Goodbye to PIP, but hello to what? Disability, social security, devolution and policy change in Scotland

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Dan Heap University of Strathclyde, UK

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The Scottish Government has ambitions to build a new social security system in Scotland with new powers over social security. With the ability to now entirely replace the UK’s Personal Independence Payment, highly controversial for the way it has narrowed entitlement and made the process of applying stressful, the Scottish Government has the opportunity to transform both the experience of disabled people in applying for social security and ensure that what is paid more accurately reflects the costs of disability. However, while significant improvements to the process of applying appear to have been made and these are having a positive impact on access to payment, the Scottish Government’s gradualist approach has also put off by some years more fundamental improvements.

Abstract

The Scottish Government has ambitions to build a new social security system in Scotland with new powers over social security. With the ability to now entirely replace the UK’s Personal Independence Payment, highly controversial for the way it has narrowed entitlement and made the process of applying stressful, the Scottish Government has the opportunity to transform both the experience of disabled people in applying for social security and ensure that what is paid more accurately reflects the costs of disability. However, while significant improvements to the process of applying appear to have been made and these are having a positive impact on access to payment, the Scottish Government’s gradualist approach has also put off by some years more fundamental improvements.

Introduction

Social security was largely excluded from the Scottish devolution settlement of 1998. When the devolved institutions started to function from 1999, they had extensive powers to shape health, education, care and other key areas of social and public policy, but social security remained principally a reserved matter.

However, the Smith Commission established in the wake of the closer-than-expected independence referendum result recommended a part-devolution of social security, with extensive powers to legislate for social security related to the additional costs of disability, carers, heating, and new children. Flexibilities were granted to alter select elements of Universal Credit and create entirely new payments providing they related to a devolved area. Most aspects of Universal Credit and its predecessor payments are still reserved, but they can be ‘topped-up’ using devolved powers. The State Pension remains entirely reserved.

Expenditure on payments being transferred comprised an estimated 15 per cent of all social security expenditure in Scotland (Scottish Parliament Information Centre, 2022). However, these figures belie the huge significance of the new social security system for disabled people and people with health conditions. Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payment and Attendance Allowance are central to independent living for disabled people and their approximately 560,000 recipients (Scottish Government, 2021) equate to around one in ten of the Scottish population receiving a disability payment, with 82,000 carers of disabled people also receiving Carer’s Allowance. Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit and Severe Disablement Allowance are also now the responsibility of the Scottish Government. In 2024, £4.2bn of a total devolved social security budget of £5.2bn was forecast to be spent on payments for disabled people and those with health conditions (Scottish Fiscal Commission, 2022).

Such groups have been at the forefront of UK welfare reform since the late 1990s and are among the most negatively impacted by attempts to reduce social security expenditure (Cross, 2013). The replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with Personal Independence Payment (PIP), both non-means-tested payments aimed at compensating for the additional costs of disabilities and health conditions but different in their design, has attracted the most attention given a series of fundamental flaws in its design and significant negative impact on access to support. Criticisms include how evidence for claims is valued and used (see for example, Porter et al, 2022); the mental and physical health impacts of the application process, in particular the face-to-face assessments that became the default in PIP (MS Society, 2018); the significant financial losses faced by people losing entitlement when being moved onto PIP from DLA (Scottish Government, 2017); high rates of decisions being overturned when challenged at tribunal (Citizens Advice, nd), and the failure of the points-based system of measuring eligibility to accurately reflect applicants’ level of need (Machin and McCormack, 2021).

As a result, PIP has been the highest-profile social security payment transferred to Scottish Government responsibility and, alongside the new Scottish Child Payment for low-income households with children, has involved the most policy work for the Scottish Government. The replacement of PIP in Scotland with Adult Disability Payment (ADP) is an important test of the new Scottish social security system’s ability to deliver fairness for disabled people, and is the focus of this article.

Developing Adult Disability Payment

The Scottish Government committed to designing the new social security system, and each of its payments, in partnership with the people they would serve, and a commitment to that effect is enshrined in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. The Social Security Experience Panels (SSEPs) is one of the principal ways it has done this. These involve around 2400 individuals who have experience of the relevant payments being asked about their experiences of claiming through surveys, focus groups and interviews (Scottish Government Social Research, 2018). However, it is noticeable that the SSEPs focused on disability benefits appear to have concentrated more on process issues, for example around assessments, and less on changes to the criteria or payment rates. A number of changes appear to have been made as a direct result of the SSEP findings in some cases. For instance, the originally proposed name, ‘Disability Assistance for Working Age People’ was dropped in favour of ‘Adult Disability Payment’ after being rejected by around two thirds of SSEP respondents (Scottish Government Social Research, 2019). In others, the SSEP findings echoed previous requests from Disabled People’s Organisations that had already informed some of the initial policy choices around the design of ADP, such as conducting a full assessment only when the evidence provided is not sufficient to make a decision (Scottish Government Social Research, 2019).

The Disability and Carer Benefits Advisory Group (DACBEAG) is another feature of ADP policymaking. This is a policy advisory group composed of a number of representatives from organisations such as Glasgow Disability Alliance, Child Poverty Action Group Scotland, Inclusion Scotland and the Health and Social Care Alliance (Scottish Government, 2023a). It met quarterly from April 2017 (Scottish Government, 2023a) ‘to provide recommendations and advice to Scottish Ministers, by request and proactively, on the policy and practice options being developed on disability and carers benefits’ (Scottish Government, 2023b). The work of DACBEAG appeared to be highly detailed, working with Scottish Government officials on a comprehensive range of issues (see, for example, Scottish Government, 2020) that marks it out from the approach taken by the UK government to designing PIP, which has not included as close a working relationship with expert groups on social security policy. DACBEAG was stood down by Ministers in February 2023 on the grounds that their role in advising the establishment of the new system and its payments had come to a natural end, and independent advice on ADP needed its own dedicated process and expertise. Most DACBEAG members took a different view, seeing a continued role for an ongoing independent advice function as performed by the group (DACBEAG member, 2023).

Despite this, Adult Disability Payment is currently largely unchanged from PIP in many, but not all, respects. Its purpose, to compensate for the additional costs of health conditions and/or disabilities is unchanged, and it remains non-means-tested and non-taxable. It is structured the same way, with a Daily Living Component and a Mobility Component, each paid at a Standard or Enhanced rate. There is also a comparable scheme to Motability, which allows recipients to lease adapted vehicles. The amounts paid are the same, and there have only been minor changes to the descriptors which determine entitlement (Shaw, 2022). The controversial 20m test of mobility has not been replaced, and nor has the abolition of the lower rate Care Component of DLA been reversed.

The Scottish government’s justification for making so few changes to the core elements of PIP in ADP is that it is prioritising the ‘safe and secure transition’ to the new system. It argues that changes to the criteria before all PIP cases are transferred into the new system would risk administrative overload; create a two tier system of different entitlements and risk the UK government not recognising ADP for the purposes of passporting to other UK entitlements (Robison, 2021). These claims have not been universally accepted: running two different systems as one winds down and the other comes into place is common in the UK, such as PIP itself, and the latter argument on passporting would potentially rule out even longer-term changes to eligibility, not just changes while ADP is being established. It has been the source of criticism from opposition parties within the Scottish Parliament and from groups such as the MS Society, which campaigned for the 20m rule to be scrapped in the run-up to the launch of ADP in March 2022 (MS Society, 2021). However, the position does have the support of the Scottish Commission on Social Security (2021), which provides independent scrutiny of devolved social security policy. Future changes to eligibility criteria are only now being consulted on (Scottish Government, 2023).

Although ADP will not differ significantly from PIP in the short or medium terms in most major ways, this comes with two caveats. Firstly, ADP does make a number of middle-order changes that potentially could make it easier for disabled people to access the payment:

  1. Removal of barriers to applying: ADP removes the barrier PIP has in requiring applicants to ask for an application form first. Application forms do not need to be requested first if applying online, and applications can be made either online, on paper or over the phone, rather than the more restrictive offline application routes that apply to PIP (Scottish Government, 2023). For reasons that are unclear, however, challenging an ADP decision does still require an article-based or telephone application, with online applications not being allowed (mygov.scot, 2023), an obvious and difficult to justify inconsistency.

Like PIP, ADP has an accelerated process for people who are terminally ill, but unlike PIP, this only requires a medical certification that the person has a terminal illness and the likely time of their death is not considered, whereas PIP requires death to be likely within six months (Social Security Scotland, 2022a).

  1. Reduction of assessments: the Scottish Government went into the legislative passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill promising to reduce the need for the additional assessments, often in person, required by PIP, and which have been among the most controversial aspects of the PIP system. The government accepted a Scottish Green amendment to put this on a legal footing, and so the Act explicitly prohibits the conducting of any similar form of assessment unless it is necessary due to sufficient evidence to make a decision not being available. The intention is that, quite differently to PIP, decisions on most ADP applications can be made on the strength of the initial application, any accompanying evidence, and further evidence obtainable from sources such as the applicant’s GP, carer and so on (mygov.scot, 2022). Should further assessment be needed, it is by a new system of ‘Client Consultations’ (mygov.scot, 2022), which prohibits any functional assessments, and is over the phone by default, carried out in-person only at the request of the applicant.

This appears to be a highly significant change. In doing so, the way applications will be assessed will roll-back the high-surveillance approach of PIP and be closer in nature to the way that DLA applications were assessed. Given the multitude of problems stemming from the PIP in-person assessments, including their stressful nature, inaccessible test centres and long travelling times, this approach has the potential to significantly improve the qualitative experience of the process of applying, and the Scottish Fiscal Commission has cited it as a factor in the higher expenditure it is projecting for ADP (Scottish Fiscal Commission, 2021).

  1. Award length: in contrast to PIP, ADP awards are indefinite and do not need to be renewed (Shaw, 2022). Applications are reviewed through a ‘light touch’ approach, in most cases at between five- and ten-year intervals, though some applications made for conditions unlikely to change will need fewer or no reviews, again closer to the status quo ante of DLA.
  2. Appeals and Short Term Assistance: most devolved payments are subject to a two-stage appeals process similar to that which operates for reserved payments.). However, there are two important differences. A Re-Determination, the Scottish equivalent of a Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), triggers a full re-assessment of the claim, in contrast with an MR (Citizens Advice Scotland, nd), which is usually only a review of the claim (Mental Health and Money Advice, 2022).

Where a decision has been made to reduce an entitlement, they can apply for their payment to be restored via an entirely new Scotland-only payment, Short Term Assistance (STA), until the appeals process has been exhausted (Mental Health and Money Advice, 2022).

Secondly, ADP is part of a new and potentially different social security system. Like most of the entitlements being devolved and any new ones being created, ADP is now part of a legally separate social security system to the reserved Great Britain system, which differs in a number of respects. As well as restricting the Scottish government’s ability to conduct face-to-face assessments, the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 created the legislative framework for the new system, involving a new set of guiding principles – including that social security is an investment in people and is central to the realisation of human rights; a charter which establishes the rights of applicants and recipients of Scottish payments, and a requirement on the Scottish Government to improve take-up. The remit of the DWP is ending and being replaced by the new Social Security Scotland agency, with new procedures and guidance for staff. It remains to be seen how these will improve the experience of applying for and receiving payments, but again the Scottish Fiscal Commission have cited some of these changes as likely leading to ADP costing more than PIP (Scottish Fiscal Commission, 2021).

Adult Disability Payment: small changes, bigger impacts?

Given the poor quality of decision making under PIP, changes to the way applicants evidence their claims and the way the evidence is considered by decision makers may result in improvements to the accessibility of ADP (both in terms of accessing any award, and accessing the highest awards), even absent changes to the design in the short and medium term. Initial data suggest that there is indeed an element of this happening.

The data from the initial months of ADP suggest that applicants are more likely to gain an award than applicants for PIP, an 11.5 per cent difference (Table 1), though one which has reduced over the lifetime of ADP, successful applications peaking at 69 per cent in September 2022 (Social Security Scotland, 2023a). Successful applicants are more likely to get an award at the Enhanced rate for ADP compared to PIP: a 5.5 per cent difference for the Daily Living component. The difference for the Mobility component is smaller, at 1.5 per cent (Table 2).

Table 1:

Outcomes of new ADP and PIP claims, March 2022–July 2023 (ADP figures for March 2022 are from 21 March only) (ADP: Social Security Scotland 2023; PIP: DWP Stat-Xplore)

Awarded Not Awarded Withdrawn
ADP 58% 35% 7%
PIP 46.5% 51.7% 8%
Table 2:

Outcomes of new ADP and PIP claims: percentage of Daily Living and Mobility Components awarded at Enhanced Rate, March 2022–January 2023 (ADP figures for March 2022 are from 21 March only) (ADP: Social Security Scotland 2023; PIP: DWP Stat-Xplore)

Percentage paid at Enhanced Rate (Daily Living) Percentage paid at Enhanced Rate (Mobility)
ADP 53% 54%
PIP 47.5% 52.5%

Applications are also noticeably higher. While Scotland has long had a higher rate of applications to disability benefits per 10,000 of the working-age population compared to the rest of the UK, this has grown noticeably in recent years (Scottish Fiscal Commission, 2023: 83), coinciding with the launch of ADP. This has had a negative impact on waiting times, with the latest available data showing waiting times of 92 working days (Social Security Scotland, 2023a), in excess of the 8–10 weeks (56–70 days) originally promised by Social Security Scotland (Scottish Parliament Information Centre, 2023).

The ADP data should be interpreted with caution. At the time of writing, it represented just over 19 months of applications only; ADP was phased in gradually by local authority, so the figures only represent a full roll-out from August 2022 only, and we know from the introduction of ESA and PIP itself that initial data can differ from longer-term trends.

Nonetheless, these figures do broadly tally with earlier forecasts made by the Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC), the only other substantial indication of how ADP is likely to progress in terms of awards. Though subject to uncertainty, the Commission estimates that ADP expenditure will be around £650m higher in 2027/28 (Scottish Fiscal Commission, 2022) compared to if the Scottish Government had made no changes. This amounts to around a 15 per cent increase in ADP expenditure and will be around 9 per cent of the entire devolved social security budget (Scottish Fiscal Commission, 2022). It expects a higher number of applications (by around 10 per cent in the long run) to be made, a higher rate of successful applications (also by about 10 per cent); more awards given at the Enhanced Rate (a 15 per cent increase) and a significant fall in the number of awards ended as a result of a review (14 per cent fewer) (Scottish Fiscal Commission, 2021). It attributes this to a range of factors outlined in Table 3.

Table 3:

Scottish Fiscal Commission’s rationale for projections of higher spending on ADP compared to PIP

Mechanism for higher expenditure Causes
Additional applications
  1. More flexibility on how applications can be made (via phone, online or on paper)
  2. More support for applicants, including a new independent advocacy service run by VoiceAbility (Social Security Scotland, 2022b)
  3. Tailored communications campaigns to advertise ADP to potentially eligible people
Higher rate of successful applications and Higher Payment Awards
  1. The removal of the requirement for face-to-face assessments
  2. More reliance on additional evidence
  3. The impact of the Social Security Charter on decision making
  4. Applicants being better informed about evidence requirements
  5. Differences in organisation culture between Social Security Scotland and DWP
Case transfer and change of circumstances • Recipients of DLA or PIP having an incentive to report a change in their condition, triggering an award review and transfer to ADP
Length of Awards and Review Process
  1. Increases in award length and therefore longer periods between reviews.
  2. Lighter touch review than PIP, resulting in fewer losses of award on review
Re-Determination and Short Term Assistance
  1. Greater proportion of challenges through Re-Determination (though lower rate of success as a result), resulting in more people remaining in the caseload than under the PIP MR system.
  2. Cost of paying Short Term Assistance and incentive effect on encouraging people with adverse Determinations to challenge them.
Terminally Ill system • Broader definition of terminal illness increases number of successful applications and lengthens time terminally ill people receive ADP compared to PIP by around 62%

Early data shows that the appeals process is also working differently to PIP. Social Security Scotland reports that 8 per cent of ADP decisions on new claims were challenged by claimants through a Re-Determination, compared to 23 per cent of all PIP decisions being challenged through an MR (DWP, 2023). The Scottish process also results in more decisions being overturned at this stage: 59 per cent (Social Security Scotland, 2023a) compared to 34 per cent for PIP (DWP, 2023). As a result, far fewer (19%) of ADP decisions are overturned at tribunal (DWP, 2023), compared to PIP (69%) (Ministry of Justice, 2023). This appears to support claims that MRs are used primarily to place an additional barrier to mounting a successful challenge (Osborne, 2015), whereas the Scottish Government’s desire to want to ‘get it right first time’ (Social Security Scotland, 2023b) and to treat the Re-Determination process as a genuine opportunity to correct a mistaken decision is largely borne out by the data here. Overall, while still with room for improvement, the quality of decision-making for ADP does appear to be higher than PIP.

There is limited qualitative data yet on how applicants and recipients are experiencing the process, and clearly this should be a prioritised for future research. Only Social Security Scotland (2022c) has done research with what it refers to as its ‘clients’. This does broadly reflect the preceding discussion, with high ratings for the new Client Consultations process, and the use of supporting evidence, but noticeably lower for the assessment criteria, which have not significantly changed.

Conclusions

Any conclusions must come with the proviso that ADP is not yet even two years old, and the review of ADP pledged by the Scottish Government, with a view to making more substantive changes once everyone has transferred from the UK system, has not completed. There is also little qualitative data yet on the way ADP has or has not improved the experience of claiming PIP.

However, the changes made so far appear to have the potential to make ADP easier to access than PIP, and there is a seemingly sincere intention of the part of the Scottish Government to depart from the UK approach through PIP, which, by its own admission, was meant to reduce claims. Initial data and SFC projections suggest these will result in more applications, more successful applications and more awards made for longer, and more at the higher rate, resulting in a significant additional annual cost to the Scottish Government.

Yet, significant gaps remain. There does not, so far at least, appear to be an intention to reverse the UK’s elimination of the DLA lower rate care component, which caused many to drop out of eligibility on transition to PIP, nor to review how the payment rates are decided, nor to have automatic awards based on someone’s condition, as suggested by Spicker (2019). Concerns about how well the points-based system allows people to relate their condition to the eligibility criteria (Spicker, 2019) are reflected in the Scottish government’s consultation on the criteria and it is also consulting on changes to the eligibility criteria, including the controversial 20m rule for mobility, and the requirement that the impact of someone’s disability impacts the applicant 50 per cent of the time. But any changes to these or other criteria have not yet been committed to by the Scottish Government, and in the consultation document are hemmed-in heavily by concerns over deliverability and affordability (Scottish Government, 2023).

To answer the question posed in the title, PIP is on its way out, but what kind of change does ADP represent? The level of change is certainly much more than might have been the case. In theory, the Scottish Government could have declined to use the new powers, or kept Scottish applicants and recipients in the UK system subject to minor differences in the rules, and paid the UK Government to administer these. But this has not happened. Instead, the Scottish Government has embarked on a much more complicated process of establishing a new social security system, but one necessary if significant improvements to the experience of claiming social security are to be made. The changes so far appear likely to make ADP more accessible and with fewer deliberate barriers to applying that PIP put in place. All this, comes at considerable extra cost to the Scottish Government. Their aims to make applying an easier, more accurate, less stressful and less oppositional process do appear to be borne out by the experience of ADP so far.

However, improving the process of applying is not a major consolation if the payment made at the end continues to under-support its recipients, as will be the case for some, because, so far, the Scottish Government also appears to be making far fewer changes to the structure, criteria and payment levels of ADP than are warranted by the experience of PIP and that are hoped for by disabled people and people with health conditions in Scotland and their representative organisations.

Funding

The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Conflict of interest

For transparency, the author declares he did advise the Scottish Greens on the amendment referred to in the article. The author is a member of the Scottish Green Party.

References

Dan Heap University of Strathclyde, UK

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