Will Scotland’s social security system be as fair as it can be?

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Lucy Mulvagh on the importance of advocacy in Scotland's new social security system

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23rd May 2018 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

I believe that universal access to independent advocacy should be a cornerstone of Scotland’s new social security system.

The Scottish Government’s laudable ambition is that the new system will be rights-based and ensure dignity, respect and fairness are at its heart.  I fully endorse this approach however we’ve arrived at a point in the social security ‘journey’ that’s giving me pause for thought and rise to some very mixed emotions.

As TFN readers will know, a new law regulating social security has just been adopted by the Scottish Parliament. This governs the 11 important entitlements being devolved here, including payments for disabled people and carers.

Lucy Mulvagh

Lucy Mulvagh

As it wended its way through the Scottish Parliament, my organisation – the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE) – worked closely with the Scottish Independent Advocacy Alliance (SIAA), AdvoCard and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), amongst others, to try to ensure that independent advocacy would be explicitly recognised and provided for in the law. Our activity was intensive and included trying to secure widespread support for an amendment we drafted from the Scottish Government, MSPs across Scottish Parliament, and our partners in the third, independent and public sectors.

The first draft of the social security bill didn’t include any reference at all to advocacy – independent or otherwise – so I’m delighted that the work we did helped ensure that the bill as passed recognises the importance of independent advocacy and guarantees services for disabled people. There is no doubt that the huge backing we had from over 60 highly-regarded organisations – including the National Carer Organisations, Scottish Human Rights Commission, Common Weal, Age Scotland, the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights and Engender – played a strong part in our success.  

Our work now is to ensure that these services in social security are properly funded and resourced, so they can do their job. Insufficient and patchy resourcing has been a serious problem for independent advocacy organisations already, including those trying to deliver support under mental health legislation.

I greatly welcome the progress we’ve made, however if I’m being honest, I’m also frustrated because I think the law could have gone further.  As I explained at a recent session of the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee, a rights based approach would be to provide access to independent advocacy for anyone going through the new system – including disabled people – who doesn’t think they can do it without the support of an independent, impartial and informed advocate.

We’ll continue our efforts to secure universal access to independent advocacy in Scotland’s new social security system. Human rights based tools like independent advocacy help to equalise the power imbalance 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.  Advocates help people participate more fully and equally in assessment meetings, combat discrimination and inequality, hold decision makers to account and ensure they work within the law. Giving people access to independent advocacy also helps maximise payments and prevents costly redeterminations and appeals by avoiding potentially negative assessments.

Independent advocacy agencies are separate from organisations that provide other kinds of services. It therefore goes without saying that they should also be independent of any bodies responsible for administering social security.  And here lies the second reason for my disquiet; because the new social security law also says that the Scottish Government will regulate the advocacy services it provides. 

My concern about this is two-fold. Firstly, it potentially threatens the independence of advocacy organisations.  Secondly, it poses a conflict of interest for the Scottish Government, which is responsible for the new system, including the Agency and staff who will deal with assessments.

Regulation to ensure high quality services is a good thing, but regulators – particularly of charities like independent advocacy organisations – should themselves be independent.  I look forward to working with officials, ALLIANCE members and partners going forward, so we can achieve the aspiration of a social security system and has human rights at its heart.

Lucy Mulvagh is Director of Policy and Communications at the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE)