The Scottish public want social security doing more to keep people afloat

New analysis looks at public attitudes in Scotland, and finds the public will is there for a stronger a lifeline from social security.

The pandemic has created fast-flowing currents of anxiety and insecurity. The response from governments across the UK has offered a lifeline to many employers, charities and families, but we know there are significant gaps in support. For now, it is right that all networks of support pull together and ensure people's options aren’t restricted to putting food on the table or paying the rent; running a risk by going to work or worrying about the debt they are building up.

None of us can know what recovery plan will be needed. Governments, employers and housing providers will need to build-in security where it was lacking. All of this will have to be done with a mobilized public, acutely aware of our reliance on care workers, shop workers, those who deliver to our homes and keep our health services going. With the surge in claims for Universal Credit, it is clearer than ever that social security is also an essential public service with a vital part to play in keeping our heads above water.

Galvanising public will to reshape social security begins with understanding attitudes. A new analysis by Bright Blue looks at attitudes in Scotland before COVID-19 appeared, based on a survey of 3,000 respondents. For the first time, this offers an in-depth look at what people think about the newly devolved Scottish social security, as well as aspects of the continuing system in Great Britain. It sets out the priorities on people’s minds before most of the new powers have been used, giving us a baseline from which to understand subsequent changes.

There is an appetite among six in ten respondents for Holyrood to decide all or most of social security policy, and broad support for the legislative principles of the new Scottish system, especially that it should be a rights-based public service and that take-up should be actively promoted for those who are eligible. By a margin of two to one, people think social security spending should increase rather than be reduced, while around one in three think it should stay the same. How should that be paid for? A small majority (56%) of those who want spending to rise think taxes should go up, while 44% think spending on other things should be lower.

Existing Scottish policy commitments to support low-income families carry public consent. While Universal Credit policy is determined at Westminster, some payment flexibilities (Scottish Choices) are set by Holyrood. Three-quarters (74%) agree that the housing element should be able to be paid directly to landlords, while six in ten (62%) agree that more frequent payments should be offered. A majority (57%) also support split payments between adults in the same household rather than a single combined payment – a flexibility still to be offered.

The Scottish Child Payment, which we see as a golden opportunity to turn the tide on child poverty, is welcomed by seven in ten people, a notably high level of support for a new targeted payment yet to be introduced: 40% think the proposed rate of £10 per week per child is about right while just over 30% think it should be higher.

But the main payments to be delivered by Social Security Scotland will focus on disabled people and carers. They face higher rates of poverty and are less likely to be in employment than the population as a whole. Around seven in ten people think social security should increase for these groups. And as a new disability assessment system is designed in Scotland, almost half of people think it is currently too hard to apply for disability benefits. There is majority support across all sections of society for the Scottish Government’s plan to draw on existing information in applications rather than relying on face-to-face assessments in order to make decisions.

The Bright Blue survey asked about further policy changes. Some of these would require Westminster to relax the rules – for example, two-thirds of respondents support full-time carers keeping some of their Carers Allowance if earnings were higher than the current cut-off. But others could form part of a Scottish recovery plan even before manifestos are drawn up for next year’s election, such as Government-backed incentives for employers to hire more disabled and unemployed people.

Social security cannot take on the challenge of solving poverty alone. People also need the secure anchor of affordable homes and good jobs. That is especially true for disabled people and carers who faced extra costs and high poverty rates well before the COVID-19 outbreak. But it is also clear that the question of adequacy in Scotland’s new benefits system needs to be addressed in the next parliament. In taking on that challenge, politicians can be confident they are in synch with the public mood.