I have mentioned in previous columns that, under the terms of the 2016 Scotland Act, that we have the opportunity to commence the process of building a unique Scottish Social Security system, initially to administer the limited Welfare benefits that are to be devolved to the Scottish Government next year.
15% of all benefits paid out in Scotland are being devolved. These include: Attendance Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payment, Industrial Injuries Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, Cold Weather Payment, Funeral Payment, and the Sure Start Maternity Grant.
The public consultation on the type of Social Security system we would like to see closed last week.
I also had the opportunity to speak in Parliament last week during a debate on the results of a Welfare Conditionality Study carried out by six universities including research from Glasgow University.
The findings of the Study supported the views of many Members across Chamber that, for too many users, the Welfare sanctions system is draconian, dehumanising and ineffective.
During the debate MSPs across the Parliament gave many examples of the type of unfair sanctions that people have been threatened with or had imposed on them.
For instance: stopping benefits for a month for someone who turns up a few minutes late for an appointment; or the man who was threatened with sanctions because he did not want to go for an interview for a job as a driving instructor which the Job Centre insisted he attend. He could not drive!
The Study found that any claimants do not understand the reason for the sanctions that have been applied to them.
The study also illustrated that benefit sanctions create anxiety and feelings of disempowerment among Welfare Service Users. The impact of sanctions is not only financial but material, emotional and can have serious health repercussions for the individual.
In my experience, poor communication, and often the health and circumstances of the service user, can lead to unfairly imposed sanctions. Very often these decisions are subsequently overturned on appeal. However, this is not an easy process and the impact on users waiting for their appeal can have devastating consequences.
One of my own constituents, a young man in his twenties, living independently, suffered a major orthopaedic trauma 8 years ago which required several major surgical interventions to rebuild his limb.
He was also diagnosed at around the same time as severely epileptic. He was therefore simultaneously under the care of two senior consultants who both individually confirmed his inability to work long term.
Forced to attend an ATOS assessment, his leg in plaster and using crutches, he was deemed fit to work as his ability to use his fingers to text on his mobile phone was used to reduce the required qualifying points and his benefit was withdrawn.
This ridiculous decision was overturned at Appeal but that process took nearly 6 months. Thankfully, he was able to get family support.
Many who suffer the imposition of unfair sanctions are not so fortunate and can end up in severe debt, evicted and needing to use foodbanks on a regular basis to survive.
Prior to my career in Nursing I worked for 2 years in the then Department of Social Security. Of course, the main purpose of the service was to help people back into work. However, at a time when major industries were being closed down or privatised, with redundancies and few other work options available in post-industrial communities, the ethos was very much one of support, not judgement. How times have changed.
In designing a Scottish Social Security system, we have the opportunity to build dignity and respect back into the administration of some benefits and work programmes.
We have an opportunity to reform the assessment procedures for those unable to work through illness or disability, with clear timescales for assessments and a transparent appeals process.
For those with long-term conditions that are unlikely to change, we will aim to end continual assessments and bring in long-term awards.
Employability support programmes should be voluntary and people should not be sanctioned by the DWP when on those programmes.
The Scottish Government will continue to take a strong stand on sanctions and the damaging policies of the DWP as we progress the establishment of a fair and supportive Scottish Social Security System
In the meantime, the UK Government and the DWP should take these findings of the Glasgow University research on board and ensure that the current dehumanising and ineffective sanctions regime is scrapped and replaced with a supportive service that restores fairness and dignity for those needing to use it.