UK Government welfare reforms are leaving Scottish households in ‘constant fear’ of further changes and financial stability, according to a new study published today (1 June 2015).
The study by the Scottish Government, conducted between September 2013 and March 2015, explores the impact of recent welfare reforms on vulnerable people living in Scotland.
Benefit claimants taking part in the research often found themselves pushed into difficult financial situations. Small changes to benefit entitlements and/or delays in processing claims and payments resulted in ‘significant negative impacts’. Claimants said they felt a ‘sense of precariousness’ about their benefit claim and fearful that money could be cut or stopped at any moment.
A number of respondents to the study reported difficulties in navigating and dealing with the benefits system. This included: poor communications and official errors and delays, difficulties with work capability assessments for disabled participants and a lack of support in accessing work to balance increased conditionality.
Whilst many respondents said they generally valued welfare support services, some of those services were more trusted than others. The report says there are ‘significant variations’ in the quality of service received by claimants across the benefits system.
Government telephone helplines were not always trusted by respondents, with some citing a lack in ‘competence and accuracy’ as a reason for their scepticism.
Being assessed for disability benefits was particularly stressful. Even those who had been assessed before found the process ‘arduous’. Others could not understand why they were being subjected to repeat benefit assessments, despite being told by medical experts that their condition would not improve. The report recommends that ‘repeat assessments should be limited only to those whose condition is expected to improve’.
Respondents to the research said they often ‘felt insulted by the implication that they were lazy, or lying about the nature of their condition or their attempts to find work’. Some felt under ‘constant suspicion’, which was ‘upsetting and damaging to their self-esteem’.
Lone parents reported an increased pressure to seek employment, ‘but no improvement in the support available to them to move into work’. This was particularly prevalent among lone parents in the Work Related Activity Group of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). They described Jobcentres ‘as places of conflict rather than help’ and said the Work Programme was not helpful.
Other conclusions and key findings include:
- Problems with the language used on official application forms and interpreting what information was being asked for.
- ESA claimants felt that their benefit assessment did not adequately capture the impact of their health on their ability to work – ‘hidden’ or fluctuating conditions were not adequately understood.
- Poor communication from benefits agencies about benefit decisions and changes.
- Participants found it difficult to meet basic household needs with the income provided by benefits.
- Those who had moved into work reported an improved financial situation, but for many even being in work is a difficult and precarious situation.
- Carers reported a sense of being devalued, unable to work but only entitled to a small amount of financial support.
- Respondents were not always aware of the availability of external welfare advice services, with some sceptical that they would be entitled to any benefits at all (an estimated £16bn in welfare benefits remains unclaimed each year).
The study will continue to research the ongoing impact of welfare reforms, after the UK Government announced a further £12 in welfare cuts last week.
Scotland’s Social Justice Secretary, Alex Neil, said: “The UK Government’s austerity agenda and benefit cuts are having a very damaging effect on people in Scotland. Their approach is slashing the incomes of some of our poorest households and pushing 100,000 children into poverty.
“The Welfare Reform Tracking Study is further evidence that people are living in constant anxiety about changes to their entitlements and are already suffering from the effects of around £6 billion of cuts taken from Scottish Welfare expenditure over the last five years. This is hugely concerning as the UK Government should be looking to lift people out of poverty not push them further into it.
“Despite these frustrations we will do all we can to use our new powers to make our system fairer and simpler and work to improve the experience for people.
“We will work quickly to implement these changes and base our social security system on how best to support people and tackle inequalities and not on crude opportunities to save money.”
Last edited at 15:00 on 1 June 2015 to include a comment from Social Justice Secretary, Alex Neil.