By Mark Simpson*

‘Dignity’ and ‘Respect’ have been part of the debate on social security in Scotland since the lead-up to the independence referendum in 2014, appearing in the report of the Expert Working Group on Welfare, the consultation on A new future for social security, legislation establishing the Scottish Welfare Fund and the Social Security (Scotland) Bill.

The term ‘dignity’ appears frequently in writing on human rights – for example, as the “very essence” of the European Convention on Human Rights – yet what it means to be treated with dignity remains ill-defined, respect even more so. O’Mahony is not alone in arguing that “there is no such thing as a right to dignity.” It is also far from clear that a claimant’s perception of what it means to be so treated with dignity and respect will reflect legal academic interpretations.

McCrudden argues that a life in dignity requires protection from inhuman or degrading living conditions, the ability to access one’s essential needs, a measure of autonomy and social and cultural participation (relative definitions of poverty treat autonomy and social participation as essential needs themselves). These rights are explicitly or implicitly conferred by articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention.

On one level, then, to ask whether a social security system protects dignity is to ask whether it provides enough income to meet one’s essential needs. These have been defined by the UK courts as encompassing housing, food, clothing, essential travel, a means of contacting the emergency services, certain non-prescription medication, a minimum of social participation and the education of children. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation list includes shelter, food, heating and lighting, clothing and footwear and basic toiletries. Meeting these needs is likely to cost more for households including a disabled person or in remote areas of Scotland.

Literature on experiences of poverty in the 21st century provides insight into what a social security system based on dignity and respect might look like from a claimant’s perspective. Unsurprisingly, enough income to meet one’s survival needs plays a part. Surviving on mouldy bread and feeling unable to put the heating on even when ill can hardly be described as dignified.

Importantly, dignity is not just associated with survival, but with living, and living autonomously. A food bank might supply life’s bare essentials for a short while, but going there can be humiliating and a food parcel does nothing to ease the embarrassment and social isolation associated with being unable to go out for a drink from time to time.

Dignity and respect also emerge from claimants’ stories as being about how one is treated by the system and those who run it. Being spoken to in a patronising way, lacking any meaningful control over the content of a jobseeking agreement, a climate of suspicion towards claimants, the security presence in jobcentres and being subjected to pointless or flawed reassessments of eligibility are all perceived to indicate a lack of respect.

Despite limited devolved powers, the commitments in A new future and the Social Security (Scotland) Bill to reduce reassessments for disabled claimants with long term conditions, pay disability benefits directly to service providers if the claimant wishes, increase the level of carer’s allowance and make participation in employment support schemes voluntary are a promising start.

The Bill, though, is a piece of enabling legislation, with the detailed workings of devolved benefits to be set out in future Regulations. Consequently, there is much that we do not know. Notably, it is not clear how the Scottish disability benefit will work in practice and how it will compare to DLA or PIP. Running employment support on a voluntary basis, without threat of sanction for non-participation, removes a key threat to dignity, but there is also a need for devolved schemes to actually help disabled claimants back into the labour market, an area in which DWP’s work programme has not been a notable success.

One proposal in A new future that has not made its way into the bill is for a new young carers’ benefit. Reducing poverty among carers is a laudable ambition, but if this is through payment for caring the risk is that the support comes at the price of further entrenching the caring role, with an impact on education, other aspects of a normal childhood and long term life chances.

Optimistically, the lack of detail in the Scottish Government’s proposals can be seen as an opportunity, given its ambition to develop policy with the people of Scotland. The challenge to the devolved administration is to be true to its word and involve disabled people in the design of a benefit and employment support that meets their needs, young carers in determining whether payment for caring or better funding of other services is the best way to protect the ‘right’ to a childhood.

Events involving ‘experts’ have a part to play in this process, but to genuinely respect the dignity of claimants, as well as the Scottish Government’s own principles, it is vital that it gets down to the grass roots.

*Mark is a lecturer in Law at Ulster University. This post is an edited version of a paper presented at a meeting of the Disability and Carers’ Benefits Expert Advisory Group on 14 September 2017, hosted by Policy Scotland and Carnegie UK. It is based on a report onSocial Security Systems Based on Dignity and Respect, funded and published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.