Welfare Rights Conference 2017

Turning principles into practicalities

Translating political commitments into practical realities was a theme which dominated many of the contributions to CPAG in Scotland’s annual conference.  

Navigating the complexities of the forthcoming  Scottish social security system can seem a daunting prospect, even to a room full of welfare rights advisers well versed in benefits regulations,  but the contributions of panellists and participants helped unpick some of the challenges which lie ahead.

Setting her opening speech against a backdrop of UK-wide welfare reform, the Minister for Social Security set out many of the principles and proposals which will underpin the Scottish Government’s forthcoming social security bill.

With 280 delegates, 16 workshop sessions over 8 topics, and a panel of high profile speakers to round off the afternoon, the day provided support, challenge and questions for key decision makers in timely consideration of the ongoing changes within social security in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Contrasts in governmental attitudes were picked up by panellists in the afternoon session but for many contributors, the overarching question from the day was how to put into practice a rights-based approach and avoid some of the challenges being experienced by many claimants accessing a rapidly changing social security system.

The importance of underpinning the new Scottish social security system with dignity, fairness and respect was emphasised by a Minister conscious of the challenges of transferring around 1.4 million people into the Scottish Social Security Agency without letting people fall through the cracks of a complex and at times convoluted system.

Ahead of taking on service delivery for the devolved benefits, the Minister outlined the four year programme to work on a roundtable basis to increase benefit uptake in an attempt to reach the 500,000 people not currently claiming their entitlements.

In a friendly challenge to the Scottish Government, the first public engagement for the new Children and Young People’s Commissioner saw Bruce Adamson reiterate his office’s support for CPAG in Scotland’s call for a £5 top-up for child benefit. This welcome announcement was part of his outlining of his wider priorities of ensuring children’s rights are at the centre of legislation and noting that children – and their experiences – must be part of the solution for tackling child poverty.

The realities of those children living in poverty was brought to the fore when Prof Christina Beatty of the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research highlighted the financial loss to claimants in Scotland by 2020/21 as a result of the post-2015 Welfare Reforms.  As an introduction to the afternoon plenary session, chaired by journalist Keith Aitken, it was a sobering reflection of the impact on not just the unemployed, but also by working-age claimants in low paid, precarious or self-employed work.

Professor Jonathan Bradshaw used his speech as a reminder to the audience that the political mantra of work as a way out of poverty is incomplete – work can be a way out of poverty, but for too many in work, it is not simply enough in itself. 

Significant challenges lie ahead for the Scottish Government if they are to reach the 2030 child poverty  targets, and he emphasised the need for the decision makers to user their new powers to include bringing in the £5 top-up to child benefit. As Prof Bradshaw’s own modelling has indicated, this move alone could lift 30,000 children out of poverty.  

Focussing on the practicalities of when principles have been successfully translated into day to day practice, Kerry McKenzie from NHS Health Scotland highlighted the role health services can play in setting out successful financial inclusion pathways.  One project which achieved £2m financial gain for 612 families in just two years shows what is possible when such pathways are routinely and universally implemented.

The final contribution to the afternoon’s panel session from Jim McCormick drew together many of the themes which had been touched on throughout the day, noting that in his role as Chair of the independent Disability and Carers Benefits expert advisory group, the lived experience and voices of people engaging with the social security system would be at the heart of the group’s work.

The challenges of assessing whether the system is working against the principles underpinning  the new Scottish social security system is one which will dominate future discussions. The Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, the forthcoming Scottish social security legislation and the establishment of a separate Scottish Social Security Agency will put those practicalities to the test.