As we are drawing to the end of the legislative process for The Social Security (Scotland) Bill it is useful to reflect on how far we have come in making sure that the people most affected by the proposed changes to Social Security are listened to and how far we may still need to go.
As an advocacy worker for welfare reform, I often meet people who are distressed and in crisis as they struggle to make themselves heard in an increasingly complicated system. I work with people to help remove those barriers. I help them attend advice appointments, attend face-to-face assessments and draft letters or make phone calls when they are unable to talk directly with advisers themselves. Providing advocacy support enables the person to access the level of financial support that they are entitled to and helps the person feel that they have been understood. This support is vital for those who have difficulties making themselves heard and understood.
Over the past year, AdvoCard, along with SIAA, DAS, The Health and Social Care Alliance (ALLIANCE) and the Scottish Council for Voluntary organisations (SCVO) have been engaging with other organisations in the Third Sector, MSPs and the Minister for Social Security to raise awareness of the need for access to advocacy services for everyone who will have cause to access the new system.
Although initially resistant, thanks to continued efforts of those involved in campaigning for change, the Government have gradually become more aware of the role that advocacy can play and the need to have access to advocacy services included in the Bill.
At the Stage 1 debate the Social Security Committee recommended that the Scottish Government consider including access to independent advocacy as a principle of the Social Security Bill and as a right in the legislation. Unfortunately this was not acted upon. However, Stage 2 saw further developments as the minister tabled her own amendment to the bill providing a right to access to independent advocacy services for people with mental illness, personality disorder or a learning disability as defined under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act 2003. It was made clear at this point that this would be a starting point and that the aim was to widen access at Stage 3 after consultation with stakeholders.
This has now taken place and the Minister has replaced the initial amendment with her Stage 3 amendment which states that every individual who, owing to a disability, requires an advocates help, will have the right to access independent advocacy services for support to engage with the new social security system.
While this is a welcome outcome, and a huge shift from the initial position that advocacy would not be needed at all, we believe, now as always, that it does not go far enough. Under this amendment, advocacy support will only be provided to those who identify as having a disability. Even for those with long term health conditions or disabling illnesses the language is problematic. For some years now, disability groups have been saying “see me, not my disability”. Encouraging individuals to self-identify as having a disability in order to access advocacy support is, in my view, a step backwards in the reduction of stigma and may potentially prevent some groups from accessing the new system altogether.
Advocacy is a human right, everyone deserves the right to be listened to and heard and human rights are universal, they do not only apply to those who identify as a particular group. To create a situation where this happens does not follow a human rights based approach, an approach that that the government themselves have based the Bill on. Therefore for full and equal access to the new social security system, we would have liked to have seen a universal right to access independent advocacy services when needed. However, progress has been made and, thanks to the efforts of all those who helped us campaign for this change, we have taken significant steps in ensuring that there will be support for many of the people who will be effected by the upcoming changes to social security.
There is, as always, still work to be done. There are now over 70 organisations who support the need for access to independent advocacy services to be universal, and we will continue to work with these stakeholders and the Scottish Government to find ways to widen access to everyone who needs it.
Together we have the chance to make sure that every person who accesses our social security system is treated with the promised “dignity and respect”. There will always be those amongst us who, for whatever reason, struggle to be heard. It is therefore vital that they have access to advocacy to help make sure that they can access everything they are entitled to. Without this support, the most vulnerable claimants are in danger of being left behind and excluded. If the Scottish Government are truly here to listen, they should not be afraid to make sure that everyone of us has a voice.
Arlene Astley is an advocacy worker at Advocard www.advocard.org.uk