The Scottish government is in the process of taking disability benefits from the DWP under the umbrella of Social Security Scotland. The SNP’s record on social policy is mixed at best, and their plan is not as ambitious as it could be; but as the first on-the-ground attempt to dismantle the damaging legacy of Tory austerity, this represents an exciting learning opportunity. With Labour now expected to form the next government, shadow ministers should be paying close attention.
Names can be a source of confusion, and the UK follows no logic in its naming system. The new Scottish approach seeks to change this. Instead of Disability Living Allowance, the disability benefit for under 18s will be called Child Disability Payment; instead of Personal Independence Payment, the disability benefit for 18 to state pension age individuals will be called Adult Disability Payment; and instead of Attendance Allowance, the pension age disability benefit will be called Pension Age Disability Payment. This rationalisation of names might not seem like much, but for claimants and their families it will give an immediate understanding of what they need to claim.
The Scottish government are also taking steps to actively encourage eligible people to apply for the new benefits, including a pre-application advice service. They are also making applications more accessible: forms will now include detailed guidance notes, and claimants will have the option of applying online, face to face, or over the phone. In contrast, the DWP does not offer online applications or face to face applications. Their forms are complicated, with little explanation, and they do not offer any pre-application advice service. This means potential claimants will often only apply when recommended to do so by health professionals, family or friends. As a result, disabled people often miss out on years of benefits, with no option to backdate payments.
In a further important step, the devolved government is humanising the rules for fast-tracked claims made by terminally ill people. The UK government defines a person as terminally ill for the purpose of claiming benefits only if their death can be “be reasonably expected within six months” (although this threshold will change to a year in 2023). Many terminally ill people and their families do not want to know their prognosis in such detail, and medical professionals are often resistant to committing to such a prediction. In Scotland, medical practitioners will be allowed to use their clinical judgement to determine whether a person is terminally ill, making this process easier for all concerned.
Decisions, reviews, redeterminations and appeals will be assessed in a more accountable way. This is possibly the most contentious area of current DWP policy, with the harsh treatment of applications by outsourcing firms Atos and Capita receiving much media attention since the introduction of PIP. Case managers will be empowered to speak to parents and carers to gain further information for applications, and they will be encouraged to start from a position of trust, benefitting applicants without comprehensive written evidence. They will also seek one source of information themselves, in contrast to DWP case managers, who generally rely on what the applicant has provided.
The new Scottish benefits will continue to be paid while they are reviewed, claimants will be given six weeks rather than one calendar month to request a decision be reconsidered, and Social Security Scotland has set an eight-week target to decide on reconsiderations. If a decision is not made in this time, the claimant can go straight to a tribunal to appeal the decision, helping to ensure that they are not penalised simply because there is a departmental backlog. Currently, reconsiderations can take from a few weeks to three to four months. By setting a target and specifying that the claimant will have recourse to a tribunal if they fail to meet it, the Scottish government will give disabled people more clarity over when they will have their decision.
The changes the Scottish government are making to disability benefits are largely process based, with great emphasis placed on the feedback they have received regarding claimant experiences. The changes to the whole application process, including reconsiderations, have the potential to improve the experience of claimants dramatically. Even something as simple as changing the name of the benefits will have an effect.
Making the benefits system work better for disabled people should be a priority for the next Labour government. Labour may well want to make more fundamental changes to how the system works, but the changes that are happening in Scotland are a pragmatic and significant improvement to the current system. I hope the Shadow Department of Work and Pensions team monitor the impact of these changes closely; they offer a blueprint for what a fairer system could look like in the rest of the UK.
Image credit: Matthew Ross, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Lesley Van Damme, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons