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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Social Security Benefits, Veterans and Armed Forces Community, Decision Time, Musicians and Music Industry (Covid-19)


Social Security Benefits

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on an update on Scotland’s social security benefits. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

In April, I informed the Parliament about the areas of the social security programme that had had to be put on hold because of Covid-19, and said that I would update the chamber again when we had assessed the impact of the pandemic further.

Clearly, that impact is significant and continuing in all areas of life. Social security is no different. Therefore, I will set out my expectations for when we will be able to deliver the first of our Scottish disability assistance benefits.

First, I will provide some context for the considerable impact of the pandemic on the delivery of social security. Face-to-face user research and testing had to be paused, around 60 social security staff were redeployed to support the Covid response elsewhere in Government and, of course, all staff had to work from home. That impacted on front-line staff at Social Security Scotland in particular, but also programme staff, who had to try to replicate the face-to-face agile methodologies to build our future benefits systems while working remotely.

However, the impact on our delivery partners was, and still is, even more marked. Health and social care professionals, whose expertise we need to deliver disability and carer benefits, have been rightly redeployed to the front line. Local authorities are focused on supporting people during this incredibly difficult time, from keeping schools open to providing our new self-isolation support grant, and the Department for Work and Pensions, whose partnership is imperative to our work, has understandably had to divert resources to respond to unprecedented demand for universal credit as the economic impact of the pandemic hit. I do not want to dwell on that, because Covid-19 affects us all and, across society, the way we live, work and socialise has utterly changed, but the context is important.

Despite the impact of Covid on future social security benefits, I am very proud of what the Government and social security have achieved this year. We have continued to deliver and pay our benefits to people. Social Security Scotland is forecast to spend £111 million this financial year to support 262,000 people. We have introduced three new benefits. We have also provided a raft of increased support to people to mitigate the pressures that the pandemic has caused.

We have supported people by significantly increasing the Scottish welfare fund and discretionary housing payments, as well as other housing support. We paid an additional coronavirus carers allowance supplement in June, which provided carers in Scotland with up to £690 more this year than those elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have also introduced a brand new form of support to respond to the pandemic, through our £500 self-isolation support grant for low-income workers.

Over the past four months, we have also introduced three brand new benefits to support the people of Scotland. Our job start payment helps young people who are returning to the workplace, and from next week, our child winter heating assistance will help heat the homes of severely disabled children. By prioritising the game-changing Scottish child payment, we were able to open it to applications for children under 6 last week. That payment has never been more needed, and we have delivered it at a speed, unprecedented in the UK, of under 18 months from announcement to delivery.

That is what we have achieved, and now I want to give the Parliament clarity on when, in my judgment, we will be able to deliver some of the benefits whose introduction the pandemic has delayed. I am mindful of the continued uncertainty brought about by Covid-19. Although our resources have now returned to near pre-pandemic levels, the same is not true for our delivery partners, who are still heavily impacted in key areas. Accordingly, work to replan our timetable is continuing, but I am able to tell the Parliament about the decisions that have been made so far.

It remains my ambition to roll out the Scottish child payment to under-16s by the end of 2022, as we recognise the profound, positive impact that it will have on tackling child poverty. It could support up to half a million children, with an annual investment of £184 million. However, as I have consistently made clear, to deliver the payment on time we are absolutely dependent on the DWP giving us the data that we need on 6 to 16-year-old children. We cannot proceed without it, and currently we do not have clarity on that point. Conversations continue. Just last week, I spoke to the UK Government’s Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health, and emphasised once again the crucial importance of the DWP’s support in delivering that payment. I will continue to make that case.

I turn to disability benefits. I believe that, had it not been for the pandemic, we would by now have been delivering the child disability payment and the adult disability payment would be on course to launch early next year, in line with our previous plans. It was hugely disappointing for me personally when, in April, I announced that Covid-19 would delay those new benefits. I know that that disappointment was as nothing when compared with that felt by disabled people, who are rightly looking forward to a better service based on dignity, fairness and respect. We have therefore worked hard over the summer, in partnership with the DWP and, importantly, the health and social care professionals we will need, to determine when it might be possible to introduce those two benefits.

My decision, which the DWP has agreed to support, is that we will introduce the child disability payment from summer next year. An initial pilot to test our systems and processes will be followed by a full national roll-out in the autumn. The following year, the adult disability payment will replace the DWP’s personal independence payment. That will begin with a pilot in spring 2022, and will be fully rolled out by that summer. The first Scottish clients, who currently receive child disability living allowance and PIP, will begin to transfer across to Social Security Scotland as soon as the new benefits are rolled out nationally.

Although it remains a disappointment to me that the pandemic has led to that inevitable change in our programme, it has not stopped and will not stop the work that we are doing. Members will have seen the set of policy papers that we published recently on disability benefits that shows how the new service will look, from when people apply, through to how decisions are taken and what support can be provided. Our work has continued to ensure that respect, dignity and fairness are built into how our disability benefits will look, feel and support people. I am grateful to our stakeholders and to experience panel members for helping us make those values a reality.

The work on the necessary legislation is also well under way. The Scottish Commission on Social Security is currently scrutinising our child disability payment regulations, and we will consult shortly on the regulations for the adult disability payment.

I turn to the remaining devolved benefits, which I discussed last week with the UK Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health. Now that our respective officials have the capacity to do so, we reaffirmed our commitment to taking forward the necessary detailed planning work on the benefits, having prioritised reaching an agreement on child and adult disability payments over the past few months. I thank the DWP for its continued support in that work of replanning.

That includes carers assistance, the other disability benefits and our winter benefits. People will continue to get their payments under agency agreements with the DWP in the meantime. I will of course keep the Parliament updated.

As with disability benefits, we will also progress the important policy work necessary. We will consult early next year on the strategic direction for carers assistance in Scotland, to ensure that both carers allowance and the new carers additional child payment will meet the needs of Scottish carers.

It remains my ambition to launch all our benefits and complete the work of case transfer by 2025, in line with the timetable I announced last year, although, as I have always said, we will not do so if that would put people’s payments at risk. I have listened to recent advice from the disability and carer benefits expert advisory group that our wish to transfer people’s cases as soon as possible

“must not ... jeopardise the safe and secure transfer process”.

I will always prioritise making sure that people get the payments they are entitled to, in these troubled times above all.

I know that the changes to our timetable and the continuing uncertainty will be disappointing to many people. Social security is just one of many areas of our lives that the all-pervasive impact of the pandemic has thrown off-course. Yet, as we remain focused on delivering a system that looks and feels substantially different, one that is founded on dignity, fairness and respect, I feel full of hope about what we can—what we will—achieve, despite the difficulties caused by Covid-19.

This time next week, families of severely disabled children will begin receiving an additional £200 towards their heating costs. In three months’ time, the Scottish child payment will start to be paid to families of children under 6. This time next year, disabled children across Scotland will be getting support from our new child disability payment and we will have begun the work of transferring existing Scottish clients safely and securely from the DWP to Social Security Scotland. The following year we will replace PIP and, with UK Government co-operation, roll out the Scottish child payment to under 16s and help lift 30,000 children out of poverty.

There is no denying that we are living through unprecedented and difficult times, but despite the adversity, and in partnership with the people of Scotland, we are continuing to change lives for the better through our new social security system.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. There are only 20 minutes or so for questions; there is no time in hand. I call Rachael Hamilton to be followed by Pauline McNeill.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of her statement, and I take this opportunity to thank Social Security Scotland staff for their support during the Covid effort.

The financial hardship caused by the pandemic during the past seven months is unprecedented, as the cabinet secretary said. Will she commit to backdating the Scottish child payment, so that families of children who are eligible now but will turn six before February are not excluded? What estimate has the Scottish Government made of how many children will be affected by turning six before the end of 2022? What alternative support will be in place should Government decide not to backdate the payment?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I hope the member would expect, we have looked very seriously at whether it is possible to backdate the Scottish child payment. It is not possible to do so because the system was not designed to allow that to happen. The process was put in place many months ago, when Scottish child payment was being considered. The Scottish child payment was designed to build on the best start grant and best start food, which allowed us to bring in the Scottish child payment more quickly. To backdate it would require Social Security Scotland staff to analyse every single application for every single week of the application. Ironically, that level of administrative burden would put back the start date for the Scottish child payment. The system was designed to be brought in at speed—and it has been brought in at speed—which means that there are limitations to how it can be used.

However, we have done a great deal to support people, including low-income families, during the Covid pandemic. That includes increasing the Scottish welfare fund, discretionary housing payments and, of course, free school meals assistance.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Scottish Labour recognises that Covid-19 has set back Scotland’s social security system and we thank the workforce for what they have done to keep the system going over the past nine months. Claims have shot up five-fold during that period, so the delay is unfortunate, as more people would have benefited from face-to-face contact and a new approach to social security. We welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcements on the job start payment and child disability winter heating allowance, but it is a shame for families who will be disappointed that they cannot get access to those benefits sooner.

In relation to the new adult disability payment, what progress has been made on implementing lifelong awards for people with a condition that is unlikely to change? During the passage of the legislation, there was agreement that that is where we would ideally like to be, in order that the dignity of people who have disabilities that cause a lifelong condition can be restored and their quality of life improved. Can the cabinet secretary say anything to reassure me that we are on target to get to that stage, at least by the next session of Parliament?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That, again, is an issue that is being given active consideration, and I continue to look at it. When we have the adult disability payment, review dates will vary from five to 10 years, and people with disabilities or conditions that are very unlikely to change will be given a review date accordingly.

Importantly, the reviews will be very light touch and may be as simple as the agency sending out correspondence and getting reassurance from the client that their condition has not improved. That may be all the information that a light-touch review needs.

We are working with stakeholders and users on the light-touch review process to make sure that we get it right. When we say “light touch”, we genuinely mean that. We will get the information that we need to make a decision in a way that causes the minimum stress and difficulty for the client. I will keep the issue under consideration.

Eleven members wish to ask questions, so I want short questions and answers to match.

How has the pandemic impacted on the recruitment of staff by the agency to date, and what does today’s announcement mean for future recruitment in Dundee?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Scottish Government temporarily stopped all recruitment activity from March to July to protect the safety of the candidates and redirect staff to respond to the pandemic. That had a major impact on recruitment by the agency.

The first clients for the child disability payment were due to be interviewed on what was the first day of lockdown and more than 500 interviews had to be postponed, but we are now getting back on track.

We have been able to make offers to some successful candidates. We have had to make some changes to the way in which the agency works, and much of the training and recruitment is now done virtually. More than 400 new colleagues have joined the agency since the introduction of the Covid-19 restrictions. We will continue to work in the virtual environment and support people through that process throughout this year and into next. That will include bringing more jobs to Dundee.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

The cabinet secretary said that she will consult early next year on the strategic direction for carers assistance. Will the consultation include proposals to provide additional support for people who care for more than one person, and will the Scottish Government look into the possibility of scrapping the 20m rule for disability benefits? That rule has led to thousands of Scots losing their mobility component and Motability vehicles.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We are developing our policy work within Government on the issue of the 20m rule at the moment and I will report on our deliberations in due course. Again, the issue is something that is under active consideration at this point. The carers assistance consultation will look at a myriad of issues. Alison Johnstone mentions one that is often brought up by carers when we look to see how carers allowance will develop. I would be very surprised if it was not brought up again by stakeholders during the next consultation process.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

The Prime Minister’s views on devolution would appal most moderate and reasonable people. The Liberal Democrats fought alongside the Government for a Scottish Parliament and for more powers for this chamber. We agreed on the Smith commission and the creation of our own social security system. However, that was six years ago. This is really important. The cabinet secretary states that, this year—

I would like to hear a question.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I am coming to the question, Presiding Officer.

The cabinet secretary states that, this year, the Scottish Government is spending £111 million, but at its full extent the spend will eventually be £4 billion. Is she comfortable with the length of time that the process is taking? Neither the Scottish Parliament nor the DWP have covered themselves in glory in that regard.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my statement, we were on track to deliver the child disability payment this year, and we would still have been on track to deliver the adult disability payment early next year, had it not been for Covid. I hope that Alex Cole-Hamilton recognises that Covid has had an impact on the timetables of both the Scottish Government and the DWP in that respect.

However, I point out that the agency is delivering nine benefits, six of which are completely new, while the others are more generous than their DWP alternatives. We will add to that by delivering the Scottish child payment by February next year. That is a very good use of the Parliament’s powers to date on social security.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I understand that engagement with stakeholders and experience panels has been disrupted by Covid. Can the cabinet secretary assure us that people’s lived experience remains central to the development of our social security system?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is an important question, because it is the feedback that we get from users on the experience panels that will make our system very different. That work had to be stopped because some of the experience panel members are among the most vulnerable in our society. That was a real difficulty for the programme, because we rely on that feedback to be able to move forward.

We are now moving forward, although we are doing so differently and virtually, but engagement remains at the heart of our work, despite its being done in a different way. Recently, I was pleased to see feedback on our application form for the adult disability payment, the development of which has been heavily influenced by users and practitioners.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

We know that the Scottish National Party is still relying on the UK Government to deliver a large part of its welfare programme. The SNP is paying the UK Government £400 million to retain delivery elements of the devolved benefits system.

Even without the current crisis, the Government was always going to be delayed with regard to when those benefits were going to be devolved. Rather than relying on the DWP to deliver disability benefits, when does the Government think that the social security system in Scotland will be fully up and running?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my statement, and as I have said in previous statements, we are still determined to fulfil our ambition to complete delivery by 2025. The process is a joint programme with the DWP. I hope that every member in the chamber will recognise that we have all been impacted by Covid-19 and its implications in the way that we work, and that we have had to change the way that we work. Nonetheless, we are still determined to make use of the powers wisely, safely and securely and to deliver the programme by 2025.

Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

The Scottish Government has published a series of policy papers on the process for people to apply for disability benefits and how decisions are made. Can the cabinet secretary reassure members that such transparency will continue as decisions are made particularly about the benefits that, as she outlined, the Scottish Government is progressing in its policy work?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I was pleased to publish the papers that Joan McAlpine mentions, as they set out the progress that we have still been able to make over this difficult year in designing disability benefits that will make a real difference. They cover the entire system, from how people apply through to the decision and beyond. The important point is that the decisions in the policy papers were very much based on the lived experience that John Mason mentioned and on the views of stakeholders. I hope that the experience panels and stakeholders were able to look at those policy papers and see the real impact that they have had on the policy that we, as a Government, have developed.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I appreciate the answer that the cabinet secretary gave to Alison Johnstone, but can she set out when she expects to update the Parliament and disabled people themselves about the 20m rule for mobility entitlement? It is an issue on which we are getting lobbied non-stop.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I assure Mark Griffin that I want to make that announcement, so as to give people reassurance, as soon as I can. I know that people have been concerned about the issue for some time, which is why we are determined to see what can be done. I have always said that that would be within certain parameters, such that we would need to keep adult disability payment along much the same lines as what is done under the criteria for PIP, to ensure that we do not have two systems running at once. At the same time, however, I have stressed that we can run a system that makes fair and reasonable decisions for people that will be very different, even if many of the criteria remain the same. We are examining the criteria for the 20m rule very carefully to see whether any changes can be made within the safe and secure transition that is our main priority.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

What reassurances can the cabinet secretary provide that the work to ensure that disability benefits are up and running, with the first of them starting next year, will not be impacted further by Covid-19 or, indeed, by partners such as the DWP?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The timescales that I have set out today have been subject to much discussion and deliberation not just within the Scottish Government and the agency but with our partners, very much including the DWP. We have the DWP’s agreement that it can support the dates that I have announced.

I can, I hope, provide reassurance that we will do everything that we can to deliver to the timescales that I have set out today. As members have heard from the First Minister, we are still very much in the grip of the pandemic, so none of us can be certain about what will happen next with Covid-19. If there are effects of the on-going pandemic that impact on the Scottish Government, Social Security Scotland or, indeed, any of our partners to the extent that they would change the timetables, I will, of course, update Parliament accordingly. However, I am hopeful that we will continue to make progress in controlling the virus and will be able to deliver disability assistance as I set out in my statement.

The cabinet secretary says that it is her

“ambition to roll out the Scottish child payment to under-16s by the end of 2022”.

How can we have any confidence that that will actually happen?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Because, I hope, the member and other members on the Conservative benches, in particular, will support me in encouraging the DWP to give us the data that will allow us to deliver it. The key point, when it comes to delivering the Scottish child payment for under-16s, is the fact that we do not have the data for that at the moment. We need to get that data from the DWP, but we are still waiting for the DWP to carry out a feasibility study so that it can tell the Scottish Government what we will need to do by way of building any interface to allow that to happen. I look forward to working with Mr Simpson and other Conservatives as we all encourage the DWP to move forward on that in the best interests of the children of Scotland.

Can the cabinet secretary outline some of the thinking behind how decisions to prioritise certain benefits such as the job start payment and the Scottish child payment were taken?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We prioritised the Scottish child payment because of the real impact that it will have in reducing child poverty and helping hard-pressed families who are affected by the pandemic. I am delighted that we have delivered it within 18 months of announcing it, at a speed that is unprecedented in the UK.

My decisions to deliver child winter heating assistance and the job start payment were pragmatic. They were benefits that we could deliver quickly to make a difference to people within the resource constraints that have been caused by the pandemic. The job start payment was nearing readiness for launch at the start of the pandemic, so there was a clear choice, especially as helping young people into work is key, and child winter heating assistance could be paid automatically and could therefore fit into the programme.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

Given the range of support payments that have been announced today and the fact that school clothing grant applications are available, what Scottish Government messaging will be delivered to help our constituents to access financial support and debt advice, given that more than 500,000 people now receive council tax support?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Sarah Boyack raises an important point. Although it is good to have benefits and payments in place, that alone is not good enough. They mean nothing if we do not tell people about them and ensure that the process for getting payments is easy. That is why the Scottish Government has ensured that, during the Covid pandemic, there have been marketing campaigns to encourage people to seek support and look into what they are entitled to. We continue to support Citizens Advice Scotland and others to do that work. The delivery of benefits is one aspect, but we also have a legal and an important moral obligation to ensure that the benefit take-up is exceptionally strong at all times—and especially during a pandemic.

That concludes questions on the statement. I thank the cabinet secretary and members. We managed to get through all the questions.