Building public will for a system that looks after everyone in our society

In a compassionate society like ours, it’s only right that we have good systems in place to look after us, and help us out when we need support.

One way for more people to find a route out of poverty is through a better system of social security, working as part of a larger system including a stronger contribution from the housing and employment sectors, spurred on by the public and political will to act.

We are in the early days of developing a better social security system through devolved powers in Scotland. About one pound in every six spent on social security is now devolved to Holyrood. The new system isn’t likely to put much more money in pockets in the short-term. But there is a firm set of principles in legislation, to be applied by Social Security Scotland, that includes putting dignity, fairness and respect at the heart of the service, and placing a duty on Ministers to boost take-up. Experience Panels, composed of legacy UK system-users, have shaped early payments such as the Best Start Grants, and are informing a different approach to disability assessment (perhaps the single biggest test that lies ahead). They have also co-designed a new Charter which sets out rights and responsibilities for the public and the workforce. It is a chance to fix key features of the UK system that have failed too many people.

The Scottish Child Payment is the early game-changer. Brought forward to start for children aged under six in eligible families by Christmas 2020, it has the potential to reduce child poverty by 30,000 (three percentage points). JRF has welcomed this as a golden opportunity to turn the tide for families in poverty. The trouble is that, despite this, child poverty is on the up, driven mostly by UK social security reforms (notably the long-running benefits freeze, and increasingly the two-child limit), and is projected to return to levels last seen almost 20 years ago by the middle of the next decade.

This insight sparked the idea for JRF’s recent event in Edinburgh during Challenge Poverty Week. We brought together stakeholders to explore game-changing policies and approaches needed across the anchor-points of housing, work and social security, if Scotland’s ambitious targets on child poverty, which all political parties have committed to, are to be met by 2030. Challenged by workshop speakers to think about how social security could do more, participants focused in on two priorities: changing public attitudes towards it, and how well it supports the people in society with the highest poverty rates.

Changing public attitudes

While Holyrood may have created an enabling context, we still don’t know enough about underlying public attitudes to social security. But as Stephen Sinclair of Glasgow Caledonian University told us, there has been a powerful ‘them and us’ divide in how we tend to think about social security, driven by the increasingly damaged idea of ‘welfare’.

Tracy Gilmour of the Warrior Mum Project talked about a system that has lost sight of individuals, in contrast to a system which serves a ‘well-being model’ with the goals of increasing human and social capital in the community.

JRF is committed to building the public will to solve poverty, beyond specific policies and parliamentary terms, so that social security is seen as an essential service valued by the public as much as the NHS; one we can be sure of and thus more likely to support. Public and political will could take us even further, to a system that offers the care, skills and opportunities to get on with our lives, as well as income security.

Before we can arrive at a new consensus, it is clear we need to consider the diverse views of people who use the UK and new Scottish systems, and the wider public who don’t (and may think they don’t have a stake in the issue).

Groups with higher poverty rates

The real test of strategies to end poverty is how far households with lone parents, disabled adults, or children, benefit from them. A challenge for the new Scottish system that remains unanswered is adequacy. The experience of applying for Scottish replacements for PIP and Child DLA might improve, but these extra cost payments won’t have more of a poverty-fighting role unless they rise. One idea proposed by Sally Witcher, Chief Executive of Inclusion Scotland, is a Scottish Disability Payment to families with a disabled adult and/or child.

This could either be a short-term premium under top-up powers (like the Carers Allowance Supplement) before the new Disability Assistance payments for children and working-age adults are fully implemented at a higher rate. Or it could be a targeted payment for lower-income households, like the Scottish Child Payment. Either way, there was a strong sense in the group that Scotland should take a ‘gateway’ approach, integrating payments with wider support which cuts the poverty premium affecting key goods like fuel and credit, reduces debt, and improves access to appropriate childcare, employment or housing support.

These ideas, and others to be designed alongside people with experience of poverty, will be feeding into JRF’s plans in the coming months.

Dr Morag Treanor, Professor of Child and Family Inequality at Heriot-Watt University, discussing the key theme's coming from the workshop and how we can build a social security system that looks after everyone in our society.