Social security

Welfare reform and the UK Government’s wider austerity agenda are having an appalling impact on women’s access to resources, security and safety, and therefore on gender equality.

Over the decade of austerity, from 2010 to 2020, 86 percent of net ‘savings’ raised through cuts to social security and tax credits will come from women’s incomes. This is due to systemic issues that see women twice as dependent on social security as men. Women are twice as likely to give up paid work to become unpaid carers; 92 percent of lone parents are women; the pay gap persists at 32 percent for women’s part-time work; and women’s economic independence is undermined by endemic violence against women. Further, the existing inadequacies of the social security system put women who experience multiple inequalities at a greater risk of poverty and destitution.


By 2030 social security policy in Scotland advances gender equality.

Scottish Government and the new Scottish social security agency should:

Embed gender in social security policy

New powers over social security, devolved to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 2016, overlap with devolved policy and services that are crucial for women’s equality. The devolution of social security powers is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to make progress against commitments on gender equality by assessing ways in which social security, and welfare reform measures, have failed women over recent years. Scotland can avoid replicating ungendered policies that are entrenching women’s inequality across the UK by creating a divergent approach linked to devolved policy areas and services, such as childcare, social care, employability, housing and violence against women. It will be vital that different groups of women who use the social security system, including disabled women, unpaid carers, lone mothers and refugees, are involved in shaping these programmes.

Without such an approach, policy and programmes undertaken by other Scottish Government departments and public bodies will be less effective in reducing women’s inequality. A non-gendered approach would compromise existing high-level targets and commitments on gender equality, including those related to the gender pay gap, occupational segregation, women’s participation in politics and public life, and violence against women and girls. It would also be inconsistent with the Scottish Government’s principles for the new social security system. Gender equality should be embedded as a principle and an objective throughout Scotland’s social security system, from legislation that enables the transfer of powers and structures established to deliver them, to individual policies and services on the ground.


By 2030 social security entitlements advance gender equality, foster women’s safety and security, and increase women and children’s quality of life.

Scottish Government and the new Scottish social security agency should:

Increase maternity entitlements

Implement individual Universal Credit payments

Introduce a carers living wage

Since 2010, successive policy changes to the social security system have negatively impacted women, in particular women with children. It is expected that by 2020, women who are lone parents will experience an estimated loss of £4,000 per year, a 20 percent drop in living standards, and a 17 percent drop in disposable income. These detrimental impacts could be mitigated by the Scottish Government by ‘topping-up’ child benefit by a £5 per week and by widening access to the new Best Start Grant (BSG).

In addition to providing increased support to women with children, the new social security system should look to increase women’s financial independence. The current practice of paying joint Universal Credit to one individual in a couple is likely to reduce women’s access to income and economic autonomy. Requiring joint recipients of Universal Credit to nominate who receives the payment at the outset of a claim does not recognise that financial decision-making takes place within the context of gendered power dynamics. The option to ask for split payment would not be a realistic ‘choice’ for many women, especially those experiencing coercive control and domestic abuse. As a matter of principle, everyone should have access to an independent income in Scotland.

Scotland’s future social security system should also seek to address gender inequalities at the heart of the care economy. Many women carers would welcome the ability to undertake more and better paid work, as it would increase their independent income, self-esteem and social life, and enable them to maintain or develop skills in the workplace ahead of the possible need to return to work after their ‘carer journey’. Restricted access to education for carers under the current system also undermines women’s equality of opportunity and future earning potential. Existing support for carers, including the rate of carer’s allowance, is inconsistent with the principles underpinning Scotland’s new social security system.


By 2030 no woman is destitute or trapped in an abusive relationship due to lack of access to welfare support.

Scottish Government, the Scottish Prison Service and the new Scottish social security agency should:

Tackle women’s destitution

Women who’ve been refused asylum, newly granted refugees and women with insecure immigration status experiencing domestic abuse are just some of the groups disproportionately affected by destitution, pushed into extreme poverty due to lack of access to public funds and a social safety net. The asylum and immigration system has numerous points at which the risk of destitution becomes likely, and once destitute it becomes much harder to re-engage with the asylum process. Migrant women, including asylum seekers and those refused asylum, are put at significant risk by policies that restrict access to publicly funded services such as refuge places.

Women experiencing domestic abuse face considerable barriers when trying to leave an abusive partner. Access to financial support and housing are therefore crucial. Welfare reforms and an inadequate, ungendered asylum support system have further undermined women and children’s safety by putting at risk their ability to maintain financial independence, to be safely rehoused and to rebuild their lives. Changes to the social security entitlements of EU migrants over recent years have created additional barriers for women experiencing domestic abuse. Certain groups, such as women who have been released from prison, have significant difficulty accessing financial assistance. Facilitating a woman’s safe and successful transition to the community necessitates that the appropriate resources be in place to support her, including financial, material and human. Destitution policies should be responsive to the needs of women leaving prison, women who are homeless, and women who have been trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labour.



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Gender Matters Roadmap - towards women's equality in ScotlandGender Matters Roadmap - towards women's equality in Scotland

Key terms


Austerity refers to strict economic measures implemented by governments to reduce public expenditure.


The care economy refers to human activity which is concerned with caring, both paid and unpaid.


Citizen’s Basic Income would replace means-tested social security as a basic universal payment to all citizens. Two Basic Income pilots were announced in Scotland in 2017.


Coercive control is a form of violence against women. it refers to a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away someone’s liberty or freedom, or strip away their sense of self.


Destitution refers to a situation where someone’s basic needs (e.g. food and shelter) are not met.


Gendered power dynamics refers to the ways in which gender shapes the distribution of power at all levels of society, both on an individual and collective basis.


Insecure immigration status is where someone is waiting for a decision from the Home Office about whether they are allowed to stay in the UK.


Multiple discrimination is discrimination against someone on the basis of more than one ground. For example, a BME woman may be discriminated against both for her race, and her gender.


‘No recourse to public funds’ is a condition which some people may be subject to if they have been allowed to enter the UK for a limited period only, for example they have entered the UK as a fiancé, spouse or civil partner. They cannot access mainstream benefits, but may be entitled to support from local authorities in certain circumstances.


Social security refers to financial and/or material resources from the state given to people with inadequate or no incomes. some parts of social security were devolved to Scotland in 2016.


‘Welfare reform’ refers to the UK Government’s cuts and changes to the social security system from 2010.

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