Commitment to maintaining dignity and respect
As outlined in our Stage 1 briefing[i], SCVO and the wider third sector were supportive of the Committee’s recommendation that the ethos underpinning the Fund must be based on trust and respect for applicants[ii].
We continue to argue that guidance and regulations alone cannot achieve this ambition. We again urge the Scottish Government to include a guiding principle within the Bill which acknowledges the rights and dignity of applicants in order to drive a direction and tone within supporting statutory instruments.
There are other reasons for seeking such an amendment to this Bill.
The Scottish Government, through SNAP[iii] and other work, has consistently committed to human rights principles, reflected in policy and in other legislation e.g. the Public Bodies (Joint Working) in the Integration Planning Principles[iv] and the Self Directed Support (SDS) Act. The latter has this following clause:
“Further general principles applicable to this Act:
In carrying out its functions under this Act in relation to a person who is to choose (or has chosen) one of the options for self-directed support, a local authority must take reasonable steps to facilitate the following general principles—
(a) that the right to dignity of the person is to be respected,
(b) that the person’s right to participate in the life of the community in which the person lives is to be respected.[v]”
Both acts are reflective of the UNCRPD general principles[vi]. More widely, general duties within the Convention and included in the Human Rights Act, lead us to expect that public bodies will show respect for:
“inherent dignity, individual autonomy and the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons.”
We must ensure that Scotland takes every opportunity to protect these basic but fundamental rights and to enshrine them in public policy and legislation, especially as the potential threat to human rights protections remains “live” (outlined most recently by the BMJ[vii]).
More importantly however, we offer this final, primary argument for including a “dignity clause” within the Welfare Funds Bill.
This Bill represents Scotland’s first real step in creating benefits legislation. This Bill will provide a benchmark for future legislation needed to take forward the new powers promised by the Smith Commission. In some ways, this Bill might be seen as one of the foundation stones of a Scottish welfare system.
The Scottish Government has consistently expressed a desire to create a more compassionate benefits system which treats people with dignity and respect [viii] [ix] [x]. It is therefore vital that Ministers take this opportunity to put down a marker in this draft Bill, demonstrating its commitment to creating a system which is:
“…fair, transparent and sympathetic to the challenges faced by people …, respecting personal dignity, equality and human rights.”[xi]
The Welfare Funds (Scotland) Bill must be the starting point for achieving that goal – we must ensure that it reflects these ambitions, and sets the tone and direction for future benefits legislation and policy in Scotland.
With all of these arguments in mind, we propose two options for potential amendment:
A new section 2 called “General Principles”:
“In use and administration of the fund, a local authority must take reasonable steps to facilitate the following general principles—
(a) that the right to dignity and choice of the applicant is to be respected,
(b) that the particular needs and choices of applicants are considered
Another possible amendment could be situated under section 2 (1) (b) with a new clause included:
“A local authority must use its welfare fund in ways which take account of the dignity of service users.”
Ensuring Effective Review
SCVO was disappointed not to see a Stage 1 recommendation supporting a review clause amendment for this Bill.
We welcome work being done by the Scottish Government to review, evaluate and improve the Fund’s operation. However, many within the sector continue to express real concern about the experience of applicants within the scheme; the lack of recording of applicants’ needs and the issue of gatekeeping[xii].
Given the critical nature of the Fund and the potentially increased role of the Scottish Government in developing benefits following the Smith Commission, we believe that parliamentary scrutiny of this Bill is necessary. A group of charities, including SCVO are calling for amendments to the Bill to ensure the scheme and legislation – in a rapidly changing context – are regularly reviewed and scrutinised by the parliament, in tandem with ongoing improvement work.
There are a twooptions for amendment to deal with these concerns:
- Within the Welfare Funds bill, a new sub-clause could be added clause 4
(with a new title to reflect the wider scope of the clause) [xiii]. Alternatively, the proposed
amendment could sit under a new clause 6, with subsequent sections renumbered appropriately:
- The Scottish Ministers must prepare an annual report giving information about the delivery of local welfare funds.
- An annual report under subsection (1) is to be laid before the Scottish Parliament on or before 30 June of each year.
- As the Welfare Fund is part of wider welfare reform/mitigation activity, it could form part of the Ministerial requirement to report annually under the Welfare Reform (Further Provision) (Scotland) Act 2012. Clause 4 (5) allows for Minsters to include whatever information they feel relevant in this report. The provision in clause 7 (b) (i) of the same Act could be used to extend the reporting timeline as the current date of 2017 would only take us into the first year of the Fund’s permanent operation, should the Welfare Funds Bill be enacted.
We acknowledge the widespread support for the proposed Government amendment at Stage 2[xiv]. We welcome assurances from the Scottish Government that such an amendment won’t (unintentionally) exclude the third sector from the Fund – not from operation or decision making (which we believe should remain in the public sector) but from provision of goods or indeed involvement in wider support for applicants.
Support for other third sector amendments
CPAG, SCVO, and other charities including Inclusion Scotland, OPFS and the Poverty Alliance have agreed to support the following additional amendments:
Ensuring eligibility for families facing exceptional pressure.
We share the concern of CPAG, OPFS and others that the Welfare Funds Bill does not do enough to ensure that families facing exceptional pressure will not be excluded from applying. Carer organisations are supportive of amendments to reverse this exclusion, with Carers Scotland providing the following points to illustrate their concerns:
“We know from the Caring and Family Finances Inquiry[xv] that families with a child or an adult with a disability often face significantly higher expenditure and have little or no savings to respond to unexpected expenses – for example, to replace a washing machine, tumble drier, cooker or other household item.
“My husband’s movement and coordination leads to a high number of breakages – crockery, furniture and fittings. I constantly need to fix or replace items.”
“The washing machine is on every day. It isn’t designed for that sort of use and this means it breaks, but when it breaks I have piles of soiled laundry building up. I can’t leave the house to get to a laundry every day so I need a replacement as soon as.”
Carers Scotland go on to say that:
“We would be very concerned if the bill for the Welfare Fund removed the possibility of families being able to access community care grants unless they met one of the other criteria e.g. homelessness etc. Without such small interventions like the Community Care Grant, we anticipate carer or family breakdown leading to a need for more costly statutory interventions. It may also lead to increased debt (carers already experience higher levels of debt); impact on carer health and further financial pressures including VAT increases and benefit changes which have seen carers and their families cut back on essentials such as food and heat.”
SCVO is concerned that not including an amendment at Stage 2 to specifically mention families facing exceptional pressure runs counter to the Scottish Government’s intended policy objective to prevent crisis and impacts on health and wellbeing.
The draft amendment being proposed is as follows:
2 (2) “Qualifying individuals” means individuals who have been or, without the assistance, might otherwise be
- in prison, hospital, a residential care establishment or other institution, or
- homeless or otherwise living an unsettled way of life or
- a member of a family facing exceptional pressure
We would also be supportive of other amendments to ensure that key groups e.g. disabled people are not unintentionally excluded for reasons similar to those identified above.
Awards: Cash and In Kind
The third sector has expressed concern that “in kind” awards from the Fund seem to be the default position, with just under 20 per cent of CCG awards made by way of cash, cheque or direct bank transfer[xvi].
In-kind approaches may work well for some, but for others, providing standard goods may serve to decrease their independence e.g. for people with disabilities. As outlined by CPAG and others, providing vouchers can actually serve to increase costs by preventing people from shopping around for a good deal or better quality goods[xvii].
For families in rural areas, the ability to fulfil vouchers is likely to be limited.
As these practices continue, a number of charities are providing strong arguments for the Bill to make clear, by way of a suggested amendment that the needs of applicants should be taken into account. The issue of dignity is important here – as we outline earlier in our briefing for the Stage 1 debate:
“For many, having cash to buy what they need is by far the best option – not least because it gives people some semblance of control and dignity at a time when they cannot control the factors which have led them into hardship in the first place.”[xviii]
Our argument is that the Bill should be amended to ensure that local authorities cannot exercise unlimited discretion as to the nature of awards. The full details of the amendment are included in the joint briefing from CPAG, the Poverty Alliance, Inclusion Scotland, SCVO and others.
Our final point relates to concerns raised in the Stage 1 Bill report about application processing times. We share the Committee’s concerns about this[xix], and the difficulties facing applicants in seeking emergency support prior to weekends – illustrated by the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice in his recent session with the Committee.[xx]
We urge the Minister to take all action necessary to ensure 24 hour processing times becomes the norm, particularly for Crisis Grants; this target must not be watered down. Local authorities must not be allowed to say that they are processing applications within this timescale, when they are in reality, taking far longer to do this as they pull together supporting information.
This leads us to a final point – given the low level of awards in most cases, overly bureaucratic application processes are not necessary. We urge the Government to look at how these processes are developing as part of its continued improvement programme.
We seek cross party support for these amendments and are happy to discuss individually with MSPs or political groups/with independent MSPs, prior to Stage 2 and beyond.
Our goal in proposing these is to ensure that as Scotland takes its first steps in benefit provision/development, there are clear guiding principles and a message that our approach will be more dignified and empowering than current policies – echoing the work of the Expert Group on Welfare in 2014[xxi].
Lynn Williams, Policy Officer
Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations,Mansfield Traquair Centre,15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB
Tel: 0141 559 5036
[ix] Meeting of Scottish Parliament, 30 April 2014, Deputy First Minster
[xiii] CPAG, SCVO, Inclusion Scotland and others – Stage 2 Briefing Welfare Fund (Scotland) Bill
[xvii] CPAG, SCVO, Inclusion Scotland and others – Stage 2 Briefing Welfare Fund (Scotland) Bill