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Social Security Experience Panels: fraud and error – report

This report summarises the results from eight focus groups with Experience Panel members, which asked how Social Security Scotland should approach fraud and error.

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Language

Participants were then asked questions about the type of language that was used in information materials about error and fraud.

Clarity

Many felt that application forms and information materials needed to be clearer and more accessible. Using straightforward language would help to reduce the number of errors that were made when applications were made.

"The majority of people do not want to claim for something that they are not entitled to. It's about having the clarity there, to make sure people know what they are eligible for."

Some said it would be useful to have clear definitions, explaining 'error' and 'fraud' on information that was given to the public. They said that they would want clear factual information about what would happen if a fraud was suspected. A few participants also felt that the language should provide a clear sense of the consequences of fraud. Applicants and clients should know the seriousness of the committing fraud. However, participants felt that this information should be communicated in facts, rather than threats.

"It should be clear, concise, understandable that if they do make a false statement that they need to pay it back."

"People should be told it's a criminal offence, you are committing a criminal offence and this can be taken through the courts."

Several participants felt that it might be useful to state that benefits were there to help those who really needed it. Others suggested that fraud and error information should use bold text to emphasise key messages. However, others thought there was a danger that this might appear too aggressive.

Tone

Many were concerned that overly aggressive or intimidating language could have a damaging effect on applicants and claimants.

Some suggested that aggressive phrases of information materials could make people:

- feel more anxious and threatened

- feel more stigmatised

- more likely to make a mistake on applications

- less likely to come forward if they did make a mistake

- less likely to apply for benefits at all

Several participants said that they would not want language that felt overly intrusive and gave them an impression that they were being watched.

"I think the language has to be a lot less aggressive than now. My aunt filled in a PIP form, and the form comes across like 'we are watching you! If you tell lies we will know.' She was convinced that the language was there to scare. If you say we will try and find error, it stops people from coming forward when they have made a mistake. Language needs to be open and honest."

"There's some types of language that don't help, such as 'are you sure that you are entitled?' and 'have you told the truth?' All these things, giving people great big warnings, make a vast majority of honest people very edgy without criteria. Makes people feel scared."

"So many clients are vulnerable people so you need to be careful how you communicate with them."

Many said the approach needed to be softer and more supportive in tone. Some talked about the kind of language that could help reduce a reaction of panic and fear.

"When someone is suspected of committing fraud, send letters out saying they are not taking someone to court. It should say they need to discuss the details with you first to get a proper explanation of everything that has happened and you should be able to respond to it."

"You could use: 'it has come to our attention...' or, 'are you aware that you have been paid this money?' or, 'we think we might have found a problem.' Those would be ways that could provide a bit more support and less of a threat in the first contact."

"Don't make language sound too harsh. People may be forced into that situation. You need to reinforce the principles of fairness of respect."

Use of legal language

Participants were divided about the use of legal language in information about fraud. For some, legal terms made the system more intimidating. They thought that legal language could create a sense of 'us and them' between claimants and authorities. They also felt that legal terms could sometimes be hard to understand.

"The language needs to be clear, simple, and not too legalistic."

"The information that comes through, they are writing it as if you are in court. It would be better if letters were written in layman's terms."

For others, it was important to have a softer and friendlier tone, but continue to have a legal message at the same time. These participants felt that legal terms were appropriate because they signalled the serious nature of the agreement that a client was undertaking. They thought that legal language was useful because it also helped to inform clients that fraud was a serious offence. It was also felt that legal terms helped discourage those who might want to take advantage of the system.

"People need to be told that fraud is a criminal offence; you could be committing a criminal offence and this can be taken through the courts."

Contact

Email: Socialsecurityexperience@gov.scot

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