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Chamber and committees

Social Security Committee

Meeting date: Thursday, September 19, 2019

Agenda: Young Carer Grant, Subordinate Legislation


Contents


Young Carer Grant

The Convener (Bob Doris)

Welcome to the 20th meeting in 2019 of the Social Security Committee. I remind everyone to switch mobile phones and other such devices to silent mode.

Agenda item 1 is an evidence session with the Scottish Commission on Social Security, on its report “Scrutiny Report on Draft Regulations: The Carer’s Assistance (Young Carer Grants) (Scotland) Regulations 2019”. The Scottish Commission on Social Security is an advisory non-departmental public body that was set up to provide independent scrutiny of the Scottish social security system, including benefit regulations. The young carer grant regulations are the first to be scrutinised by the commission.

I welcome Dr Sally Witcher, who is the chair, and Terry Shevlin, who is the secretary, from the Scottish Commission on Social Security. Good morning and thank you for coming. I invite Dr Witcher to make an opening statement, then we will move to questions.

Dr Sally Witcher (Scottish Commission on Social Security)

Good morning, and thank you for the invitation to provide evidence on our report on the Scottish Government’s young carer grant regulations. I am giving evidence today on behalf of the whole of the Scottish Commission on Social Security.

This is our first report, so I hope that it will be helpful to make some broader points about SCOSS—as we have come to be known—before I highlight key issues from our report. Above all, I stress that we are an independent body; we are independent of the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and the organisations that each of us works for in our day jobs.

We want to ensure that our work adds value and contributes to the development of a Scottish social security system that is effective at meeting people’s needs. Therefore, we would welcome the committee’s feedback on the usefulness—or otherwise—of our report, which was partly designed to inform the committee’s consideration of the draft regulations. I appreciate that the committee might wish to do that informally or offline, but we would welcome any views that you have on the report and our approach to it.

SCOSS was created in response to Parliament’s concerns that were expressed during the passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, about the need for independent scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s social security proposals. Our new role will not, of course, usurp the committee’s expert scrutiny role. SCOSS is a very new body; we officially opened for business in February this year. The board has four members, including me, as chair. Members work for a limited number of days—therefore, we need to manage our time carefully.

SCOSS has a statutory role in providing independent expert advice as part of super-affirmative scrutiny of draft Scottish social security regulations. The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 specifies the benefits on which we are to report. In addition to reporting on draft regulations, the 2018 act defines our other two roles, which are reporting from time to time on the extent to which expectations in the social security charter are being met and making recommendations for improvements, and providing reports that are requested by Scottish ministers or the Scottish Parliament on any matter that is relevant to social security. We have been considering how we can best perform those duties and will be happy to discuss that with the committee at a later date.

I will return to the agenda for today’s meeting. We want to ensure that all our reports on draft regulations are consistent, rigorous and comprehensive. We have devised a draft scrutiny framework that sets out the questions that we will ask when considering regulations and drafting reports. However, that does not mean that all our reports will address every issue that is highlighted in the framework; our approach might depend on exactly what the regulations cover, or we might want to focus on one or two key points.

The scrutiny framework reflects the statutory requirement that SCOSS must, in considering draft regulations, have regard to the principles in the 2018 act and in international human rights instruments. We would welcome the committee’s initial views on the scrutiny framework, which is annexed to our report.

I will turn to the specifics of the young carer grant report. We received the initial draft regulations on 30 April and published our report on 20 May. The cabinet secretary provided a response on 21 June, when the revised draft instrument was also laid. The grant provides new support to 16 to 18-year-old carers, who cannot always access the opportunities that many young people can access. We welcome the grant as a progressive new form of financial support that is consistent both with the social security principles and with human rights obligations.

We are pleased that most of our recommendations were accepted by the cabinet secretary, and we consider that the draft regulations are in better shape as a result.

Our report recommended further work in some areas of policy analysis and development, and in aspects of the regulations; in particular, we recommended that the definition of “care” and the qualifying period be revisited.

We also made a number of recommendations about issues to monitor. We might be able to consider further some of those points under our separate statutory duty to report on whether the expectations in the social security charter are being met. If so, we want to avoid duplicating any work that the committee intends to undertake.

09:15  

We appreciate that members might be interested in exploring those recommendations to which the Scottish Government did not agree. We are happy to explain why we made a particular recommendation, or to comment on further issues that the committee might wish to discuss with the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People. However, we do not intend to issue formal responses to cabinet secretary and Government responses. If we feel that there is a showstopper—something that is of real significance—our role is to put that in our scrutiny report. We suggest that it is the role of the committee to come to a view about whether the Government’s responses are adequate; otherwise, we will begin to blur the line between where our role stops and where the committee’s starts. Our role is about independent analysis.

Given that the report is our first, drafting it was a significant learning process for SCOSS members. Some of the recommendations were really requests for more information, because we came in halfway through the process. We expect that future reports, for which we will be involved right from the outset, will be more streamlined. We are also very keen to consider other suggestions for improving our scrutiny in order to best meet the committee’s needs.

We are very happy to take questions. Thank you.

The Convener

That was very helpful.

We will consider the specifics of the regulations in a moment. However, given that this is the first report, and the robust scrutiny that SCOSS has carried out, it is reasonable that we consider the process a bit more. We can all agree that the regulations are positive and progressive, and that they will make a difference to young carers. However, that does not mean that we should not scrutinise them robustly to make sure that they are as good and as fit for purpose as possible.

Clearly, SCOSS would like the Government to accept all the recommendations that it makes. However, that will not always happen. Do you feel that the Government has made a proportionate response in relation to the overall process and your engagement with it? Are there lessons to be learned in relation to how the process worked?

Dr Witcher

There are always lessons to be learned. However, we had good involvement with officials throughout, who were helpful in providing us with information. Clearly, the issue was that we came in midway through the process and were not able to be involved from the outset. We wanted to get the report ready in time for it to be laid with the regulations, so there was limited time within which we were able to get additional information. The Government answered many of our questions and, although it has not accepted all the recommendations, we were very encouraged to see movement on areas that we considered to be of particular significance.

I also highlight that there will be opportunities to revisit quite a lot of the issues further down the line, when it comes to discussions about carers assistance. Inevitably, this process is just the starting point; however, as a starting point, it has been positive and progressive.

A number of members want to ask about the process more generally. I—and others—will come back to ask for your thoughts on specifics.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I will ask about your general reflections. Obviously, this is the first report on regulations. I am very grateful to receive it and to see the amount of work that has gone into it. In reflecting on the process of producing the first report, will you say how the engagement with the Government was? Was the role of the commission valued and did it change the shape of the regulations sufficiently, in relation to the work that you put in?

Dr Witcher

Yes. As I said, we had good engagement with officials—not just around the young carers grant specifically, but more generally. I met unit heads and the whole division to talk about our role. It has been a learning process for everybody. We are developing a protocol on how we will work with Scottish Government officials, what we need from them, timelines and such like. We all want to get the most out of the engagement, so that protocol will help to crystallise and clarify our role to the benefit of everyone.

The engagement has been positive, although there is a lot of learning to do. We are a new part of a process in which new timelines need to be factored in. We want to ensure that we have enough time—as we should have, according to the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. However, the reality is that there are commitments around when things will need to go live, and there are deadlines for when regulations must be laid. If we want to have an impact, we must ensure that we are given the time to do what we need to do to make that possible.

There has been a lot of concentration on bodies including the expert advisory group, and there have been lots of recommendations. The committee was involved in scrutiny. There is overlap, but we have come up with additional points, which shows, I hope, that we are adding value.

Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

My questions are in the same area as Mark Griffin’s. I wonder about your obligation to consider the complexity that new regulations might present. I notice that you have recommended that the Scottish Government should check whether a particular invalid benefit that is provided by the Department for Work and Pensions is now finished.

Notwithstanding the fact that not all your recommendations were accepted in their entirety, are you satisfied that what is being proposed does not add unnecessarily to complexity? In the process of coming up with your recommendations, have you engaged with the UK Government?

Dr Witcher

We have not engaged with the UK Government. We have had some dealings with our sister body down south, which is the Social Security Advisory Committee. I have good links with that committee—in fact, I spoke to representatives of it this week. It has been helpful to get a sense of how the SSAC does things and to make some useful comparisons.

Could you say what you mean about additional complexity? I did not quite get your point on that.

Keith Brown

You have recommended that the Scottish Government check with DWP that it is no longer paying a particular invalidity benefit. In your scrutiny framework, one of the things that you have said that you will do is ensure that no unnecessary new complexity is brought in. Considering where we have ended up today, to what extent has that test been met?

Dr Witcher

There are occasions when complexity will be desirable—or rather, when difference will be desirable. For example, the carers allowance requires 35 hours a week of care, whereas 16 hours are required for the young carers grant. We would not argue that those requirements should be aligned in the interests of making things simpler. That is clearly not the point.

We need to look for what the unintended consequences and interfaces will be—not just in relation to benefits, but more widely. For instance, there might be implications whereby a benefit plugs a gap that would be better filled through social care support, mental health services or respite care. It is, unavoidably, a complex environment. If you change one bit, that will have consequences for other parts of a much wider system that is comprised of a wide range of forms of support.

We need to be as clear as we can be about the various interfaces and to check that the different elements do not undercut each other or operate counterproductively for the people who are, ultimately, on the receiving end. We have to engage with that complexity. The aim is to minimise it where we can and to point out where unnecessary additional complexity is being created. I hope that that is what we have done, and I hope that that is how we will go about scrutiny.

Keith Brown

When you are talking about complexity, as it is detailed in the framework, is it from the point of view of the benefit applicant or recipient or in relation to how the Government and agencies deal with it? Or is it both?

Dr Witcher

That needs to be considered across the piece. Clearly, the level of complexity is critically important for the person who is on the receiving end. One of the reasons why benefits are not taken up to a greater extent is that the system is far too complex—it is a maze. We must, of course, keep it as simple and as light as possible from the perspective of the user.

However, to deliver benefits efficiently—which is also very much in the interests of the user—the admin side must also be kept as simple as possible, so addressing just one part of the system will not necessarily cut complexity. Ultimately, the focus is on getting the best possible outcome for the person who is using the system, but that will not be achieved if all that is focused on is the point at which the person applies.

The Convener

We will look at some of the specifics of the regulations. Our committee, as well as SCOSS, I think, has been discussing with the Government the issue of young carers who may not qualify. Certain elements of disability benefits still do not allow people to access the young carer grant and there are restrictions that mean that the Government could not create an alternative passported benefit.

Do you have any reflections on the eligibility criteria relating to the qualifying benefits of the cared-for person? On balance, has the Government got it right, or should it go further, whether this year or in future years?

Dr Witcher

From the figures, you can see that a lot of young carers, even within this age group, will not be covered. In theory, there is always scope to do more for more people. I suspect that one of the issues is what disability benefits the person who is being cared for needs to have in order for that person to become eligible for carers assistance.

A lot of regulations on disability assistance are coming up and the Government has competence to do things differently, whatever it wishes or intends to do about this issue. There may indeed be scope to do more, but you can pick that up in the disability assistance regulations.

The Scottish Government has also referred to continuing engagement with young carers. That could be an important way to identify who is really missing out. One of our concerns is that the responses to our recommendations on equalities show that the data is not there.

We want to be clear about whether particular groups of young carers are missing out. That could be established through engagement. There may be the legislative scope to do more within the Scottish Government’s competence shortly. It is also about the monitoring and evaluation of what is put in place to get more learning about who is missing out and where particular initiatives might need to be targeted.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

You have largely covered the points that I wanted to raise, but a particular concern of mine is the construction of the regulations. It may come down to issues to do with our competence but, in principle, I would have preferred it if a way had been found to widen the scope for eligibility beyond qualifying benefits. I am sure that we miss out lots of people who are caring for someone simply because that cared-for person is not on a qualifying benefit. I know that you share my concerns and the concerns of the convener about that. How can we keep this issue under constant review?

Dr Witcher

You have the means of engaging with people—indeed, you will be talking to the cabinet secretary right after this session. You may wish to explore those issues further with the cabinet secretary.

At this stage, I am not sure that there is a great deal more that I can say. I think that there are opportunities. Our role is not to set out policy direction but to scrutinise regulations. It might be helpful to draw a distinction between where our remit stops and those of the committee, the cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government start.

09:30  

In an ideal world, we would love everybody to get everything that they could possibly need in order to have the fullest possible lives; that is what everybody would want, but it is never going to be that straightforward. Therefore, the question is about the judgments that policy makers must make and the basis on which they make them. Our role on this occasion was to scrutinise the regulations that were put before us and to make recommendations in that regard. I hope that that is helpful in separating out a little bit where our role stops and those of others start.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I add my thanks for all the work that you have put into this. I have two areas to explore. The first is the fact that, when there is more than one sibling in a household, only one sibling can get the money. Do you have concerns about that and is it something that we should revisit in the future?

Dr Witcher

The challenge is to get the balance right. Such judgments are clearly not straightforward, and there are trade-offs between having a system that is straightforward to deliver and will much more easily get to a particular bunch of people, and doing something that is more onerous to verify and which would require additional evidence. It will always be a balancing act.

On this occasion, our view is that, as is proposed, the grant should be aimed at one sibling and not others. To do otherwise at this stage might engender greater complexity, which could risk problems for the people who claim it. It is a trade-off, and no doubt it would be well worth monitoring the position to see whether there is an issue. As I said before, monitoring and evaluation, and the framework for that, will be very important, but we need to start somewhere.

Jeremy Balfour

Your point that we have got to start somewhere leads nicely on to my second question. The Government came up with a figure of £300 for whatever reason. Clearly, the amount will be a budgetary decision for the Parliament to make over the coming years, but do you think that £300 can make a significant difference to a person? Do we need to review that in years to come, to decide whether that £300 has made a significant difference with regard to what the benefit is meant to do?

Dr Witcher

We recommended that there should be monitoring and evaluation of the impact that the grant has had on people’s lives. The short answer is that, as this stage, we do not know. I would take seriously the views of young carers themselves about whether it is helpful. I think that the view was that they do, and other stakeholders thought that there is a good balance between making a contribution and not somehow implying or reinforcing the idea that young people should be in a carer role.

It goes back to the point that I made earlier about the right balance between the different forms of support and the role of each of them. We would not want a situation in which people are given cash benefits as a means of plugging gaps in social care support. Maybe the best way to deal with that issue is not by channelling money to individuals but by doing more to improve social care support. Those are big questions and we do not know the answers at the moment.

There are lots of possible alternatives, such as proposals around paying the grant more frequently, but that would bring administrative and other issues. As I said, it is a good starting point and a positive initiative, but there will be a lot to learn. That is why SCOSS was keen to highlight a number of issues that we felt it would be critically important to monitor. That is the case not just for the young carer grant but because the young carer grant may have implications for carers assistance and disability assistance. There could also be learning there.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

It has been an interesting discussion this morning. You say that everyone might be tempted to question the £300, but you also say that society should not accept that caring is purely a role for young people and that we should pay them for that. We need to look at social care and other issues in the round.

In the SCOSS report on the draft regulations, the foreword says:

“It is our hope that this package of support will continue to evolve and grow over time, as the impact is measured.”

Does the commission have the resources and capacity to do that fully?

Dr Witcher

I am pretty sure that it is not our role to do that. That is a matter for policy makers. If it had an interest, it would perhaps be for the committee to keep that on the agenda.

There is scope to develop the young carer grant as well as the wider package of support that includes travel concessions and other things. It is a starting point. Our role in that is around the regulations. We also have an interest in monitoring and evaluation, because it might have implications for our role with regard to the social security charter. When we set out, we did not appreciate that, in some ways, those two roles come together, but we have increasingly worked out that perhaps they do.

That is all that I can say on that at this stage.

Alison Johnstone

I appreciate what you say about your role being in the scrutiny of the regulations. The young carer grant was a Scottish Green Party manifesto proposal, which the First Minister welcomed whole-heartedly. I envisaged that it might include more than 2,400 young people, so there is the question of the eligibility criteria, which Pauline McNeill and others have mentioned.

I know that you are about scrutinising the regulations that are brought forward, but do you think that the eligibility criteria are too narrow? What do you think of the Scottish Government’s justification for not extending eligibility to young adults over the age of 18 who are not eligible for carers allowance?

Dr Witcher

Once again, I need to be clear. We are not here to make judgments about policy direction. We cannot do that; that is not our role. We are here to scrutinise regulations. If, having looked at the scrutiny framework, we feel that there is a significant issue with the regulations, on occasion, we might come up with something that we feel is a showstopper. The fact that the eligibility does not go as far as it could is not a showstopper. To that extent, we support the initiative and the regulations.

I have two more bids for questions. Time is upon us, so I apologise for the fact that they must be relatively brief questions.

Dr Witcher, I found the report useful, particularly the policy framework, which helped me to understand where you came from in writing the report.

Dr Witcher

Thank you.

Michelle Ballantyne

Given that we are short of time, I will touch on one point, which is about the definition of care. You wrote a long piece on the issues with the definition of care. The cabinet secretary has come back and said, “Yes, we have changed it, but the regulations require a definition of care, because that gives a framework in which to work.” Does the revised definition meet the commission’s feelings about it? Does it go far enough? In the report, you imply that there ought not to be a definition.

Dr Witcher

We think that the revised definition is helpful. It is an improvement on what was there before. It is a challenge to reach the people who are eligible, many of whom will not identify as carers. There is a question about how to do that—what needs to go into the regulations, what needs to go into the publicity and what needs to go into the guidance.

What has been done is useful. When we get to the point of carers assistance—I note that there is not currently a definition for UK carers allowance—there may be an opportunity to reflect on whether that has been helpful. Again, you might want to monitor what happens, to see whether there is any evidence that the definition has meant that people who could get it are not applying. We will be keen to see that it is not just young carers who are getting it who are involved in the monitoring and evaluation, as it is important also to include young carers who are not getting it. That might give us some evidence on that issue, as well as on many other issues.

Was any evidence supplied that the UK’s lack of definition has caused problems?

Dr Witcher

No. The only argument that might be made is that the group that we are discussing might not see themselves as carers. They might not identify as such for a range of reasons, whereas older carers might do so more readily. Because of that, there are some particular challenges to do with how we reach the people who are entitled while not going over the top and suggesting to a load of people who will not be entitled that they might be.

Thank you.

Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

Good morning. It is obvious that you have a challenging and sometimes delicate balance to strike. It is notable that your recommendations set out ways in which the Scottish Government could monitor the impact, whether of the rate or of the criteria, and create an evidence base. For me, that is the kind of tone that comes through.

In recommendation 17, which has 12 elements to it, you talk a lot about monitoring, evaluation and research. I think that you said earlier that further discussions are being had about the commission potentially having a role in post-legislative scrutiny. Did I pick that up correctly? Is there some discussion about that, or am I reading too much into it?

Dr Witcher

This is where our two roles potentially come together. The charter contains a lot of commitments and expectations around how things are delivered, how policy is designed and who is involved in that, which is why we have commented on the process of getting to the regulations.

The principles, which we are obliged to look at when we scrutinise regulations and which are reflected in and translated by the charter into what people can expect, include the advancement of things such as equality and non-discrimination, so there is a lot here. There is, in effect, a continuous improvement principle.

For us to do our job both in reporting on the charter and having evidence of whether expectations are being met, as well as in scrutinising regulations, we have to take that much longer view. What we will not do under our scrutiny brief is come back to check up on what has happened with regard to that issue. However, we would be interested to know about the monitoring and evaluation, first and foremost with regard to our charter role.

As I said, this is where the two things start to come together. We are still in the process of thrashing out how they come together, but there are clearly interconnections .

It would be helpful if, once you have reached that point, you could come back to the committee with some further information so that we can better understand how those things align.

Dr Witcher

We welcome that opportunity and will be keen to get your views, too. Thank you.

The deputy convener has a brief final question before we move on to the next agenda item.

Pauline McNeill

I really like the layout of your report. It is easy to read and easy to see what recommendations were adopted. I found it extremely helpful, so, like other committee members, I thank you for your work on it. In the earlier process, we were keen that there should be an independent analysis, because we all knew that we could do not do all the work on this, and we want to get it right. I put on the record my thanks for the work that you have done.

I also want to make sure that the super-affirmative procedure that we have ended up with is really super. The committee fed its comments back through the convener and we can see that there is some crossover and some similarities. Did you see the correspondence that we sent to the cabinet secretary? Do you see that?

09:45  

Dr Witcher

I do not think that we do as a matter of course.

Terry Shevlin (Scottish Commission on Social Security)

It is all published and we have had updates from the clerks. I was not here for that particular exchange of correspondence, but we are in contact with the clerks.

Dr Witcher

We have good communication with the committee clerk, via the secretary in particular, and, as Terry Shevlin says, there is a lot in the public domain. Maybe the question is more about the extent to which that is formalised. At the moment, we are looking at the case for protocols, for want of a better word, which would be for the benefit of everybody and would bottom out these kinds of issues so that everybody is clear about expectations and timings and so on. That is a helpful question; thank you for raising it. I do not think that we had thought of that before.

Pauline McNeill

At this stage, I suppose that it is just testing how the process all fits together, because we will be asked to make a decision later on today, which will be to accept or reject the regulations. I will put the same question to the cabinet secretary. I want to be reassured that your report and the committee’s comments are seen as one single part of the process. There are quite a number of points that we agreed with you on. Thank you again.

The Convener

Thank you very much to Pauline McNeill for raising that final question. The committee will have an on-going role in post-legislative implementation and scrutiny of the delivery side, given that payments may start to be made in a few weeks’ time. Of course, we have mentioned the £300, so that takes us into budget cycles. SCOSS is not necessarily involved with either of those areas, but it will be good to get those lines of communication so that we are keeping a dialogue going, even if SCOSS does not necessarily have a formal role.

For the formal role that you do have, the committee thanks you again for all your work. It has been impeccable. We thank you for your time and your efforts.

09:47 Meeting suspended.  

10:01 On resuming—