Social Security Experience Panels - ethnic minorities: report

This report is on research with ethnic minority groups about their past experiences of social security and the barriers that exist to them in accessing support. It provides information about the steps Social Security Scotland is taking to help overcome these barriers.

This document is part of a collection


Unaware of the support available

Many participants described how they were not aware of support, such as benefits, that might be available to them from the government. Some said they did not know which organisations or people could inform them about specific benefits. A number of participants - particularly in the sessions conducted with older groups - spoke about how they and others they knew were not exposed to information because they were socially isolated. These participants felt that information was difficult to find if they didn’t know anyone who had applied in the past. Several said that they didn’t visit the types of organisations where they could find out more. 

Others said that they had been unable to access information that was available online. Some said they couldn’t find information because they didn’t have smart phones, tablets, or computers in their household. While several felt they didn’t have the digital skills to access information on government websites or social media. A few also talked about how they struggled to trust online information because of suspicions about online hacking or fraud.

There were other participants who described having a small amount of knowledge about the benefits system, but described feeling confused about what specific support they could apply for. They talked about a lack of clear information about eligibility criteria. Several described not knowing which authorities were the providers of different benefits. These participants described feeling unsure about who provided disability and ill-health benefits, or employment support, or boiler schemes, or blue badges. There was also a general confusion about changes in responsibilities between the UK Government and Scottish Government.[3] 

Ways of finding out about specific benefits

Other participants had more knowledge of the benefits system. These participants described the various ways that they had previously learnt about specific benefits they might be entitled to. Some had used organisations such as their local Job Centre, Citizen’s Advice Bureau, or council office. Others had learnt about specific benefits from local charities, health visitors, government websites, and social media. 

However, most participants – across both younger and older groups - agreed that word of mouth was the most common way that they had learnt about any additional support. Many described how they had heard about specific benefits through friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, local community centres, and schools. For some, they felt that they relied on word of mouth because they did not know where else to go for information. While others felt that they relied on their local networks because local advice and experiences were more trustworthy than the advice that was available through larger organisations. It was generally felt that it was easiest to talk about social security in familiar settings with familiar people.

Places for Social Security Scotland to promote its benefits

Participants generally felt that Social Security Scotland should promote its benefits in places that were frequently used and trusted by ethnic minorities. Some suggested that Social Security Scotland should build partnerships with local charities and ethnic minority advice centres. Others suggested that specific benefits could be promoted in places of worship such as Mosques, Temples, and Gurdwaras. Other locations that were suggested included: day centres, nurseries, schools, the post office, libraries, GP clinics, pharmacies, dentists, local Asian radio networks, and popular social media sites. 

Generally, participants agreed that written information in leaflets and letters were useful to inform potential applicants. However, many felt that face to face communication was the best way for share information with those who had the lowest levels of awareness.

Language barriers and creating accessible public information

Many participants described how language barriers made it difficult for them and others they knew to access support. Some talked about how they struggled to feel able to approach a system that only provided information in English, which was not their first language. Others discussed the practical problems of fully understanding information and guidance about eligibility criteria on leaflets, social media, and websites. 

Many agreed it would help if information materials about Social Security Scotland benefits were translated into different languages and dialects – such as Hindi, Urdu, Cantonese, and Mandarin. The idea of multi-lingual resources (such as a multi-language booklet) was popular for a number of reasons. For some, it was felt that multi-lingual resources would encourage more to apply for what they were entitled to. Others thought they would also help to reduce the number of application errors that came from a misinterpretation of language. Several argued that multi-lingual materials would help to show the public that Social Security Scotland was inclusive to different cultures. 

Contacting Social Security Scotland by phone

Participants generally agreed it was important that ethnic minorities felt able to make contact with Social Security Scotland when they needed to. Many described past experiences of feeling isolated because they hadn’t wanted to handle issues over the phone. For some, they did not feel comfortable speaking in English to authorities, which had made it difficult to make contact and clarify information in the past. It was suggested that Social Security Scotland could create a multi-language phone line to give those with limited English an opportunity to make contact and handle their case independently. Some suggested the idea of Social Security Scotland using external interpreters and wondered if they could create an interpretation service similar to the NHS Language Line.

A number of participants spoke about the importance of automated introduction messages on helplines. There was concern that introduction messages are sometimes only provided in English. Some suggested that Social Security Scotland could have a language helpline with an introduction message in the appropriate language or dialect, followed by either a dial through to a staff member, or else a way to leave a message and get a call-back if lines were busy.

Interpreters, other third party support, and video communication

Most spoke in some way about the need for Social Security Scotland to communicate inclusively with those who were not confident with their English. However, some participants suggested that they would not always feel comfortable using a third-party interpreter to help them with their claim. They described applications and ongoing contact about a claim as often deeply personal and they wouldn’t want to share that information with any third-party interpreter. A few also spoke about negative experiences of using interpreters in the past, and felt that external interpreters could not always be relied upon. 

Some participants also wondered whether Social Security Scotland could do more to communicate with the public by video. These participants said that although it wouldn’t necessarily be accessible to everyone, video communication would benefit some. Video chat communication between clients and client advisors was suggested as one option. Others thought that Social Security Scotland could create more guidance videos to support clients through different processes like applications and appeals.

Interacting with staff

Participants generally spoke about how the behaviour of public sector staff had made it harder to access the benefits system in the past. Some said they had been discouraged from using the system after staff had been rude or hostile to them. Others said that they had been treated unfairly because of their ethnic background, such as because of the way they looked, their name, or the way that they spoke. 

A few talked about how awkward moments with staff – both on the phone and in person - had made them less likely to persevere with the system. Several said that Social Security Scotland should have guidance for staff that would help them support ethnic minorities. They thought it would be helpful if staff were trained to be ready to offer to speak at a slower pace. Some said it would be useful if Social Security Scotland staff could proactively tell applicants and clients about other support that was available (such as advocates). They also felt that Social Security Scotland staff should have an understanding of different cultures in Scotland and how to respect them. 

Application and appeals 

Many participants said that they had been unclear about how various processes in the system worked. Some described feeling helpless when they had tried to complete applications for specific benefits. Several said that they were also unsure about how processes for reconsiderations and appeals worked. A few talked about how they had encountered problems using the system once they had successfully applied and started claiming a benefit. They said that they had continued to find it hard to understand what was required of them as a claimant.


Participants spoke about it being common for ethnic minorities to be conscious of the stigma that was associated with claiming benefits. Some described how they had felt embarrassed or ashamed about receiving ‘charity.’ Others said they were worried about people they knew finding out that they were claiming support. Several said they had not applied for benefits because they felt they would have to make changes to their lifestyle if they started to claim. They said that they chose not to claim because they didn’t want to feel like they couldn’t treat themselves or go out occasionally. 

There was a general agreement that Social Security Scotland needed to change the culture and encourage the idea that benefits are a ‘right’ to those who are entitled to them. It was felt that the word ‘entitlement’ provided a less stigmatising message than ‘benefit’ or ‘charity.’

Other social barriers

A number of participants described how it was common for older ethnic minority people to rely on the help of their children or friends. Several said that because older people were less likely to manage their affairs independently, this meant that it was possible for them to know very little about their claim. It was also thought that this made older people more vulnerable to financial abuse. They felt it would be a good thing if older people were encouraged to manage their claim on their own.

Many spoke about how they or others they knew could feel isolated from support. Some talked about how they were reluctant to reach out because they didn’t want to feel like they were a burden for society. Others said that if they contacted authorities, they would feel like they were bothering them. Several wondered if Social Security Scotland could find ways to empower isolated people who were not currently confident enough to ask for help. 

Using these findings – Next steps:

Insights from this research are being used to shape the service that Social Security Scotland offers to ethnic minorities in Scotland. 

In line with suggestions in this research, Social Security Scotland now has a number of processes in place to ensure that its services can be accessed in different languages. It partners with ‘Global Connects’ to ensure that people can request foreign language interpreters when they make contact with Social Security Scotland. Clients and applicants are also able to request application forms and information (such as letters and guidance) in a foreign language. 

In addition, Social Security Scotland has translated a number of ‘factsheets’ into Braille and eight separate languages including Farsi, Urdu, Gaelic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic.[4]

In line with the findings around the importance of local organisations, Social Security Scotland staff are currently working to build relationships in local areas. Once fully operational, the new local delivery service will help promote benefit take-up by reaching a diverse range of people in their local communities and supporting them through application processes.  

Insights from the work are also being used to ensure that Social Security Scotland staff are able to treat all members of the public with dignity, fairness, and respect. This includes feeding findings into the design of inclusive training materials for staff. 



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