10 years of the Early Warning System

Published on: 
02 October 2023
Written by: 

Kirsty McKechnie

Welfare rights adviser, Early Warning System

CPAG in Scotland’s Early Warning System has been operating for ten years! Over Challenge Poverty Week we will look back at some of the social security events in this period, key findings from the Early Warning System and how they have influenced policy and practise. Looking ahead we will identify how Early Warning System evidence and analysis can inform the future shape of social security at UK, Scotland and local level.  

In the beginning 

The Early Warning System was set up in 2013 to monitor the impact of welfare reform on children, their families and the communities that support them. Funding from the Third Sector Intervention Fund allowed CPAG in Scotland to employ a policy officer and a welfare rights officer. Our jobs - to gather as much information as possible about how welfare changes were affecting families across Scotland and vitally, to identify opportunities to prevent and/or mitigate that impact at Scottish and local level. We set about collecting case evidence from our second-tier social security advice line, directly from people working with families and sometimes from families themselves.  

At the time the Early Warning System was set up, universal credit had been announced but would not commence for another two years. Personal independence payment was starting to replace disability living allowance and the benefit cap and bedroom tax had just come in. DWP community care grants and crisis loans had just been abolished and the Scottish government had set up the interim Scottish welfare fund. That was pretty much the extent of Scottish social security at the time!  

Early Findings 

Our first finding surprised us:  

‘Maladministration and misinformation are aggravating the impact of welfare reform in Scotland. More than 1 in 3 of the cases gathered though the Early Warning System relates to misinformation or maladministration on the part of DWP, Local Authorities and Job Centre Plus.’ 

In response to this we set up regular meetings with DWP to discuss emerging issues from our findings. These meetings continue to this day and have led to improvements in training, guidance and internal messaging within DWP. It often feels like bopping moles though, as one administrative issue is resolved or improved, another one appears.  

Delays, sanctions and suspensions appeared to be the main driving force behind income crisis and food bank use. Although foodbank use was much lower than it is now. 

Key messages 

 We soon developed key messages: 

  • Advice and information is key – many families were not getting all the benefits they were entitled to and were scared to ask for advice because of the stigma around poverty 
  • We need to reduce costs for families – transport and childcare quickly emerged as barriers to accessing work and school related costs as a drain on family budgets. 
  • Services need to be poverty aware – one mum stopped going to a baby group because you had to take your shoes off and she did not have any socks without holes. 

These key messages remain, although even with advice and information and getting all the benefits they are entitled to, many families remain in poverty, without enough money to get from one month to the next as the value of benefits has eroded over the decade.  

We have been pleased to see Scottish government take steps to reduce costs for families, as well as increase incomes: free bus travel for under 22s, 1140 free childcare hours and expanding free school meals. But more remains to be done, free bus travel only helps if there is a bus service where you live at the times that you need, childcare needs to be available at the hours parents and carers actually work, and the commitment to universal free school meals for all primary school pupils needs to be delivered.  

Over the rest of the week, we will look at the work of the Early Warning System in relation to:  

  • The benefit cap, bedroom tax and two-child limit 
  • Universal credit 
  • The development of Scottish Social Security 
  • Disability benefits 

For more information about the Early Warning System please contact [email protected] 

You can submit anonymous case studies through our online form.