Big Opportunities for Big Improvement: Changing the History of Social Security in Scotland

History is being made in Scotland right now. Although many haven’t noticed.

Westminster is currently devolving a number of powers to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 2016. This includes a portion of the social security budget, accounting for £2.9 billion or 15% of the total £17.5 billion spent every year. The new social security system will deliver 10 of 11 key benefits to over 1.4 million people in Scotland, including Carer’s Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Sure Start maternity grants (Discretionary Housing Payments will continue to be paid by Local Authorities).

If you’re not on benefits, or don’t live in Scotland, then perhaps this is of little interest to you. But from a historical standpoint, and a humanitarian perspective, remarkable things are happening at Holyrood that will have a massive impact on the most vulnerable portions of Scottish society.

As a welfare state, Scotland (and Britain) is committed to the collective welfare of its people, so that no citizen falls below the minimum standards in income, health, housing and education. In other words, it’s like a social safety net.

Collective welfare in Britain began in the 1830s. Although Victorians distrusted the poor, believing poverty was their own fault due to wasteful habits, laziness, and poor moral character, England introduced the New Poor Law Act in 1834. However, it only offered assistance to able-bodied persons if they entered a workhouse, were put to work and thus “submitted to harshness” (I’m not even kidding, that exact phrase came from this textbook: Baldock, Mitton, Manning and Vickerstaff, Social Policy, 4th ed, 2007, p. 29). Workhouses were not happy institutions, we must remember. Instead, these able-bodied persons were meant to experience a lower standard of living than even the poorest labourer. The rationale was that it would discourage all but the destitute able-bodied from turning to the Poor Law, whose only choice in life was either the workhouse or nothing. Pretty grim!

Slum housing - Close 46 Glasgow L_tcm4-556904

Abject poverty of Glaswegian children in the 1850s, photographed by Thomas Annan, and taken from No. 46 Saltmarket, an old close in Glasgow.  Image from the National Galleries of Scotland via www.sath.org.uk

Over a hundred years later, during the Second World War, economist William Beveridge (1941) wrote a ground-breaking report on social policy. After surveying wartime housing schemes, Beveridge famously declared that Britain commit itself to attack five giant evils: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.  Some would argue that this was the pivotal moment when modern welfare measures were introduced. (For a marvelous documentary on how the bombings during the Blitz revealed the conditions of Britain’s poorest class, and inspired lesser-known journalist Ritchie Calder to confront the long-term housing and poverty crisis in Britain, see BBC’s Blitz: The Bombs that Changed Britain).

The creation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1946 was one of the largest reforms of modern British society. By amalgamating local authority hospitals with voluntary hospitals (many of which had already been organised during the war), and by promoting the NHS as a service based on clinical need rather than ability to pay, the British public warmly welcomed the new health scheme. Despite this, social security in Britain faltered. In the 1960s, critics such as Peter Townsend, brought attention to the fact that many pensioners were in poverty because of inadequate pensions. Meanwhile, National Insurance (NI) was given based on contributions, which often left unemployed women (ie. homemakers) excluded from the system. By the 1970s, means-tested systems were introduced to rectify social security shortcomings, which meant that low pensions, for example, were increased in line with prices or earnings, whichever were greater.

By the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared that excessive public expenditures were the root of Britain’s economic issues, as the delivery of public services were “paternalistic, inefficient and generally unsatisfactory” (Baldock, Mitton, Manning and Vickerstaff, Social Policy, 4th ed, 2007, p. 39).

Tell Sid 1986 British Gas _BD_54_ 5

The ‘Tell Sid’ campaign from 1986, which that encouraged people to buy shares in British Gas. ‘If you see Sid, tell him’ ran the slogan, and around 1.5million did at a cost of 135p/share, in a £9billion share offer, the largest ever at the time.

The real issue, of course, was to avoid welfare recipients from becoming too dependent on state benefits. Echoing her Victorian ancestors, Thatcher and her advisers thought that “generous collective provision for unemployment and sickness was sapping some working-class people’s drive to work.” Measures were introduced to lower taxes and decrease state intervention and instead increase market forces with private investment. Major utility companies for gas, electricity, telephones, British Airways and British Rail were all privatized.  The assumption was that this new system would use competition to promote efficiency, and be motivated by public demands. This, it can be argued, was when the welfare state in Britain changed substantially. Or, this is when it went downhill.

An Example: Thatcher’s “Right To Buy”

Affordable housing, for example, was undermined by the unprecedented cuts in maintenance and subsidization under Thatcher. The “Right to Buy” scheme was introduced in 1980 so that long-term council tenants could purchase their council home at a discounted rate. As over 55% of Scottish people lived in council homes in 1981, this was a useful scheme to help many families become more independent.

But, crucially, this scheme removed thousands of homes from local councils’ resources. Without more affordable housing being built, and large reduction in subsidies from the federal government in 1981, Right to Buy only led to higher rents, longer waiting lists, and created a major housing crisis that lasted for decades.

By November 2012, a Scottish government consultation revealed that the majority of councils, and many tenants and landlords wanted the Right to Buy scheme abolished. In 2013, the Scottish government announced it would end this scheme in order to “safeguard social housing stock for future generations.” By 2016, the Right to Buy scheme was terminated in Scotland.

Education, healthcare, social security, all experienced cuts under the Thatcher period. And, with New Labour in the late 1990s, more changes sought to eradicate the “postcode lottery” effect of the NHS services by introducing national standards and centralized audits and performance reviews. Focus was also placed on employment; “welfare-to-work” epitomized the belief that work was the surest way out of poverty. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown promised to eradicate child poverty through a system of tax credits (a mission he still fights for, especially in Edinburgh where child poverty stands at 35% in some areas).

When Death Comes Knocking… Is Devolution is the Solution?

In addition to Scotland’s current housing crisis and child poverty, policy researchers are now drawing attention to another impending crisis on the British horizon: death.

In 2017, a comprehensive 110+ page report called “Death, Dying and Devolution” (hereafter called DDD) by the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research outlined the impact of death in Britain. Its findings were unsettling: Over 500,000 people die in Britain each year and over 2 million deal with death’s emotional, financial and practical consequences every year.  That is one in four or six Britons every year. A further 1 million people provide care for someone with a terminal illness every year, but only one in six employers have policies in place to support this population.

This means that family members (estimated 58% women) must assume the caring role with very little compensation (as you will see shortly). Disabled or injured people receive small sums to support themselves, forcing their family and support network or local authorities to pay for their housing and basic utilities. And, shockingly, unregulated funeral services plummet many families into something called “funeral poverty”!! Read on!

The findings in the DDD report is meant to be a radical wake-up call to policy makers about Britain’s approach to death. The alarming deficit in policy response and legislation, the report argues, is compounded by poor infrastructure and strategising, resulting in fragmented care, escalating and unregulated funeral costs, and massive inequalities experienced by dying and bereaved people due to their geographic location. However, the DDD report singles out Scotland as the only nation to have developed innovative, progressive policies in respect of end of life care. Notably, Scotland’s goal is to provide palliative care to all who need it by 2021 – the only nation to actually set a deadline.

Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom. The process of devolution is the perfect opportunity to tackle many of these problems. The report claims that “In light of the projected rise in the UK death rate over the next 20 years, with devolution comes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to (re)address the neglect of death as a public policy issue, repositioning death as a central concern of the welfare state,” (p. 6).

Soc Secuity Bill

The Social Security bill has just passed through stage one of a three-step parliamentary process. Find the latest updates on Twitter @SP_SocialSecur 

Let’s now return to the Social Security Bill being discussed in the Scottish Parliament…

As part of the legislative process, the Social Security Committee, comprised of multiple Members of the Scottish Parliament, has been given the task to oversee the new social security system.  This committee decided to make a Social Security charter (which would be quicker to implement than legislation) and submitted it for the public to scrutinise in the summer of 2017. You can see the charter here.

This is where it gets interesting.

Numerous charities responded to the public consultation with their concerns, criticisms and viewpoints. After the Social Security Committee received these reports, it will then amend the charter, seek more evidence from private citizens and charity directors as required, and in general, improve the legislation. (“Part one” of a three-stage legislative process is due for completion by December 2017, “part two” will begin in January 2018).

To the credit of the Scottish Ministers who drafted this charter, it’s somewhat vague and simplified, which is “normal” for such legislation in its infancy. For example, it’s impossible to say precisely how much a Carer should be paid, but merely to state whether a Carer should be paid more or less than the current benefit.

And to the credit of these charities’ policy researchers who drafted these perceptive responses, they have sunk their teeth into this charter and have ripped it apart…

Carer’s Allowance. This is currently less than the current jobseeker’s allowance (£73.10/week) and comes with a list of restrictive conditions. To qualify for Carer’s Allowance under the current system, you must provide care to someone who already receives Disability Living Allowance (this can be a major problem due to delays in assessment or confusing terminology about “terminal illness,” for example).  Assuming the person under your care successfully receives DLA, then to receive your small £73/week “compensation”:

  • you must provide 35+ hours/week caring,
  • you must NOT earn over £116/week,
  • you must NOT receive a pension (45% of all carers are aged 65+!)
  • you must NOT study 21+hrs/week or be under age 16.
  • If you care for two people (say an elderly parent and your child), you cannot double your benefits.

Although the new Social Security Bill suggests Carer’s Allowance should be raised to the current jobseeker’s allowance, Motor Neurone Disease Scotland argues “this rise does not go far enough: Many carers are forced to give up work to care for their loved one on a full time basis – they are not looking for work.” And even if Carer’s Allowance was increased to the equivalent of jobseeker’s allowance, this “new rate would only recompense carers at the rate of £2.00 per hour based on a 35 hour caring week(Carer’s Scotland Consultation Response, 2017). And, remember, if they work part-time to compensate for this egregiously low compensation, they cannot make more than £116/week, or else their Carer’s Allowance is terminated.

Disability Living Allowance. The actual amount provided to people with disability is surprisingly little. The lowest DLA rate (for those requiring some care) is £22.10/week. The highest DLA one can receive in Scotland is £82/week (assuming they require constant 24/7 care). If mobility is challenged or non-existent, then the highest mobility allowance is £58/week. But is that enough to cover most disabled peoples’ expenses (transportation costs to medical appointments, rent, food and other daily expenditures)? Really?

Funeral Poverty. The average cost of a funeral in Britain was £3,897 (DDD Report, p. 82). Applications for assistance take four weeks on average to process, and the rules regarding eligibility for the applicant often does not “take into consideration the nature of contemporary family relationships” that may not be straightforward nuclear families (p. 81). But Scotland has admittedly taken great strides towards regulating the funeral industry by pushing for licensing the Burial and Cremation Scotland (Bill) 2016.

Let’s just imagine a desperate situation to illustrate funeral poverty: a young family mourning the loss of a terminally-ill child. Currently in Scotland, independent funeral directors provide free of charge until the age of 16 (while the Co-operative Funeral Care extends this to the age of 18). These include embalming, a coffin, a hearse to transport the child, personnel to conduct the funeral and the use of a funeral home (where available), in addition to overhead administrative requirements. However, this does not include cremation (or burial), the headstone, or burial plot. As cremation is currently a less expensive option than a traditional burial in Scotland, some families (according to a leading Scottish children’s charity) are forced to choose a less expensive cremation despite their religious beliefs or the wish of the terminally ill child.

So what?

Exposing the bare bones of Scotland’s current social security policies might seem like an insensitive and rude awakening. But we currently live in a world where gaps in care are compensated by families, friends or charities. Often, these carers and support networks are rewarded with heartlessly small compensation. And although those amazing charities help where they can, they should not be responsible for filling the gaps in care. Even large government donations to charities sadly fuels the “postcode lottery” effect of what services these charities can provide across the country, contributing to inconsistent care and, ultimately, health inequality.

The welfare state exists so that the poorest and most challenged citizens in a community can be supported. Historically, huge strides have been taken in the last 100 years towards administering social security to British people – from Lloyd-George’s National Insurance Act (1911) to Lord Beveridge’s Five Giant Evils (1943) to the founding of the NHS (1948), Thatcher’s sweeping reforms in the 1980s and then New Labour’s Welfare-to-Work  – and we hope these strides are taking us towards a better, fairer and more equal society.

The new Social Security Bill in Scotland is one step in a longer national history towards social justice and a healthier society. Devolution might seem like a complex, tricky business but one can hope the outcome will be transparent and simple to access. For all we know, devolution could irrevocably change the history of social security in Scotland! Ultimately, this new legislation offers big opportunities for big improvement.   According to Social Security Secretary, MSP Angela Constance, “once all the benefits are devolved, we will make more payments each week than the Scottish government currently makes each year.” With the first payments planned to roll out by mid-2018, this ambitious and complex infrastructure could (potentially) improve the desperate circumstances of Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens.

To keep up to date on the latest meetings or voice your opinion, see the Social Security Committee website or Tweet them @SP_SocialSecur 

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