Social Security Experience Panels - Seldom Heard research programme: vulnerable groups

This report presents the main findings of the first wave of research with vulnerable groups as part of the ‘Seldom Heard Voices’ research programme.

This document is part of a collection



In 2017 Social Security Scotland set up Experience Panels to help in the design, delivery, oversight and review of Scotland's new social security system. These panels are made up of over 2,400 people who have experience of at least one of the benefits that will be, or have been, devolved to Scotland. We found some groups were less likely to be in the Experience Panels and extended the research programme to bring in some "seldom heard voices". This research was designed to ensure their voices are included in the design of social security services.

There are four groups identified as 'seldom heard' in this research. They are Mobile Populations, Vulnerable Groups, End of Life; and Carers and Care Experienced. For each group two waves of fieldwork are being undertaken.

This is the report for the first wave of the Vulnerable Groups strand. The group is divided into the following subgroups: 'Military Veterans', 'Homeless', and 'HIV or Hepatitis C'.


Participants in these vulnerable groups can live with multiple debilitating conditions, ranging from mental and physical illnesses, to drug and alcohol dependency. In addition, trauma - whether stemming from sexual or domestic abuse, war-time experiences, or the onset of physical injury or infection - was a common lived experience among many research participant interviews.

Some participants were deeply embedded in support networks, including third sector organisations, family and friends and health and social workers. Others lived in isolation and felt disconnected from support services and social networks.

This report highlights key barriers to accessing the benefit system, as well as enablers to benefit uptake experienced among the Vulnerable strand participants, as identified through analysis of qualitative interviews.

Summary Findings


Research findings suggest that participants in this group often struggled to find information on benefits and which benefits that they are eligible for. For those who have experienced the benefits system over many years, the system was described as having become increasingly complex, inflexible and inaccessible. Because of such complexity, many participants described feeling 'unsure' as to whether they filled in application forms the 'right way'. This increased participants' reliance on third sector organisations to help fill in forms.

The rigidity in application form and health assessment processes also led participants to voice concern, and indeed frustration, at not being able to express or have recorded the nuances of their individual life experiences. Notably, this occurred for individuals who lived with complex and fluctuating health issues.

For some, a perceived lack of face-to-face 'human contact' with benefits agency staff was felt to perpetuate these difficulties, as they found it difficult to navigate the online benefits system. For others, it was felt that benefit agencies were purposefully trying to 'catch you out' in application forms and assessments to discourage people from applying. This left many participants feeling stigmatised and discriminated against.

For those who had experienced trauma (often associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or domestic/sexual abuse), benefit assessment staff were unanimously found to be poorly trained to deal with these issues. This was in relation to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment. Participants were strongly critical of the impact PIP assessments had on their mental health. Participants variously reported feeling "humiliated" and "disbelieved" by assessors, while GP/psychiatric evidence was not taken into account.

Some participants felt official reports, based on health assessments, were inaccurate and one-sided. Participants were critical of a social security system that does not allow for assessment reports to be revised or co-authored by the research participant themselves or an independent witness without going through a stressful appeals process. For those who went through the PIP appeals process, several expressed their inability or unwillingness to go through the stress of an appeal without support from third sector organisations.


When asked about the future of the benefits system, participants identified key enablers they perceived would help them access the benefits system.

The majority of participants called for application forms to be made simpler, for the use of more straight forward and clearer language (no-jargon), so that they were easier to fill in. Some also wanted Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) assessors and helpline staff to be better trained to treat people with vulnerabilities, in particular those with mental health issues.

Many participants, when told of Social Security Scotland introducing local delivery services, were in support of this service. Participants variously described the need for service delivery staff to be caring, professionally trained and good listeners, who would treat them as 'human beings'.



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