Cuts to Scottish Welfare Fund – A hint of things to come? 

WelfareFundTitle_1The Scottish Welfare Fund is a discretionary payment allocated by local authorities and funded in part through the UK Department for Work and Pensions and topped up by the Scottish Government. This is because the DWP transfers the funding for the scrapped Community Care Grant and Crisis Loan, both of which the DWP used to administer, to the Scottish Government:

“On 1 April 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) abolished two elements  of the Social Fund – Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans – and transferred funds  previously spent on them to Scottish Ministers. In its place, the Scottish Government  established the Scottish Welfare Fund”

(Scottish Government, 2016a)

So the SWF is funded by the UK government (via taxes – which are then transferred to ScotGov) and then topped up by the Scottish Government. It is widely seen as the Scottish Government’s response to welfare reform, but given it is funded by UK Gov this is a little misleading – even if some (the lesser amount) is provided directly by the Scottish Government, since most of the funding for the SWF still comes from the UK government. This means that:

“For 2013/14 and 2014/15  [the amount provided by the DWP] amounted to £23.8 million. The Scottish Government topped this amount up by a further £9.2 million, giving the Scottish Welfare Fund a total budget of £33 million for  both these years.  This level has been maintained in 2015/16 by the Scottish  Government at £33 million”

(Scottish Government, 2016a)

So, given that ScotGov has championed the SWF and many in Scotland have seen the SWF as an indication of both the ScotGov’s unwillingness to cut welfare and their resistance to such cuts enacted by the UK Government, I was surprised to see this in my mailbox at work, from Glasgow City Council:

“Glasgow City Council has seen a reduction to the Scottish Welfare Fund allocated from the Scottish Government in 2016/17. Further reductions are also expected into future years”

(Glasgow City Council, 2016)

Now, this is surprising – particularly since, having loudly championed the SWF (a cynic would say this was as much about making the UK government look bad – which requires little effort anyway – as mitigating the impact of cuts to welfare on people living in Scotland), the Scottish Government have said little about this cut (lending credence to the more cynical), instead leaving local authorities to announce it individually. Why is the SWF being cut? Is there less funding from Westminster, or can ScotGov not make the top-up they have in previous years? Essentially, why has the same level of funding not been maintained and why is it expected to drop in coming years?

Looking at the bigger picture, what does this indicate about the Scottish Government’s commitment to social welfare, particularly since some welfare powers are soon to be devolved to Scotland? This includes responsibility for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP) – will we see a cut in provision of these benefits, intended for adults and children with illness and disability that require extra support?

The Scottish Government seem to be cutting welfare before they even have their hands on it – and given the DWP guarantee the larger element of the SWF, you have to ask if it is ScotGov’s contribution which has been reduced, leading to the reduction in funding to Local Authorities. If that is the case, why aren’t the Scottish Government using their overspend, which has occurred for the past three years, to boost SWF funding?

As someone who voted Yes in the Scottish Independence Referendum I’m conscious that had the vote been in favour of independence, Scotland would be an independent country as of this year. Given the current reduction to the SWF, what might have occurred in a Scotland where the whole welfare system is under the Scottish Government – would we now be seeing cuts across the board to match Tory cuts to the UK welfare system? This is the crux of the problem for me regarding the SNP – we will never know how capable they really are until they can no longer resort to blaming Westminster – and by that point it would be too late, should their performance be less than satisfactory. That’s a chance I was willing to take back in September 2014, but now I’m not so sure.

The SNP sell themselves on a ticket of progressive politics and social equality, but that doesn’t seem to be their practice (yes, they are more progressive than the Tories, but that says very little – they aren’t any more progressive, or socialist, than Labour in power under Corbyn might be, but this is an unknown at present). With further welfare powers and responsibilities to be devolved, we’ll soon see the SNP’S true colours – I hope they stick to the principles they championed during the IndyRef and ensure a fair and secure welfare system for Scotland, and in doing so put people first.

As always, thanks for reading.

Scottish Government (2016b)

Scottish Government (2016a) Scottish Welfare Fund Statistics: Annual Update 2015/16. Official Statistics publication for Scotland.

Scottish Government (2016b) Social Security for Scotland: Benefits being devolved to the Scottish Parliament. SSFS slidepack update, July 2016.

(Disclaimer: Any criticism of the Scottish Government or the SNP is usually perceived as an attack by some SNP supporters. Let it be noted that I am not currently affiliated with any party, either as a casual supporter or a paid member. This article isn’t intended as a political attack, but to highlight potential issues in the future of Scotland’s welfare system and to hold the Scottish Government to account on this matter – whichever party might be in charge – in the interests of everyone living in Scotland)

The ESA assessment: Institutional classism in action

DPAC [Disabled people against cuts] protesting PIP assessments - which share many of the same issues with ESA - in Norfolk, July 2016. Image credit: Roger blackwell
DPAC [Disabled People Against Cuts] protesting PIP assessments – which share many of the same issues as the ESA assessment – Norfolk, July 2016. Image credit and more info about DPAC Norfolk: Roger Blackwell
New research this week, conducted by RadStats and reported by Welfare Weekly and the Guardian, indicates that the ESA Capability for Work Assessment is unfairly applied based on the area an individual lives in – and potentially their level of educational attainment – not their health or their actual capability for work:

“[T]he research has established a significant relationship between work capability assessment outcomes and local educational attainment. In areas where children finish school with more GCSEs, claimants were placed into the support group more frequently rather than being placed in the work-related activity group – the group in which disabled people must undertake preparation for a return for work or risk having their benefits sanctioned.

Hume says that a possible explanation of this is that people with more qualifications might be more able to complete the significant paperwork required to claim ESA, or are better at seeking appropriate evidence and assistance.

Ultimately the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] is making decisions that seem to be influenced by factors other than the health of the claimant,” he adds.”

In areas where there is more need to be in the Support Group, due to greater instance of morbidity and health inequalities, individuals are essentially less likely  to be placed in the the Work Related Activity Group (the group in which the DWP places individual who are likely to be able to return to work), regardless of whether they meet the criteria or not. This suggests that classism is indirectly playing out via discrimination on the basis of educational attainment – which, as research shows,  has a causal relationship with income.  Even when other factors are controlled for, growing up in a low-income household still has an impact on individual educational opportunities and employment up to 12 years later.

This seems to confirm something I’ve thought since joining a Welfare Rights service and was being trained on ESA – that the ESA (and PIP) questionnaires and assessment are designed to be confusing to people with lower levels of education (and often, therefore, from a poorer and more disadvantaged background) in an attempt to deter them from applying or going through with, what is, as standard sadly, a highly stressful process of reconsideration and appeals – through which not just their health, but their lives are interrogated by successive faceless DWP ‘Decision Makers’ and callous tribunal staff that can’t even look people in the eye when declining their benefits.

Just in case you missed that, we receive training on how to complete the ESA50 Capability for Work Questionnaire – but individuals, often with health conditions that affect their mental or cognitive capacity, are supposed to be able to complete the form themselves, without issue. This is in addition the the problems they experience already in relation to their health condition, and for many is just too much to deal with without significantly impacting their health. There is now an ever increasing list of people who have died after being found fit for work by the DWP, some have died as a result of being found fit for work. Comparisons between the DWP and the Nazi eugenics programme seem less and less like hyperbole each day.

Help exists for those having difficulty with the form. At present our agency can get you in for an appointment within two weeks, usually. Citizens Advice, a more popular and well known service, has a significantly longer waiting list – and often operates on a first-come-first-served ticket basis. This isn’t a criticism of CAB – it’s merely meant to highlight the difficulties people face in getting support to apply for the benefits they need to survive.

You can read the full article via Welfare Weekly (originally reported in the Guardian).

And you can check out this report from Spartacus Group, which highlights the issues faced by individuals claiming ESA and makes recommendations for a better system (there’s a brief executive report at the beginning for those of you in a hurry).

Thanks for reading.

Zoe Westwood on the Big Impact of Small Charities

I was recently thinking about the impact of small charities in the context of the (very) small charity I work with compared to some work I did with Oxfam Scotland recently. The difference between the two organisations is vast. While Oxfam does of course do work in the UK, due to the very size and scope of their organisation they have to prioritise and that inevitably means preferencing some issues, groups, communities or regions more than others. This is where small organisations have the advantage; they can justify focusing on one issue or operating in one community, and as Zoe Westwood highlights in this excellent article, this can often have a huge impact.

Zoe Westwood: The Big Impact of Small Charities (via SCVO – Scottish Centre for Voluntary Organisations)

Glasgow Needs Safe Injection Sites

Syringe W
(Image: Kieran Hamilton 2014)

In the run-down Tradeston district, just south of Glasgow City Centre on the other side of the River Clyde, is one of the City’s needle exchanges. The needle exchange, run in partnership between Turning Point Scotland and NHS Scotland, provides clean needles and injecting equipment, naloxone (a drug developed to prevent death in the event of opiate overdose), and a range of counselling and residential services for those with drug problems. This is a much needed service that makes a real difference to the lives of injecting drug users in Glasgow.

However, as good (and necessary) as these facilities are, they arguably don’t go far enough. The picture above was taken inside an abandoned warehouse just five minutes away from the needle exchange. This was not the only used needle, nor the only evidence of injecting drug use in the building. Some areas were littered with literally dozens of used needles, as well as swabs and other paraphernalia.

Heroin was legal once, could we regulate it again? Image: Wikimedia Commons
Could we regulate heroin, again? (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Heroin was legal once, could we regulate it again? Image: Wikimedia CommonsWhy am I highlighting this? Well, the objective of a needle exchange is to reduce the sharing of used needles, and to provide instruction on safer injecting techniques, all to avoid the spread of blood borne viruses such as HIV and HCV, and prevent other health issues connected to injecting drug use. These practices, informed by a harm reduction ideology, have indeed resulted in a reduction in the spread of infections and health issues for drug users (and consequently wider society), but arguably they do not go far enough.

The needles used might be clean, but the environment in which injection takes place certainly isn’t, presenting a risk of infection for injecting drug users. Further still, the use of abandoned and secluded spaces for injecting also poses a particular risk: in the event that an individual overdoses there are no medical facilities or trained medical staff nearby, and paramedics would have to find the overdosed individual in a dilapidated and potentially dangerous building (just think of all those discarded needles, a veritable mine field). Should the individual be alone there is little chance they would be found by a member of the public in time. The risk of death from overdose in this situation is huge.

Current laws prevent the regulation of heroin supply, meaning that there is little we can do to maintain the purity and strength of a drug that is controlled by the black market. It is the variance in heroin purity, or to a lesser extent the nature of adulterants, that results in a large number of overdoses, and death. The heroin you bought yesterday might be much stronger, or weaker, than the heroin you’re buying today, because no one is ensuring consistency. No one is regulating the strength.

So what can we do if the law prevents us from addressing the issue of purity and adulteration leading to overdose? That’s where supervised injection sites, or ‘shooting galleries’ as they have been sensationally termed in the media, can make a difference. While overdose cannot be prevented because of the reasons stated above, we can provide a better environment for those injecting in order to reduce infection and mortality rates. Supervised injection sites mean that drug users can inject in a safe, clean and private environment, where there are medical staff on hand should something go wrong. As if the potential to save lives wasn’t reason enough, safe injection sites, like needle exchanges, can help treatment services to come into contact with injecting drug users who otherwise would not approach services, and this can lead to treatment and recovery further down the line. In short, supervised injection sites can act as a great first port of call for hidden populations of problem drug users. In addition, the number of discarded used needles can be reduced.

Image: InSite (via Wikipedia)
(Image: InSite 2003, via Wikipedia)

And the evidence for safe injection sites speaks for itself: At the Insite injection facility in Vancouver, Canada, one of the most evaluated of international safe injection sites (with three peer reviewed articles evaluating its efficacy) saw a 35% reduction in overdoses within 500 metres of the facility up to 2011. Other benefits that have been noted are a reduction in public drug use, a reduction in needle sharing, and a reduction in discarded drug paraphernalia in the vicinity of the facility. There has also been an increase in referral to treatment services, and on top of that these benefits do not seem to be offset with any other negative developments in the drug using community as a result of the site being in operation. From a crude economical perspective, safe injection facilities are cost effective as well as being beneficial for injecting drug users and the wider community.

Safe injection sites are currently illegal in the UK, where the Westminster government has repeatedly rejected calls for their provision. That just begs the question, if there are so many benefits from these sites, and virtually no negative impacts, then why aren’t we providing them? The answer, unfortunately, is the same for most barriers to improving drug treatment or policy: ideology, moral arguments and political cowardice stand in the way of evidence based practice. The conservative media, increasingly more right-wing every day, see the provision of needles and facilities for heroin users as anathema, and unfortunately the same media outlets hold much influence over public opinion. In turn politicians use the press as a ‘policy satnav’, as Jon Silverman has so eloquently put it, in deciding policy on morally sensitive issues.

It will be a slow process to have these type of facilities rolled out nationally, just like needle exchange services in the late 1980s, but once people see the benefits then they become more socially palatable. Lets hope the UK can learn from other countries who have taken that extra step to the lives of injecting drug users, and reduce the costs and harms to both individuals and society from injecting drug use.

References and further reading:

Insite Website

Supervised Consumption Facilities, Safe Injection Facilities and Drug Consumption Rooms – Drugwarfacts.org

Report of the Independent Working Group on Drug Consumption Rooms – Joseph Rowntree Foundation