We want people who use our social security system to help shape it

On Friday, two events were taking placing in Glasgow which, although very different, had a certain symmetry about them.

The Tory conference got underway at the SECC, with an address from the Prime Minister.

They spent a lot of time talking about the constitution – which is strange for a party which constantly accuses others of doing just that – and very little about their record in government.

As Theresa May was taking to the stage, across in the East End of Glasgow the Scottish Government’s Social Security Minister Jeane Freeman was meeting with members of the Glasgow Disability Alliance.
They were discussing one of the issues very much not being talked about at Tory conference – perhaps unsurprisingly given their appalling record – and that is our social security system.
As you’re probably aware – thanks to the agreement reached after the independence referendum – some new powers over social security are being devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
This includes eleven new benefits, which pay out almost £3 billion a year to 1.4 million people in Scotland.
We’re creating a new social security system in Scotland – and Friday marked the launch of a new Scottish Government recruitment campaign for people to help shape it.
I’ll explain more in a moment about what this recruitment campaign is about – and how you may be able to help – but it’s worth first reflecting on how the welfare system has been managed in recent years.
Of all of the actions I have criticised the UK Government for – and there are many – it is their treatment of disabled people which has been the most appalling.
Disabled people are forced to undergo humiliating assessment procedures seemingly designed to catch them out – with assessors who seem more concerned about saving money.
Cuts of £30 a week were made to the Employment Support Allowance, which helps sick and disabled people who cannot work.
The Independent Living Fund (ILF) was abolished – a mean-spirited decision which would have affected more than 3,000 people in Scotland.
However, using the powers we already have, we not only reversed this closure in Scotland, but created a Scottish ILF with increased eligibility.
And of course, there is the hated Bedroom Tax – with 80 per cent of the 71,000 households liable in Scotland containing a disabled adult.
Again, we’ve taken action in Scotland to ensure no one here has to pay it – and just this week new figures have confirmed that we’ll spend £47 million this year to ensure that this remains the case.
But I don’t want the Scottish Parliament to just act as a sticking plaster for bad decisions taken at Westminster.
Although we cannot undo all of the damage done by the Tories, I intend to use the new powers being devolved to start a whole new era for disabled people in Scotland.
From the very beginning, we have said that we want there to be two underlying principles underpinning a Scottish social security system – dignity and respect – which have been conspicuously absent from the system we are inheriting.
We believe the best way to achieve that is to ensure those who actually use the services are involved in the design of them.
So we are now looking for just such people – 2000 of them, from the length and breadth of Scotland, with past or current experience of the social security system – to take part in Experience Panels. 
What will we be asking them to do?
Well, a number of things. Firstly, we’d be keen to hear about what exactly is important to them.
We’d then be asking them to help in various pieces of research – how to improve all aspects of the benefits process from applications to assessments, how guidance can be made as simple as possible, and how services are designed and much more.
We’ll also be looking for them to take part in workshops, the occasional interview and other ad hoc projects.
We are committed to ensuring that we build a social security system to be proud of – and the direct personal experiences of 2,000 service users will be instrumental in achieving that.

At the launch of the recruitment campaign last week, Glasgow Disability Alliance chief Tressa Burke did not mince her words when she said that disabled people had witnessed “horrendous decision making leading to worsening health and increased inequalities”, and had “been at the mercy of hardened attitudes and brutal treatments.”
That has been the reality for all too many people in recent years – and it underlines how much work we have to do to create a better system as powers are devolved to Scotland.
Please consider whether you or anyone you know could help be part of that change. 
You can register your interest at http://www.gov.scot/socialsecurity or Freephone 0800 029 4974.
The closing date to register for the Experience Panels is 12th May, and they will begin this summer.
This article originally appeared in the Evening Times.