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.

4. Barriers to claiming benefits

In this section, we summarise the existing evidence on the barriers to claiming social security benefits. We also report on which groups are most likely to face a particular barrier to claiming. Tables in Appendix C summarise psychological, learning and compliance barriers to claiming benefits faced by each marginalised group.

4.1. Why are benefit take-up rates not 100%?

The Scottish Government’s Seldom Heard Voices research programme identified three key barriers to claiming benefits[5]:

  • Social barriers such as perceptions of stigma around claiming benefits, a lack of trust in institutions administering benefits, and vulnerability.
  • Costs or complexity of access.
  • Lack of information or misunderstanding about eligibility or how to apply.

These three barriers mirror those identified in other studies, including a rapid evidence review and qualitative research conducted for the Trussell Trust, which explored disability benefit take-up[41].

Each benefit has its own set of barriers associated with claiming. These barriers include factors such as the work involved in finding out about and applying for the benefit. The social security benefits with the highest take-up rates, Child Benefit and the State Pension, have few barriers to claiming: they are easy to understand and widely known about, are simple to access, have few conditions attached to eligibility and maintaining a claim, are delivered over a long period, and have a clear end point[11]. The benefits with the lowest take-up rates (e.g., Pension Credit) have more barriers to claiming: they are less well-known, poorly understood, have complex eligibility criteria, and have several components (e.g., Pension Credit comprises Guarantee Credit and Savings Credit)[11]. The association between benefit take-up and ease of claiming is supported by the finding of a decrease in take-up of Child Benefit since the introduction of the High-Income Child Benefit Charge (HICBC) in 2012, which reclaims Child Benefit from higher-earning parents through the tax system – a process that created a barrier to claiming[42].

The Scottish Government has identified potential reasons for the variation in take-up rates in the ways in which the devolved benefits are publicised and administered. For example, evaluations of devolved benefits found that clients learned about the Best Start Payments and the Scottish Child Payment through a variety of routes, which helped to maximise awareness and reduced the burden of seeking information[13]. Clients who have at least one child under six can choose to apply for all of the Five Family Payments on a single application form, minimising application burden and increasing take-up. In contrast, a lack of awareness of the availablity and eligibility criteria for the Job Start Payment and difficulties in providing suitable evidence were identified as barriers to claiming among eligible young people[13].

The costs of claiming can be usefully grouped under three headings: psychological costs, learning costs and compliance costs[17]. Each of these is discussed below.

4.1.1. Psychological costs

Psychological costs are imposed by the application process and the requirements of maintaining a claim[17]. The literature identifies a range of barriers to take-up imposed by the psychological costs of claiming social security benefits, including stigma, stress, and trauma. There is evidence that political and wider social narratives have created a culture of stigma and prejudice towards benefit claimants that results in reluctance to claim social security benefits[43,44]. Stigma and prejudice can be directed towards people based on their status as benefit claimants and/or based on their sociodemographic characteristics, e.g., their ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Internalised self-stigma can also result in reluctance to claim. Fear and distrust of figures of authority, official systems, or government departments, in some cases arising from previous experiences of claiming benefits, have also been identified as barriers to claiming among people who are socially marginalised[26,36,38].

4.1.2. Learning costs

Learning costs are imposed by the time and effort required to find out about a benefit[17]. Benefits are delivered within complex systems that can be difficult to navigate and the work required to find out about a benefit can act as a significant barrier to take-up for some groups.

4.1.3. Compliance costs

Compliance costs are imposed by the time and effort needed to claim a benefit[17]. If a person can overcome learning barriers to claiming, the costs of complying with the requirements of making and maintaining a claim can present further barriers. The compliance costs of claiming include complex eligibility criteria, burdensome evidence requirements, complex application processes, requirements to travel to programme offices to be assessed, and lengthy decision-making periods. Conditionality and compliance requirements (e.g., job-search commitments, reviews and reassessments) also impose compliance costs.

These costs can all present barriers to the take-up of benefits, particularly for some groups of people. Next, we report on groups most marginalised by barriers to the social security system.

4.2. Who is marginalised by barriers to claiming benefits?

All potential claimants face psychological, learning and compliance barriers to claiming benefits, but for some groups the costs are likely to be higher than they are for other groups.

There is evidence that the five groups identified in the Seldom Heard Voices Research programme (mobile populations, vulnerable groups, end of life, carers and care experienced, and survivors of abuse) continue to be marginalised and face barriers claiming benefits. We also found evidence of the marginalisation of additional groups. In light of the identification of these additional populations, we have suggested four alternative categories that capture the existing and additional groups (see also below).

  • Minoritised ethnic communities: this category includes the mobile populations (Gypsy/Traveller communities, refugees and migrants) identified by the Seldom Heard Voices Research, but also includes people from established minority ethnic communities who are at risk of being marginalised from the benefits system by prejudice, language barriers and cultural differences.
  • People with disabilities, impairments and/or chronic ill-health: this category includes people with stigmatised conditions and terminal illness as identified by the Seldom Heard Voices Research. In addition, it includes people with mental health conditions, fluctuating and/or less visible conditions, and learning disabilities and/or difficulties who, as discussed below, can face considerable barriers to claiming benefits.
  • Children and families: this category includes the previously identified groups: young parents, single parents, carers and care-experienced people, and kinship carers. This category also includes large families (those with three or more children).
  • Vulnerable people: this category includes survivors of abuse, homeless or precariously housed people, recently released prisoners, and veterans as identified in the Seldom Heard Voices Research. In addition, it includes socially isolated or house-bound older people who are at risk of missing out on their entitlements to a range of benefits.

Existing and additional seldom heard groups

Category 1: Minoritised Ethnic Communities

Existing groups identified in by the Seldom Heard Voices Research programme:

Gypsy/Traveller communities



Additional groups identified by this evidence review:

Member of established ethnic minority communities

Category 2: People with disabilities, impairments and/or chronic ill-health

Existing groups identified in by the Seldom Heard Voices Research programme:

People with a terminal illness

Bereaved families

People with stigmatised illnesses

Additional groups identified by this evidence review:

People with mental health conditions

People with fluctuating and/or less visible conditions

People with learning disabilities and/or difficulties

Category 3: Children and families

Existing groups identified in by the Seldom Heard Voices Research programme:

Young parents

Single parents

Carers and care- experienced

Kinship carers

Additional groups identified by this evidence review:

Large families (3 or more children)

Category 4: Vulnerable people

Existing groups identified in by the Seldom Heard Voices Research programme:

Survivors of abuse

Homeless/precariously housed people

Prisoners (recently released)


Additional groups identified by this evidence review:

Socially isolated/house-bound older adults

Below, under the headings of psychological, learning and compliance barriers, we report the evidence for marginalisation from the social security system for the seldom heard groups identified by the Scottish Government. We also report evidence of additional marginalised groups identified in this review.

4.3. Who is marginalised by psychological barriers?

4.3.1. Stigma and prejudice

This review found evidence of stigma and prejudice creating barriers to benefit take-up for people across the four categories (see Appendix C). Prejudice is directed towards a wide range of characteristics, including:

  • ethnicity (e.g., Gypsy/Traveller and Romani people, migrants)
  • citizenship status (e.g., refugees, migrant workers)
  • health (e.g., people with stigmatised conditions such as HIV or substance use, people with fluctuating or less visible impairments/health conditions)
  • relationship status (e.g., single or young parents, survivors of abuse)

The Scottish Government’s report on child poverty noted that low-income families -among which single parents, young parents, and families with a disabled member are over-represented - can experience stigma when claiming benefits due to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, and perceived judgement[45]. Participants in the Scottish Government’s Seldom Heard Voices research programme reported stigmatisation and discrimination from DWP and Jobcentre Plus staff acting as a barrier to claiming benefits for carers and care-experienced people, for mobile populations and for members of vulnerable groups[46,47,48].

Claiming sickness and disability or out-of-work benefits is particularly stigmatised[19,41,43,44]. There is evidence to suggest that people with mental health conditions and those with fluctuating or less visible conditions are at greater risk of experiencing prejudice and stigma than people with more visible conditions[41,43,49,12,50]. A report by the National Aids Trust reviewing how PIP is working for people living with HIV found that high levels of discrimination and stigma experienced in everyday life meant that having to undergo a face-to-face assessment was a source of intense stress[51]. There is also evidence of cultural norms in some minoritised ethnic communities resulting in ‘double stigma’; for example, stigma attached to claiming benefits and stigma attached to the reasons necessitating a benefits claim such as mental ill-health or unemployment[50]. Older adults appear to be particularly likely to be deterred from claiming their entitlements due to internalised self-stigma around the need to claim benefits resulting in feelings of shame[19,29,52,53]. Self-stigma can also act as a barrier to claiming – or result in a lower award - for disabled or chronically ill people, who may be reluctant to fully disclose the impacts of their impairment or health condition[41].

4.3.2. Fear and distrust of authority

Fear and distrust of official systems and authorities present significant barriers to claiming for people such as refugees or migrants who may have previously experienced prejudice from people in positions of authority or whose legal status is not settled[26,50]. Recent qualitative research conducted by the DWP-funded Money and Pensions Service found that people from minoritised ethnic communities can be reluctant to seek support from public bodies due to concerns about being sanctioned or inviting scrutiny of their legal status[50]. Ex-prisoners, homeless people, and survivors of abuse can also be reluctant to interact with people in positions of authority[26,27,31,35]. Among disabled people and those living with chronic conditions, fear and distrust of the benefits system have been widely identified as barriers to claiming benefits[41,43,49,54].

4.3.3. Experience of trauma and violence

Experiences of trauma and violence – sometimes at the hands of authorities - can also act as barriers to claiming for marginalised people, including veterans, survivors of abuse, refugees, ex-prisoners, and homeless people[27,31,35,55]. The Refugee Council notes that people experiencing trauma-related mental health conditions (such as PTSD) are often highly reluctant to talk about their experiences. For this reason, they are at risk of missing out on disability benefits[55]. Qualtiative research conducted as part of a Scottish Government evaluation of the Job Start Payment identified previous traumatic experiences of contact with social services as a barrier to engaging with the social security system for some care-experienced people[56].

There is evidence that past negative, sometimes traumatising, experiences of claiming benefits can be a significant barrier to social security benefit take-up[41,43,53]. For example, research conducted on behalf of the Trussell Trust found that some disability benefit claimants experienced the application form, assessment, appeal and review process as traumatic and degrading. The requirement to focus on worst days, limitations and tasks and activities that cannot be achieved, can also act as a significant barrier to claiming for some disabled people[41,43,57,58]. Similarly, some applicants for Scotland’s Child Disability Payment have reported finding the application process “emotionally challenging” due to the requirement to document the impacts of their child’s disability[59]. The requirement to disclose and evidence abuse has also been identified as a barrier to applying for benefits among survivors of abuse[35].

4.4. Who is marginalised by learning barriers?

4.4.1. System complexity

The complexity of the benefits system has also been identified as a serious barrier to accessing benefits for marginalised people[16,19,57]. A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation study exploring how social security can deliver for disabled people in Scotland concluded that a benefits system “littered with add-ons and extras” was experienced by disabled people as “confusing, exhausting and inefficient”[49].

Knowing where to go, how to apply and how systems interact (or not) with each other can be a particular barrier for recent arrivals such as refugees and migrants, established older migrants, and people with learning difficulties or learning disabilities[26,29,41,43,60,61,62,63,64]. Research with callers to their helpline conducted by Age UK found that older people frequently assumed that information was shared between departments and, if they were in receipt of a State Pension or Attendance Allowance, they would automatically be awarded any other entitlements[29].

System complexity can also be a barrier to take-up for people with little previous experience of claiming benefits, such as people taking on unpaid caring roles, including kinship carers and young carers[38,65,66]. Evidence suggests that peer-knowledge and informal networks can play important roles in informing people about their entitlements and how to apply for benefits[6,41,50]. However, there is also evidence that socially isolated older people, and terminally ill people and their families, often lack peer support from people with knowledge and experience of claiming benefits[32,33,41,67].

In the case of devolved benefits, there are concerns that the requirement to interact with two systems (Social Security Scotland and the DWP) will create further complexity and additional barriers to take-up among some groups. In their evidence given to the Scottish Government committee, the Council for Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations Scotland noted the concern that “people will lose out on benefit entitlements due to the increasingly confused welfare benefits landscape” created by the parallel reserved and devolved systems[61].

4.4.2. Accessing information

Lack of awareness and information on benefits and eligibility criteria have been widely identified, across a range of marginalised groups, as contributing to low take-up rates[5,6,12,28,29,36,37,38,43,68,69].

Understanding eligibility presents challenges for several marginalised groups. There is evidence that disabled people frequently do not define themselves as disabled and, therefore, can miss out on disability benefits[28,41,43]. In a similar way, some unpaid carers – particularly in minoritised ethnic communities - do not identify with the role, missing out on carers’ benefits[29,38].

Information on eligibility and how to claim can be complex and, therefore, inaccessible for people with English as a second language, people with low levels of functional literacy and people with little prior experience of the benefits system[6,37,61]. Again, it is important to note the potential for intersectionality: it has been observed that, while good-quality translated information is necessary for non-native English speakers, it is not always sufficient for people who are not functionally literate in their native language[50]. Formal English can be inaccessible for non-native English speakers. Complex information can also create barriers for people with impairments and health conditions that effect their energy levels, cognition and ability to engage with complex information[28,41,62].

Accessing accurate information can present barriers for some groups. For example, there is evidence that misinformation or ‘fake news’ can circulate in some marginalised communities and discourage people from taking up their entitlements[61].

4.4.3. Accessing support

As reported below in Section 5.3.2., accessing support to make a claim appears to be a vital and effective way of improving benefit take-up among marginalised groups. However, a lack of knowledge of where to go for support can present a barrier to claiming[6,37,41]. Some groups are marginalised from support by language and/or literacy barriers while others are marginalised by a lack of internet access or digital literacy. Research with people from minoritised ethnic communities has found that many feel marginalised from information about benefits and support to claim them[61,70]. Trusted sources of support within minoritised ethnic communities can lack the specialist knowledge and capacity needed to support people with benefit claims[61]. The complex legal rules around entitlements for asylum seekers and refugees create additional barriers to good-quality support[61].

Other people struggle to physically access support due to difficulties with travel or mobility[32,41]. For example, house-bound older people, people with impairments and health conditions and those with terminal illness all face barriers accessing support services. Caring commitments have also been shown to act as barriers to accessing support[32,33,41]. Increasingly, support to claim is lacking and there is evidence that reduction, fragmentation and withdrawal of services providing support with benefit claims are creating significant barriers to improve take-up among marginalised communities[28,41].

People who are more likely to live largely outside of formal social systems such as education, health care and social security, for example, Gypsy/Traveller and Romani people, refugees and migrant workers, can face particular barriers to accessing support to help them claim[24,36,50]. An evaluation of Scotland’s Young Carers’ Grant found that ‘hidden carers’ – those not engaged with young carer services – were particularly marginalised from the benefit[38].

4.5. Who is marginalised by compliance barriers?

4.5.1. Application processes

Benefit application processes can act as major barriers to applying among many marginalised groups[5,6,38]. The Refugee Council found evidence of initial underscoring of refugees in disability benefit assessments, leading to them being denied benefits and subject to inappropriate work-related activity requirements for Universal Credit[55]. The requirements of the disability benefit applications are experienced as particularly burdensome by people with terminal illness, mental health conditions, fluctuating or less visible conditions, and learning disabilities/difficulties[32,33,41,43,62]. A survey conducted by the National Autism Society found that people with autism frequently experienced severe challenges when applying for benefits[62].

The move towards ‘digital-first’ applications can act as a barrier for marginalised people. For example, refugees, non-native English speakers, disabled people, and older adults are all at increased risk of digital exclusion from the benefits system due to lack of digital literacy, lack of access to digital devices, and fears about fraud and scams[29,41,70,71]. Digital exclusion has been identified as a particularly serious barrier to benefit take-up among Gypsy/Traveller and Roma communities[47,72].

4.5.2. Proving eligibility

Providing evidence of eligibility has also been identified as a barrier to benefit take-up for marginalised groups[31,32,33,35,35,41,64,73]. The requirements to prove the impact of a condition acts as a barrier for people with disabilities, impairments and chronic ill-health[41,43,51]. Less visible conditions, including mental health conditions, and conditions that fluctuate over time are especially difficult to evidence[41,43,51]. Providing evidence of terminal illness can be challenging too for people at the end of life. The Department for Work and Pensions has in place Special Rules for Terminal Illness payments which require medical confirmation that a person has 12 months or less to live (recently increased from six months). This is especially difficult to predict for people with conditions such as motor neurone disease (MND), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and dementia, and many people die each year without receiving the benefits to which they were entitled[32,33,73]. The Scottish Government definition of terminal illness does not put a time frame around life expectancy. However, a claimant must still provide medical evidence that they have a progressive disease that can reasonably be expected to cause their death.

Providing evidence of eligibility in terms of legal entitlement to claim (citizenship status) or employment status can be challenging for people with ‘irregular’ status such as refugees and migrant workers or precariously employed people[64]. Survivors of abuse have been found to face several challenges to evidencing a claim. Many women escaping abuse leave without any personal effects or have their evidence withheld by their abuser. These women struggle to provide evidence of their identity or proof of address[31,35]. Survivors of abuse can also face challenges in proving their relationship status. To be granted a Domestic Violence Exemption, which gives Universal Credit claimants a 13-week exemption from work-related activity, requires evidence of abuse within the last six months. Not all survivors are able to provide this evidence[31]. Finally, a Scottish Government evaluation of the Job Start Payment found that some care leavers faced difficulties in evidencing their care-leaver status[56].

4.5.3. Decision delays

Even for those whose claims are successful, barriers to take-up can remain. As described in Section 3, underclaiming of benefits can take several forms. Lengthy waits for application decisions can impact take-up by depriving people of financial support to which they are found to be entitled. Although successful claimants’ payments will be backdated to the date they applied, long periods of time without financial support can drive people into debt that must subsequently be repaid from their benefit income[43]. This is particularly problematic for prisoners, who are not permitted to make a claim until they are released from custody, and refugees who are not permitted to claim until they receive confirmation of their refugee status[50,74]. Delays in decision-making have also been found to impact people with terminal illness, who may die before they receive their entitlements[32,33]. The British Red Cross suggested that the Universal Credit application process marginalises refugees due to aspects of their design; for example, the five-week wait for payment, and lengthy delays that occur when people register a change of contact details[71].

4.5.4. Conditionality

Finally, many benefits require successful claimants to comply with a range of conditions. Conditionality and compliance requirements can create a range of barriers for people from marginalised groups. Lacking a fixed address or banking services creates barriers to applying for and receiving benefits for homeless or precariously housed people (including recently released prisoners), refugees and asylum seekers, migrant workers, and survivors of abuse[75,71,31,76,77]. There is evidence that people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities/difficulties can struggle to meet the requirements of complying with the work-related activity requirements of Universal Credit[43].

Some marginalised groups are subject to rules limiting the value of benefits they are entitled to (e.g., families with three or more children – including some kinship carers, or people judged to be under-occupying their homes) or are largely excluded from accessing benefits (e.g., people with no recourse to public funds).



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