Social Security Experience Panels: benefit take-up – report

This report covers findings from research with Social Security Experience Panels members about their experiences of accessing the benefit system.

This document is part of a collection

Approaching an organisation for information

We asked participants whether they had found some organisations to be more approachable than others in the past.

Approachable, independent advice

There was a general consensus among participants that independent sources of advice were more approachable than official government sources. Independent charities and organisations were thought to be more approachable for a number of reasons. Participants described that they were: 

  • More likely to 'be on your side.' 
  • More likely to provide all the information needed. 
  • More likely to be transparent about the process of applying. 
  • More like to understand the fears of the system. 
  • Less likely to be judgemental.

"Action for M.E. and the M.E. Association have excellent benefit services. You automatically know that they are on your side." 

"With them, you trust that what you say will not go any further. It's non-judgemental. It's to do with trusting people and them not judging you."

Participants spoke about the empathy of independent charities and how they created safe atmospheres to talk through questions about the system. They described that having an independent expert to trust, away from the government, was a huge help. 

"These organisations have people who know the system and can advise the best course of action. They have an online chat and so on. So it's like support is never far away. It's like a food bank. They're there – but they really shouldn't have to be."

Participants also described that a key part of approaching certain organisations was the nature of the advice that they were likely to receive. Several described how specific organisations and charities would have a unique understanding of specific conditions and disabilities. Certain charities knew how to support clients with that unique experience and could advise in how to describe their situation in an application.

"You just look for a credible person in your corner. It's not about trying to cheat your way into the system. It's about how you describe your situation."

"I liked the Child Brain Injury Trust because we all understood each other. I had just completed my applications that nearly killed me. It's very difficult to explain my son's condition. There's lots of pages involved. When I have support of people who understand it, is easier to help. Like 'What did you put for that question?'"

Uncomfortable in 'official' atmospheres

Many said that they would want to avoid government as much as possible for information. There was a common view of 'getting away' from official organisations and seeking help through those who were on the side of the claimant. 

"You want to get as far away as possible from the benefits organisations. You just want to be in the hands of the people who fight things for you." 

There were worries that it was difficult to have a fully honest conversation about a personal situation with the government. Participants described concerns that conversations with government officials would lead them to get in trouble with other agencies – e.g. social services, the justice system.

"One of the most important things is reassuring people that claiming one benefit won't result into wider enquiries by social services or the police. For example, if someone has cannabis, they shouldn't feel afraid to apply to social security. Social Security Scotland have to understand that people are frightened by a 'big brother' government."

Importance of individual staff 

A number of participants described how they had experienced problems when going to specific organisations in the past. Some participants described positive experiences with specific organisations that provide support to people applying for benefits. But then others were more critical of the same organisations. Views quite often depended on the quality of the individual service that was provided by a single staff member in the moment. 

"The people at one charity are brilliant. But then I didn't get anywhere with the people at another charity."

A number of respondents discussed how their experiences of organisations had been shaped by individual members of staff. Several talked about their experiences of staff who wanted to provide support and other staff that were less willing or able to help. They agreed that having an 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. 

"It's a willingness to help too. People who have gone through the same process are happy to help the people who struggle, there's a lot of empathy in play there. A lot of the time with the DWP there isn't any empathy."

"With the exception of certain organisations like the DWP, my experience has generally been determined by the individual I have dealt with. Some staff want to help but they can't. I've been to charities near me and there was one good person. It really depends on the person. I had a bad experience with a guy at the JobCentre. But he wasn't nasty or evil, he just hadn't been trained." 



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