Taking a rights based approach to social security

Written by: Lucy Mulvagh, Director of Policy and Communications, the ALLIANCE

Published: 23/04/2018

Lucy highlights that universal access to independent advocacy should be a cornerstone of the new Scottish system.

There’s a lot going on with social security at the moment, as Scotland gears up to take over administration of 11 important entitlements including payments for disabled people and unpaid carers. Draft law has been wending its way through the Scottish Parliament, announcements have been made about the location of head offices and jobs, and a new Scottish Social Security agency has been launched.

All of this work is being led by – and is ultimately the responsibility of – Scottish Government. But there are many other individuals and organisations beavering away in the background; trying to ensure that the new system works with and for (not against) people who access social security. I’ve been involved in some of this as part of my role at the ALLIANCE, including working with colleagues, members and partners to try to secure universal access to independent advocacy. We secured the support of over 60 highly regarded organisations that represent a wide range of groups and interests, including the Scottish Human Rights Commission, Common Weal, Age Scotland, the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights, Engender, and the National Carer Organisations.

The Scottish Government ambition is that the new system will be rights-based and ensure dignity, respect and fairness is at its heart; so much so that the draft Social Security (Scotland) Bill actually states that “social security is itself a human right and essential to the realisation of other human rights”.

These are incredibly laudable aims that I fully endorse. Many, many people who access social security have told me how important these principles are, and anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge champion for human rights. However, we’ve now arrived at a point in the social security ‘journey’ that’s giving me much pause for thought and rise to some very mixed emotions.

As the Bill prepares to enter into its final phase (stage 3) in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government has agreed to provide independent advocacy services in social security for disabled people. This is a big win and something to be incredibly pleased about, particularly if we consider that their starting point was no service provision at all, for anyone. I’m utterly delighted that this is happening, as are the members and partners I’ve been working with.

While this is very welcome progress, I’m simultaneously frustrated because I don’t believe this is a rights based approach to independent advocacy or social security. As I explained at a recent session of the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee (this link will take you away from our website), a rights based approach would be to provide access to services for anyone (including disabled people) who doesn’t think they can go through the new system without the support of an independent, impartial and informed advocate. It wouldn’t be imposed on anyone who didn’t want it, and it certainly won’t be demanded by every single person who accesses social security.

Independent advocacy is a skilled and practical tool that allows people to participate more fully and equally in assessment meetings. It combats discrimination and inequality, holds decision makers to account and ensures they work within the law. If people have access to independent advocacy then it helps maximise their payments and prevents costly redeterminations and appeals by avoiding potentially negative assessments.

Human rights helps to redress the imbalance of power between the state (which is powerful) and individuals – or groups of individuals – who have less power. This is particularly important in an area like social security, where there is an inherent imbalance of power. Unfortunately, discriminatory attitudes about charity, state ‘hand outs’ and ‘skivers’ persist and there’s an unwillingness to recognise that we’re not starting with a level playing field. It also goes without saying that independent advocacy needs to be independent of any bodies responsible for administering social security, including the Scottish Government and new Agency.

Unless and until there is a whole-scale paradigm shift, whereby social security is universally regarded as a person’s right by virtue of their humanity, we must ensure that support like independent advocacy is there for anyone who thinks they need it.

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