Finding out about benefits
There was agreement among participants that there was no 'hard and fast rule' that had helped them find out about benefits that they might be entitled to. Many described a long process of gathering different types of information from various sources. Internet search engines and online government websites were the primary source of information for some. Others said they were more likely to trust online forums run by Turn2Us and other charities. Online forums were seen as a safe starting point to learn of other's experiences and make a decision whether to proceed further in an application.
Specific organisations were also mentioned as a source of information. These included the UK and Scottish Governments, the JobCentre, Citizen's Advice, Welfare Rights, SAMH, Child Poverty Action, and the Money Advice Service. Specialist advocacy groups who were experts on a specific disability or health condition were described as particularly helpful. Others said that they had discovered information through media advertising in local and national newspapers, on television, on social media, and in the streets. Many also said that they had found out information about the benefits system through word of mouth through people they knew.
Not aware of certain benefits
Participants described their experiences of being unaware of different benefits that they were entitled to in the past. These included benefits such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Attendance Allowance (AA), Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Carer's Allowance Supplement (CAS), Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) and Winter Fuel Payment (WFP).
It was felt that specific benefits were often discovered by chance. Some discussed difficult experiences of having to learn about the benefits system later in their life. Many spoke about the problem of not having access to the right information. Other respondents described their experiences of being overwhelmed by too much information about eligibility in the past. There were also several warnings about the negative impact of information spread by word of mouth. A number of participants said that it was possible to be influenced against applying for a benefit because of things that they had heard.
Approaching an organisation for information
There was a general consensus among participants that independent sources of advice were more approachable than official government sources. There was a common preference for 'getting away' from official organisations. Participants expressed concerns that it was difficult to have an honest conversation about a personal situation with a government official. It was felt that charities and independent organisations were easier to trust and more likely to be on their side. Independent organisations were also thought to have a unique understanding of specific conditions and disabilities. This meant they could give useful advice about how an individual's situation should be described in an application.
Participant's views towards particular organisations (e.g. Citizen's Advice, the Job Centre) were often mixed. Views towards organisations often depended on the quality of service that an individual staff member had given them. Several talked about their experiences with staff who wanted to provide support and other staff that were less willing or able to help. They agreed that having a personal ongoing relationship with a staff member who was familiar with their situation was very important. This personal relationship was felt to be more possible with staff who worked in smaller organisations.
Promoting Social Security Scotland benefits
Some participants felt that Social Security Scotland needed to put more information materials in places that people visit as part of their daily lives. Suggested locations for leaflets and other promotional materials included local charities and social groups, doctor's surgeries and hospitals, schools and nurseries, and workplaces. Others talked about opportunities for Social Security Scotland to run publicity campaigns and advertise its benefits on television, radio, and social media.
Others questioned how effective these tools might be at encouraging people to make applications and take up benefits. They described how picking up a leaflet or seeing an advertisement might give them more awareness of a benefit, but would not necessarily give them enough confidence to apply for it. These participants said they and others they knew would be hesitant to apply for a benefit unless they could speak about it with someone they trusted. They felt it was important that Social Security Scotland had a way of communicating with trusted community networks that would encourage those who were eligible to trust the process. Participants suggested that Social Security Scotland could not build this kind of long-term trust with certain vulnerable groups. Instead, it needed to make use of the carefully built and trusted networks of charities and local groups that already existed in Scotland.
Improving the language and tone of public information
Several described how the language and tone of information materials in the past had not filled them with confidence in application processes. Some participants felt that Social Security Scotland needed to use information materials to make it clear that it was separate from the Department for Work and Pensions. These participants spoke about the opportunity of creating a new brand of Social Security Scotland that could provide a clear and positive message.
Several suggested that Social Security Scotland could include positive stories in its information materials. It was felt that if someone picked up a benefit and could read about someone's lived experience claiming the benefit, this could encourage them to apply. One participant wondered if information about Social Security Scotland could be presented in more creative ways. They suggested that information about eligibility and accessing a benefit could be presented with pictures or cartoons. They felt that this would make the information appear less intimidating, and would be more likely to reach younger audiences.
Reasons to think twice about applying for benefits
Participants talked about a combination of things that had made them think twice about applying for a benefit in the past. Many spoke about the struggle to fully recognise and accept that they needed additional support. They described the difficulty of facing up to their own disability and admitting to themselves and others that they needed help. Participants then discussed how they had to build up courage before applying for a benefit or challenging a decision. A sense of having to build up courage was particularly expressed by participants who spoke about making applications with a hidden disability.
Several described thinking twice over a benefits application because they did not want their life to feel more restricted. These participants described a difficult balance of priorities and sacrifices they had to weigh up when deciding to apply. They felt that while applying for a benefit could provide them with more financial support, it could also mean sacrificing privacy and freedom at the same time. One particularly common view was that stigma and social pressure had prevented participants from applying for benefits until they needed it, rather than when they were eligible. They described how delaying an application often meant they were more vulnerable by the time they applied.
Many also described how stigma from other people or wider society had made them think twice about applying for something they were eligible for. Many talked about not wanting to be seen to take 'handouts' or be judged by others. Some participants spoke especially about social pressure for men not to show a 'weakness.' It was felt by several that stigma around accessing benefits had caused them to behave differently and become much more private.
Experiences of stigma
Participants talked about a variety of places that harmful social attitudes about the benefits system came from. The media (television, newspapers, social media) was felt to have created harmful myths about benefits claimants. Many described feeling personally affected by public attitudes formed by TV programmes and newspapers. They felt that these forms of media portrayed the entire community of benefits claimants as 'scroungers' who were deliberately trying to overuse or deceive the welfare system.
Participants also spoke about how they had felt stigmatised by the actions and behaviours of government and political figures in the past. While others spoke about their experiences of feeling stigma from people they knew in their neighbourhoods and local communities. Some discussed how these attitudes had caused them to watch their back for wrongful fraud accusations from neighbours. Others talked about keeping their claim secret from their friends because of the judgement they would get. A number of participants spoke specifically about their experience of stigma towards benefits in rural locations. It was felt that negative rumours and ill will could quickly form about someone who was 'living off the state.'
Ways for Social Security Scotland to challenge stigma
There was agreement that Social Security Scotland needed to try to re-balance the negative perceptions of people who claimed benefits. Positive stories of individual's journeys were thought to be important to challenge stereotypes about the people who claim benefits. A number of case studies were suggested that could show how benefits were essential to support normal people's lives. Stories of claimants that could challenge public perceptions around hidden disabilities, 'laziness', or fraud were suggested. Others wanted stories to be told of claimants who had worked all their life and been forced into claiming benefits due to health conditions. Some suggested case studies about claimants who would use their money to build their business or contribute to the local economy. Several also wondered whether stories could use more high profile figures – such as professionals or celebrities - who have used the benefits system.
Participants also spoke about the need to educate the population about the benefits system. There were calls for Social Security Scotland to address beliefs among citizens that they were paying large sums of their tax directly towards the benefits system. Some also mentioned the need for clear messaging about commonly scapegoated groups such as disabled people and immigrants. Several also talked about options for Social Security Scotland to provide information for school curriculums to cover the benefits system and poverty in greater detail. It was felt that teaching children the facts about the benefits system would help to change attitudes in the long term.
Improving application and assessments processes
There was a consensus that application forms and health assessments had worn down participants when they had tried to access what they were entitled to. These participants described how it had been highly stressful to follow all of the steps and complete application forms accurately. They also said how it had been difficult to know how to answer certain questions on their own.
Others spoke generally about how difficult health assessments had been for them. Some talked about how the thought of being assessed filled them with dread. Others spoke about their fear about an assessor trying to catch them out. A number of participants spoke about how they had not been assessed by someone with the correct medical expertise. They talked about how assessors had not been trained to fully understand hidden disabilities or certain health conditions.  Participants felt that Social Security Scotland assessors should be able to look at a client's situation and then signpost them to a number of benefits that they might be eligible for.
Some participants described how geography made it difficult for them to access services. They described how they or others they knew had been isolated in rural areas that were not well connected by transport or the internet. Participants also spoke about their experiences of living in rural locations and how it had made them more hesitant to seek support. These discussions spoke about physical access issues as well as social aspects of living in rural communities – such as stigma.
Supporting the most vulnerable
A number of participants spoke about how it was harder for particular groups of people to access the support that they were entitled to. Some talked about how it was particularly hard for people that were homeless to access the benefits system. Others said that it was difficult for people they knew who had no internet to access what they were entitled to. Several spoke about how it was difficult for people that were experiencing domestic violence to access the support that they were entitled to.
The combination of many barriers
At the end of the focus group sessions, we asked participants what they felt were the most significant barriers that they had experienced that had stopped or delayed them from getting what they were entitled to. In response, some participants spoke about fear and the courage that was needed to approach and challenge the government. Others felt the largest barriers were the administrative processes – application forms and assessments – that they had encountered in the past. Several talked about stigma towards the benefits system and how that had developed over time in Britain.
However, there were many who said that there was not one single barrier that they had experienced most above all others. Instead, these participants suggested that there was a combination of barriers which had stopped or delayed them from accessing what they supposed to. These factors 'piled on top' of each other and made accessing the benefits system difficult for a number of different reasons. It was felt that Social Security Scotland needed to address a range of different barriers at the same time to help people claim what they were entitled to.
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