The Scottish Government has said that the new social security benefits will be bound by principles of dignity and respect, so the publication of a commissioned report on Social security systems based on dignity and respect ought to have been very welcome. Unfortunately, the report fails signally to come to terms with its brief, choosing instead to emphasise either human rights issues or the substantive failures of social security policy. Both sets of issues are important – they are necessary for dignity – but they are not sufficient. There is nothing in human rights legislation which says that people will be addressed politely, that they will be believed when they say things, or that officials will be considerate.
There is very little in this report about those issues. The report acknowledges, in the Executive Summary, that “The feeling of being treated unfairly or viewed with suspicion by case workers on permanent alert for fraud is reported as particularly demoralising” – there is some further material on these problems on pp 33-35 – but the authors don’t go on to say what needs to be done about them. A chapter on “Ensuring dignity and respect in the claimant experience” really says nothing about the claimant experience, let alone about dignity and respect.
The central issue is how people are treated. The report ought to have considered process at length – access, application, communication, assessment, handling changes of circumstance and so on. There is some (admittedly dated) empirical evidence that many of the processes used for verification are unnecessary, that insisting on claimant declarations colours the process, that security is disproportionate and ineffective in dealing with errors. The system is not geared to deal with complaints or to correct mistakes. The nearest the report gets to most of this is to call for greater personalisation, which risks increasing the scope to get things wrong and exacerbates the problems of judgmental administration.