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Chamber and committees

Social Justice and Social Security Committee

Meeting date: Thursday, March 21, 2024


Social Security (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Convener

The next item is our third evidence session on the Social Security (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. The bill amends the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 to make changes to the Scottish social security system. Today, we will focus on the concerns of carers of potentially vulnerable clients and the concerns of clients who have a carer.

I welcome to the meeting Fiona Collie, head of policy and public affairs for Scotland and Northern Ireland at Carers Scotland, which is one of the national carer organisations; and Vicki Cahill, policy and public affairs lead for Alzheimer Scotland. Thank you for accepting our invitation and joining us today.

Before we start, I will mention a few points about the format of the meeting. Please wait until I or the member who has asked the question says your name before speaking. Do not feel that each of you has to answer every question—if you have nothing new to add to what has been said, that is perfectly okay. I ask everyone to keep their questions and answers as concise as possible.

Without further ado, we will move to questions, the first of which comes from Bob Doris.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Good morning, and thank you for supporting our evidence session this morning. This is a relatively straightforward—and, I think, non-contentious—question to start with. Different benefits have qualifying deadlines and cut-off dates for when people can apply. The bill seeks to repeal the Covid measures in relation to deadlines. Do the witnesses believe that, with that provision removed, there will still be sufficient flexibility for applying late or after the deadline for benefits?

Fiona Collie (Carers Scotland)

We believe that there will probably still be sufficient flexibility but that clarity might be needed on when that flexibility exists. Consideration should be given to delays that have been brought about by caring duties, the illness of the carer or the cared-for person, or the limited availability of advice services to support the individual in making an application. There is a need for public clarification so that transparent, open information is available on how those flexibilities will enable individuals to make their applications on time.

That is very helpful. In other words, removing the Covid qualification presents an opportunity to provide clarity on what the other reasons for applying late might be. Do you agree with that, Vicki Cahill?

Vicki Cahill (Alzheimer Scotland)

Yes. We would absolutely agree that clarity is paramount in ensuring that the processes are as transparent and simplified as possible, both for the decision maker and for people who make applications.

There are existing measures in the guidance and regulations. In practice, the granting of permission for late applications is very much part of the normal social security processes of the Department for Work and Pensions and Social Security Scotland. It is our understanding that that approach could be expanded to incorporate reasons—including reasons related to Covid-19—that would satisfy the description as it stands in the guidance that came out before the Covid-19 regulations. For example, reasons related directly to Covid-19 would satisfy the definition of good reason for a late application.

To go back to Fiona Collie’s point about the need for clarification, we see the bill as an opportunity to review the rules and guidance on allowing late applications and to look at the backdating of awards and the impact that that has, particularly when deadlines are involved. It is important that those rules and guidance are of benefit to applicants whenever possible.

We recognise that claimants might make applications at a time that does not allow for a full backdate based on their entitlement, because of Social Security Scotland’s current processes. For example, carers who apply for carers allowance as part of DWP processes or carers support payment as part of Social Security Scotland processes are only eligible for a 13-week backdate—three months from the date of claim—and their entitlement is conditional on the person for whom they care being in receipt of a disability benefit such as adult disability payment, attendance allowance or the personal independence payment.

It is not unreasonable that a carer might delay making a claim until such time as the person for whom they care is in receipt of a particular benefit. However, Social Security Scotland’s data from January indicates that 8 per cent of claims for the adult disability payment, for example, are taking seven months or more to be processed. That would mean that, for example, a carer who had caring duties and responsibilities during that window of time might not be eligible for carers support payment or carers allowance at that time. Therefore, they would be disadvantaged if they waited until such time as everything had been signed off and the disability benefit payment had been put into place.

We therefore have an opportunity to look at how the approach to backdating and processing claims can be made simpler to ensure that people are not disadvantaged by the current processes.

That is very clear. I do not have any follow-up questions, because you have made your point eloquently. The committee will reflect on that.

We move on to theme 2—the issue of challenging decisions, which is dealt with in part 3 of the bill.

The proposal is that redeterminations could be made after a year if there are “exceptional circumstances”. Are you comfortable with the concept of “exceptional circumstances” and what it means?

Vicki Cahill

We need a bit of clarity on what “exceptional circumstances” are. We suggest that a broad approach be taken to defining that term. We recognise that life events such as illness, hospital stays, bereavement, grief and loss can have a significant impact on people’s ability to make an application or to challenge a decision.

Alzheimer Scotland is keen to ensure that the impact of living with a cognitive impairment is covered under the definition of “exceptional circumstances” and that it is recognised that the complex needs that arise as a result of living with conditions such as dementia might impact on people’s ability to follow processes within deadlines and timeframes. That is particularly important.

We also want to be clear that it is important that the descriptors and definitions that are used in considering “exceptional circumstances” are not overly prescriptive or too narrow in what they permit decision makers to consider. Each case should be considered on its own merits, and a determination that is made by a decision maker should be based on a broader understanding of the barriers and challenges that a claimant might face. In general, the process should allow for some level of discretion, and we would support an approach that would enable the broadest understanding of “exceptional circumstances”.

In practice, how common would it be that, after a year, a request for redetermination would not have been made?

Vicki Cahill

For people with cognitive impairment, hospital stays can go on for particularly long periods of time. Committee members will all be aware of the challenges that have arisen as a result of people being unable to be discharged from hospital. There are delays to their ability to return to their own home and to be supported. When dementia is advanced, that makes it infinitely more difficult to provide those supports.

Although it might not be the norm to allow a year-long delay for a request to be made, we must accept that there are cases in which that might happen. When it is possible for us to make provision to allow for such cases and for individuals who fall under that category to be supported, it is important that that provision is made.

Fiona Collie

I absolutely agree. We know from the carers census that about half of carers are providing at least 50 hours of unpaid care. Someone who is dealing with circumstances such as hospital admission and discharge while trying to manage multiple caring responsibilities will sometimes need a little extra time. If we can make that clear, we should do so. That would be a positive development.

As I understand it, the norm for requesting a redetermination is either 31 or 42 days. A year is quite a lot of extra time, is it not?

Fiona Collie

It is quite a lot of extra time. On the period being either 31 or 42 days, it is a little strange to me that we have different timescales. That makes it very unclear for individuals who are trying to make sense of the social security system. Those of us who are enmeshed in it on a daily basis sometimes do not see how complicated and off-putting it is, or how difficult it can be for individuals to make decisions about how to apply for a benefit in the first place, or about redetermination or appeal.

Would you make 42 days the period for all the benefits, or would you suggest a different period?

Fiona Collie

Whatever the benefit, the period needs to be the same. I think that a period of 42 days is okay for a lot of people, but it would be sensible to have the flexibility to have a longer period. When it comes to public information, a consistent approach would be helpful.

Part 3 of the bill includes measures that are aimed at reducing stress for clients, such as allowing individuals to withdraw their redetermination request. Are you supportive of that part of the bill?

Fiona Collie


Vicki Cahill


Okay—that is straightforward.

Are there other measures that you think would improve the client experience in relation to redeterminations and appeals?

Vicki Cahill

There are ways to improve processes and experiences for people who go through the process of redetermination, which is quite stressful. The bill’s measures seek to reduce that level of stress, but they would not remove the stress entirely. They would provide a bit of a buffer when it comes to managing timescales and enabling people to move the process along, but they would not remove the stress.

Swifter response times, whereby the processing could be done much more quickly, would be helpful. In that way, the process would not weigh heavily on someone while they were waiting for the outcome of a reconsideration, particularly in circumstances in which they were not in receipt of any financial recompense that recognised the level of disability that they might have.

It is important that we have simplified and easier processes. We also need to ensure that there is clarity and flexibility in the system to allow people with additional needs to be supported through the entire process from start to finish, whether that support is provided by a family member or loved one or by a professional who can provide some overarching guidance.


John Mason

You mentioned that it would help people if they got a quicker response. Is the system working at the moment? Again, there are different targets, but I assume that Social Security Scotland has different targets because some things are more complex to work out than others.

Vicki Cahill

Absolutely. There are variations in how social security benefits are operated within Social Security Scotland. It principally looks after disability benefits, which are based on a subjective determination based on the person’s level of need and the requirement for other options to provide support for them. The prospect is different for other benefits, where it might be necessary to do a piece of financial decision making based on statistics and data.

Timescales vary, but it is important that processes are expedited whenever they can be. Social Security Scotland has very good turnaround times when it deals with people with terminal illnesses under special rules. In that case, it is meeting three-day target turnaround times for initial applications. However, it is important not just for people with terminal illnesses but for people with illnesses or disabilities more widely to be able to access decisions quickly. The caveat is that they must be good, high-quality decisions, so there must be an adequate time for applications to be assessed and considered appropriately. However, when we can speed up timescales, we should absolutely take steps to do that.

Ms Collie, do you want to say a final word on that? If we speed up decisions, there is a risk that we will have poorer decisions.

Fiona Collie

There is, but we also need to consider the provision of accessible information and support. We know from the national carer organisation MECOPP—the Minority Ethnic Carers of People Project—about the support for those whose first language is not English. Around 11 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom have limited or no English skills, so it is important that practical information is available to individuals in different languages and formats, whether that is Braille, large print or British Sign Language.

Before we move on, I will bring in Jeremy Balfour, who has a supplementary question.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

Good morning, and thank you for coming. My question is about representation of your clients. My understanding is that someone can tick a box and you can represent them for three months but that, after that, they must go back to Social Security Scotland. Is that causing you any problems? Would it be easier if someone could tick a box to say, for example, that they want to be represented from the start to whenever the final decision is made?

Vicki Cahill

That would make things infinitely easier, because we would not have to retread old ground. However, we would have to build into that system an opportunity for the person to step away from that arrangement, if they so desired, at a later date. The person could declare someone to be their representative or to be prepared to act on their behalf, but they may change their mind at a later date and want someone else to take on that responsibility, or they may want to do it themselves. For the system to be fair, the ability for them to do that would have to be built in.

Jeremy Balfour

We are still in the early days, so there will not have been many First-tier Tribunal hearings yet, but my understanding is that almost all of them now take place either online or by telephone. Is that a disadvantage for the people whom you work for? Would a face-to-face meeting be easier on some occasions? Should that be the norm rather than the exception?

Vicki Cahill

Given Alzheimer Scotland’s dealings with people who are living with dementia, we would absolutely advocate face-to-face hearings, which are significantly easier for the vast majority of people living with dementia who might have to attend a tribunal.

Managing over the telephone or digitally can be very difficult and can act as a significant barrier for a lot of people with dementia. However, we believe that options are always really important, so, although that might be very difficult for some individuals, others might prefer to use digital or telephone opportunities. Therefore, we suggest that those opportunities remain in place so that, if someone has such a preference, we could deliver it. Equally, face-to-face hearings would be an absolutely essential offering for people living with dementia.

Fiona Collie

I absolutely concur. Choice is fundamental for individuals and for carers. Sometimes, digital technology can make it a lot easier to support someone through the process; however, for other people, a face-to-face approach is far preferable. We need to have options, including the option of a face-to-face hearing, available—it is not optimal for only telephone and digital hearings to take place.

Thank you. That is very helpful.

We move on to theme 3, on overpayments, which relates to part 4 of the bill.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

Appointees and other formal representatives would be liable for overpayments only if they misused the funds; they would not be liable for honest mistakes. There is also an existing requirement to have regard to financial circumstances before seeking to recover overpayments. Do the witnesses agree with making formal representatives liable in those circumstances?

Fiona Collie

I will comment fairly briefly. On the idea of making representatives liable, there is a difficulty with overpayments. There are sometimes genuine reasons why people get things wrong when making an application or making a payment. I know that there is a provision saying that the representative should have noticed the error, but sometimes that is not the reality of individuals’ lives.

There should be compassion in the system. We know that there can be significant consequences for unpaid carers if there is an overpayment, because of the nature of the benefit. In general, the liability should be not with the individual who is being represented but with the representative, but we need to be careful about that, because we do not want to discourage individuals from supporting disabled people.

We should also take account of circumstances—an individual might have significant caring responsibilities, be a power of attorney or a guardian and be trying to manage the individual’s benefits and the household finances. Sometimes, it can be difficult to unpick who the benefit is for and who is getting the benefit of the benefits. We need to be clear about that. I certainly welcome the fact that the bill provides for appeal rights, which is a good step forward.

Vicki Cahill

We agree that we do not want to discourage people from acting as representatives or appointees and that people who are prepared to step up should be supported. We should not put additional barriers in the way of that.

We have a few concerns about how the determinations as to whether funds have been misused might be made. It might be quite difficult to identify what is covered in a particular scenario when determining whether there has been misuse of funds. For example, disability benefits such as adult disability payment do not prescribe how people in receipt of those benefits, or representatives who are responsible for administering them on behalf of someone who cannot manage their own affairs, should spend the payment. It might be quite difficult to make determinations on what is misuse.

If there is no direct requirement for people to provide or purchase particular things with their benefit, who is to say that, for example, going on holiday, going out socially or purchasing a vehicle is a misuse of funds, when that could benefit the individual for whom the benefit is being claimed? In and of itself, that can be challenging.

Likewise, there might be difficulty in identifying the difference between an honest mistake and a more deliberate attempt to gain benefit. For example, how might it be determined whether an omission of information was the result of a genuine oversight, lack of knowledge or understanding of the process, or the deliberate concealment of information in order to gain some benefit?

For example, if an individual enters hospital, they are required to declare that to Social Security Scotland. At a time of great stress, when someone is juggling lots of different things, it could be quite easy for that to be an oversight. Where do we draw the line in determining the difference between a direct attempt at concealment in order to continue to benefit from that payment and what is nothing more than a genuine oversight? That can be difficult.

I reiterate the general point that fair and reasonable processes and clear and robust structures need to be in place to support carers and representatives. Equally, however, we must ensure that, as part of that process, there is on-going support to reduce the likelihood of such an event recurring in the future. We should look not simply at a single instance but at the wider picture.

Katy Clark

That is very helpful.

The person who is being cared for can already be liable for noticeable overpayments caused by their representatives, and the bill extends that to include overpayments that a person might not necessarily have noticed were the result of an honest mistake by their representative. Do you agree with that?

Fiona Collie

I probably do not agree. If someone has a representative acting for them, that is because they require support to manage their social security, so they should not be liable for that. That seems fundamentally unfair.

Vicki Cahill

I absolutely agree with Fiona Collie’s comments. It is unfair and unreasonable to expect claimants who have additional support needs—which are clearly evidenced by their need for a representative in the first instance—to take on the role and responsibility of providing checks and balances and ensuring that all the information is provided on their behalf. That would be absolutely unfair.

Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Good morning. I thank the witnesses for coming along. On that theme, the balance has to be right, and the evidence that we have received shows that that involves very fine movements.

I will focus on what happens following a bereavement. It is possible that the deceased’s benefits might be overpaid. Do you have any comments on the ability to recover benefit overpayments from the estate of an individual who has died? Obviously, that is a very specific example, but I am intrigued to know what you think about it.

Fiona Collie

I do not think that I need to tell anyone in this room that losing someone is a really difficult time. In particular, if you have lost someone whom you cared for, there are a lot of things to deal with. The list of practicalities just grows and grows—dealing with funeral arrangements, stopping care services, dealing with equipment and so on. We need to be careful to understand those circumstances and take a compassionate approach.

In general, the idea is in line with that for other benefits, such as pension credit. In such cases, people are told, fairly immediately, that they have to pay back the money, which can be really distressing. I speak as somebody who has been in that position; it is really distressing when you are trying to deal with everything else. There is a need for a bit of balance to ensure that individuals are not put under additional stress.

Estates can be very variable. Let us be honest—someone’s estate could be minuscule. Given that things such as funerals and so on need to be paid for, there can be nothing left. There is a need for balance and compassion when attempts to reclaim money are made.


Vicki Cahill

We agree that there is a need for sensitivity when it comes to managing the winding-up of people’s estates. As part of that, consideration should be given to the timing of requests. A look should also be taken at the correspondence that is sent out. The correspondence that the Department for Work and Pensions and Social Security Scotland send out initially offers a degree of condolence to the individual in question who is responsible, but the next line is a demand for money. That is not the most compassionate or appropriate way in which to make a request for additional funds.

There are opportunities for people to write to debt recovery, which is responsible for taking in any overpayment that has occurred as a result of a death. However, those processes are not particularly clear and are not widely known, especially among the public, so perhaps there is an opportunity to think about what the processes might be at that point and under what circumstances someone might be able to request that an overpayment be written off by Social Security Scotland. For example, if money has been paid as a result of the payment processes that are in place—for example, some benefits are paid three weeks behind and one week ahead, which would automatically result in an overpayment—that is not a result of anyone declaring late or delaying notifying Social Security Scotland.

The system should have some flexibility built into it so that it takes account of those wider parameters and can support people at what is a really difficult time.

That is very helpful. I was going to ask for a couple of suggestions about what Fiona Collie meant by “balance”, but you have just given some. Thank you very much indeed.

We move on to theme 4, which is on appointees, who are dealt with in part 5 of the bill.

Good morning. I will start with a broad question. What experience do you have of the existing appointee system under the DWP and Social Security Scotland? What has been your experience of that process?

Vicki Cahill

Given that Social Security Scotland’s processes are relatively new, the access that we have had to them and the opportunities for engagement have been limited.

There is a bit more scope for us to comment on how the DWP’s processes work. Broadly speaking, we have not come across significant challenges around appointeeship. We do not deal with significant numbers of people who have difficulty in being recognised as an appointee, in changing details or in performing that role. That is the extent of our experience at the current time.

Fiona Collie

I concur with that. We have had the odd inquiry about the DWP’s processes, but, in the main, the system seems to work effectively.

Paul O’Kane

The bill requires DWP appointees to be authorised by Social Security Scotland

“as soon as reasonably practical”.

What are your general expectations about how long it should take Social Security Scotland to authorise an appointee? We had a discussion with other witnesses about timescales and expectations, so it would be good to get your sense of that.

Fiona Collie

I do not have a particular timescale in mind. It should be within the timescale of the payment of the benefit. If the benefit is paid every three weeks or every week, it should be within that period so that, when the individual next has to make contact, they will be a Social Security Scotland appointee. I note that, in the early discussions, there was general frustration about there not being an automated way to make the change from the DWP to Social Security Scotland.

Vicki Cahill

We recognise that there is a need for due process and that that process takes a bit of time, because it is determined by Social Security Scotland’s capacity to carry it out. Processes include face-to-face visits, speaking to the person who wishes to be an appointee and, in most circumstances, the person who wishes to appoint someone to act as their representative. That can take a bit of time.

In addition, we recognise that there is sometimes a requirement for additional information, such as medical reports, to help to determine whether the request for someone to act as a representative is reasonable. We believe that it would be perfectly reasonable for that process to be done within that timescale, but we are aware that the timescales are very much based on Social Security Scotland’s capacity to deliver that.

It is possible to speed up the process of checks if such checks have already been carried out by the DWP. It might be worth having a look at what reciprocal arrangements can be agreed between the DWP and Social Security Scotland. Some of the checks that have been carried out by the DWP could be shared to enable Social Security Scotland to carry out a quick oversight, or vice versa, particularly if someone has had an appointeeship organised within the past six to 12 months. It does not seem unreasonable to place the administrative burden on Social Security Scotland, rather than expecting either the claimant or their representative to take on an additional burden as part of their claim. It might therefore be worth considering a memorandum of understanding or a reciprocal agreement, particularly for people who claim benefits from the DWP or pension service, such as pensions and universal credit, and who also claim a disability benefit from Social Security Scotland.

Paul O’Kane

Those answers are helpful. On some of the practical suggestions, I am sensing frustration about blockages, if I can use that expression, in the system. The bill will create empowering opportunities, but a lot of the detail comes down to how the system operates in practice. Is Social Security Scotland engaging with some of the suggestions that Vicki Cahill made or with the conversation about a more automated process, as Fiona Collie suggested?

Vicki Cahill

My understanding is that Social Security Scotland and the DWP are engaging and looking at ways to work alongside each other to support claimants. Ultimately, that is the crux of what is needed. It is not about individual bodies and authorities overruling one another because of geography. Ultimately, the aim of the bill and, most importantly, of practice is to support claimants to get what they need as quickly as they can, without any additional barriers to those that already exist in the system.

Fiona Collie

I understand that Social Security Scotland has to carry out due diligence, but another public body has already made a decision, based on a range of information, that it is appropriate for somebody to be an appointee. I know that having a simple transfer is a challenge—it was a challenge with child disability payment—but it would be sensible to have some agreement between the DWP and Social Security Scotland, which would take the pressure off individuals. Ultimately, as Vicki Cahill said, it is a matter of ensuring that individuals get the support that they need quickly, without having to deal with additional stresses.

We now move on to theme 5, on information for audit.

Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

Good morning, panel. It is great to see you this morning. Do you agree with the provisions in part 6 of the bill on the ability to suspend people’s benefit payments if they repeatedly fail to provide the information required to Social Security Scotland?

Fiona Collie

I could give a mixed message in response to that—yes and no. The information in that part of the bill is pretty unclear. We need a lot more information about the bill’s intention and scope, and about situations in which an individual might or might not understand what is being asked of them. There might be very good reasons why a person is not engaging. If that part of the bill remains in place, we need to make sure that very good information is made available for advisers and for the public. There is good information for individuals on the Social Security Scotland website about the benefits themselves, but not on some of the trickier aspects, and advisers have a very different and technical understanding of the social security system.

Vicki Cahill

I absolutely agree with the point that Fiona Collie has made. We reiterate the point that suspending payments does not really align with social security principles. I am sure that it is no shock that we would disagree with that approach.

There are some issues with the language and the wording that is used, and the clarity that Fiona has asked for is imperative. There is an issue around defining the term “repeatedly”. What does it mean? How many times does “repeatedly” mean? What methods will we use to establish contact with someone? Will we continue with the same practice when we do not get a response the first time? Are we going to repeat the exact same process the second time around? We require much more clarity on how things will play out from a practical point of view.

Speaking from Alzheimer Scotland’s perspective, we need a clear understanding of the needs of people living with dementia. They are often—although not always—older people and they sometimes have very difficult, complex needs. For them to engage or be part of a process of sharing and providing information takes a lot of effort on the part of the person requesting that information, not just the individual who is being asked to provide it.

We need to think about how information is communicated and how it is possible for decision makers or people who are requesting information to explore the needs of claimants, to ensure that their needs are being met and that they can be supportive in providing what they are being asked for.

We should consider alternatives. Are there other ways of obtaining the same information that do not place such a significant burden on an individual? Are there other routes to accessing that information? Generally, we suggest that there are other ways and means to look at information again. If there is any suggestion or significant evidence of particular wrongdoing, that requires a slightly different approach, but for reviews of information or in establishing conditionality based on eligibility criteria, the burden perhaps lies more with the decision maker than with the individual receiving the benefit.


Marie McNair

You have sort of answered my next question, which is about the kind of support that clients need. You have said that information is key to enabling the client to understand the process. Could you add anything to that?

Fiona Collie

Time is also important. I cannot emphasise enough the fact that carers are very time poor. Carers consistently say to me that caring is sometimes the least stressful part of what they do and that all the bureaucracy—including social security processes—is hugely stressful and time consuming.

We also need to ensure that we have accessible information and that there are protections for those who have protected characteristics, including that information is available in the language that they need it in—a language other than English, BSL, Braille, large print and so on—if that is what is required. Individuals are well aware of what information can be provided to them in the form that they need, and they have a right to it. That includes a person with cognitive impairment being able to access information in a form that they can understand. Letters from bureaucracies are not necessarily that easy for everyone to understand.

Vicki Cahill

I reiterate that accessibility is key to encouraging participation.

Going back to the point about people having choice and options, we might provide written materials, audiovisual materials and digital and online options, but face-to-face conversations in which you speak to someone directly and give them an opportunity to discuss what information is needed and why it is needed are also important in making the information accessible and more relatable. Not everyone’s needs will be exactly the same, so it is important to explore what an individual claimant’s needs are, and all those options and choices absolutely have to be available.

Our final theme is on social security principles. I invite Jeremy Balfour to lead on that.

You will be glad to hear that we are coming to the end of our questions. Do you have any comments on any other specific measures in the bill that you have not had a chance to comment on yet?

Vicki Cahill

I would raise the point about compensation recovery, which we referenced in our written response. Sometimes, people have multiple conditions or disabilities that coincide with an injury or illness that might have come about as a result of an accident for which they have been compensated, and we feel that it is important that, if an individual might otherwise be entitled to benefit, that should be taken into account, notwithstanding the compensation. For example, someone with dementia might have symptoms, whether or not they have a diagnosis, and that fact should be taken into account before any recovery measures are put in place that might disadvantage them. That should be part of a slightly broader approach to ensuring that we are not just looking at the compensation award in isolation. We have to look beyond that and consider the wider circumstances of someone who has had a compensation award.

Fiona Collie

I concur with that. Hidden additional costs often arise from things such as adaptations and reasonable expenses. There is also the fact that some compensation payments are about support for the rest of someone’s life, so we need to have a little bit of compassion in that regard.

Something that has been really important in the creation of Social Security Scotland and the benefits system is that it is about dignity, respect and compassion, and about ensuring that everything that we do, including the recovery of compensation payments, is thoughtful and compassionate and considers all the circumstances that individuals and their carers are living in.

Jeremy Balfour

Thank you. That is really helpful. I will open this up slightly wider, as this is a chance for the committee and the Parliament to review the proposed legislation. Is there anything that you would like to see in the bill that is not in it? I appreciate that you have only a few minutes and that you could go on for a long time on that subject.

Fiona Collie

We have some thoughts about the opportunity to create new support in the bill, particularly support for energy costs. It could open up an opportunity to look at what is missing from the creation of Social Security Scotland and the benefits that are being transferred. The creation of the Scottish child payment was brilliant, although we would probably argue that the eligibility for that assistance should be extended to people who have children and who receive carers allowance. There are other opportunities to have a think about what is missing and what we have learned in the past years and months from the cost of living crisis and how energy costs have gone through the roof, particularly for disabled people.

Vicki Cahill

In addition to Fiona Collie’s suggestion about extending the scope for social security in Scotland, I am thinking about the supports and measures that people might need to access it and about providing a clearer and easier pathway to ensuring that people can access the professional support that they might need to navigate a system that is as complicated and challenging as social security sometimes is. We could look at how we can structure that support, which often comes from the third sector. There is also some provision in local authority arrangements, but those are hugely variable. It might be worth considering how we can make that a much fairer and more even playing field, so that people can access the support that they need to navigate their way through the system.

Do you think that the bill aligns with the social security principles? That would be a good exam question.

Vicki Cahill

Broadly speaking, the bill aligns with the principles, with the exception of the provisions on information audit. I think that I was quite clear in my earlier response that suspending payments does not align with the social security principles. Otherwise, the bill broadly aligns with them.

Fiona Collie

I agree with that perspective.

Jeremy Balfour

I think that you have probably covered this issue, but I will give you one final opportunity to talk about the client experience. You have caveated your view of the bill with what you just said, but, outwith that, is there anything that you are still concerned about relating to the client experience? Are there things that need to be in the bill, or things that need to come out of it, to make the client experience easier? You have covered a lot of that already, but this is a final sweep up of any other comments that you might want to make.

Vicki Cahill

Broadly, we seek clarity and practical examples of how the bill will operate in Social Security Scotland’s processes and practice. We need clarity about how particular processes will work, what safeguards will be put in place and whether they will be sufficient to meet the needs of vulnerable claimants, in particular. The move towards the new steps in the bill largely seeks to improve the experience of claimants and their representatives. However, the proof is in the pudding. That will come very much from how it is played out in practice and people’s day-to-day experiences, so we will wait and see.

Fiona Collie

I agree with that. I emphasise the need for clarity and good, accessible information. We agree that social security is a human right and we need to make it a practical reality for everyone who applies for it, which includes encouraging the take-up of social security across the piece, as well as within the reserved system, and making the pathway for individuals as smooth as possible.

I thank you both for coming to the committee and for all the work that your organisations do. I know that you help so many people.

Bob Doris

I was impressed by our witnesses’ answers to Mr Balfour’s question about what more they would like to see in the bill. Ms Collie rightly called for greater financial support and greater consistency in that support across groups. Ms Cahill spoke about improved pathways, which would have a financial implication, although not as much as direct financial support. Of course, it is not for committee witnesses to say where that money would come from, and they should champion the corner of the people they represent. I am, however, conscious that the Scottish Government spends £1.1 billion more on entitlements for those who are vulnerable and needing support than it receives from the United Kingdom Government. Clearly, there is a divergence between the funds that are available to support those who need extra help and the extra help that is required because of the UK situation. Genuinely, I am not drawing you on any of that; it is just the context to my question.

What advice would you give to the Government or the committee? With the limited budget that we have, we and the Scottish Government have a difficult job in weighing up how to determine in what area to invest any money. If £10 million were to become available—Ms Collie, I am afraid that that is not the situation—some would argue that the Scottish child payment should be further increased, others would argue that the entitlements for that benefit should be increased and some would suggest spending it on a wholly different area, such as carers. How does the committee or the Scottish Government reconcile those competing demands? You should make those demands, and I would expect you to do so—and you do it so powerfully, passionately and persuasively—but how do we reconcile those tensions?

Fiona Collie

It would be nice if there was £10 million. I could think of many ways to spend it. Some of the figures on poverty among unpaid carers, for example, and, equally, poverty among disabled people, indicate that about half of households that are in poverty have someone who has a disability. We need to think about the costs of not supporting people, which are borne elsewhere.

Talking about prevention and health inequalities—the idea that, if you spend on something that will reduce the health impact, there will be a reduction in cost elsewhere—is difficult, because it sometimes takes a while for that impact to be seen. That is where we tend to come in when we talk about balancing. The poverty that disabled people and their carers face is so huge and it has such an impact on their health and wellbeing that it is paid for elsewhere in the Scottish budget. We need to have a bit of a think about prevention and how investing can help to reduce that impact.

It does not solve the quandary that the Government and the committee find ourselves in, but you have made a persuasive argument.

Vicki Cahill

Part of it is about whole-system design and looking at the general infrastructure and the areas in which you could maximise potential future cost savings. It is about hitting things further upstream, which is a preventative approach, as well as talking about early intervention, which can prevent further costs. It is a difficult challenge to lay bare and it does not have any quick or easy answers, otherwise I am sure that you would have come up with them by now. Certainly, the whole-system approach is important. I would also highlight the importance of considering lived experience and making an impact by listening to people’s experiences on the ground and making those changes.


Naturally, I will advocate for people who are living with dementia and long-term complex care needs, and I am sure that others can make equally sound representations for people in other parts of society. However, we need to think about a much longer-term strategy that will ensure that each of the areas that we are all trying to push and champion can move forward from the system that exists now and that we see improvements so that the experiences on the ground are better.

It is about thinking about the impact that you can make with the money that you have. If a problem requires £100 million to solve it and you have £10 million, what advantage is there in throwing £10 million at it? It might as well be none. However, if £10 million can make a specific change or improvement, the experience for people on the ground will be very different. The success of the Scottish child payment is an example of that. You have shown that, by having a particular packet of money and targeting it at a particular group of individuals, you can create a change and have an impact that is felt acutely by those who receive the benefit. It is not a quick fix, but it is about looking at where you can maximise the impact.

Thank you. I have no other questions, convener, but I put on the record my thanks to the witnesses for championing the issues so passionately. It is very helpful to the committee.

The Convener

Thank you. That concludes the evidence session. The committee very much appreciates your joining us today.

Next week, we will continue to take evidence on the bill with a panel of witnesses focusing on part 7, which concerns recovery from compensation payments.

I suspend the meeting to allow the setting up of our next item.

10:02 Meeting suspended.  

10:07 On resuming—