Across Scotland, the third sector has been dealing with the impact of welfare cuts and wider austerity policies head on. The picture we have is now well developed with increasing evidence of people being left in extreme need, and in some cases, with nowhere to turn:

  • A range of third sector organisations give examples of individuals and families left in severe hardship because of sanctions applied with little or no consideration of personal circumstances. In many cases, these have a wider impact on family and support networks (e.g. sanctions on those with caring responsibilities) [i]
  • There can be no doubt about the link between food bank referrals and negative changes and delays within the benefits system. This has been acknowledged in the work of the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee[ii]
  • There is increased evidence of a benefits system in disarray, as people who are often very ill are left waiting for long periods to establish eligibility for benefit[iii]
  • Further increases in benefit waiting times will create further stresses for families within the system[iv]

Key groups within society are particularly vulnerable in this attack on our social security safety net – those who are disabled[v], unpaid carers[vi], women[vii] and especially lone parents[viii] as well as individuals with autism[ix]and those who experience mental health issues[x]. As an example, how those having to deal with HIV and blood borne disorders have been affected is starkly illustrated in a recent report from HIV Scotland:

“…people living with blood borne viruses who access benefits have told us that their physical and mental health are being made worse by the reforms, and that simple essentials like heating and food are becoming difficult to afford. Services for people with HIV and hepatitis say they are being flooded with requests for support and information about welfare changes, making it difficult to focus on the specialist services they are there to provide.”[xi]

More widely, as this quote from HIV Scotland’s website indicates, the front line impact of welfare reform for the third sector remains one of the ongoing challenges for charities and community groups. A second phase of SCVO’s mapping work[xii] will consider this issue in more detail. The challenges facing the third sector in dealing with increased demand whilst struggling to find space or capacity to keep up to date with ongoing changes to benefits remains an issue of concern. This creates significant risks to any focus on preventative spend.

Allowing the sector to have a voice

Along with many of our members and partners, SCVO campaigned strongly against the Westminster lobbying bill (now an Act)[xiii]which sought to effectively silence third sector critiques of Government policy. Already, our colleagues at Oxfam and the Trussell Trust have faced challenges to their campaigning work and as they seek to practically help those in need. [xiv]

We can fully expect further critique from the sector on potential plans to cap benefits, given the apparently weak justification for such a policy direction[xv].

Throughout the process of welfare reform, the voice of the sector in challenging the benefit cuts and changes which have devastated communities and families has been both vociferous and powerful. We have spoken out strongly on issues of stigma and sanctions and will continue to do so.

We would strongly contend that any attempt to silence this voice is bad for policy making, but also bad for democracy. We would ask the Scottish Parliament to respond to our concerns on this matter. Amongst other things, the sector provides a voice for people in need – people who are fighting systems which reduce their capacity to live and to cope with financial challenges.

Please continue to support our work in campaigning for a fairer and more just Scotland and in bringing the voice of people to policy tables.

Getting the Scottish approach right

Many members and colleagues from the Third Sector will be responding to the Welfare Reform Committee’s call for evidence on the draft bill which will seek to place the Scottish Welfare Fund on a legal footing.

SCVO plans to raise concerns about the rush to legislate given that the fund has only had one full year of operation, and with the first year of data for the fund containing some significant gaps – e.g. recording of vulnerabilities of applicants.

The lack of a human rights focus in the draft legislation, indicating how those in crisis or those needing support from the Fund should be treated, causes us concern. As we indicated in a previous consultation:

We believe that the planned Bill must include principles or a commitment to protect key human rights and/or reflect a commitment to maintain the dignity and respect of individuals who have to use the Fund. In the case of this Bill, this is especially important as many approaching the fund for help are struggling to achieve the most basic of rights e.g. access to food, heat etc. Further stigma and bureaucracy only serves to further strip people of those rights”.

Whatever happens in September, Scotland must find its own way in creating a more humane and empowering approach to welfare – either in creating a new system or in responding to any additional welfare powers. It is vital that we learn lessons from our experience to date.

Future of welfare

What we must do is take the opportunity presented by the referendum debate to examine how the Scottish Government is responding to UK welfare reform. Other political parties must also begin to lay out their own responses and policy commitments. Regardless of the result of the referendum, tackling the failure of our benefits system to help people maintain even a basic standard of living is essential.

The referendum has pushed policy on welfare into sharp focus. The work of the Expert Working Group on Welfare and the recent announcement by the Scottish Greens about modelling a Citizens Income[xvi] both demonstrate the appetite across political and civil society to look at how the benefits system and wider welfare policy are working for people and to address the issues facing families and communities.

How we build on this momentum is the challenge which faces us all.


Lynn Williams
Policy Officer
Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations
Mansfield Traquair Centre
15 Mansfield Place
Edinburgh, EH3 6BB

Tel: 0131 559 5036

About us

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is the national body representing the third sector.There are over 45,000 voluntary organisations in Scotland involving around 137,000 paid staff and approximately 1.2 million volunteers. The sector manages an income of £4.4 billion.

SCVO works in partnership with the third sector in Scotland to advance our shared values and interests. We have over 1300 members who range from individuals and grassroots groups, to Scotland-wide organisations and intermediary bodies.

As the only inclusive representative umbrella organisation for the sector SCVO:

  • has the largest Scotland-wide membership from the sector – our 1300 members include charities, community groups, social enterprises and voluntary organisations of all shapes and sizes
  • our governance and membership structures are democratic and accountable – with an elected board and policy committee from the sector, we are managed by the sector, for the sector
  • brings together organisations and networks connecting across the whole of Scotland

SCVO works to support people to take voluntary action to help themselves and others, and to bring about social change. Our policy is determined by a policy committee elected by our members.[1]

Further details about SCVO can be found at

[1] SCVO’s Policy Committee has 24 members elected by SCVO’s member organisations who then co-opt up to eight more members primarily to reflect fields of interest which are not otherwise represented. It also includes two ex officio members, the SCVO Convener and Vice Convener.

[vii] Engender briefing on Welfare Reform debate, August 2014