The Welfare Foods (Best Start Foods) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2024: scrutiny report

The Scottish Commission on Social Security's scrutiny report on the draft Welfare Foods (Best Start Foods) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2024

4. Alternative forms of payment

Best Start Foods is normally paid in the form of a pre-paid debit card. This card can only be used to purchase healthy foods and milk, and cannot be redeemed in all retail outlets. While this will remain the default position, at least for the time being, the draft Regulations will allow Social Security Scotland to credit an equivalent amount into someone’s bank account in exceptional circumstances.1Draft Regulation 15, amending BSF Regulation 14 These circumstances will include being unable to use a card, or an additional card, due to an impairment or being too young to be issued with a card (the minimum age is 14, so this will apply to a very small number of people).2The CRWIA states that only around 100 children per year are born to parents aged 16 or younger in Scotland.

Stakeholders who contributed to the Island Communities Impact Assessment and SCoSS’s scrutiny noted that residents of remote communities might also face particular issues with using the pre-paid card – for example, if they live in a village or on an island where no local retailer is approved to accept it. However, the Scottish Government has not specifically identified this group as being among the likely beneficiaries of alternative forms of payment.3See Equality Impact Assessment and Island Communities Impact Assessment. We understand that applicants can ask for a local retailer to be included on a list of approved retailers, which could be particularly useful for island and remote communities.

The BSF evaluation notes that the information provided with the card does not contain a full list of retailers who accept, or information on how to use the card online,4See pages 5, 8, 21-22, 31: both of which would be helpful to people in remote communities. However, the Scottish Government has advised SCoSS that for technical reasons it is unable to identify a high proportion of the participating retailers,5In essence, retailers who primarily sell groceries are automatically identified as such by their electronic point of sale equipment, so there is no need for their names and locations to appear on a central database. so cannot produce a definitive list.

Providing for payment by bank credit when necessary appears to be a positive change with potential to enhance equality and autonomy, reduce discrimination and lower barriers to the enjoyment of the right to social security among certain groups – disabled people and very young parents/pregnant people. This is in keeping with principles (g) and (b). Members of these groups are not strictly excluded from BSF by the use of pre-paid cards, as the card could be issued to another person where one eligible individual cannot use it or is too young to receive one. However, making cash payments available in these circumstances is likely to enable more pregnant people and parents to receive BSF themselves.

Recommendation 2: The Scottish Government should publish clear, accessible guidance on who is likely to be able to receive an alternative form of payment of Best Start Foods, the process for requesting one and how to challenge decisions. Individuals who receive a pre-paid card should receive guidance on the type of retailers who can accept the card and how to request the addition of their local retailer to the list of approved retailers.

The prospect that payment by bank credit will be an option for some groups does raise the question of whether a cash-first approach should be the default for all BSF awards. The pre-paid card for BSF was initially introduced as a means of reducing stigma, as the paper vouchers previously issued under Healthy Foods scheme (now also replaced with a pre-paid card) immediately marked out the user as being in receipt of a low-income benefit.

The delivery of social security using any form of restricted-use payment, though, speaks to negative characterisations of claimants as likely to spend cash benefits on frivolous purchases6K Garthwaite, ‘Stigma, shame and ‘people like us’: an ethnographic study of foodbank use in the UK’ (2016) 24(3) Journal of Poverty and Social Justice 277 and sits uneasily alongside commitments to respect individuals’ dignity (principle d) and “challenge… myths and stereotypes about social security”.7Our Charter, ‘A better future’, commitment 6 Payment by bank credit by default would arguably better match the ethos of the Scottish social security system by enhancing the autonomy of all recipients, a point made by various participants in SCoSS’s stakeholder roundtable, held as part of our scrutiny process.

There are also more practical advantages to bank credit payments. In the three and a half years following the launch of BSF, almost 150,000 awards have been made.8 7,000 pre-paid cards were issued but never activated, 3,000 were activated but never used and the total unspent balance was £2.3 million. In February 2023, Social Security Scotland launched a campaign to encourage people to use their BSF awards.9 Scottish Government officials have told SCoSS that this has had an impact: “Between 28th February and 21st August, 2408 clients who were not actively using their card have reduced their balance by at least £100. Of those, 31 clients have reduced their balance by over £1000.” However, payments might be less likely to go unspent in the first place if money were paid directly into individuals’ bank accounts.

Scottish Government officials have told the Commission that in the long term they are committed to moving towards cash payments of BSF. We broadly welcome this, but with one important caveat. Currently BSF awards are not classed as ‘public funds’. BSF is therefore one of the few non-contributory social security benefits available to individuals who have ‘no recourse to public funds’ due to their immigration status.10For information on the NRPF rules, see Home Office, Public funds: migrant access to public funds, including social housing, homelessness assistance and social care (London: Home Office, 2021) and–2/public-funds Since most of the qualifying low-income and child responsibility benefits are public funds, BSF will normally only be payable in respect of pregnant people who are under 18 or (once the draft Regulations take effect) 18/19 year old dependants. Nonetheless, this group will include some of the poorest families in Scotland and would be particularly hard hit if a move to cash payments meant BSF were more likely to be treated as public funds by the Home Office.

Observation 7: The Scottish Government should continue to consider the case for payment of Best Start Foods by bank credit as the default, with a view to ensuring the scheme respects individuals’ dignity as much as possible, without putting at risk the eligibility of those with no recourse to public funds.

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