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.

1. Introduction

The Scottish Government commissioned the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen) in November 2023 to undertake a RER to provide robust information on the seldom heard groups at particular risk of being marginalised from the Scottish social security system. Below we set out the justification for this research and what the research aims to achieve.

1.1. Policy context

Benefit take-up rates are fundamentally important because people who do not receive their full entitlements are at increased risk of poverty and social marginalisation. However, ensuring that those who are eligible receive their entitlements is challenging, with billions of pounds going unclaimed each year[1,2].

The Scotland Act 2016 gave new powers to the Scottish Government relating to social security. The passing of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 gave the Scottish Government powers to deliver social security benefits for the first time through a new agency, Social Security Scotland. Social Security Scotland currently delivers 14 benefits, some of which are new and unique to Scotland[a] (e.g., the Scottish Child Payment, Best Start Payments, and Adult/Child Disability Payments).

The 2018 Act placed a statutory duty on the Scottish Government to promote take-up of benefits and the Scottish Government’s Benefit Take-up Strategy was developed with the aim of meeting this duty[3]. The second Strategy established a set of five guiding principles:

  • Prioritising of person-centred approaches that account for individual circumstances.
  • Effective communication and engagement by building trust among seldom heard groups and ‘getting the right message to the right audience, at the right time’.
  • Bringing services to people by removing complex and costly barriers to accessing benefits.
  • Encouraging cross-system collaboration by joining up income maximisation initiatives across the Scottish Government.
  • Continuous learning and improvement to ensure approaches remain relevant and effective.

Maximising benefit take-up among marginalised and vulnerable people is central to the Scottish Government’s take-up strategy[3,4]. A stated aim of the Scottish Government is to increase inclusivity within the benefits system. This inclusivity incorporates a commitment to engage with seldom heard groups and people with protected characteristics. In common with other organisations, the Scottish Government uses the term ‘seldom heard groups’ to describe under-represented people[5,6]. With the aim of improving the design of Scotland’s social security system, in 2017 the Scottish Government established Experience Panels to help support the design and development of Scotland’s social security system. The Experience Panels are made up of people who have experience of one or more of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefits that have been, or will be, devolved to Social Security Scotland[5].

Recognising that people marginalised from the social security system were also under-represented from Experience Panel membership, the Scottish Government launched the ‘Seldom Heard Voices’ research programme to identify who these groups are. The Seldom Heard Voice programme engaged with:

  • people receiving benefits through Social Security Scotland
  • organisations representing households experiencing reduced income or extra costs due to a member having one or more protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010
  • and people – and organisations representing them – from seldom heard groups[5,6]

Seldom heard groups identified through the 2018-19 scoping exercise were:

  • mobile populations (e.g., agricultural workers, Traveller communities)
  • vulnerable groups (e.g., homeless people, veterans)
  • end of life (including people with terminal illness and their families)
  • carers and care experienced (e.g., young and/or single parents, people caring for a disabled person)
  • survivors of abuse (e.g., survivors of domestic or childhood abuse)

Since the Scottish Government’s 2018-19 scoping exercise on seldom heard groups, like the rest of the UK, Scotland has undergone some rapid and significant societal changes, not least the large increase in people who are now long-term sick or disabled and unable to work since the Covid-19 pandemic[7]. For example, since the pandemic, there have been particularly large increases in the numbers of younger people who are long-term sick or disabled and in the numbers of people experiencing mental ill health[7,8]. Therefore, the numbers of people living in households eligible for benefits are increasing[9]. These changes may have created new groups of marginalised people – or may have increased the marginalisation of those already considered to be seldom heard. In addition, analysis of the Evidence for Equality National Survey indicates that, across the UK, the financial impact of the Covid pandemic was greater for minoritised ethnic people than for White British people[10]. People from Arab, Bangladeshi and Pakistani groups are among those who experienced the most negative financial impacts from the Covid pandemic[10].

1.2. This Research

To further improve benefit take-up, the Scottish Government has commissioned the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen) to undertake research with the aim of increasing the inclusion of seldom heard groups in improving the person-centred design of Scotland’s benefits system.

The 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.



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