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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 06 March 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Urgent Question, Early Years, Supporting Scottish Agriculture, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Marie Curie’s Great Daffodil Appeal


Urgent Question

Severe Disablement Allowance

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason it did not inform the Parliament in last week’s statement that the severe disablement allowance will remain reserved and be administered by the Department for Work and Pensions.

It might help if I start by clearing up a misunderstanding in the member’s question. Let me be clear: none of the 11 benefits included in the Scotland Act 2016 will remain reserved to the DWP. Last Thursday, I informed Parliament that the Scottish Government will take responsibility for all 11 devolved benefits from 1 April 2020. That remains the case and it includes severe disablement allowance. That means that all funding, delivery and policy decisions are taken by the Scottish Government.

The arrangements for the delivery of the severe disablement allowance were set out in documents that were published on Thursday and referred to in my statement and in a letter that was also sent on Thursday to the Social Security Committee of the Parliament. They were also published as part of a public question-and-answer session on Thursday.

There was no mention of the severe disablement allowance in the statement that was given on Thursday. Let us face it, this is another devolved power that the cabinet secretary is asking the DWP to administer. You knew the circumstances of the benefit two years ago in 2016, and it has taken you two years to decide that you do not want to administer it. I will ask a straightforward question. You say that you can create a whole new state in 18 months, but it has taken you two years to make this decision. When exactly was the decision made? Did you already know when you made your statement last week? When did you tell everybody?

That was a few questions.

As I laid out in my original answer, I told the Parliament in my statement last week, in the 11 policy position papers that were published alongside it and in the letter to the Social Security Committee, of which Michelle Ballantyne is a member.

As we move through the process of devolving benefits to Scotland we take our decisions based on consultation with people with lived experience. The consultation that we did with those people indicated that we should ensure both the safe and secure transition of all 11 benefits, and also the transformation of the benefits that are causing most anxiety and stress to those in the current system, such as benefits for disability assistance that have an application process that is viewed by claimants as being designed to catch people out and having an inhumane system of assessments. That will be our next priority within the devolution of benefits.

As I said in multiple channels last week, we chose to deliver the SDA through an agency agreement with the DWP. The benefit has approximately 2,000 claimants and has been closed since 2001, and, in the consultation that we did before deciding how to deliver benefits, nobody suggested any changes or any particular issues that we needed to address. That is why the priority will go to disability assistance, where the maximum damage is being done by the DWP.

The particular challenge with the SDA is that it is also closely linked to the pension system, which remains reserved to Westminster. The establishment of a separate payment system would put claimants at risk. It is a prime example of why it would be easier to have full responsibility for social security, rather than having to work with the complex and outdated DWP systems.

I remind Michelle Ballantyne to speak through the chair.

I do not know whether to thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. The reality is that it is like smoke and mirrors, is it not? You say that you want everything to be devolved, but you are increasingly pushing things back to be administered under agreement by the DWP. It took two years to consult on a benefit that is closed and has 2,000 claimants. Can the cabinet secretary tell me how much money has been spent so far preparing for the devolution of the SDA and how much it will cost for the DWP to continue to administer it? It is yet another devolved benefit that the Scottish Government is asking the DWP to administer.

The agency agreements between the DWP and the Scottish Government are made to ensure best value for the Scottish taxpayer.

I say gently to Michelle Ballantyne—I made this offer to her directly last week—that I appreciate that we will have disagreements about how social security will be devolved to Scotland and the policy decisions that we will make, but we have a shared responsibility in this Parliament to look seriously at what we can and should do differently. I direct her not to my words but to a blog that was written by Chris Creegan from the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability after he watched the statement to Parliament last week. He said:

“disagreement is as much a part of the game as consensus. But so is striking the right tone and understanding the complexity behind the sloganising that grabs headlines.”

Once again, I say gently to Michelle Ballantyne that if she has a realistic alternative to the way that we want to do the SDA in Scotland, I am more than happy to hear it. However, let us please get away from the headline grabbing, the sloganising and putting fear into the 2,000 people who rely on benefits through the SDA, and let us get on with delivering a credible Social Security Scotland that ensures a secure and safe transmission and a transformation of the benefits under the DWP that are harming people so much just now.

We have hardly any time left. I will take Mary Fee.

How much is the cabinet secretary going to have to pay the DWP to deliver the benefits, instead of spending that money to support severely disabled people? More broadly, what are the estimated costs of the agency arrangements with the DWP that will be in place until all devolved benefits fully transition to Social Security Scotland? That information was not included in Thursday’s statement.

It was not included in the statement because we are consulting on our priorities as we go ahead. As I have said in the past about agency agreements, it is imperative that we deliver those, ensure that we have good administration of them in Scotland and work with the DWP on what is a joint policy. [Interruption.]

Mary Fee talks about how much—[Interruption.]

Excuse me, cabinet secretary. Mr Tomkins, please do not sit at the back and shout over the benches when you have not actually been taking part in this question time. Thank you.

No policy changes have been suggested as part of the consultation process, and it was very important that we listened to those with lived experience to determine the best way forward for the SDA. We will take forward the agency agreements with the DWP to ensure that we pay for administering the benefit, but the safe and secure transition is imperative, and we will do that with full consultation with those who have lived experience of this benefit and all others.

I confirm that I and fellow committee members, including Michelle Ballantyne, were informed on 28 February regarding the severe disablement allowance. Does the cabinet secretary agree that this non-revelation from Michelle Ballantyne regarding the severe disablement allowance may have more to do with Tory diversionary tactics, given that our Social Security Committee will take evidence tomorrow morning on the scandal of the UK Government’s pension credit cuts—

Will you please come to your question, Mr Doris?

—which will cost up to £7,000 a year for up to 10 per cent of pension credit claimants?

I thank the convener of the Social Security Committee for once again establishing that that letter was sent last week.

It is important that I listen to genuine suggestions on social security from all parts of the chamber, because this is a subject that I would like to seek maximum consensus on. However, Mr Doris is right to point out that it is difficult to take lessons from a Conservative Party that administers the DWP, and the inhumane personal independence payment system in particular, on how I should treat people with a disability and our carers. We have seen a startling lack in the ability of the DWP to look after and support those people, and that is exactly what we are determined to do within social security in Scotland.

That concludes this item of business. Before we move on, I want to say to the chamber that we do not often have urgent questions, but the key thing here is the word “questions”. This item is not an opportunity for people to stand up and have a 10-minute debate; it is about asking questions and getting answers. Many people who wanted to ask a question were unable to do so because of the length of time that the initial questions and, indeed, answers took. That is something to bear in mind for the future.