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Scotland’s Social Security Agency is already failing minorities

This opinion piece is over 5 years old

Mark Griffin MSP believes Scotland's flagship Social Security Agency has already failed minorities despite it claiming to be a model of inclusion

Just a month old, Social Security Scotland is now responsible for the biggest process of devolution since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened. The human rights based system should be the most modern of Scottish Public services. And yet, both the agency and directorate have dropped the ball on diversity.

The admission last week, that the voices of young people, BAME people and gypsy travellers are little more than an afterthought in the co-design of the social security charter, after 2,400 signed up to the innovative experience panels, is bitterly disappointing.

But to make matters worse, early figures show the new agency has directly recruited just one disabled and one BME member of staff. Even after the majority of disabled and BME staff have transferred from the Scottish Government, their representation in the agency remains well behind the real world proportions, standing at 5.5% and 3.7%.

This is important; Social Security Scotland has to look like and sympathise with the people it will serve. After all, so much of its work will be administering disability assistance and breaking down the barriers BME people face. It is an agency tasked with boosting incomes and changing lives, so these are mistakes the Scottish Government did not have to make.

When hard-to-reach groups are only asked to have their voices heard at the last minute we all lose out, and the government has undermined its commitment to equality. The cabinet secretary’s pledge that she is “open to learning lessons and doing so quickly” is clearly welcome – but the effort to employ and work with key groups was meant to be built into everything the new system does, not something to fix later.

Consider the core group: we know that BME individuals face barriers accessing their entitlements and during the assessment process, so involving them from the very start should have been a real priority for government. Yet, when none of the 300 people who responded to the call to join the core group identified as BME, it was down to the third sector to assemble candidates for a separate focus group and move the issue up the agenda. When all that was done, the government held its focus group just days before the cabinet secretary’s appearance in the chamber.

The government has undermined its commitment to equality

No-one ever said that setting up a social security system would be an easy task. There will of course be mistakes. Though the agency is one month old, it has been over two years in the making. In some sense, it is too late to be making mistakes when millions of payments are due over the next year or two.

The goal of reinforcing the safety net for Scotland’s poor and disabled, with a system based on dignity and fairness and respect, has rightly focused minds across the country and in parliament for two years. The challenge now however, turns to unravelling miserable, pernicious Tory welfare reforms, and getting payments in process. There is little room for mistakes in the two years ahead.

Mark Griffin MSP is Labour’s social security spokesman