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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 01 April 2020

Agenda: Point of Order, Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill (Emergency Bill), Business Motions, Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Deputy Presiding Officer, Scottish Government Legislation Programme, Covid-19 (Social Security), Covid-19, Business Motion, Committee of the Whole Parliament, Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill: Stage 2, Meeting of the Parliament, Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Covid-19 (Social Security)

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on the impact of Covid-19 on social security. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


Presiding Officer, these are unprecedented times. Every one of us is affected by the Covid-19 pandemic that is gripping the world. Our people, our communities and our economy are facing major challenges. Tough decisions are also having to be made across the Government—and my portfolio is no different. As has been said so often over the past few weeks, our lives are being impacted as never before. We need to work at home if we can, and many parents are doing so alongside caring for children who are also now at home. We are very aware that people will be off work through their own ill health or because they are caring for loved ones.

The position is no different for the staff who are working on the social security programme in the Scottish Government and in Social Security Scotland. Business as usual is not an option. Our entire focus is on the health and wellbeing of our citizens, and everyone is turning their attention to responding to this unparalleled global pandemic.

Now to the difficult decisions that I have had to make. All our public services need to ensure that they are doing everything they can to manage our country through this crisis—and Social Security Scotland is no different. I am incredibly proud of what we have already achieved. The Scottish welfare fund, discretionary housing payments and universal credit Scottish choices are firmly established, and we have seen the introduction of seven new Scottish benefits—the carers allowance supplement and the young carers grant, the funeral support payment, the best start grants and best start foods—all of which will provide crucial support to people in Scotland during this difficult time.

My officials in the Scottish Government and in Social Security Scotland have been working hard to respond to the impact of Covid-19. Plans were activated quickly to protect the wellbeing of staff, who are mostly now working flexibly—and, more importantly, safely—from home while ensuring that the provision of vital benefits is maintained. In the weeks and months ahead, we will, of course, face further challenges that are very likely to have an impact on how we provide front-line services. However, I reassure the public that we will continue to deliver such services: applications are being processed and, crucially, payments are still being made.

Unfortunately, that is not the case for the benefits that we were on track to deliver within the next year. Covid-19 has changed our plans completely. My officials have been engaged in an intensive exercise to determine the impact on our programme, assuming that the spread of Covid-19 develops as we expect and that it has the impact on staffing that I have outlined. We have used assumptions that see staffing levels fall for between two and 12 weeks due to school closures, caring responsibilities, self-isolation and contraction of Covid-19.

Of course, that goes wider than the Scottish Government—it also applies to the Department for Work and Pensions, where its staff are necessary for this joint programme of work, and to our suppliers and contractors. As members will know, the DWP also faces challenges and is rightly concentrating on meeting the emerging huge demand for universal credit.

Not long ago, I anticipated laying out my plans for launching Scottish disability payments this week. Work had been continuing at pace, and I had planned to lay out plans for rolling out the child disability payment and the Scottish replacement for the personal independence payment to the previously agreed timescales, alongside—importantly—our plans for a new method of decision making, which would, in effect, end face-to-face assessments. Those timescales are clearly no longer possible.

Alongside the clear challenges that we have within the Government and the agency, and with the United Kingdom Government and suppliers, there is another reason for our being unable to go ahead with our replacement for PIP. We have been working hard to introduce a new disability benefits service to meet the expectations that people rightly have of us. As with all our work, we have designed that service with people who have lived experience of disability and long-term health conditions and the people who support them. They told us that they wanted decision making for disability assistance to take into account the professional judgment of health and social care practitioners. Therefore, we have designed a service that draws on that resource at all stages.

Our new system will mean that, when people apply, they can tell Social Security Scotland about the health and social care professionals who already support them. Social Security Scotland will then contact those professionals or their organisations to collect supporting information for clients. When it is the only practical way of collecting the information, a minority of working-age clients will be invited to a discussion with a health and social care practitioner. If such a client consultation happens, it will be arranged to suit the client, which will include the possibility of its being conducted by phone. The words that I have used are important: I said “client consultation”, not “assessment”, and “practitioner”, not “assessor”. The whole service is built on a relationship of trust with the client and is grounded in the professional ethics and expertise of our health and social care practitioners across Scotland.

Our new model will provide a wide range of tools and guidance, including detailed medical guidance, that will be prepared by health and social care professionals. It will require new information-sharing arrangements with health boards and with each local authority. Significantly, it will require an entirely new service, which will be staffed by health and social care professionals who can carry out those consultations and provide advice to case managers in Social Security Scotland. Those professionals are needed now on the front line in our health service.

That new way of working, which involves a disability benefits service with respect and dignity at its heart, will happen, but it cannot happen yet. We cannot introduce the child disability payment or the new personal independence payment until the social security programme and Social Security Scotland return to something approaching normal operations. Given the uncertainty, I can offer no precise timescale for how long that will take. It is likely that it will be several months before I will be able to do that—I might not be able to do it until after the summer—but I will do it as soon as possible.

I know that people will be distressed by the decision, and I am more than sorry for that. Members should be in no doubt that I, personally—along with the many, many people who have been working so hard on the plans—am absolutely devastated by the decision, but I know that there was no choice.

I have therefore spoken to UK ministers, and we have agreed that the DWP will continue to deliver disability benefits for existing and new Scottish clients over a longer transition period. Although that is not what I wanted or what the public would have wanted, it is the only way to ensure that people will continue to get the financial support that they are entitled to. It will provide security at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. Leaving people without financial help and assistance is something that no responsible Government would do, and it is not a situation that I would allow. I thank the DWP for ensuring that both Governments can continue with a safe and secure transition even in the most difficult circumstances.

In these unprecedented times, I have agreed two priorities with my officials. Priority 1 is, bluntly, keeping the lights on—that is, maintaining the delivery of existing benefits for Social Security Scotland’s clients, including the carers allowance supplement, which will be paid as usual this year. To allow Social Security Scotland to focus on that, the job start payment, which would have launched in March, has been delayed. We have also made provision in the emergency Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill, which we are debating today, to allow more time for redeterminations and appeals. To support our clients, regulations will come into force temporarily on Friday that will allow carers to retain carers allowance over a break in caring, and temporary changes have been made to ensure that emotional caring also counts. We have also relaxed some rules about the timing of applications. For example, if a person were to apply for the young carers grant after their 19th birthday, their application would be considered as though it were on time.

Priority number 2 is the Scottish child payment. I will focus the remaining resources within the social security programme on delivering that payment as soon as we can. That new benefit will support families that are on low incomes and tackle child poverty, and this Government will prioritise it.

Introducing the Scottish child payment will involve enormous effort. As with disability payments, we had been ready to deliver it on time, if not ahead of schedule. The process for applications would have opened in the autumn, if not before. However, that timescale was dependent on a major recruitment exercise that has now been paused. We simply cannot recruit and train the staff that are required, and it is not possible to say when we will be able to do so. I still hope that we will see the application process for the Scottish child payment open by the end of 2020, with payments made next year. However, I must be blunt and state that, if Covid-19 is with us longer, the situation might change again. Members can be assured that we will do everything that is humanly possible to deliver the payment as soon as that is practically achievable. There is a resolute determination from me, and from everyone who has worked so hard and at such pace, to make it happen at the earliest opportunity.

I also hope to deliver child winter heating assistance on schedule for winter 2020. That will make a tangible difference for severely disabled children in Scotland without impacting on Social Security Scotland’s wider delivery.

Nobody can predict the future and how this virus will impact our lives. I cannot make guarantees today about dates and times, but I can guarantee that the work—albeit according to a slower schedule—will not stop.

Though it is with a very heavy heart that I make these announcements, I know that members across the chamber will understand why I have to make them. I hope that all members will join me in thanking the staff who are working hard to allow us to operate as close as possible to business as usual during the current crisis.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. I also go further and thank her for discussing the statement with me and other members of the Social Security Committee earlier this morning. That was very useful, because we were able to explore some of the issues. I might be repeating some of the questions that I asked, but I will ask them again so that they are on the record.

It was a depressing statement and not what any of us would have wanted to hear. However, under the circumstances, what has been announced is understandable. I commend the cabinet secretary for having had those frank discussions with the DWP. Can she expand on what was discussed and tell us in what way the DWP is assisting when, as she said, its staff are up against it themselves, big style, due to the coronavirus?

Will she also tell us how staffing levels in her own department have been affected by the virus and whether she thinks that benefits such as the child disability payment and PIP can be delivered in Scotland during this parliamentary session?

I agree with the member that it was an utterly depressing statement to give—and, I am sure, to hear. It was a very difficult statement to put together because of the impact that I know it will have on people across the country.

I pay credit both to the UK ministers of state at the Department for Work and Pensions—particularly Justin Tomlinson MP, to whom I spoke yesterday—for working so closely with the Scottish Government on this and to all the DWP staff across the country, who are working under extreme pressure because of the increase in the number of people who are applying for universal credit and because of staff absence rates. I pay credit to them for working under exceptionally difficult circumstances.

As I said in my statement, most of the agency’s staff—the figure is over 98 per cent, I think—are now working from home. In effect, the only people who are not are those who are working in our mail room at Dundee house to ensure that we are still processing as required. That means that the system is not as efficient as usual, but it is necessary to ensure that we protect our workforce. We will inevitably see staff absence levels increase over the coming weeks and months in both the agency and the programme.

I am afraid that I will not give any timescales at this point for child disability payments or the replacement for PIP, but I reinforce the point that I will come back with those timescales as soon as possible. The Government will absolutely endeavour to deliver those things as quickly as possible.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her statement and for the discussions that we had in advance. We have seen a glimpse of what a welcome new Scottish social security system would have looked like, and it is disappointing to everyone here and everyone at home who relies on social security that the cabinet secretary has not updated the country on the way forward. However, although people will be disappointed, I know that they will absolutely accept the reason for that.

The Scottish child payment is one of the entitlements that will still be rolled out. What is the expected impact of that on the Scottish budget, given that the number of applications for universal credit, which is the qualifying benefit, has increased dramatically? Also, will local authorities be given additional administration funding to enable them to cope with increased demand on the Scottish welfare fund, the increase of which is welcome?

The statement that I intended to give this month was a much cheerier one than the one that I have given. We had planned a stakeholder event for the Easter recess, to go through in detail what our assessment process will look like, and that would have provided much hope for people. Obviously, we still intend to hold such an event at the earliest opportunity once we are able to do so.

The budget for the Scottish child payment is demand led, and we anticipate that we will see an increase in demand once it is introduced, because of the increased numbers that are moving forward with entitlement to benefits such as universal credit. I assure Mark Griffin and other members that, because that benefit is demand led, if someone is eligible for it they will be paid. It is too early to say what the impact on the Scottish budget will be, but there will inevitably be an impact on it as we see that demand increase, and the same applies for the other benefits.

We have increased the Scottish welfare fund—in fact, we have more than doubled it—to deal with the crisis, and my officials are in regular contact with local authorities to determine whether there is anything further that we need to do in terms of flexibilities. As well as that funding for local authorities, there was £50 million in Aileen Campbell’s statement that went directly to local authorities to enable them to deal with the overall impact of Covid-19, and that money would include the Scottish welfare fund. However, we remain open to discussions with the local authorities on an almost daily basis on the management of the demand that they are seeing.

We move to open questions. I ask for questions and answers to be as concise as possible, please.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of the statement and for the opportunity to discuss it earlier today. I fully appreciate that the very difficult times that we are facing have necessitated the actions that the cabinet secretary has outlined today. I know that we all regret having to take the steps, and I very much appreciate the work that Social Security Scotland has put in.

I accept that the implementation will take longer than was intended, but I note that the cabinet secretary said that she will, in effect, end the need for face-to-face assessment in favour of a consultation with a health professional, and even that will take place only when strictly necessary. What are the practical differences between a face-to-face assessment and a consultation? How will the change alter the experience of applying for disability benefits?

The differences will be stark because, as I said in my statement, the new system is based on trust.

Currently, someone will go to a face-to-face assessment without being able to pick the date, time, or where it happens. They will have to go through a full assessment, even if there are questions on only one aspect of their claim, and the way in which the assessment is done will not be based on a trusted relationship between the client and the individual who is carrying out the assessment.

Trust will be important as we go forward. A lot of these assessments can be done with a couple of questions that could easily be discussed on the phone by the health professional and the client, who would not be required to come in and do anything face to face. There would be an entirely different relationship between that client and the health professional. The client would be able to have a trusting conversation with someone who can work through the claim with trust and reassurance.

That is key to what we are doing. It is not an assessment of someone. We will not put anyone through anything that can be considered in any way inhumane, and we will guarantee that that happens by working with those who have lived experience and with health and social care professionals to ensure that we build on the experience of both groups together.

I understand that, in the past two weeks, there have been 800,000 claims for universal credit. To put that in context, that is up from 55,000 a week and is an eightfold increase. We should all recognise the tremendous effort that the staff at the DWP and elsewhere are making to process those claims.

I also understand that the Scottish Government is assisting the DWP with that demand. Can the minister explain a bit more about how we are helping it to cope with that pressure?

One of the important ways that we can assist the DWP is by recognising the pressure that its staff are under. I have called for the DWP to make changes to some reserved benefits to assist people with them, but I am also being realistic about the art of the possible. For example, we have not called for a change to the five-week wait because that is so hard-wired into the universal credit system that it cannot be easily changed. There is no point in asking for a change that we know cannot happen. We need to be realistic about what we ask the UK Government to do to support people through this period.

The DWP has also called for staff to assist and, although I do not want to overplay it, a small number of agency staff have gone back to the DWP to help with universal credit applications. We stand ready to assist in any further way if we can. As I said, this is a difficult time for DWP staff as they move forward with universal credit payments.

I welcome the fact that the DWP has dropped face-to-face assessments because of the Covid-19 crisis, but I want to ask about reassessments. My constituents who are on PIP and DLA hope that, from summer 2021, they will never again face a PIP or DLA reassessment, and that their claims will be dealt with by Social Security Scotland.

Will the cabinet secretary talk to the DWP to secure a moratorium on PIP and DLA reassessments, which have caused disabled constituents so much anxiety, until a new Scottish system is put in place and reassessments can be led by Social Security Scotland, which will have a different way of working?

We will have a different way of working, but I have to be blunt on this point, and I hope that Bob Doris recognises the context in which we are working. The priority for the Scottish and UK Governments in social security is to ensure that those who are being paid get paid, and that new clients who come forward will have their claims processed.

We are not yet at the stage of working out with the DWP the details of how this will work out in future, but I will endeavour to keep Parliament updated about that discussion with the DWP as it progresses. To be blunt again, I should say that that might not be for some time, possibly until after the summer, as both Governments work with the social security system to ensure that we continue to make payments to the clients that we have at the moment.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. I also take the opportunity to thank the UK Government and DWP, which, despite some significant challenges of their own, will ensure that vulnerable Scots continue to get financial help while plans for devolved services are delayed.

What discussions have taken place with local authorities about the possibility of widening eligibility for council tax reduction during the Covid-19 outbreak? We know that council tax is the number 1 contributor to household debt in Scotland.

The Government has already ensured that there is increased funding available for local authorities. Part of the announcement that Aileen Campbell made, I think, last week—forgive me, the weeks are blending into one another—was about the money that is available for council tax reduction. Another important aspect of council tax reduction is that it is greatly underclaimed. Many people who are eligible for a reduction now are not receiving it.

Just now, many people will have fallen into a category that means that they are eligible for support that they may not be aware of. That is one reason why we are asking people not just to apply for universal credit, although that is important, but to speak to their local authority about whether they are eligible for council tax reduction and to their energy provider to see whether anything can be done around that issue. Importantly, they should speak to their landlord, as well. We already have a good system for council tax reduction in Scotland, and the imperative is to ensure that people who are now eligible for it know that they are eligible and are encouraged to apply.

We clearly could not have a situation in which people could not apply for disability benefits, so the Scottish Government has taken a sensible, although difficult, decision. Did the Scottish Government look at options such as setting up a partial service or explore other delivery methods for disability benefits, or is delivery without the partners in DWP as you have described it simply not possible?

My officials and I discussed very seriously whether there were alternatives to asking the DWP to continue that would let us move forward with disability benefits, and my conclusion was that there were not. We looked at whether there was an alternative system to the gold standard system, which we plan to introduce as soon as we can, but we found that we would not be able to launch a service safely and securely because of the reduction in staff numbers and our reliance on the health and social care sector.

We have a commitment to collecting supporting information within both the service design and the guidance and training materials. That means that we would require information sharing agreements and to staff up health and social care practitioners directly ourselves. Because of those requirements, we cannot put in place a system that Social Security Scotland could implement directly.

I welcome that the Scottish Government will maintain a service for Scottish benefits. The increased demand for reserved benefits will have an impact on Scottish benefits. Will the Government be able to meet that increased demand when it comes?

As I said to Mark Griffin, social security spending is demand led and therefore if people are eligible for a payment they will receive it. We affirm strongly that social security is a human right and human rights are important now more than ever as we move into a crisis. There will inevitably be an impact on both UK and Scottish case load, but how much of an impact is uncertain at this time. We anticipate a sizeable increase in the number of applications, but I stress again that demand will be met.

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for her statement and welcome her call for people to take up reserved benefits. Does the Scottish Government accept that a benefits uptake campaign would be desirable and, at this time, morally right, so that people can be encouraged to claim what they are due, whether it is social security or welfare credits? Also, does the cabinet secretary agree that we need employers to make proper use of furlough leave to avoid people being unnecessarily pushed into the welfare system?

I agree with Sarah Boyack on both points. There is a duty on employers to act responsibly during this crisis, and she is right to stress the importance of benefits take-up. That is something that the Scottish Government is determined to do, and it is important now more than ever. We are actively looking at how we can take that forward with some urgency.

I commend the Scottish Government’s focus on the Scottish child payment. It was needed before Covid-19 and, with the impact that the current crisis will have on family finances, it will be even more important. However, why did the Scottish Government choose to prioritise the Scottish child payment over disability benefits?

Simply because the Scottish child payment does not have a reliance on health and social care professionals, and the disability benefits do. That is not to say that the Scottish child payment will be in any way easy to introduce. As I said in my statement, a major recruitment exercise needs to be undertaken in order to enable us to introduce it. However, I stress again that we will endeavour to do that as quickly as possible.