DWP’s treatment of benefit claimants bordering on inhumane, MSPs told

By Lewis McKenzie, Political Reporter, Press Association Scotland
Shirley-Anne Somerville said current social security recipients revealed their experiences as part of work to set up a Scottish system.

People whose experiences of the UK Government’s benefits system bordered on the “inhumane” played a key role in considering a social security system in Scotland, MSPs have heard.

Shirley-Anne Somerville told the Social Security Committee at Holyrood on Thursday that those with lived experience of the system had demonstrated “a great deal of courage” in contributing their views to assist in the development of the new Scottish Social Security Charter.

Legislation was enacted last year to grant new powers to the Scottish Government to deliver some social security benefits.

The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 required a charter for social security to be co-designed with people who had experience of social security and stakeholder organisations. It was required to reflect a human rights based approach to social security.

The views of a range of individuals were heard over the course of six months between June and December last year, with a draft charter created and laid before the Scottish Parliament in January this year.

Social Security Secretary Ms Somerville said: “The Scottish Government is committed to a system on the recognition that social security is a human right.

“The charter was always about bringing that commitment to life, identifying the specific things that the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland must do to deliver a system that lived up to that aspiration.

“A system that translates the good intentions set out in the social security principles into real life improvements to people’s every day experiences.

“And who better to tell us how to do that than the people who know the system best – those with lived experience of it, who have relied on it and who understand the specific ways in which it must change.”

Ms Somerville recalled the account of one contributor who said they had cried after detailing their experience of the DWP (UK’s Department for Work and Pensions) to the Scottish Government, indicating it was the first time they felt they had been listened to and respected.

“It is no exaggeration to say that many of them have had experiences of the UK system that border on the inhumane,” said the minister.

“It took a great deal of courage and a deep personal commitment to build something better for them to place their trust in the Scottish Government.

“I want to place on record my thanks to the core group for that trust and for their bravery and commitment to working with us to make things better for their fellow citizens.

The minister also suggested stigma around the use of benefits must be challenged.

Ms Somerville said: “The issue of language is such an important one as we go through this, and it touches on this aspect that’s in the charter around tackling stigma within benefits.

“I do use the word benefits because it came back from work that we’ve done with experience panels that it is the most understood, it is the aspect that people use themselves and there’s a challenge for us to turn this around and ensure that we are tackling the stigma about being on a social security benefit rather than trying to use words that people aren’t using themselves to explain their current situation.

“I suppose it’s a different way of tackling it. Yes, we did consider and have considered the use of the word ‘entitlements’ more – it’s simply not what people use themselves.

“I think that’s the issue going forward, about why were we looking to change it? And if it’s because there’s a negative attachment to that, then we should challenge that negative attachment, rather than having another word for that.”