Scotland’s social security agency must listen to people who have been silenced, argues Allan Young, a Welfare Engagement Officer with SCVO.
Scotland’s social security agency must listen to people who have been silenced
‘public services are built around people and communities, their needs, aspirations, capacities and skills, and work to build up their autonomy and resilience’
Do you remember this central objective of the now five year-old Christie Commission?
Healthy cynicism aside, it remains a key goal for many in the third sector.
The proposed new Scottish Social Security Agency presents an opportunity to realise this, but it won’t happen unless we the third sector leads the charge.
The Scottish Government is keen to tell us that we do things differently in Scotland. Certainly the staunch institutional opposition to both the Bedroom Tax (spare-room subsidy) and the sanctioning of claimants points to a clear divergence from the UK Government’s aggressive welfare policy.
So will the new Social Security Agency really signal a big break from the current experience of many in receipt of benefits?
Well, it seems unlikely that there will be anything more than a slight tweaking of current benefit levels. However, the language used by both ministers and civil servants encouragingly points to an ambitious plan for cultural development within the new agency.
Cabinet Secretary for Social Security, Angela Constance, said the agency was aiming to be an ‘exemplar’ as an employer and in how it engages with claimants. The recently released consultation document places a strong emphasis on dignity and respect.
Sounds great, but we can’t just sit on our hands and wait for this to happen.
Major developments have taken place in Scotland, the UK and the rest of the world, where those who have suffered led the movement for change. And that’s what we need here: lasting cultural change in how public service bodies engage with people on the lowest incomes.
People in receipt of social security are experiencing massive inequalities in Scotland:
- having to choose between eating or heating
- being forced to go to foodbanks
- being stigmatised as a ‘scrounger’
- having to endure physically and psychologically torturous fitness assessments.
Many who have interacted with the DWP in recent years have suffered.
Don’t believe me? Have a look at a recent United Nations report, alongside the wealth of related material developed by our sector.
So what do we need to do?
If we are genuinely committed to achieving meaningful co-produced services, underpinned by a human rights-based approach, we need to give voice to those who have been silenced.
In a previous role, I was involved in a local authority’s anti-poverty work and remember the hopes and frustrations of community activists.
I remember there being innovative work around staff attitudes, which I’m glad to see is still continuing. On the other hand, there wasn’t universal buy-in across departments, which resulted in people being more focused on barriers, rather than satisfaction at progress made.
Communication is vital. There is a misconception that meaningful co-production can’t happen because people who have been excluded will demand the earth. This is simply not true.
If space is created for proper conversations, decision makers and those they are co-producing with will come together. If you deny people the opportunity to engage, how can you expect them to understand the pressures and constraints you face in your role?
More importantly, how can you possibly understand how your decision will be affect people iif you don’t understand the unfair constraints faced by those on the lowest incomes?
Establishing a truly dignified service, centred on human rights, requires all of us to reexamine how we involve, engage and perhaps unwittingly silence people. It requires a commitment not just to act, but to listen.