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.

3. State of the evidence

This section provides an overview of the breadth and quality of sources of evidence identified and included in this review. We report on the difficulties of obtaining accurate estimates of benefit take-up rates and the challenges this creates for quantifying the extent of underclaiming. We also report on the sources and quality of evidence on barriers to and enablers of benefit take-up.

3.1. Evidence on benefit take-up rates

Accurate data on benefit take-up rates are scarce. Benefit take-up rates are complicated to calculate, relying as they do on an accurate denominator (the number of people eligible to claim) and numerator (the number of people claiming)[1]. While there are often accurate data available to estimate the numerator, the denominator is more difficult to estimate, particularly for seldom heard groups who, by definition, are excluded from society.

Moreover, the ease of estimating take-up rates varies across benefits. While rates are relatively easy to estimate for benefits that are largely universal, such as the State Pension and Child Benefit, obtaining accurate estimates for highly targeted benefits is far more challenging[11]. For example, Clegg et al argue that estimating the number of people eligible for disability benefits is “practically impossible” due to complex eligibility criteria based on factors such as the severity and impact of a health condition on an individual[12]. These factors are highly individualised and may fluctuate over time[12].

Attempts to estimate benefit take-up rates are complicated further by the existence of a variety of forms of underclaiming. While underclaiming of benefits is generally understood as being an issue of eligible claimants not applying, it can also take the forms of partial take-up (not receiving full entitlement); delayed take-up (not applying as soon as eligible); and applying but not receiving the benefit although entitled[3].

The Scottish Government publishes annual estimates of take-up rates for some, but not all, of the devolved benefits[13]. For the financial year 2022-23, estimated take-up rates varied widely, from 97% take-up for the Best Start Grant: School Age Payment (a one-off payment to help low-income families with the costs of preparing a child to start school) to 15% take-up for the Job Start Payment (a one-off payment to help low-income young people with the costs of starting a new job). It is important to note, as the Scottish Government does, that reported take-up rates are estimates around which there are varying degrees of uncertainty. For example, the size of the eligible population for the Young Carer Grant is difficult to estimate due to its small size and lack of survey data[13]. Underscoring the challenge of estimating accurate benefit take-up rates, it is worth noting that the methodology used to estimate take-up of Scotland’s family payments has Universal Credit claimants as the denominator. This is likely to lead to an overestimate of take-up if, as is likely, Universal Credit is itself underclaimed[12].

For reserved benefits, UK Government-produced estimates are currently only available for take-up of Pension Credit and Housing Benefit among people aged 65 and over. For the year 2019-2020 (the most recent published data), Pension Credit take-up in the UK was 70% and take-up of Housing Benefit among pensioners was 86%[14]. Due to the methodological challenges of estimating accurate take-up rates, no other data are currently available[14].

However, despite these estimation challenges, attempts have been made to quantify the extent of underclaiming of benefits in the UK. Recent research by Policy in Practice, which attempts to estimate the extent of underclaiming of benefits, suggests that £19 billion went unclaimed across 10 benefits in the year ending April 2023[12]. This amount included over £7.5 billion unclaimed Universal Credit, nearly £3 billion unclaimed Council Tax Support and £2 billion unclaimed Carer’s Allowance[12]. Further, evidence from a range of sources strongly suggests that there is likely to be significant underclaiming of disability benefits[12,15,16].

3.2. Evidence on barriers to claiming benefits

There is a robust body of peer-reviewed evidence on the factors that influence take-up rates of social security benefits, and other social programmes[2,17,18]. However, there is much less evidence on which groups are affected by these barriers[2]. Data on benefit take-up among marginalised groups are currently rarely, if ever, collected[11,19]. To identify groups at potentially increased risk of marginalisation in Scotland, we reviewed evidence from recent reports from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Scottish Government on poverty and inequality in Scotland[20,21,22]. The literature identified some groups who are significantly more likely than others to experience additional challenges that can create or increase barriers to accessing social programmes, including social security benefits. For example, while no data are collected on benefit take-up rates among Gypsy/Traveller and Roma communities, there is a wealth of evidence that these communities face a wide range of challenges that increase their social marginalisation, including low levels of school attendance and educational attainment and high levels of economic inactivity, precarious and low-paid employment, prejudice and discrimination, and poor mental and physical health. Evidence also shows that women in these communities provide the highest levels of unpaid care among all minority ethnic groups and experience some of the highest rates of domestic violence[23,24].

Evidence on barriers to claiming included in this review comes from a range of sources, including peer-reviewed papers on factors associated with disability benefit take-up, and barriers to claiming faced by veterans and refugees[25,26,27].

A large amount of useful evidence (55 submissions) was submitted to the Scottish Parliament’s committee on benefit take-up[19,28]. The committee sought evidence on, among other things, the levels of unclaimed benefits, reasons for underclaiming, and approaches to improving take-up that were likely to be successful for different marginalised groups. A wide range of organisations and academics provided evidence to the committee on barriers to take-up based on their knowledge and experience of researching and/or working with Scotland’s marginalised communities. These embedded and trusted organisations often have access to groups whose voices are not heard by government.

Third sector support organisation reports provided evidence on group-specific barriers (e.g., for older people, survivors of abuse, end of life, disabled people, and Gypsy, Traveller and Romani people[24,29,30,31,32,33,34]).

Evidence on general and group specific barriers to claiming is also included from reports by policy and campaigning organisations (e.g., Policy in Practice, The Resolution Foundation, and the Centre for Social Justice) and from government committees[35,36]. Finally, Scottish Government evaluations of Best Start Foods and the Young Carer Grant have identified barriers to claiming these devolved benefits[37,38]. As outlined in Section 1, the Scottish Government’s Seldom Heard Voices Research scoping exercise identified barriers to claiming benefits encountered by several groups of people marginalised from Scotland’s social security system.[5,6]

3.3. Evidence on what works to improve benefit take-up rates

Much of the evidence on which strategies and initiatives work to increase benefit take-up among marginalised groups included in this review is qualitative and based on the lived experiences of seldom heard people themselves and the organisations that work to support them. As with barriers to take-up, useful evidence on take-up enablers was submitted to the Scottish Parliament committee[19,28]. This review also includes evidence from primary qualitative and quantitative research conducted by third-sector organisations, think-tanks, and social research organisations. These reports frequently make recommendations for increasing benefit take-up based on their findings on barriers to claiming. For example, a widespread lack of awareness of certain benefits is likely to be addressed by take-up campaigns. The Scottish Government has implemented a number of strategies to improve take-up of devolved-benefits and evidence of their effectiveness is included in this review[39].

There have been a small number of formal quantitative evaluations of approaches to improve take up and there are also good quality qualitative research studies with people from seldom heard groups that report perspectives from people with lived experience of marginalisation on what would improve access to benefits[5,6].

3.4. Gaps in the evidence

There is a lack of peer-reviewed published research on barriers and enablers to claiming benefits falling within the inclusion criteria for this report. In part, this is likely due to research being complicated by changes in eligibility and claims processes introduced in the UK benefits system from March 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic. Much of what has been written was published before 2018 and/or reports on barriers or enablers to benefit take-up outside of the UK. Further, the lack of data collected on benefit take-up rates among many seldom heard groups makes it “exceedingly difficult” to create and evaluate take-up initiatives targeted towards specific marginalised groups[40].

It is important to note that evidencing that a particular strategy has caused an increase in take-up is not possible without formal, robust evaluations. For example, the Scottish Government’s strategies to increase benefit take-up have focused on marketing and communication campaigns to increase awareness; simplified application processes and automating payments; and funding an independent advocacy service to support disabled applicants. However, there is currently no evaluation evidence for the effectiveness of these strategies. Where no evaluation has taken place, we report associations between strategies and outcomes (e.g., marketing campaigns and subsequent increases in take-up rates). While there is some emerging evidence on the factors affecting take-up of devolved benefits in Scotland, the transfer of benefits to Social Security Scotland is still in its relatively early stages. We would expect more evidence to become available over time.

As outlined above, there is a reasonable amount of evidence for barriers and enablers to benefit take-up among some marginalised groups (e.g., disabled people, people at the end of life, older people, minoritised ethnic communities, and refugees and migrants). However, there is a relatively small body of evidence (within the parameters of this review) for veterans, prisoners, single and/or young parents, carers, and survivors of abuse. Beyond the Seldom Heard Voices Research and some benefit specific evaluations (e.g. Job Start Payment) conducted by the Scottish Government, we found no additional evidence on barriers and enablers for some of the groups included in the existing seldom heard voices categories (specifically, people travelling for work, mobile and agricultural workers, care-experienced people, foster carers and adoptive parents, and survivors of childhood abuse). It is important to stress that, although no additional evidence was available within the parameters of this review, this is not to say that these groups are not marginalised. As stressed by many sources included in this review, there is a pressing need for the collection of more and better data on potentially marginalised groups.

Finally, an objective of this research was to review levels of participation and engagement of seldom heard groups in marketing activity to understand the impact of the Scottish Government’s efforts to target these groups. We found no evidence that would meet this objective.



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