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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, May 30, 2019


Portfolio Question Time

Social Security and Older People

The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio questions. As usual, let us have nice crisp questions and, if possible, crisp answers.

Department for Work and Pensions Contracts (Devolved Benefits)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made on finalising contracts with the DWP for continued delivery of some devolved benefits. (S5O-03306)

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

Agency agreements will be put in place in preparation for the transfer of executive competence on 1 April 2020, where appropriate. The agency agreements are key mechanisms to support the safe and secure transition of delivery responsibilities from the DWP to our own Social Security Scotland agency. They are a cost-effective way of ensuring that Scottish residents continue to receive their right payments at the right time, while we undertake the work required to develop our new systems.

Of the £308 million budget to be spent on social security benefit by the financial year 2022-23, how much will be spent on agency agreements with the DWP for the continued delivery of wave 2 benefits?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my original answer, the agency agreements are a cost-effective way of ensuring that Scottish residents continue to receive the right payments, because they are provided at the cost that is required to deliver that benefit. Of course, if we did not have agency agreements, the agency itself would be completing those benefit administration processes. Therefore, it is very important that we continue our work with the DWP, and I am sure that the details of each of the agency agreements will be analysed in due course by Parliament as they are published.

Best Start Grant Pregnancy and Baby Payment (North Lanarkshire)

2. Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how many families in North Lanarkshire have received support from the best start grant pregnancy and baby payment. (S5O-03307)

Since its introduction on 10 December 2018 to the end of February 2019, Social Security Scotland had made around 805 best start grant pregnancy and baby payments to families in North Lanarkshire.

Clare Adamson

Best start paid out more in two months than the DWP benefit that it replaced had in a whole year. The third element of the best start package, the new school-age payment, is open for applications next week. Will the cabinet secretary advise what the Scottish Government is doing to encourage uptake of the three payments under the package?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We have already seen an exceptional response to the best start grant pregnancy and baby and early learning payments. In total £3.5 million was paid to more than 9,700 families between 10 December and the end of February, and as Clare Adamson points out, we will launch the school-age payments soon and expect a similarly good response.

However, we cannot be complacent, and co-ordinated communications plans are being implemented to get the message out on all best start grant payments; health services, local authorities and public and third sector organisations are all working hard to raise awareness. On my visit to Saheliya yesterday, we discussed what we can do to ensure that young mothers under 18 with no recourse to public funds, who will have the ability to apply for the best start pregnancy and baby payments, have specific communication channels to encourage them to take up the benefits for which they are eligible and to which they are entitled.

Carers Allowance Supplement (Falkirk)

To ask the Scottish Government how many people in Falkirk district have received support from the carers allowance supplement. (S5O-03308)

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

Social Security Scotland made 4,755 carers allowance supplement payments to 2,590 carers in Falkirk in 2018-19. Over 80 per cent were eligible to receive two payments totalling £442, with the rest receiving one payment of £221, giving a total expenditure of over £1 million.

Angus MacDonald

Carers in Falkirk district and throughout Scotland make an absolutely vital contribution to our society, and it is only appropriate that they are duly valued and properly supported. The Scottish Government has always been clear that, in recognition of their essential contribution, carers allowance should be paid at the same rate as job seekers allowance. With our new social security powers, that can finally be made a reality. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that carers allowance supplement will be at the same rate as job seekers allowance?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As the member is aware, people receiving carers allowance in Scotland have since last year also received the carers allowance supplement, which brings their income up to the same level as for job seekers allowance recipients, as the Government promised. Given that we will uplift the carers allowance supplement by the rate of inflation, I confirm that, in 2019-20, carers will receive more than the amount paid for job seekers allowance. We have consistently said that it is unfair that carers allowance is the lowest working-age benefit. That is exactly why we prioritised carers by making the carers allowance supplement the first benefit to be delivered by the new agency Social Security Scotland.

Social Security Scotland (Insights Research Programme)

To ask the Scottish Government for its response to the initial findings of the Social Security Scotland client and staff insights research programme. (S5O-03309)

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

Findings published on 8 May show that, of those who left ratings, 94 per cent of clients who contacted the agency by telephone were happy with the service. Of applicants for the best start grant, 100 per cent of online applicants and 98 per cent of telephone applicants rated the service as good or very good. The staff survey engagement score of 85 per cent positive reveals that staff are motivated and have a strong attachment to the organisation.

There is a long way to go but, at this early stage, those findings show that we are delivering a system that lives up to our values and principles of fairness, dignity and respect.

Jenny Gilruth

We should all be proud of those initial findings, which mark a welcome departure from the callous DWP system. What further work is being done to ensure that we continue to deliver a service that is welcoming and inclusive and reflects the diversity of the people that it serves?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Indeed, respect for the dignity of individuals is at the heart of the social security system, and it is great to hear that the people of Scotland have found the system easy, helpful and straightforward. That is welcome news. Everyone involved in delivery in Social Security Scotland should take great pride in the early findings. I place on record once again my thanks to all the staff for their exceptional hard work.

The staff survey data also shows that the agency’s staff are representative of the Scottish working population. For example, 22 per cent of those who completed the survey reported having a long-standing physical or mental health condition, illness, impairment or disability versus 19 per cent in the working population. Those results are encouraging. They give an indication of progress towards the commitments in our social security charter.

Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

On the whole, the report was very positive. However, one of the findings was that only 51 per cent of staff believed that poor performance is dealt with effectively by Social Security Scotland. What steps will the cabinet secretary take to ensure that poor performance is identified and dealt with effectively? Does she have a target for the next staff and clients insights research report?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I take that begrudging welcome for the work of the Social Security Scotland agency from Michelle Ballantyne. It is important that we pay tribute to the staff who have developed such a key service in very busy circumstances.

We will look carefully at all the findings in the staff survey to ensure that we are continuously learning and improving. That is the commitment of the Government and the agency. If only the DWP would do the same.

Intergenerational Projects (Impact on Older People)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out of the impact on older people of intergenerational projects. (S5O-03310)

The Minister for Older People and Equalities (Christina McKelvie)

The national centre for intergenerational practice in Scotland, Generations Working Together, funded by the Scottish Government, promotes intergenerational approaches to enhancing and improving the lives of older people and younger people.

Evaluation carried out by Generations Working Together, including feedback from older and younger people themselves, tells us that intergenerational practice contributes to giving people of all ages a more positive attitude to ageing, countering and reducing negative attitudes towards older and younger people, helping older and young workers to support each other and see the shared benefits of a vibrant community, and supporting people’s educational development.

Graham Simpson

I thank the minister for that very helpful answer. In 2011, YouthLink Scotland recommended in its report “Bridging the Gap” that the profile of intergenerational practice should be raised. What has the Government done to that end and what can we hope to see in the future?

Christina McKelvie

There are many aspects to the work that we are doing, whether on social care, housing, social isolation and loneliness or the older people’s action strategy, which I launched a few weeks ago, that show how important intergenerational work is.

I get to attend loads of events. To give Graham Simpson a flavour of the work that is going on, I visited a place in Midlothian not that long ago and, tomorrow, I am off to Perth grammar school, which will be working with the Eden project on its intergenerational projects, and will be holding a big lunch event. Loads of such events are taking place all over the place, and there is a lot of strategy behind the work that is being done.

I encourage the member to go and visit some of the projects, then we can have a chat at a later date about what is happening in his local area. There is so much going on that it is hard to fit it into one answer. Once he goes and has a look, we can have a chat and maybe go on some joint local visits.

I think that the minister has just made a date.

Older People (Engagement and Participation in Policy Making)

6. Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures are in place to ensure that older people are engaged and participating in policy making. (S5O-03311)

The Minister for Older People and Equalities (Christina McKelvie)

The Scottish Government’s older people’s strategic action forum, which I chair, brings together older people’s representative groups and other organisations that helped to develop “A Fairer Scotland for Older People: A Framework for Action”, which was published on 3 April 2019.

Older people’s representative groups are also involved in similar groups on health, through the older people’s development group, and on housing, through the age, home and community monitoring and advisory group, which oversees Scotland’s housing strategy for older people. There are many examples of the work that is being done.

Fulton MacGregor

I highlight Muirhead and district seniors forum, which is a fantastic organisation in my constituency that I have had the pleasure of visiting. What support is available to such groups to promote engagement and activity among members and reduce social isolation in our older population? Not to be outdone by my colleague Graham Simpson, I ask the minister to consider visiting Muirhead and district seniors forum at some point in the future.

That is another date request for the minister.

Christina McKelvie

My calendar is getting very busy, but I am looking forward to all these visits, which will all be worth while.

Last year, I launched “A Connected Scotland: Our strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections”. We are very proud that Scotland is one of the first countries in the world to publish such a strategy. Older people can be particularly at risk from social isolation, and the strategy represents a step forward. Communities must be able to play their part, which is why we have committed to look across our investment in communities and consider how such investment can be aligned with the ambitions in the strategy.

Our £500,000 social isolation and loneliness fund for 2016-17 supported a wide variety of projects, including all the local initiatives and groups that I have spoken about. The investment helped to provide basic life skills, run creative activities, build friendship groups and support vulnerable communities. To ensure the successful implementation of the strategy, we have committed an additional £1 million over the next two years to continue that work and to ensure that we back up our commitments with innovative pilot approaches.

I would be absolutely delighted to visit Fulton MacGregor’s constituency, too.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I welcome the minister’s comments. Does she agree that social prescribing is a way forward? What work is she doing with her colleagues in NHS Scotland to ensure that general practitioners, in particular, are aware that such an approach is open to them? Will she commit to carrying out further trial projects across Scotland to see how they work?

Christina McKelvie

I can say yes to all those questions. The Royal College of General Practitioners has been a key partner in creating the social isolation and loneliness strategy. We are setting up the new implementation group, which will have a real focus on care and wellbeing. Those areas are a huge part of our strategy. Since the beginning of the process, we have been speaking about the importance of social prescribing, which will no doubt be pivotal to the success of the project.

Question 7 has been withdrawn.

Poverty and Inequality Commission Recommendations (Impact on Social Security Policies)

8. James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government how its social security policies take into account the recommendations of the Poverty and Inequality Commission. (S5O-03313)

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

The commission and the Scottish Government want to tackle poverty and inequality, and social security policies are doing just that. Through the carers allowance, our new carers allowance supplement and the new best start grant, we are already delivering significant financial support to people on low incomes. Later this year, we will introduce the funeral support payment and the young carers grant. That will be an investment of nearly £340 million this year.

In addition, we are spending more than £125 million on mitigating the worst impacts of the United Kingdom Government’s welfare cuts, including through the Scottish welfare fund and discretionary housing payments.

James Kelly

The Poverty and Inequality Commission’s recent report highlighted that the Government’s rhetoric has not matched its actions, with only £172 million out of a £40 billion budget being directed at low-income households. The effect of that is being felt particularly acutely in areas in Rutherglen such as Farme Cross and Burnhill. What specific action, such as the introduction of the income supplement, will the Government take to tackle the disgraceful levels of child poverty in this country?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I stated some of the measures that we are undertaking in my original answer, but there are many others, including, of course, the aspects that my colleague Aileen Campbell is taking forward in the tackling child poverty delivery plan. There are also areas within other cabinet secretaries’ portfolios, whether that is council tax reduction schemes or the availability of free childcare.

On the particular aspect of the income supplement, as the First Minister said at First Minister’s question time today, a significant amount of work is going on to take that forward. Aileen Campbell will provide an update on that by the end of June, as she is required to do for the tackling child poverty delivery plan.

The Government has made a significant commitment through the income supplement and it shows the scale of our ambition. However, designing and delivering a new benefit is a complex task. We are carrying out formal appraisal work on the policy and delivery options to ensure that we get the right model and target our support to as many children as possible.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

We heard earlier that the best start grant will be made available to people with no recourse to public funds. The cabinet secretary talked about the young carers grant in her answer. Will the young carers grant also be made available to people with no recourse to public funds?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is something that I am certainly endeavouring to do. Unfortunately, it is not within the Scottish Government’s gift to make that decision. Discussions are on-going with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that it will not put the young carers grant on to the list of benefits that a person with no recourse to public funds is not able to obtain. I am already taking that forward.

The situation for people with no recourse to public funds is something that this Government has great concerns about in general. I hope that the DWP will listen to what I think is a well-reasoned argument that we are putting together on that matter, and that the whole chamber will unite to encourage the DWP to look at the advantages of supporting young people, particularly vulnerable young people, at times when the Government could help them through social security.