Muriel writes on the role independent advocacy plays within the existing social security system and the culture change required.
There is a significant amount of evidence demonstrating the need for access to independent advocacy to support some of the most vulnerable in applications and assessments for benefits. Advocacy organisations report on many examples of people facing real difficulties in relation to benefits claims and assessments, the support offered by advocacy and resultant positive outcomes.
That is in the existing system, however, even with a change in culture and approach, it is unlikely that all social security staff will have appropriate levels of experience and understanding of the difficulties that may be experienced by some of the most vulnerable applicants. The experiences reported by advocacy organisations suggest that some individuals needing to make such applications will be unable to engage with the process, to fully understand what is required of them or to give clear information in communicating with social security staff.
Being able to access advocacy provides support that can reduce levels of anxiety and will help ensure the individual understands the process and what is required of them. Advocacy support will help ensure that social security staff have clear information from and understanding of the individual, their situation and their needs.
Several advocacy organisations have supported individuals through claims and assessments and have examples of the positive impact advocacy support has had.
Miss C has a diagnosis of PTSD and anxiety. Her mental health fluctuates and when she is unwell she withdraws from social contact. On one occasion, while unwell she failed to attend an assessment for PIP. She did not contact the assessment centre until several days later and was informed that her PIP would be stopped as she had not attended the assessment. Her Community Psychiatric Nurse was worried about the resulting deterioration in her mental health and referred her to her local advocacy organisation.
The advocate supported her to contact the DWP explaining the reason for her non-attendance and requesting another assessment. Her advocate helped her to prepare for the assessment, thinking about what she needed to explain about her condition, the advocate also attended the assessment with her. She was awarded enhanced rate care and standard rate mobility from the assessment date and, following the award, her advocate helped her to request that the award be backdated which has now happened.
Advocacy organisations have been receiving referrals from people living in fear of upcoming assessments and experiencing increased levels of anxiety making it difficult for them to deal with these issues. Organisations are also hearing reports of individuals encountering staff who do not have any understanding of or interest in difficulties that people face.
Even with a real shift in culture and approach by the proposed Scottish Social Security Agency some of the most vulnerable people are likely to feel stressed and anxious when engaging with social security staff. Having advocacy support can not only reduce their levels of anxiety but also support clear communication thus ensuring that staff have the correct information needed to ensure that applications for benefits are dealt with efficiently and correctly.
The recognition of the role of independent advocacy in the consultation document is to be welcomed however early findings from the SIAA Map of Advocacy 2015/2016 edition show steadily increasing demand alongside shrinking resources. As a result there is ever more limited availability of advocacy for anyone other than those with a statutory right to access who are facing crises. Advocacy organisations have been forced to introduce some forms of prioritisation responding to the most urgent issues and so are generally unable to carry out any real preventative work.
A Scottish Government funded Welfare Advocacy Support Pilot was run in 4 areas of Scotland and resulted in significant levels of demand which now cannot be met since funding for the pilot ceased. These levels of demand were reached without any real awareness raising exercises and advocacy organisations reported that latterly many of the referrals were as a result of word of mouth.
The proposals for such wide ranging changes to how social security is viewed and delivered are to be welcomed and embraced but it will be important that we do not lose sight of the fact that, even with such major changes and improvements this is still for some a difficult and daunting process. For independent advocacy to be available to support those who need it through claims and assessments adequate levels of resources will be required. Independent advocacy will then help to ensure that all members of our society can achieve equal access to social security at times of need.