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Bright Blue Scotland, the independent think tank for liberal conservatism, has today published a major new report, Separate support?, which reveals the pre-COVID 19 attitudes of the Scottish public on the purpose and effectiveness of the social security system, and their views on specific reforms that have been, will be or should be introduced by the Scottish Government.

Bright Blue Scotland has conducted the first ever comprehensive and detailed analysis into Scottish public opinion on the devolution of social security since the Scotland Act 2016. In the run up to the Holyrood election in 2021, Bright Blue Scotland’s new report offers political parties an original and critical insight into the attitudes of Scottish voters on the direction of social security reform in Scotland.

Bright Blue’s key findings include:

  • A clear majority of Scots want the Scottish Parliament to decide most or all of Scotland’s social security policy (60%)
  • A clear majority of Scots agree that any further cuts to social security will be damaging (64%)
  • Most Scots support both the housing (74%) and payment frequency (62%) flexibility introduced under the Universal Credit Scottish Choices scheme
  • Scots support the reforms to reduce face-to-face assessments for disability benefits (61%), but are more likely to be indifferent about whether such assessments should be conducted by a governmental or private organisation (45%)
  • Scots support the Scottish Government’s decision to introduce the Scottish Child Payment, with 72% thinking the payment is set at the right amount or should be higher
  • Most Scots support: allowing full-time carers to keep some of their Carers Allowance if they earn above the current weekly earnings limit of £123 (65%); providing additional income supplement for those on low incomes based on previous National Insurance contributions (59%); and, setting up an independent compensation scheme for benefit claimants when a government agency (the DWP or Social Security Scotland) causes hardship through negligence and fails to correct their error (57%).

Anvar Sarygulov, Senior Researcher at Bright Blue Scotland and report author, commented:

“Until now, there has been little exploration of the views of the Scottish people towards the social security changes that the SNP government has enacted since 2016. For the most part, the Scottish public approves of the current approach, with changes to disability and child benefits, and adjustments to Universal Credit, seen especially in a favourable light.

“Especially as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, social security is once again under increasing scrutiny. When making decisions in the future, it will be important to remember that even before the current crisis, the Scottish public had concerns about the levels of social security support available, especially for groups such as carers and disabled people. Hence, it will also be important to reexamine these attitudes again in the future, as they shift due to the unfolding crisis. The Scottish Government needs to consider repeating this comprehensive and detailed analysis of Scottish public attitudes – so its policies can be shaped and evaluated by the Scottish people.”

Dr Jim McCormick, Associate Director for Scotland with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, commented:

“The coronavirus outbreak has further exposed the need for social security to provide a firm anchor, in and out of work. This report reveals broad public support for how new powers in Scotland are being used, including the Scottish Child Payment. But it’s also clear that a majority of people want to see increased support for disabled people and carers. The social security system now being designed in Scotland is built on principles of dignity and respect, but the question of adequacy will also have to be addressed in the next parliament.”

Graham Simpson MSP (Conservative & Unionist Party), Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Communities and Social Security, commented:

“This is an interesting and useful survey. The COVID-19 crisis has of course seen a massive expansion in Universal Credit and that’s to be welcomed. Most people will not know which benefits are devolved and which are not so the more we educate people about that the better.

“The UK Government handed Scotland a substantial package of devolved welfare powers, it has not proved simple for the SNP to deliver these powers and the outbreak of COVID-19 has added another hurdle in the way of rolling out the wave 2 benefits.

“The Scottish Government has just pressed the pause button on taking on control of things like Personal Independence Payments. In fact, it doesn’t look as though that will happen until after the next Scottish Parliament elections.

“It’s important that we see those devolved benefits up and running here first before we talk about taking on anything else and that has proved a huge challenge.”

Pauline McNeill MSP (Labour Party), Deputy Convenor of the Social Security Committee, commented:

“It’s not surprising that many people are not aware of the full range of Devolved Social Security Powers. The Social Security Committee has worked hard over the last three years to create a vastly different approach to Westminster. It is very technical and is not as high profile, but a lot has been achieved, though it has also been a very slow transition process.

“The report makes very interesting reading and is food for thought. It may be now that everything will be seen through the prism of COVID-19 in terms of types of benefits and level of benefits given the number of people who have no support or been forced on to Universal Credit. Policymakers and politicians will have to make these judgments in time to come.”

 

Bright Blue Scotland has identified the following key trends and facts about Scottish public attitudes towards devolved social security policies:

  • A clear majority of Scots believe there is quite a lot of real poverty in Scotland and that it has increased in the past decade. 70% of Scots believe that there is quite a lot of real poverty in Scotland. A firm majority (62%) of Scots believe that poverty has increased in the previous decade and almost half (47%) believe that it will continue to increase in the next decade. These perceptions are shared across socio-demographic groups, though those who are on lower incomes and those who are renting are slightly more likely to hold these concerns. On the other hand, Conservative voters were notably less likely to be concerned about levels of poverty, though it was still the most widely held view among these voters that there was quite a lot of real poverty in Scotland (45%).
  • Scots do not believe that the social security system is too generous and most believe any further cuts to it will be damaging to people’s lives. A clear majority of Scots agree that any further cuts to social security will be damaging (64%) and many disagree that people would be more independent if benefits were less generous (43%). Scots are more likely to want overall social security spending in Scotland to be increased (41%), albeit not a majority, and there is division on whether such spending should be achieved by raising taxes (56%) or spending less on other policy areas (44%). A majority of Scots, however, do believe that social security spending should be increased for particular claimant groups, especially carers (72%) and disabled people (67%), but also low-income working parents (61%) and those who have previously paid income tax and national insurance for a number of years (50%). There was, nevertheless, more scepticism about additional spending on unemployed claimants, with Scots more likely to think that spending on unemployed people should stay the same (45%). The main variance in views was by voting history, with Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters notably less likely to support increased spending on social security than Labour and SNP voters.
  • A clear majority (60%) of Scots want the Scottish Parliament to decide most or all of Scotland’s social security policy. While there is major differentiation by political party and independence referendum voting history, it is notable that more than half of Labour (62%) and Liberal Democrat (57%) voters and a significant number of those who voted ‘No’ in the Scottish Independence Referendum (43%) share this view, while only a small minority (29%) of Conservative voters want most or all of social security policy to be decided by the Scottish Parliament. However, it should be noted that awareness among the Scottish public of the benefits that are being devolved to Scotland is low, with a majority of Scots not knowing or giving the wrong answer when asked about whether a range of benefits have been devolved or not.
  • Scots are most likely to think that the social security system should promote personal responsibility (72%), but the Scottish Government’s new principles of social security also enjoy majority support. Majorities for all socio-demographic and voting groups are found for the principle that social security should promote personal responsibility, but also for other principles commonly associated with centre-right philosophy such as that it should only be a safety net (59%), that social security should be conditional on strict requirements (58%) and that those who have paid income tax and NI for a greater number of years should receive greater help (64%). At the same time, a majority of Scots, across different socio-demographic and voting groups, also supported the principles introduced by the Scottish Government through their ongoing social security reforms, such as that social security is a human right (57%) and that it is a public service (65%). Interestingly, most Scots also think social security should help to reduce unequal incomes (53%) and that it should be universal (57%).
  • Most Scots think that the introduction of Universal Credit has been unsuccessful (54%), but also support reforms to increase choice and conditionality in Universal Credit. Amongst those who hold this sceptical view, a slim majority (52%) believes that the idea behind Universal Credit itself is poor as opposed to the implementation of it. Conservative voters were less likely to describe it as unsuccessful (37%), but still only a relatively small minority (15%) of them described it as successful explicitly. Despite this, there was majority support for the presence of conditionality (71%) and sanctioning (52%) for unemployed Universal Credit claimants. Scots are also most likely, but not with an overall majority, to support conditionality and sanctioning for other claimant groups, such as parents of young children (38%), the self-employed (40%), and part-time, low-income working people (37%). Both Labour and SNP voters tended to be fairly divided on conditionality and sanctioning measures for different claimant groups, while Conservative voters tended to support them. Furthermore, a majority of Scots support the flexibility introduced via the Scottish Choices for Universal Credit claimants in terms of frequency of payments (62%) and the ability to have their housing element paid directly to their landlord (74%). A solid majority of Scots (62%) would also like the claimants to have the ability to split their payment across different members of the household, which has been promised but yet to be delivered by the Scottish Government. However, respondents are divided on whether claimants should receive an advance payment to help them deal with the five-week wait as a loan, as is the case or now, or a grant, with the former (43%) being preferred to the latter (39%) by a small margin.
  • Scots are most likely to think it is too hard to apply for disability benefits and support the Scottish Government’s reforms to reduce face-to-face assessments, but are indifferent about whether assessments should be conducted by a governmental or private organisation. Almost half (47%) of Scots believe the application process for disability benefits is too demanding. This view is more widespread amongst those on lower incomes (56% of those with household incomes of below £17,000) and, unsurprisingly, those with a direct household experience of disability, with 69% amongst the latter group sharing this view. There is also notable variance by voting history, with Conservative (31%) and Liberal Democrat (39%) voters being less likely to think the application for disability benefits is too difficult than Labour (55%) and SNP (58%) voters. There is majority support (61%) across all socio-demographic and voting groups for the Scottish Government’s reform of allowing existing information to be used instead of face-to-face assessments when making disability benefit decisions. However, respondents are more agnostic about who carries out the assessment service, with more Scots (45%) believing that it does not matter whether a public or a private company is involved, as long as the same process is followed.
  • Scots are most likely to support the Scottish Government’s decision to introduce new devolved benefits for those on low incomes and for children, but support is lower for benefits for children. There is significant majority support for a range of devolved benefits for those on low income, including for fuel (79%), funeral (71%) and council tax costs (73%). There is plurality support for the expansion of various grants offered to low-income parents of young children through the Best Start scheme. A majority of Scots also support introducing the Scottish Child Payment, believing the level of payment is set at the right amount of £10 per week for each child (40%), or that it should be higher (32%). The level of support varies across socio-demographic and voting groups, with younger people, parents, renters, and Labour and SNP voters being more likely to be supportive of new devolved benefits for children.
  • A majority of Scots support alternative policy ideas to improve both the Scottish social security and the British welfare system. Such support is present for the following policies: Bright Blue Scotland’s idea of an additional income supplement for those on low incomes based on previous National Insurance contributions (59%); Bright Blue Scotland’s idea of an establishment of an independent compensation scheme for benefit claimants that have been failed by the DWP, such as on timeliness of benefit payment (57%); a compulsory employment support scheme for people with disabilities who are able to work (55%); government-funded incentives to employers for offering work to long-term unemployed (63%); and, attracting the highest level of support, allowing carers to keep more of their Carers Allowance depending on their earnings (65%).
  • Scots are more likely (45%) to support the introduction of Universal Basic Income (UBI), but not by a majority. While there is majority support for UBI amongst younger people (60% of 18-34 year olds), renters (55%), and Labour (56%) and SNP (53%) voters, support is notably lower amongst older people (35% of those aged 55 and above) homeowners (41%) and Conservative (26%) and Liberal Democrat (38%) voters. Amongst the funding options we proposed for UBI, there was a marked lack of consensus, with higher income taxes on those who earn more than £50,000 (21%) and a new tax on wealth (20%) being the most popular choices.

The full data tables for the polling can be found here.