Whilst our MSPs have been enjoying their recess, it’s been a typically busy Summer for our sector. Top of the agenda for many will have been the draft Scottish Social Security Bill – and so it should be.
This bill covers a wide range of benefits and, with the proposed new agency for Scotland, provides a great opportunity to create a genuinely fair, dignified and supportive system, based on human rights for everyone.
That sounds nice, I’m sure you will agree. But those of us who have been involved in this work over the last months – years in some cases – know we still have some way to go to achieve this.
You may be thinking, “Surely it’s just a case of identifying need, and addressing that will solve the problem? Do we really need a human rights based approach?” The answer of course, is yes, and here’s why:
By pushing for human rights to be at the heart of social security we are saying this system is for everyone and that all who apply are deserving of dignity and respect and should be supported to claim all that they are entitled to. There should be no discrimination, with a clear and easy to use framework for redress.
We are also saying it must provide an adequate level of support, with the government using maximum available resources.* But most of all we are saying the system can never be perfect. No matter how well trained the new agency staff are, there must be access to independent advice and advocacy for everyone.
People must have a say over how the agency functions and all monitoring must be open, transparent and accountable, following the principles of Open Government.
And that is why our sector is so crucial to the continued development of both this Bill and the new agency. We have led the way in defending and championing human rights as a framework, and have demonstrated how in practical terms this works.
So are we shaping up to have a Scottish Social Security System based on human rights?
Well, the jury’s still out.
To be fair to the Scottish Government, they have long talked about the importance of the human right to social security, and it is mentioned clearly in the principles. But that is where the reference to ‘rights’ ends, and where it should feature later on, it is often replaced with ‘needs.’
The introduction of ‘experience panels’ is welcome and though early on in the process, offers hope of a new, more participatory way of doing things. But, as regards other parts of the process, the sector is less hopeful.
The Bill’s failure to outlaw the use of private sector contractors to carry out vital and sensitive functions, such as disability assessments or running the IT system, is particularly ominous given how the ATOS assessments have panned out.
There are fears as to how independent the delivery of both advice and advocacy services will be and the right to appeal also looks threatened by the proposed ‘redetermination’ stage, which has parallels with the DWP’s unpopular Mandatory Reconsideration process.
The Scottish Government faces budgetary and time pressures, of course, and there is widespread understanding that it faces a huge task. We also know that there will be key stages after the Bill is passed in which to help mould a human rights-based system.
However, this Bill could be a key stepping stone to creating a fairer system and the onus should be firmly on us as a sector to continue to shout about and lead the way on human rights.
If you want to learn more about the Bill and discuss it with colleagues, then come along to our roundtable in Glasgow on 21 August 2017.
*more detail on the Right to Social Security can be found here