and the provision of accessible, accurate and timely information.
  • Strategies to overcome compliance barriers include: simplified application processes delivered through a range of modes, support to make a claim, staff training to improve awareness of the barriers faced by marginalised groups, and increased value and widened eligibility for benefits.

Some barriers to claiming will be easier to address than others. For example, learning barriers can be reduced by relatively low-cost strategies such as improving the quality and accessibility of information. Increasing and improving support to apply is likely to be more costly; however, there is evidence that support is vital for improving take-up rates among the most marginalised. Some strategies for improving take-up – such as extending eligibility and increasing the value of benefits – will be among the costliest to implement.

Prioritising seldom heard groups

Finally, the RER aimed to consider which seldom heard groups to prioritise in terms of the extent of their exclusion from Scotland’s social security system.

There are a number of challenges around prioritising seldom heard groups to target based on the extent of their exclusion:

  • Data on marginalised groups are not routinely collected through social security benefits. Therefore, the absence of data on many marginalised groups makes it difficult to judge the extent of their exclusion.
  • There are variations in the amount and quality of evidence on the nature and extent of marginalisation among different groups. Therefore, a lack of evidence does not necessarily indicate a lack of marginalisation.
  • There are high levels of intersectionality (groups within groups) among members of seldom heard groups. Focusing efforts to improve benefit take-up on one dimension risks missing other important aspects of marginalisation. Therefore, a range of strategies is likely to be required to improve benefit take-up rates.

This review identifies approaches to reducing barriers that are likely to be effective for many marginalised groups – for example, improving support, increasing awareness, and simplified application and compliance processes.

However, rather than focusing efforts on particular seldom heard groups, addressing barriers to claiming benefits is likely to be more achievable and effective in increasing benefit take-up overall.



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