Arrangements for launch
There is evidence that initial teething problems can seriously undermine public confidence in new social security benefits. It is particularly critical that the launch of the Scottish Child Payment goes as smoothly as possible. As the first high-volume, recurrent payment that Social Security Scotland will deliver, perceptions of the introduction of SCP could influence perceptions of the emerging devolved social security system more generally. The Scottish Government has identified the likely rush to apply for the SCP on its launch as a key operational challenge. It therefore proposes special arrangements for handling the first wave of applications, consisting of a three-month ‘initial application period’ prior to the commencement of the first set of awards, followed by an ‘initial payment period’. Regulations specify that any application received during the initial application period will be treated as having been made on the official application date – the day following the end of the initial application period – which will ensure no one loses out financially even if applications take longer than anticipated to process.
This seems a sensible attempt to manage the influx and give Social Security Scotland space to ensure decisions are right first time, and payments are made on time and in the right amount, in line with commitments in ‘Our Charter’. It may also improve the agency’s ability to “handle your applications … as quickly as we can” after the initial application period has ended if the aim of encouraging applications at a more manageable rate is achieved. However, putting transitional arrangements into the Regulations does not in itself eliminate the risk of teething problems. The success or failure of the arrangements will depend on various behavioural, operational and public awareness factors. In particular, it is possible that a high proportion of early applicants will submit their applications close to the end of the three-month window. In this scenario, people who apply late in or shortly after the initial application period could become caught up in exactly the kind of backlog the provision aims to avoid. When people apply is not within the control of Social Security Scotland. However, the Scottish Government has committed to a public awareness campaign as a means of promoting take-up of the SCP and this could also be used to encourage people to apply early. If there does prove to be a backlog – perhaps even in anticipation of a possible backlog – it would be useful if the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland could reassure applicants that any delay in processing will not result in their missing out on payments.
The Scottish Government’s updated policy position paper states that first payments to successful early applicants will be made in tranches of between one and four weeks following the official application date to enable Social Security Scotland to manage the volume of payments. This may well be necessary, but again there will be a need to maximise applicant awareness of this approach in order to ensure confidence in the system. Risks here include (1) applicants budgeting on the assumption that they will receive a payment sooner than proves to be the case or (2) the perception that those whose payments commence earlier are receiving more money overall. Risk (1) could be reduced if Social Security Scotland informs applicants as early as possible which payment tranche they will fall into.
Recommendation 1: The Scottish Government should develop effective means of promoting both take-up and awareness of how early applications will be treated during the initial application period.
Recommendation 2: The Scottish Government should carry out a review of the effectiveness of the initial application and payment arrangements, whether as part of any wider review of the SCP or separately. This review could then inform decisions on whether to adopt an initial application phase during the roll out of future forms of social security assistance.
From an operational point of view, Social Security Scotland will need to have the necessary staff and systems in place to process a high volume of claims, issue correct decisions and deal with subsequent requests for redetermination, appeals and possible overpayments. Electronic handling of applications clearly has potential to assist with the anticipated high volume, although past experience at both UK and devolved levels shows that ambitious IT projects can bring their own problems. The Commission will not be in a position to assess whether operational and system development is proceeding as necessary ahead of the launch of the SCP, but we may want to consider the matter retrospectively in future reporting on whether the expectations of ‘Our Charter’ are being fulfilled, in accordance with section 22(1)(d) of the Act. For example, well-functioning systems will be necessary if Social Security Scotland is to “handle… applications and enquiries as quickly as we can” (once the initial application period has ended) and ultimately “pay [the SCP] on time and in the right amount.”
One potential issue discussed with the Scottish Government during the scrutiny process is the position of applicants whose circumstances change between the point of application (during the initial application period) and their official application date (the day after the initial application period closes). Where incomes fluctuate, children’s care arrangements are fluid or there are issues affecting entitlement to the qualifying reserved benefit, there could be potential for households to move in and out of eligibility for the SCP. Ultimately, it is on the official application date that the applicant must have an entitlement. The Scottish Government has advised the Commission that such changes of circumstance will be picked up through the process. This is to be hoped, but there will be a need for careful monitoring to ensure that moves in and out of eligibility are in fact identified. The Government’s intention appears to be that there should be no need for applicants to report changes of circumstances during the initial application period, but clarification of this – and of how Social Security Scotland will pick up changes – would be welcome. If changes of circumstances in the initial application period are not successfully identified, there is a risk that applicants who move out of eligibility will receive overpayments, while those who move into eligibility will have to request redeterminations. This would increase the administrative burden on Social Security Scotland, rather than support the aim of reducing it, while causing applicants inconvenience, stress and possibly budgeting problems.
Recommendation 3: The Scottish Government should clarify how it will identify post-application changes of circumstances during the initial application period, including whether, or in what circumstances, applicants will be expected to report any changes of circumstances to Social Security Scotland. The Scottish Government should also clarify how it will deal with over-or underpayments that result from errors in this process.
It is possible that competing claims will be made during the initial applications period, at different times, in respect of the same child. When the hierarchy of qualifying benefits – under which low-income benefits confer entitlement to the SCP in preference to child benefit – does not point to which application should prevail, the last-resort method in draft Regulation 3(4)(d)is to give priority to “the individual whose application is to be determined first.” Applications received during the initial period are all due to be determined on the same date, so this method will presumably not offer a solution.
Recommendation 4: The Scottish Government should consider amending the Regulations to include a method of differentiating between multiple SCP applications in respect of the same child during the initial application period, where draft Regulation 3 does not already do so. How competing applications will be treated in this period should be made clear to applicants and advice providers.