Thank you very much, Presiding Officer—if not for the marriage that you just entered me into.
I am delighted to be here to open a debate for the first time as Scotland’s first Minister for Social Security. I know that members have already debated and discussed the new powers, and I look forward to working with parliamentarians in the chamber and in the new committee. Our shared task is to lay the foundations of a social security system that we can all be proud of.
Given that this is also my first speech in the chamber, I hope that members will permit me to make two brief points. First, of course, I thank the voters of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, where I was born and raised, for the trust that they have placed in me. Secondly, I pay rightful and due tribute to Adam Ingram, who served the constituency, the South of Scotland and the Parliament so well in the past 17 years, and to Margaret Burgess, in particular for her role in setting up the Parliament’s first social security powers. [Applause.] I very much hope to emulate their examples of putting people first, of hard work, and of total commitment to doing the best possible job.
I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate during carers week. This morning, I visited Voice of Carers Across Lothian and heard at first hand about the important work that that organisation does. It is important that I heard direct from carers themselves about the challenges that they face. I was able to let them know of the Government’s absolute commitment to make the best use that we can of the new powers to recognise the contributions that carers make to the quality of life of all of us. Those new powers present us with an enormous opportunity to take a different path from that of the United Kingdom Government and to harness the powers to our values so that we support people, tackle inequalities and build a fairer society.
A year after the UK Government introduced its Welfare Reform Act 2012, the chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Julia Unwin, spoke about it. She said that the system
“is loathed by those who depend upon it and criticised by those who understand it”
and that there is
“a public media discourse that demonises poor people and equates poverty with wickedness or hopelessness.”
Like many in the chamber, I have heard from disabled people who have been worried and distressed by the cuts that are being imposed and by the way that they are treated by the Tory welfare system. I have heard that the system, which is supposed to help and support those people, is actually doing them harm. There are delays and backlogs, lengthy, disjointed and complicated forms and processes, and inconsistencies in assessment decisions. Driving all of that are calculated and planned UK Government cuts to a lifeline support that is needed by many of our most vulnerable citizens. There are cuts in the name of austerity to provide a so-called fix for an economic crisis that those people did not create, but for which they are now paying a terrible price.
UK Government welfare spend is forecast to fall by 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product between 2015-16 and 2020-21 to reach its lowest percentage level in 30 years. There are systematic spending cuts at a UK level to housing benefit, incapacity benefit, state pensions and employment and support allowance, and the introduction of a benefit cap.
As 85 per cent of benefits remain at Westminster, we do not have the powers to redress all that unfairness, but we can and will do better with the new powers that we will have. With a fairer and more transparent approach to social security, we intend to rebuild the trust that has been eroded and build in equality, fairness and respect. Social security is an investment to support people; it is an investment in people and communities. It is there for any one of us when we need it, and without blame or stigma.
The Government has already achieved a great deal with the powers that we currently have. We have protected and invested in the independent living fund. Through the self-directed support strategy and the legislation that underpins it, we have shown our commitment to enabling individuals, carers and their families to have flexibility, choice and control over the support services that they receive. We have fully mitigated the effects of the bedroom tax, providing over £35 million in discretionary housing payments and protecting 72,000 households—80 per cent of which have a disabled adult—from the terrible anxiety that comes when someone is told that they need to pay more for their home simply because they have one bedroom too many.
However, with more than half a million people in Scotland receiving carer and disability benefits, our new powers give us the opportunity to do more. I will outline to the Parliament the steps that we are taking to build a fairer and more transparent approach to disability benefits, making real the principles of dignity and respect. We have already committed to maintaining the level of disability benefits and making sure that they will not be means tested.
We have heard many times that the assessment process is not working. Just last year, through the work of the Welfare Reform Committee, the Parliament was told of some harrowing experiences of disabled people. I pay tribute to the committee and its work, which provided invaluable evidence and insight. We were told of a process that is unable or unwilling to understand and take account of fluctuating conditions, when a person can have good days and bad days. One woman, who some days cannot walk or brush her teeth, said that the process makes her feel like “a nuisance” and “a fraud”. How utterly appalling to live with a Tory system that makes someone feel like that.
We will reform the assessment procedures to ensure that they work for the people who claim disability benefits. The process of applying for and receiving benefits should be easy for everyone to understand, and people should be supported through it. We will set clear timeframes for assessments, decisions and appeals and we will ensure that information is accessible for those who need it. If someone has an existing long-term condition that is unlikely to change, they should not be repeatedly reassessed. Therefore, we will stop the revolving door of assessments for those with long-term illnesses, disabilities or conditions and introduce longer-term awards that are based on individual circumstances and needs. To provide more certainty and reduce stress to thousands of families while the transfer of benefits takes place, any child in receipt of disability living allowance will continue to receive that award to the age of 18 if they so wish.
We will do more. We will build into our system a consistent approach that treats every person with compassion, dignity, fairness and respect—nothing less will be tolerated.
Research by Contact a Family has shown that higher heating and utility bills are the top extra costs for families with disabled children. In 2014, an estimated 34 per cent of families with disabled children were going without heating. It is simply unacceptable that a parent should be forced into making a choice about whether to heat their home. That is why we will extend eligibility for the winter fuel payment to families with children in receipt of the highest care component of the disability living allowance.
Earlier I mentioned the immense contribution that is made by Scotland’s 745,000 unpaid adult carers and 44,000 young carers. Carers are motivated by love and compassion and, for many, caring is a rewarding and positive experience. That does not mean that it cannot have a negative impact on a carer’s physical and mental wellbeing and financial security. Some carers are forced into making difficult choices between work and caring, or between studying and caring. Others take lower-paid or less-skilled jobs to fit in with their caring duties. There are fewer opportunities for carers to do the simple things that we take for granted such as meeting friends, going to the cinema or taking exercise—time just for themselves.
That is why it is crucial that we support carers to have a life alongside caring. It is unfair that support in the form of the carers allowance is the lowest of all working-age benefits. That is why we have committed to increasing it to the level of the jobseekers allowance, which is an additional £600 a year or an approximate 18 per cent increase. We have also won the argument with the UK Government to make sure that any carer who is in receipt of another low-income benefit such as income support will remain entitled to that benefit.
On 25 May, the First Minister announced in her speech outlining the priorities for the Government that we will ask our carer advisory groups for their views on how we might make progress on
“a young carers allowance to provide extra support for young people with significant caring responsibilities.”—[Official Report, 25 May 2016; c 7.]
The suggestion came from the Green Party and I am delighted that we can show in practice our commitment as a Government to listen and act on good ideas wherever they come from. I know that the Greens wanted to amend our motion calling on us to consider that, and I would have welcomed that amendment, as I welcome the idea.
The devolution of social security powers and how we use them is one of the most complex tasks that has been undertaken since the Scottish Parliament was re-established. It is a huge challenge and one that should not be underestimated. It involves delivering a range of sometimes complex benefits that are worth around £2.7 billion. Our first priority, therefore, is to ensure a smooth transition for people who receive benefits, particularly disabled people and their carers. I am confident that, with shared effort, we can meet the challenge of delivering those benefits safely and securely.
An undertaking on such a scale will take time to get right in its technicalities and in the approach that we take to translating our founding principles into attitudes and behaviours that exemplify fairness, dignity and respect. As we progress over the next few years, we will engage in extensive consultation with the Parliament, our partners and, importantly, with our communities and the people who have direct experience of the benefits to be devolved, to ensure that we make the most of the opportunity to create a fair social security system.
We have a huge opportunity to do things differently and better in Scotland. With that opportunity comes the responsibility to make sure that what we deliver plays its part in tackling inequality and making life fairer for the people who claim disability benefits, their carers and their families. Together we can build a stronger Scotland, where every person has the opportunity to achieve their potential, now and in future generations. I am pleased to move the motion in the cabinet secretary’s name.
That the Parliament welcomes Carers Week 2016 and thanks carers for their invaluable contribution to society and recognises the vital role that they play caring for family, friends and neighbours; supports the Scottish Government’s plan to increase carers allowance, extend winter fuel allowance to children on higher rate disability living allowance and ensure that disability benefits are not means tested and that assessments are fair and transparent; believes that carer and disability benefits, once devolved, will help achieve the Scottish Government’s wider goal of supporting disabled people and their carers to participate in society, fulfilling their potential in life; believes that the UK Government’s cuts to disability benefits are unfair and have caused unnecessary stress and financial hardship; urges the UK Government to make no further cuts to disability benefits; agrees that disability benefits are an investment in the people of Scotland and that they should support disabled people and those with long-term conditions and illnesses in a fair way; believes that, when the powers over disability and ill-health benefits are devolved, smooth transfer and transition is a priority, and considers that disabled people, carers and their representative groups should be fully involved in the development of the Scottish benefits, which should have dignity and respect at their heart.