Navigating a different minefield: Veterans’ experiences of the UK social security system

By Lisa Scullion, University of Salford. This article originally appeared in Evidence, HQN's quarterly housing update produced in collaboration with UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence and HSA.

In June 2019, we launched the final findings of a project called Sanctions, Support and Service Leavers: Welfare conditionality and transitions from military to civilian life. Funded by the Forces in Mind Trust, this project represents the first substantive qualitative research in the UK to focus specifically on the experiences of veterans within the social security system.

Over the course of this two-year project, we carried out a total of 120 in-depth interviews with veterans and their families. These interviews were supplemented with insights from a range of policymaker and practitioner stakeholders.

In 2011, the UK government published The Armed Forces Covenant, ‘a promise from the nation that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly’1 when accessing public services. The DWP has made a series of initiatives and adjustments to Jobcentre Plus (JCP) services as part of its commitment to the Covenant.

While these are welcome, our research suggests a disparity between the commitments on paper and the reality on the ground for those actually experiencing the benefits system. In particular, it highlights the difficulties veterans face navigating the benefits system, concerns around the assessment of capability for work, and the need to ensure that appropriate and tailored support is provided to veterans.

Navigating the benefits system

Overwhelmingly, our participants found the benefits system complex and difficult to navigate. They routinely struggled to understand the benefits that may be available, the conditions attached to continued eligibility, and how to apply for and manage their ongoing claims. For many, it was the first time they had interacted with the social security system, or their prior experience had been many years (or even decades) previously, when a very different system had been in operation.

It was evident that information about the system and their eligibility for benefits was largely absent from the information provided during transition: “When you join the Armed Forces … you lose track of what’s going on, especially in the benefits system. Like myself after 15 years’ service, and I came out… I’ve ended up on benefits, but it’s a minefield.”

As such, we recommend ensuring that guidance on the UK social security system is included as a routine part of the resettlement support provided to those leaving the Armed Forces.

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Assessing capability for work

Across the sample of veterans that we interviewed, physical and/or mental impairment was a significant factor affecting their ability to enter and sustain paid work. As a result, a large proportion of respondents had undergone a Work Capability Assessment.

Their experiences of these assessments were overwhelmingly negative, which related to the perceived focus on physical rather than mental health; the perceived lack of qualification of the assessors to assess Service-related impairments; and inconsistencies in the use of Service medical records and other relevant medical information:

“When you go there they ask you irrelevant questions. ‘Can you lift your right hand? Can you lift your left hand? Can you sit down, can you stand up? Can you stand here?’ That’s irrelevant to me. It’s not your physical, it’s what’s in your mind.”

“I was scored zero out of 15. It went to the appeal. The Appeal Board have said that the person assessing me wasn’t qualified to assess me… I went in for an ESA assessment with both a medical record and a mental health record. Neither were looked at. Was that person qualified to score me zero without looking at the documents?… the military document?”

For many respondents it was evident that the process was very stressful, and people were often nervous about a pending assessment or fearful when awaiting the outcome. In some of the more extreme examples, the fear of the assessment process had devastating consequences:

“I rang them up and I say, ‘I’m unfit to travel to an assessment’, and they said to me, ‘No, but you’ve got to come in … You’ve got to provide evidence that you’ve got PTSD’. I said, ‘Doesn’t my War Pension evidence count?’ He says, ‘No, because you’re claiming for a different benefit’. Unfortunately, I put the phone down, and my anxiety levels were so high I tried popping a couple of diazepam and that wouldn’t work… I took a serrated knife to my arm.”

We recommend an urgent need to review the assessment process to ensure that assessors are suitably qualified, but also a need to ensure that Service Medical and other relevant supporting information is consistently included within the process.

A benefits system in transition

Finally, we need to recognise that the social security system itself is in a period of significant transition. Over the course of our fieldwork, some people moved from legacy benefits to Universal Credit. All of them had found it problematic, reiterating widely acknowledged issues around the waiting period for the first payment, reductions in benefit entitlements and difficulties with the ‘digital by default’ system:

“I was on the ESA and I went over to Universal Credit, everything was online… I’m 54 years old, I wasn’t sure what to do, and things weren’t made very clear. I forgot to go online, onto my account, apparently, and tick a box or put an X in the box… so I was sanctioned.”

However, a significant number of our participants were still claiming legacy benefits and will eventually transition to UC over the coming years. They expressed concerns about what would happen when they moved to UC. As such we recommend that additional support should be provided to veterans as they transition from legacy benefits to UC. This support should be tailored and/or enhanced to reflect the unique circumstances of those who have served in the Armed Forces.

With the ongoing ‘managed migration’ of claimants to Universal Credit, the time is right to ensure that veterans and their families are appropriately supported within the social security system.

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Click here for the full report or contact Professor Lisa Scullion for more information l.scullion@salford.ac.uk