Scotland is well placed to build a fairer disability benefit system

This week the MS Society launched their report ‘PIP: A step too far’ which outlined the impact of the ‘20 metre rule’ – the rule that bars anyone who can walk that distance unaided from receiving the enhanced rate of PIP – has had on those living with multiple sclerosis.

They found large numbers of those reassessed from DLA to PIP had lost that higher rate of support, with three quarters of those affected saying that the change had had a negative impact on their life. This is the latest in a series of examples where people living with a debilitating health condition have been let down by the UK Government.

In February this year, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee published a damning report, along with a series of recommendations, about the assessment processes of the UK government’s Personal Independent Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

These are recommendations for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to respond to by halting the roll-out of PIP to allow them to make serious changes – something we have called for consistently.

And, whilst ESA remains a reserved benefit the Scottish Government cannot change, I have taken a particular interest in the Committee’s recommendations on PIP as, by the end of this Parliamentary term in 2021, we will have taken over responsibility from the DWP for 11 benefits, including PIP. I am reassured that so many of the recommendations reflect what we are already doing in Scotland.

This government is clear that social security is a human right and one that people should be able to access in a way that treats them with dignity and respect. This principle is so important it is enshrined on the very first page of our new Social Security (Scotland) Act.

There is a noticeable common thread that runs through the House of Commons Committee’s recommendations, which is that the current system places significant and undue stress on people, through unclear communications, appearing to require the repeated provision of evidence and ‘health’ assessments that seem ill suited to understanding fluctuating conditions amongst others.

This is exactly what we have heard through our own engagement with our Experience Panels – 2,400 people with personal and direct experience of the current system. Our new social security agency – Social Security Scotland – is being co-designed using that experience and knowledge, and that of our stakeholder reference groups and user research. We are determined to design and build systems and processes that work for people, not against them.

For example, we have held a forum with people to understand the issues with the current DWP application process and in particular the self-assessment form so that we can make the improvements people need. We will ensure that all information is accessible and we are also developing an online route for applications, as well as Easy-Read and other accessible formats.

We are committed to ensuring that people are offered a choice of ways to apply for disability benefits, including in person, online, paper and telephone.  We are continuing to test these with people who receive benefits to explore what other communication channels we should provide.

I understand the stress and anxiety that can accompany current DWP face-to-face assessments.  And an important commitment that I am making to people in Scotland is that we will reduce these as much as possible. Our Act specifically states that face to face assessments will only be held if necessary and crucially will never be with a private contractor.

Key to this is ensuring that we gather appropriate evidence at the initial stage.  The person applying clearly knows best what they need but we are also exploring the range of health, social care and other evidence that could be used to support quality decision making, significantly reduce the need for face-to-face assessments and increase the number of lifetime and genuinely long-term awards. We  will take into account the needs of the individual to determine whether a home visit is needed, and people will be entitled to have someone with them to give support every step of the way.

And anyone who, because of a disability, finds it difficult to engage fully with us, will have the right to independent advocacy support.

Through our work we will meet all of the Work and Pension Select Committee’s recommendations on what should be done, where we have the powers to do so.

The chance to create something different in Scotland is there. The chance to introduce a greater level of compassion and respect into our country’s social security service is one we fully intend to take.


Jeane Freeman MSP is Scotland’s Minister for Social Security. This article previously appeared in the Sunday Herald.