The role of the Disability and Carers Benefit Expert Advisory Group
Guest post from Jim McCormick, chair of the Disability and Carers Benefit Expert Advisory Group
With some powers over social security being devolved to Scotland, a new ecology of participation, advice and scrutiny will be needed. Recruitment to the Experience Panels of 2,000+ people who claim key benefits is the most visible early sign of a determination to improve the process, from before applying through to assessments, claims and appeals. Seeking out the views of those who are less often heard – disabled children and young adults, people with the most intensive caring roles, frail older people of all ethnicities and those with dementia – should be a core principle.
The Role of the group
An independent advisory group to look in depth at six of these benefits – covering disability, ill health and caring –met for the first time in April. We will deliberate and respond to the Social Security Minister with advice on policy and practice as the legislative milestones appear before the Scottish Parliament. We will also offer advice pro-actively. And we will prepare an annual account of how we think Scotland is faring in using the new powers. Our advice will be based firmly on building relationships with Experience Panel members, wider stakeholders and the workforce who will have delivery responsibility.
The Challenges ahead
With the Minister’s announcement on the shape of the Social Security Agency in April and legislation coming to Holyrood before the end of June, our workplan for the rest of the year is taking shape. It will be for group members to decide together how to pursue our remit. Three challenges appear to be inescapable for any government:
- Take-up: establishing an accurate baseline of eligibility and take-up, and testing the effectiveness of various approaches to closing the gap.
- Uprating: deciding the basis on which devolved benefits will rise in each budget, for example taking into account various measures of inflation.
- Adequacy: although social security cannot do all the ‘heavy lifting’ of reducing poverty, it must make its own contribution and in particular needs to address the extra costs faced by households including disabled adults or children.
At a time of rising inflation, stagnant real wages and continued budget strain, there are mainly hard choices ahead for government. Improving the quality of people’s treatment, e.g. by increasing the share of correct decisions first-time, can save anxiety, hardship and money.
While digital access works well for many, people will still need or want face-to-face support. The commitment to co-location in the Social Security Agency is especially welcome. Evidence from various approaches embedded in NHS settings, including the Parkhead model in two GP surgeries, points to the positive impact and efficiency of bringing together under one roof money/welfare advice, housing, training, childcare and ESOL support. These also highlight the significance of data-sharing between the NHS and third sector advisers with patient consent, to raise take-up, manage debt and support appeals. Making this work in rural and remote areas will need as much careful design as succeeding in areas of multiple disadvantage.