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

Enablers and views on improvement of the benefit system

Based on the lived experiences of participants across all three sub-groups, positive experiences (enablers) around the benefit system were also identified. Some participants also had views on how the system can be improved.

While the experiences of sub-groups differed in significant ways when experiencing barriers to benefit uptake, there was greater commonality in the enablers expressed by participants. The most common suggestions and enablers, as expressed by participants from across the three sub-groups, are detailed below.

Eligibility criteria

A few participants from across the three sub-groups wanted it to be easier to understand what benefits they were eligible for.

Several participants called for more 'joined-up' services; ones that connected community and medical services to benefit agencies. One research participant suggested that GPs should signpost patients to agencies that can advise of benefit eligibility. Another suggestion relates to community services that provide advice on how mental health and addiction issues relate to benefit entitlement.

One specific difficulty, noted by several participants in the Homeless and HIV/Hep C sub-groups, was that the eligibility criteria for certain benefits changes regularly.

"They kept changing rules on how far you could walk. Because I didn't use a stick that counted against me."

[HIV/Hep C participant, Fife]

Participants' understanding of their eligibility was hampered by these changes, and therefore few participants called for eligibility 'goalposts' as one research participant put it to become fixed for longer periods of time.

In so doing, they suggested this will reduce the complexity, and increase the certainty of, the social security system for benefit applicants.

It should be easier to find out what benefits you might be eligible for (the respondent's wife has only fairly recently been aware of carers allowance / budget). She thinks that the GP should be the signposter to other agencies.

[Veteran participant, Dundee]

There is a sense that the goalposts for criteria in terms of what can/can't be claimed changes regularly and is too complex; therefore, the suggestion is that there should be a prolonged period where criteria do not change.

[Homeless participant, Edinburgh]

Simplification of application forms

Most participants called for application forms to be made simpler; use more straight forward and clearer language (no-jargon); and to be easier to fill in. PIP, DLA and CA forms were specifically mentioned as being too difficult for the applicant to fill in.

As for the simplification of language, participants from across the three sub-groups called for communication styles that were compatible with various health or disability statuses.

Some participants also wanted application forms to be simplified by having their information or evidence from previous applications stored, so to make multiple applications quicker.

If forms cannot be simplified, several participants requested that more services be made available to help people fill them in (see section below on 'Joined up services' and 'Channels of communication').

It is notable that for a handful of participants in the HIV/Hep C and Homeless sub-groups, they wanted forms to be simpler while also being able to capture the individuality and nuance of their individual experiences.

For these participants, simplification may not just mean simpler language or shorter or auto-fill forms. It may also mean forms that enable them to tell their individual story; where participants do not feel put off by the fear of filling in forms the 'wrong way'.

"Make it easier for people to access computers...all the jargon and all the ***** that goes with it, forms to get filled oot...I'm dyslexic and if I lost it and someone asked me to go and do all that today, I'd just be suicidal, my brain just couldn't cope with it…"

[Homeless participant, Glasgow]

It shouldn't be so difficult to fill in the forms. Either you make the forms easier and more straightforward or you provide people with help to fill them in.

[Veteran participant, Dundee]

Assessments: Medical evidence

Some participants across the three sub-groups called for GP records and medical evidence to be used as the basis of benefit assessments.

Largely, these views were voiced in response to negative experiences with PIP assessors; for those that were left feeling humiliated, stressed or disbelieved.

Those who identified as sufferers of PTSD or trauma-related mental health issues especially wanted GP or expert medical evidence to replace the need to communicate in-person their traumatic experiences in front of assessors.

A few participants thought that their benefit application was refused on the basis of an incorrect or misinformed medical assessment. This was especially so for participants who subsequently went through a successful appeals process.

Rather than have assessments based on one-off observations, participants therefore called for GP and expert medical reports to weigh heavier, as evidence, than the judgements of a single assessor.

[Participant] describes these current assessments as "very stressful" and "humiliating" and would be very keen to see a new system get rid of them. He thinks that reports from his doctor and HIV consultant should be sufficient to be entitled to benefits.

[HIV/Hep C participant, Edinburgh]

Change assessment system – 60% of appeals win "so there must be something wrong with current process of medicals." Appeals are "very stressful" and it can be very upsetting to get a letter saying your benefits are being cut.

[HIV/Hep C participant, Fife]

Assessments: The official record

Several participants who attended PIP and DLA assessments stated there should be joint agreement between assessor and applicant as to what was said and done in assessments.

To enable joint agreement, participants variously suggested that conversations in assessments be recorded, that there be independent witnesses to these assessments, and that the applicant and assessor should jointly agree on the contents of the official report.

Nurse assessments for PIP – why was the account of the meeting so different to his own recollection? who are these nurses? are their assessments the key input into decisions? Overall, a need for these – and the process around them – to become more transparent.

[HIV/Hep C participant, Kilmarnock]


Despite some of the HIV/Hep C group stating that they experienced increased levels of stress and financial uncertainty because of the frequency by which they were being re-assessed for benefits, only one research participant directly stated that they wanted this aspect of the process to be improved. This was a suggestion of fewer renewals, so that people have greater certainty over their income for longer periods of time.

Fewer renewals to give people certainty re their income for a longer period of time

[HIV/Hep C, Kilmarnock]

Specialised training of DWP assessors and staff

Some participants across all three subgroups wanted DWP assessors and helpline staff to be better trained to treat people with vulnerabilities, in particular those with mental health issues.

Assessors should be highly trained to deal with vulnerable people.

[Homeless participant, Glasgow]

Staff – she thinks that there needs to be a "better calibre" of staff at the DWP and Job Centres, with more training on communicating and dealing with people who are in need.

[Homeless participant, Edinburgh]

Joined-up services

Many participants in the Homeless sub-group called for more joined-up services to help access and navigate social security services.

Participants suggested this could be achieved by the provision of community based hubs for finding out about benefits and receiving help with applications. This included college based workshops to teach people about the benefits system, hubs in job centres to help people navigate the system and fill in forms, as well as more outreach work targeted at people living on the streets and those with mental health issues.

A few participants from the Veteran and Homeless sub-groups also called for medical and third sector organisations to be more joined up with Social Security and healthcare services; for GPs to signpost to other agencies, and for third sector organisations dealing with mental health and addiction to provide more coherent, joined-up services with social security agencies.

Set up hubs in the job centres and give people proper support to navigate the system and fill in the forms.

[Homeless participant, Glasgow]

Channels of communication

Local Delivery: many research participants were in support of local delivery services. Support was evenly spread across the three sub-groups.

Participants variously described the need for these services to be delivered by people who were caring, professionally trained, good listeners, and who based their assessments on the individual circumstances of the applicant. For some who found it difficult to travel far due to health conditions, locally-based services were described as a preferable alternative, including home visits.

A few participants who were in support of local delivery nonetheless felt they had 'heard it all before' and doubted the service would materialise.

Online service delivery: Several participants had a positive experience with the online services of the DWP, and called for more services to be moved online.

Face-to-face service delivery: However, an equal number of participants called for more human interaction via face-to-face meetings and video calls.

Postal: A few applicants stressed that they found the social security system more difficult to navigate and find out about eligibility since the 'brown envelope' stopped coming through their letter box. This is notably for participants who are uncomfortable with or have limited access to information technology.

[Research participant] is very comfortable online and finds the DWP website "clear and helpful" – with that in mind he would like any new social security system in Scotland to do as much online as possible.

He was supportive of the concept of local delivery advisors and a home visit or phone call would be the preferred method of contact with appointments arranged online.

[HIV/Hep C participant, Edinburgh]

Values: many participants across the three sub-groups wanted the social security system to treat applicants as human beings. Participants wanted the design of application forms, and the approach of individual assessors, to enable expression of individual circumstances with nuance and clarity. Moreover, participants wanted the ability to tell social security of their individual circumstances in their own way, and to be listened to properly.

While many participants across the three sub-groups felt stigmatised by the social security system, several participants stressed that trust, believing what people tell you (including GP evidence) and not viewing people as trying to scam the system should be inbuilt into the social security system.

"Treat people like human beings".

[Veteran participant, Erskine]

Make the tribunal process less stressful (why a panel of 3 people? why can't they take the evidence that's made available – why do people have to be seen face to face? panel need to be more respectful and treat claimants as human beings).

[Homeless participant, Glasgow]

Assess people as people, talk to them and find out about their circumstance[s] vs using narrow criteria.

[Veteran, Aberdeenshire]



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