The human costs of welfare reform

The sector has been at the forefront of dealing with the fall out of a range of cuts and changes to benefits and tax credits.[i] Working with our members and partners and a whole range of voluntary organisations, the picture we are building is one which shows a failing system which can no longer claim to provide even the most basic of safety nets.

SCVO is due to publish research at the end of November. Working with community organisations from Easter Ross to Dumfries, our findings build on the developing evidence base and provide an insight into how communities and key groups are affected and are responding to increasing need.

Some of our key findings cover:

  • The detrimental impact of a complex and failing system on individual’s and families’ health, wellbeing and incomes and, in turn, the increased demand this has placed on a wide range of third sector organisations as they aim to help families through crisis and to navigate system bureaucracy
  • People are experiencing worsening health conditions, with the threat of continual reassessment adding to stress and anxiety for those who may already be vulnerable or struggling with long term conditions
  • Sanctions are being used increasingly, sometimes without any understanding of extenuating circumstances which may act as barrier to finding employment e.g. childcare costs; lack of public transport etc. Three year sanctions are being applied – in many cases placing people with disabilities at real risk of isolation.[ii] The work of David Webster has provided the most detailed analyses to date on the use of and impact of sanctions on benefit claimants
  • In line with third sector, government and other research and analysis, the impact of welfare reform has been particularly difficult for key groups in society. This applies particularly to disabled people[iii] or women who are victims of domestic violence[iv] reducing their ability to live and work independently
  • We can see the counterproductive nature of benefit changes, cuts and increasingly stringent jobseeker conditionality. Increased stress, poorer health and just a day to day struggle to survive mean that for many, getting back into work or dreams of a decent job seem to be very distant
  • The stigma created around the benefits system remains a significant concern both for claimants and the third sector. The Claimant Commitment is also creating pressure on the sector. For those with disabilities there are additional challenges in meeting unrealistic job search demands

A number of key findings focus on the impact of welfare reform on the sector. Many of these mirror the challenges we identified in our first “mapping” exercise in 2013[v]: These include significant ongoing funding challenges and “funding bureaucracy” which prevents small organisations getting anywhere near existing funding provision.

There continues to be increased demand placed on a wide range of charities beyond traditional advice agencies – this has a subsequent impact on staffing numbers, and an ability to retain volunteers.

Demand is being stoked by the continued challenges surrounding ESA and delays in the transfer to PIP. For families, this can mean destitution and real hardship, compounded by an inability to access pass-ported benefits such as the Motability scheme and Carers’ Allowance.

Ongoing issues with the WCA continue to make the press and are consistently criticised by both individuals and charities[vi] [vii]. It is often viewed as a blunt instrument which cannot respond to the needs of specific groups such as those with HIV[viii]and individuals with autism[ix].

Worryingly we see more people in crisis, with no or significantly reduced incomes. They get caught up in an administrative nightmare and are unable to fulfil the most basic of human rights – access to food, heating, retaining an ability to remain connected to communities.

The experience of the sector and its work in the frontline, along with a strong desire to see a more stable and supportive social security safety net, have been partly behind a strong call to see further powers over benefits transferred to the Scottish Parliament.

Further Devolution

Many third sector organisations have a called for full or partial devolution of welfare powers – these include Chest, Heart and Stroke Scotland, the Poverty Alliance, Edinburgh Tenants’ Association and others. SCVO has called for the full devolution of welfare – excluding pensions.This is because of the inter-related nature of welfare, employability and other public services such as care and education.

The direction of travel being taken at UK level and the opportunities which further devolution might afford have been the most widely discussed issues within the sector. Many charities and voluntary organisations provide a range of services which interact with the benefits system and wider welfare policies, as well as working closely with people who claim in and out of work benefits. In 2013, over 70% of third sector organisations had experienced a significant increase in demand for support as a result of benefits changes and cuts.

It is important to note that some organisations would still prefer pensions to be retained at a UK level, but there is a wide desire to see a more coordinated approach, linking welfare to already devolved areas such as health and social care, housing, and childcare. A significant area of discussion has focused on harmonising welfare with the powers Scotland currently has in relation to employability and skills.

However, SCVO and others point out that further devolution must take account of the interrelated nature of the benefit system. For example, Carer’s Allowance interacts with a number of benefits including Personal Independence Payment and Disability Living Allowance. Consequently, devolving a particular benefit in isolation may create misalignment and further bureaucracy for families. This is especially important to consider with the introduction of Universal Credit.

Some charities such as Inclusion Scotland have also expressed concern about detaching the ability to shape benefits/develop new approaches from wider fiscal levers. This means having no control over other areas of policy which affect poverty and inequality.

In saying that, our hope is this: Even if there are limited powers devolved, there would be an opportunity to mark a different path. In our submission for today’s debate on human rights, we argue that future governments must ensure access to a decent standard of living – a key priority within the Scottish National Action Plan on Human Rights (SNAP).[x] We also wish to see a strong emphasis on human dignity and people being treated with respect within the context of further devolution. These were important principles identified by the Expert Working Group on Welfare[xi]; and they must drive the implementation of any further powers over welfare and benefits.


Lynn Williams
Policy Officer

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations,
Mansfield Traquair Centre,
15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB

About us

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is the national body representing the third sector.There are over 45,000 voluntary organisations in Scotland involving around 137,000 paid staff and approximately 1.2 million volunteers. The sector manages an income of £4.4 billion.

SCVO works in partnership with the third sector in Scotland to advance our shared values and interests. We have over 1300 members who range from individuals and grassroots groups, to Scotland-wide organisations and intermediary bodies.

As the only inclusive representative umbrella organisation for the sector SCVO:

  • has the largest Scotland-wide membership from the sector – our 1300 members include charities, community groups, social enterprises and voluntary organisations of all shapes and sizes
  • our governance and membership structures are democratic and accountable – with an elected board and policy committee from the sector, we are managed by the sector, for the sector
  • brings together organisations and networks connecting across the whole of Scotland

SCVO works to support people to take voluntary action to help themselves and others, and to bring about social change. Our policy is determined by a policy committee elected by our members.[1]

Further details about SCVO can be found at


Scottish Voluntary Sector Statistics 2010, SCVO

[1] SCVO’s Policy Committee has 24 members elected by SCVO’s member organisations who then co-opt up to eight more members primarily to reflect fields of interest which are not otherwise represented. It also includes two ex officio members, the SCVO Convener and Vice Convener.










[x] SCVO briefing, Scottish Government Human Rights debate, 11/11/14.