Social security – what’s in a name?

Written by: Christopher Doyle, Policy and Information Officer, the ALLIANCE

Published: 09/02/2018

Illustration of 9 people sitting around a table in birdseye view, with the caption 'Change' in the middle

Chris explores the Scottish Government's approach to terminology in planning for its landmark first social security agency.

Back in July 2016, a number of Scotland’s most well-known news outlets ran a story about the Scottish Government’s future use of terminology and wording in relation to its landmark first social security agency.

Anyone who has ever worked in a comms type role will be unsurprised to hear that the various agencies took different approaches in choosing their headlines.

While the Herald and Evening Times led with ‘SNP set to ban the word ‘benefits’ from new social security agency’, the BBC and the Guardian’s take was more measured, running with headlines about how ‘Ministers could scrap word ‘benefits’ in welfare reform’, and how Scotland was set to ‘ponder words of welfare’.

The stories were based on comments made at an event at Govan’s Pearce Institute by the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, Angela Constance MSP and Jeane Freeman MSP, the Minister for Social Security.

In launching a 13-week consultation on social security in Scotland, the Cabinet Secretary stressed that the Scottish Government “very deliberately talk about social security rather than welfare”.

The Minister was similarly keen to point out the Scottish Government’s sensitivity to language choice, highlighting that “there is value in looking at whether or not we continue to use the word ‘benefit’”.

Without wanting to delve too deeply into semantics, the well-rehearsed argument against using this term is its implication that it is an advantage to be gained by someone for being in a certain situation, or that it is an ‘act of kindness’ on behalf of the state. Ms Freeman was clear that this perception didn’t tally with the Scottish Government’s vision for social security, stating that “what we have said consistently as a government is that social security is an investment we make collectively in ourselves.”

The obvious question then – if ‘benefit’ isn’t the right term, then what exactly is? The Minister raised the possibility of simply calling them ‘payments’, and we’ve since heard ‘entitlements’ put forward as a suggestion that would aim to strike a better balance. Delegates at the event in Govan were told that while “we don’t have an answer to this yet” it was definitely “. . . a discussion to be had”.

Some 18 months later, I am genuinely inquisitive as to what the ‘answer’ was and what points this discussion threw up. For all it’s worth, a quick scan of the ‘News’ section of the Scottish Government website leads you to recent Ministerial announcements (this link will take you away from our website) that, while positive in their substance, still use – you’ve guessed it – ‘benefits’.

At the moment, many ALLIANCE members, MSPs and not to mention Scottish Government officials will be fully immersed in the technical world of amendments, clauses and legal definitions as the Social Security (Scotland) Bill progresses through the parliamentary process. At this very time though, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the role of language, particularly as one mechanism of stimulating cultural change and achieving the principled social security system that Scotland aspires to develop.

After all, as we were told back in 2016, “there are things to do to affect change quickly and one of those is through language”.

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