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.

2. Methodology

2.1. Research aims and objectives

The overall aim of the research is to provide the Scottish Government with robust information on the seldom heard groups at particular risk of being marginalised from the Scottish social security system. The objectives of the research are to:

  • Describe the groups of people who are likely to face barriers to accessing social security, setting out the reasons why these groups face these barriers and the likelihood, or not, of these groups taking up their entitlements.
  • Review levels of participation, representation and engagement of the existing seldom heard groups identified, including in relation to marketing activity, to understand the impact of the Scottish Government’s efforts to date to target these groups.
  • Review existing evidence that identifies interventions which might support the needs of the seldom heard groups to access social security support.
  • Consider prioritisation within the seldom heard groups identified (i.e., are there currently groups that are more excluded from the Scottish social security system who will require more immediate targeting? Or are there groups where exclusion is disproportionately high, and where intervention is likely to have the biggest impact?).

To address the research aims and objectives, ScotCen undertook a rapid evidence review (RER) of the evidence on seldom heard groups at risk of being marginalised from the Scottish social security system. The RER aimed to identify and synthesise the available evidence to identify:

  • the ongoing accuracy and relevance of the seldom heard groups (in interaction with Equality Act 2010 protected characteristics) identified by the Scottish Government
  • alternative or additional seldom heard groups with low rates of benefit take-up not identified by the Scottish Government, considering Scotland’s changing social, demographic and social security landscapes
  • reasons why the seldom heard groups identified face barriers to accessing social security benefits
  • existing interventions that have been successful in supporting seldom heard groups to access social security support
  • seldom heard groups to prioritise in terms of the extent of their exclusion from Scotland’s social security system

2.2. Research design

2.2.1. Evidence search

To ensure that this evidence review was conducted within the project’s budget and timeframe, the following inclusion and exclusion criteria were established.

Evidence inclusion criteria:

  • Population: seldom heard groups living in Scotland.
  • Social security benefits and take-up rates: UK-wide and Scotland-devolved benefits.
  • Barriers and potentially enabling strategies: evidence from the UK (restricted to the United Kingdom as social security systems vary widely between countries).
  • Date/language: published in English from 2018 to the present (covering a 5/6-year period since social security benefits were devolved).
  • Data sources: peer-reviewed articles published in academic journals; official published government (UK and Scotland) statistics; government (UK and Scotland) published research reports; third-sector organisations and non-governmental research agency/social change organisation published reports.

Exclusion criteria:

  • Opinion pieces, editorials, blogs.
  • Unpublished statistics or reports.

Evidence searches took place in November and December 2023. Two researchers were involved in the searching. Searches of the academic databases Google Scholar and multidiscipinlary database, Scopus, were conducted to identify peer-reviewed evidence (see Appendix A for search strings). Grey literature searches were conducted in the search engine Google to identify Government (UK and Scotland) statistical data and research reports, and third sector and non-governmental organisation research reports (see Appendix A for search string examples). Organisations working to support or advocate for marginalised groups were identified and their websites searched for relevant reports. A Google search for grey literature on the take-up of devolved benefits was also conducted. For manageability, the first 10 pages of returned results were screened for inclusion. Extensive citation searching (using citations to locate additional relevant sources) within the reference lists of sources was used to identify further evidence.

2.2.2. Evidence assessment and selection

The second stage of the review involved selecting the most relevant and robust evidence. Two researchers conducted the assessment and selection processes. Records located in the searches were entered into an Excel spreadsheet and de-duplicated. A two-stage screening process identified evidence for inclusion in the review. Firstly, abstracts, executive summaries or introductions were screened to identify potentially relevant sources for inclusion. Secondly, full texts of identified studies were assessed for eligibility in relation to the inclusion/exclusion criteria.

Extracted information included bibliographic details, methods, relevant findings, selected data from the resource (e.g., key statistics, participant quotes), and a suggested category for that finding (e.g., groups at risk of marginalisation, intersecting characteristics increasing risks of marginalisation, barriers to take-up, and enablers of take-up).

2.2.3. Evidence synthesis

Evidence was reviewed and synthesised using a framework approach, which involved summarising the evidence thematically so that the review systematically captured the information needed to address the core research questions (see Appendix B for evidence summary tables). For example, evidence was gathered on the prevalence of groups potentially eligible for certain types of benefits (e.g., sickness and disability benefits, working-age benefits, family benefits). Interesecting characteristics that could increase the risk of marginalisation from the social security system were then identified. Take-up rates for benefit entitlements for each group (where data were available) were identified to judge the extent of underclaiming. Finally, evidence for barriers and enablers to claiming was added to the summaries.

This approach facilitated a systematic approach to interpreting the evidence by:

  • linking summaries explicitly to the research areas
  • enabling evidence for each research objective (e.g., identifying seldom heard groups with low rates of benefit take-up) to be easily viewed and interpreted
  • enabling reviewers to return to the original sources if more information is needed



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