The Scottish government will consider abandoning the words “benefits” and “welfare” because of their negative connotations, as it begins the process of shaping the country’s first ever social security system.
Launching a 13-week consultation on what the social security secretary, Angela Constance, described as “the biggest and most complex programme of change in the history of devolution”, ministers highlighted their choice of words. “We very deliberately talk about social security rather than welfare,” she said.
Speaking at the launch in Glasgow on Friday morning, the minister for social security, Jeane Freeman, said: “There is value in looking at whether or not we continue to use the word ‘benefit’, because there is an implication in there that the rest of us are doing something nice for somebody else, when actually what we have said consistently as a government is that social security is an investment we make collectively in ourselves.”
Freeman said the consultation would consider the use of another word, such as “payments”. “Making dignity, fairness and respect real is about the culture that the [new Scottish social security agency] embraces. There are things to do to effect change quickly and one of those is through language,” she said.
The new welfare powers will account for around £2.7bn or 15% of the total Scottish benefits bill, with the rest controlled by Westminster. They will allow Holyrood to legislate on disability and carers’ benefits, among others, and give the Scottish government the opportunity to top up existing payments or create new ones.
The SNP government has already committed in its manifesto to increasing carer’s allowance to the level of jobseeker’s allowance, replacing the Sure Start maternity grant with an expanded maternity and early years allowance called the Best Start grant, and introducing a new job grant for young people at risk of long-term unemployment.
It has also pledged to “end the degrading DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] approach to disability assessments”. On Friday morning, when asked about companies such as Atos, whose assessments have been widely criticised, Constance responded: “We have great reticence in involving those motivated by profit.”
She added that the consultation would consider whether there were some medical conditions where automatic awards could be made following diagnosis.
Insisting that the foundation of assessments should be clinical, rather than whether someone had made an effort with their appearance when attending an interview, Freeman said: “Medical evidence ought to be the foundation and the only place to get that is from a clinician.”
The consultation will also consider whether general practitioners are best placed to contribute to such assessments, given that much of the information required already exists in patients’ medical records, which could ultimately reduce the burden on GPs.
Constance said: “We can’t use 15% to eradicate the unfairness of the remaining 85%. The sanctions regime, for example, will not be devolved to Scotland.”
The process of devolving the welfare powers, agreed under the Scotland Act, started earlier this month with new regulations put in place at Westminster. The Scottish government plans to bring forward its own legislation to implement the changes in late spring, with a new Scottish social security agency established before the next Holyrood elections in 2020.
One challenge will be designing the new agency to work in parallel with the remaining UK system.
The consultation, which ministers say will focus on the lived experience of those using the system, is asking members of the public to contribute their views on the benefits being devolved to Scotland and how they are delivered.
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