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Social security support through complex life changes

Image of diverse group of peopleAlmost everyone in this country receives support from social security in the course of our lives, as a plethora of different circumstances change.[1] This may be a short-term change - perhaps a period of unemployment or ill-health - or longer term, for instance due to caring responsibilities or a major accident or long-term health condition. Any one of us may suddenly need essential income and/or a contribution to additional costs, arising for instance from disability, childcare or caring responsibilities.

Scrutinising the detail

Parliament decides on the overarching policies to support people across these – often complex – life circumstances. The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has an important, complementary role: providing independent scrutiny of the detail of draft regulations and advising the Secretary of State, so that by the time regulations are laid in Parliament they have been scrutinised in terms such as whether:

  • implications for different groups of people have been analysed (whether there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’);
  • the practical implications have been considered;
  • there are unintended consequences and how these might be prevented; and
  • whether the regulations are clear and meet policy objectives.

For instance, in summer 2018 the Committee advised the Secretary of State on draft regulations on moving claimants of existing benefits across to Universal Credit – and most of our recommendations were accepted. This led to changes such as a two-week run-on of existing income replacement benefits to help bridge the gap before Universal Credit was paid; and agreement proactively to let claimants who find digital systems hard know that they can claim by phone or where necessary through a home visit. Changes like this are discrete, but do make a positive difference to people.

An independent work programme

We have an additional role – to undertake independent, more proactive work on specific topics. Recently we looked at how the social security system supports the 2.5 million separated parents in this country. Separation of course is often a difficult life change that can also change people’s needs for social security. We made recommendations for a strategy for separated parents, and action (through the housing element of Universal Credit) to make it easier for young separated parents to have their children to stay - since at present Housing Benefit for single under 35s only covers a room in shared accommodation, with no spare room for a child to sleep.

Image of adult working on laptop with child on lap

We also looked recently at the Claimant Commitment under Universal Credit, which lies at the heart of the relationship between the citizen and their work coach. We found many very good examples of Commitments being tailored to individuals’ needs and work aspirations; but we also saw also examples that were not tailored nor effectively used. We recommended that DWP should develop a more rigorous approach to ensure discretion is applied fairly and systematically.

What next?

Becoming disabled - or a change in an existing condition - can significantly change a person’s needs for social security. Disabled people often experience extra costs and also have a reduced likelihood of both paid work generally and well-paid work in particular. We are currently looking into the specific question of how the social security system supports disabled people’s mobility needs – both through the Motability scheme[2] and for those disabled people who are not accessing it. And next we plan to look at how Government engages with disabled people in designing and monitoring policy and practice more broadly. We know that policies and services generally improve with the full involvement of citizens and therefore will be looking at how Government engages disabled people both in social security policy development and in designing and testing implementation. We will seek learning from a range of organisations, including Disabled People’s Organisations, other government departments and public services, to explore whether there are further ways that DWP could effectively involve disabled people in its development of policy and practice. We will have an open call for evidence, so do consider sharing evidence, ideas and experience with us.

We also look forward to scrutinising draft regulations arising from the new Government’s agenda, in particular its manifesto commitment to “do more to make sure that Universal Credit works for the most vulnerable”.

I’m hugely proud to chair the Committee that leads this work. Made up of individuals with a fantastic range of expertise, we are able to draw on their deep knowledge of social security and its impact, lived experience of disability and high level research, strategic and communications skills. If you want to find out more about our work, do take a look at our website.

[1] John Hills (2015) Good Times Bad Times: the Welfare Myth of Them and Us. Policy Press

[2] The Motability Scheme allows people in receipt of certain disability benefits to use this payment towards the lease of a car, scooter, wheelchair accessible vehicle or powered wheelchair

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