Social Security Experience Panels - Seldom Heard research programme: carers and care experienced

This report presents the main findings of the first wave of research with carers and care experienced people as part of the ‘Seldom Heard Voices’ research programme.

This document is part of a collection

Enablers and views on improvement of the benefit system

Positive experiences (enablers) around the benefit system were also identified through the online survey, interviews and focus groups. Some also shared their thoughts on how the system can be improved. Key enablers and views on improvement are outlined below.

Multi-channel access

Carers and care experienced respondents and participants suggested that having a range of choices to get information, apply for benefits and to find guidance would improve access to benefits as it would take into account the different communication needs of different groups and their circumstances.

It was clear that respondents would prefer to use different methods at different times as some chose multiple methods when asked about their preferences for getting information (see Table 8). Over half (56%) said they would want to get such information online, almost half (47%) also wanted the option of written information (such as leaflets or flyers) close to half (44%) selected ‘other organisations or professionals’ as an information source and around a third (31%) wanted their information to come from Job Centre Plus.

Table 8: How would you prefer to get information about any benefits you are entitled to in the future? (n=59)
Online 56
Written information - written leaflets, flyers, etc 47
Other organisations/professionals 44
Jobcentre Plus 31
Friends/family 17
Newspapers/magazines 12
Other 3

When asked how they would like to apply for benefits (Table 9), most (56%) said that they would prefer online, about a third (34%), said they would like to apply face-to-face with the remaining 10% favouring paper methods.

Table 9: What would be your preferred way to apply for benefits in future? (n=59)
Online 56
Face-to-face 34
Paper 10
Other 0
Total 100

Similarly, participants from the focus groups and interviews had a range of preferences for how to access information, how to apply for benefits and how to get support. These included: online, face to face, written information and telephone. For information in particular, a few suggested advertising through various channels such as radio and TV.

As for online sources of information, carers and care experienced people mentioned government websites and social media platforms as key. They did stress, however; that it was important for official websites to be clear and easy to navigate (more below).

Many also stated the need to offer written information in different forms such as letters through the post and information packs in the form of booklets and leaflets.

Participants and respondents would like to see written information in a variety of public places in order to reach the most people. They gave the examples of GP surgeries, other NHS services, schools, libraries, housing offices, and benefits and social security offices.

Many suggested a comprehensive provision of information, support and guidance should be offered by benefit staff, to counteract the barriers set out above. In addition, several suggested that key workers from different services they interact with could act as enablers by providing information and support with application processes. These included: health professionals, social workers, support workers, teachers, financial advisors and welfare and housing officers.

Several mentioned their preferences for face-to-face and individual guidance and support with staff from benefit agencies. Many felt that with this support, they would be able to navigate application processes more effectively and be more confident that they had complete application forms correctly.

“I’d prefer to do it face-to-face so they can advise you as you go along. The last thing I expected at my age was to be looking after a four and five-year-old, with all the panel meetings, and courts, I didn’t expect to be doing this at my time of life. So a wee bit more help would be good.”

[Kinship/foster carers and adoptive parent, interview]

“More face to face, personal and individual lead support & advice.”

[Young parent, online survey]

A few people in the research highlighted the importance of providing information and guidance via home visits for some groups.

Ultimately, carers and care experienced people in our research stressed that in order for the different sources and channels of communication to be enabling as opposed to barriers and to ensure inclusivity and accessibility; it was necessary to provide the full range of options.

“Online is nice because it’s convenient. Some people might find it more intimidating to sit in front of an official person and have to be interviewed by them, whereas it’s nice to be able to put everything you think down on a bit of paper and submit it without having to deal face-to-face with someone. But I also think it might be helpful to deal face-to-face with someone because I was confused about what to write for certain things. So, it might be better to have the option of doing it face-to-face so that you can talk it through with someone and pull out the relevant information.”

[Single parent, interview]

“Having a different way for applying cause everyone might like to do things differently.”

[Care experienced respondent, online survey]

Consistent, comprehensive and streamlined information

As well as being able to access information through different channels, respondents and participants stressed the need for information on, in particular, eligibility criteria and for application processes to be consistent, comprehensive, clear and easy to understand.

One suggestion was to set out clear directions, for different benefits, different circumstances and different support needs; for clients to follow. These routes could signpost people to information on benefit entitlements with their qualifying criteria and the available support for specific circumstances and situations. It was also suggested a checklist to review if the client is following all the steps appropriately.

“Easy to understand information either in information booklets or online about what each benefit is and guideline as to who would be able to apply.”

[Kinship/foster carers and adoptive parent, online survey]

Several suggested that application forms should be worded in plain English, should be shorter with reduced duplication of questions. Many respondents and participants stated that forms should be designed with more flexibility so that clients can convey their specific circumstances.

“Make the forms more friendly, with less jargon.”

[Kinship/foster carers and adoptive parent,, interview]

The people in the research thought that to avoid confusion and misinformation for the client all the information and support provided by staff from agencies, public services and third sector organisations should be consistent, simplified and streamlined. This joined-up approach would help people navigate the benefit system.

“I think all the information you find online versus what you get through word of mouth needs to match up so there needs to be a training review in terms of Job Centre staff”.

“…it should be more joined up, they should talk to each other, more linked up.”

[Single parents, focus group]

Knowledgeable and empathetic staff

Many people in our research emphasised the need for staff of benefit agencies to be appropriately trained in order to have a comprehensive understanding of benefits and interactions across benefits. They thought such training would enable staff to give information and support with any circumstances a client can present with.

Benefit staff should also be well-informed about the particular difficulties endured by some people. This could include homelessness, difficult health conditions and all disabilities. In this way benefit staff would provide tailored and targeted support, and signpost services sensitively. Ultimately, people wanted interactions with benefit staff to be based on a friendly, respectful, compassionate and empathetic approach.

“Train all front line staff on what being Care Experienced means and what that can mean for some of us.”

[Care experienced respondent, online survey]

“Talk to people face to face...look at individual situations...employ people in job centres that actually know what they are doing...not just pressing buttons until computer says no!”

[Kinship/foster carers and adoptive parent, online survey]

Some respondents and participants also suggested that the general culture underpinning the design and delivery of the benefit system could be more empathetic and compassionate. A few mentioned the importance of challenging stigma around benefits.

“…but if you are in the situation where you have to apply for things, you need some compassion.”

“Compassionate people. People that aren’t going to mock you.”

[Single parents, focus group]

“Treat people with dignity and respect.”

[Care experienced respondent, online survey]

Assessments and renewals

Concerning health assessments, some suggested that they should be carried out by medical professionals who have an appropriate understanding of long-term physical and mental health conditions. In this way, fluctuating and chronic health conditions would be properly considered for awarding benefit related benefits. Relatedly, few argued to reconsider the frequency of assessments for clients who have long-term conditions which are unlikely to change.

“Have an actual doctor sitting in front of you that knows what the prescription that you’re getting prescribed, the way it affects your day-to-day life. An expert, somebody that cares. A doctor. Listen to your doctor, your doctor’s not giving you things for no reason.”

“…getting examined or assessed by a proper, and I’m going to stress that word proper, medical professional.”

[Single parents, focus group]

“I think that lifelong conditions should not be reassessed. The system should enable people not to reapply every year. The appeals process should be way easier.”

[Kinship/foster carers and adoptive parent, interview]

Some mentioned that medical evidence provided by hospitals and GPs should be weighed heavier for health assessments and award decisions.

“There’s doctor’s letters, there’s hospital letters and you still have to sit and degrade somebody.”

“Someone was saying to me… why do they have to put that all on the form when your doctor probably has all that information.”

[Single parents, focus groups]

Storing information and evidence

A few carers and care experienced people suggested that to simplify, prevent duplication and streamline benefit application processes, relevant information from the client should be stored. This would avoid the current practice of requesting information from clients who are already in the benefit system.

Reduce waiting times and more flexibility

Participants and respondents suggested shortening waiting times between application and payment could help clients to avoid financial difficulties. Others mentioned that some flexibility around or a respite period for those experiencing changes in benefit entitlements could avoid people falling into difficulties and further more flexibility when having to pay back overpayments, loans and advance payments.

A few made suggestions to increase benefit payments or bring in new benefits for people in some specific circumstances, for example for young people who are care experienced to prevent them falling into destitution and homelessness. Few kinship carers stated that there should be an increase of KCA.

“I think they could implement some sort of relief for that waiting period so people don’t get into debt because the numbers of people in debt and going into poverty is sky high in Scotland.”

[Single parent, focus group]

“…maybe some other types of benefits that are for the younger people that would help them through a rough time, because a lot of younger people nowadays are ending up unfortunately homeless or without a place to live...”

[Care experienced respondent, focus group]

More generally, some indicated that due to benefit changes and the reduction of the value of payments, there should an overhaul on the system aimed to increase the amount of benefit payments to match the cost of living.

“…what is the problem with raising what we actually get paid? Which hasn’t been raised for about 5 years…It would save a hell of a lot of hassle at the end of the day, without have to claim discretionary funds, and all these welfare funds.”

[Single parent, focus group]

“Give us the money to live on…The inflation is going up higher than what I can buy food at. Something’s gonna give. The Government is on about concluding austerity. Well now’s the time. If we’re gonna set up a new benefits system, now’s the time to start from the start and get it right for every person…”

[Single parent, interview]

Key role of third sector organisations

Third sector organisations, in particular those which advocate and work on the specific needs of carers and care experienced people; contributed to positive experiences with the benefit system. They are perceived as a good source of clear and comprehensive information. For many, they were also of fundamental support with application processes. Guidance and help from these organisations to complete applications forms correctly, attending assessments, tribunals and appeals was frequently praised by participants from focus groups and interviews.

“…we have a charity in [location] called [name of local charity]…they know all about benefits and the benefits system and how it works and how you get awarded your points, and they’ll advise you and they also give you a representative to fight your case if it needs to go to a panel. So I went up to him and filled out the form to appeal the decision. They came back with a letter to say the decision had been appealed and refused, at which point I then had to fill out a form asking for it to be taken to an independent tribunal. And then I had to wait for the appointment for the tribunal. I had to go out to Glasgow to the tribunal. [name - representative from local charity] came with me, and he basically just fought my case for me and told them, explained to them why I needed the ESA and why I wasn’t fit for work at the moment. And about twenty minutes later, they came back with the decision and they just reinstated it”.

[Single parent, interview]



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