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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 20 November 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Urgent Question, Best Start Grant (Implementation), Digital Industries, Business Motion, Committee Announcement, Decision Time, Offshore Wind Week 2018


Best Start Grant (Implementation)

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on the implementation of the best start grant. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, and I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as possible.


Today, I would like to provide Parliament with an update on the introduction of the carers allowance supplement, and on progress with the next phase of delivery for social security in Scotland.

I am delighted to say that the vast majority of carers allowance supplement payments were issued during September 2018, and that all payments to carers, including the few that required special handling, were processed by mid-October. I am pleased to announce that, subject to the successful and timely transfer of data from the Department for Work and Pensions, the next payments of carers allowance supplement will be made to the majority of qualifying carers on 14 December.

Members of the Social Security Committee who visited Social Security Scotland’s headquarters in Dundee saw the feedback wall that includes comments from people who called in during September. I am sure that they will have been as touched as I was by some of the comments.

I want to take the opportunity to tell Parliament about one woman who, having received her payment, took the time to send in a card. She gave up her job to care for her daughter who was suffering from a long-term illness. As she said, she does it because she loves her daughter, but she sometimes gets tired, so the payment had made her feel appreciated. We should all be proud of that. I know that I speak on behalf of Parliament when I say that we all value and welcome what carers do for society.

Today is international children’s day: I am particularly delighted—on such an appropriate day—to be able to tell members more about our progress in delivery of the best start grant, which will support low-income families who have children in their early years. I gave evidence to the Social Security Committee on the draft Early Years Assistance (Best Start Grants) (Scotland) Regulations 2018 at the start of October, and I am pleased that the committee and Parliament approved the regulations. The regulations put in place a benefit that is fully in keeping with social security principles.

The best start grant is an investment in the resilience of families and it provides support at key points in their children’s early years. It respects the rights of the applicant and the rights of the child by ensuring the right to social security. The grant is deliberately designed to be accessible from the point of view of not just eligibility, but the service that will support it. We have improved access to the BSG by giving families longer to apply, both before and after their baby is born.

In addition, the BSG will foster dignity and respect. Where possible, it will minimise intrusive questioning by making the most of existing sources of information. The BSG has been built on modelling, research, collaboration with stakeholders and engagement with users to provide a sound evidence base for our decisions.

This morning, I signed the commencement regulations for the relevant sections of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, which give the Scottish ministers the power to pay a form of early years assistance under the act. Today, I am proud to announce that we will use our new powers to take applications for the best start pregnancy and baby grant from 10 December. I am delighted to say that that means that payments will be made before Christmas 2018.

The best start grant will pay a £600 pregnancy and baby payment for the first child in a low-income family. That is £100 more than they would have got from the DWP sure start maternity grant, which the BSG replaces. It is important that, unlike the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government does not put a cap on the number of children, so payments will no longer be limited to the first child in the family. All second and subsequent children will receive a payment of £300 each.

I make it clear that that is not just for second children who will be born in the future. Our expansion of the window for application means that, from 10 December, parents who have a second or subsequent child who is not yet six months old can apply for the BSG. Under the Scottish Government, those children will be eligible to receive up to £800 in their early years. They would have received nothing from the UK Government.

Of course, in addition to the pregnancy and baby payment of £600, we are committed to the introduction of two new additional payments for every child. Those payments, which will be introduced by the summer of 2019, will be made at key transition points in the young child’s life. A payment of £250 will be made around the time when a child can start nursery, in order to support families with the costs of early learning, and a payment of £250 will be made around the time when the child can start school.

Based on 2019-20 figures, we estimate that when the early learning and school payments are included, the total number of payments that will be made each year will be in the region of 39,000, at a cost of £12.1 million. That is a substantial investment to ensure that our under-fives get the best possible start in life, and it reflects the Government’s emphasis on the early years.

As outlined in our programme for government, I am delighted to be able to deliver the pregnancy and baby BSG payments six months early. That means paying to families on lower incomes more money more quickly, and giving them vital help at a time when the support that is provided through UK Government social security spending is being drastically reduced.

We are in the final stages of preparation and testing for the launch, but this has not been without its challenges. As part of the programme for government, the First Minister announced that we would, assuming that the DWP put the necessary systems in place, be accelerating delivery of the best start grant. Although I am pleased to have been able to confirm today that we will do that, the caveat about DWP activity proved to be well-founded because—unfortunately—the DWP has not kept to schedule on its implementation plans.

In the summer of 2017, the Scottish Government formally requested use of the DWP’s customer information system, and a plan and schedule for doing that were agreed in spring 2018. However, the dates for accessing the system have consistently slipped and the DWP confirmed on 21 September that it could no longer meet the most-recently agreed dates. That has required us to make adjustments to our social security system in order to unpick, in effect, the computer code that had been put in place to speak to the DWP system.

Despite the challenges that have arisen from the DWP missing deadlines, Scottish Government officials have worked hard to put in place an alternative system. Because of our planning processes, the implications of the delay to accessing the DWP’s customer information system were recognised at an early stage so, as a result, the impacts have been minimised. Under our contingency arrangements, it will take slightly longer to process applications, but that will not have any impact on parents or on delivery of payments. Our priority is to ensure that parents can access the best start grant. Although we could wait for the DWP to catch up, I do not want parents to be affected by the DWP delay.

Clearly, the DWP has its own challenges to grapple with right now. I have written to the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, to welcome her to her new role. I have also taken the opportunity to reiterate the Scottish Government’s call to halt the roll-out of universal credit, which has been our eighth such letter in 18 months. I am, however, committed to collaborating with the secretary of state in order to ensure that we develop the best possible systems and processes for our shared clients. My officials have in place strong and effective relationships with their DWP counterparts. There can be a mismatch, however, in how we prioritise vital work on devolution of social security benefits. I have strongly urged—I will continue to do so—that devolution of benefits be given higher priority by the DWP in order to ensure that slippages are avoided and that we do not see such a pattern developing.

I am pleased to report the significant progress in building a new social security system for Scotland. As I have said, it is not without its challenges, but today marks another important milestone in the smooth transfer of benefits. However, our future success is guaranteed only if others—primarily the DWP—also play their full part. If they do, our programme will remain on track.

I reassure Parliament that we will never compromise on safety or security. Social Security Scotland is Scotland’s first new public service in a generation. It has been established for only two and a half months, but we are already demonstrating what we can do with social security powers when they are in our hands. We are delivering a social security system that always treats people with the dignity and respect that they deserve, and we are ensuring that we support the people who are on the lowest incomes. I look forward to reporting further progress in 2019.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on her statement. Michelle Ballantyne is first, to be followed by Mark Griffin.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. I am sure that the chamber and mothers across Scotland will welcome the roll-out before Christmas of the best start grant, which is the second of the devolved benefits that are coming to Social Security Scotland. Indeed, during the Social Security Committee’s excellent visit to the agency’s Dundee headquarters, we heard positive feedback from recipients of the carer’s allowance supplement. However, some recipients were surprised, as they were unaware that the new entitlement was coming. What actions will the Scottish Government take to publicise the best start grant and ensure that new mothers do not miss out on the grant because they are unaware of its existence?

That raises the important issue of encouraging take-up. Frankly, I would have liked to have been able to make my announcement to Parliament earlier. However, because of the contingency challenges in Social Security Scotland, we needed to ensure that, within the agency and the Government, we were very confident about our start date. This is the earliest that we could make the announcement because we have had to do a lot of work to ensure that the contingencies were in place.

That leaves us with the important priority of ensuring that people know what is happening. The agency has held a number of roadshows across the country for people who will come into contact with potentially eligible parents. As we did with the carer’s allowance supplement, we will also make sure that there will be advertisements on local radio and in local papers. A great deal of work has been done with professional bodies, including midwives, the nursing profession and local authorities, to ensure that the message has got out to stakeholders and to those who will be in contact with potentially eligible parents. We are also trying to ensure that we contact eligible parents themselves.

We will make sure that the communications and marketing process is strong, and we will learn any lessons that we need to learn to encourage further take-up as payments continue.

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of her statement. I am particularly grateful for the Government’s willingness to use its powers to diverge from the two-child cap in Scotland and to provide support for families who have had a baby in the past six months.

My daughter Eva turned three on Sunday and, because of an in-service day yesterday, she started at nursery this afternoon. She needed new trainers, new wellies, a bag, a hat, a scarf, gloves and a change of clothes—and that is just part of the list of things that she needed. We can afford those things, but some of my daughter’s new friends at nursery are in families who are facing universal credit in North Lanarkshire and who could really do with that £250 payment just now.

Will the cabinet secretary consider making payments for children who are turning three and starting nursery over the next six months? That would take pressure off struggling families on low incomes. Nursery start dates are different from the school start dates at the end of the summer, and in every week over the next six months there will be children who turn three, so families will be under real pressure.

I begin by wishing Eva a very happy birthday. I sympathise with Mark Griffin for being here listening to me, rather than being there for her first day at nursery.

I have been there already.

Mark Griffin’s timekeeping is impressive.

Mark Griffin raises an important point about the money that families require. When I was at One Parent Families Scotland, I spoke to a parent who was taking part in the stakeholder engagement for the best start grant. They told me about a mother who could not afford to send her child to nursery because she could not afford the plimsolls that the child needed for indoor play. I am mindful of such issues and of the importance of making sure that we deliver early learning and school payments as quickly as possible. I will make further announcements to Parliament as soon as I am confident about when we can do that, but we expect to do so by summer next year.

I am also mindful of the different timeframes that are involved in early learning and school. I will look seriously at that issue—I will look seriously at all the issues—as we move forward with the second and third payments as part of the best start grant.

How many families does the cabinet secretary anticipate will benefit from our ensuring that there is no cap on the number of eligible children so that second and subsequent children will be eligible for the grant, which is more generous than the draconian UK Government scheme that it replaces?

I am pleased to say that, out of the estimated total of 3,400 BSG pregnancy and baby payments that are forecast to be made by the end of the current financial year, around 2,000 are estimated to be for second or subsequent births. For the whole of the next financial year, 2019-20, we expect around 7,400 second or subsequent births to benefit. That is a substantial number of families getting much-needed financial support from the Scottish Government that is not available under the current DWP scheme and which would not have been available had it not been for the devolution of powers.

I ask the cabinet secretary to please clarify the point that Mark Griffin asked about. Will children who are due to start nursery or school in 2019 be eligible for or entitled to apply for early years grants or is she looking at perhaps backdating something for them?

I assure the member—as I tried to assure Mark Griffin—that I am mindful of the different timetables. Parliament and its committees will be able to look at what the Government is planning in relation to the payments of the grant. If there are concerns about that aspect, I am happy to have that dialogue. I would always encourage members to have that dialogue with me.

We are keen to make sure that eligibility is as open and encouraging as possible. If there are lessons to learn and issues that we need to take on board, I am happy to do that.

I, too, welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment that there will be no two-child cap on this benefit.

The former cabinet secretary, Jeane Freeman, supported the automation of certain benefits—for example, where there is a qualifying benefit that can establish who is eligible for a best start grant. Will the cabinet secretary give the same commitment to look at the provisions that we have already passed in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 and the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017, which promote automated benefits, to ensure that all mothers and parents who are entitled to the best start grant can get it?

I know that Pauline McNeill and a number of other members have had a long-running interest in that area, and I am determined to ensure that the Scottish Government looks at it seriously.

Our first priority has to be implementing the best start grant and ensuring that the payments and the processes are in place. I am also mindful of the need to look not only at automation but at ways of encouraging people to apply if we believe that they may be eligible for a payment.

On ensuring that we look seriously at automation, I know that there are a number of different schemes in different parts of the country—Glasgow, for example—that we can learn lessons from. We also need to ensure that we use the information that the agency has to encourage people to apply for payments where we believe that they may be eligible. I am keen for the Scottish Government to take forward those two different strands as stringently as possible.

I listened to the cabinet secretary’s statement with interest. I was shocked to hear of the delays and slippage from the DWP, which impacted on the work plans and the delivery of devolved benefits.

With a new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions now in post, does the cabinet secretary expect any change, with the UK Government managing to keep to its agreed timetables?

I hope that the new secretary of state takes the opportunity to ensure that we have a shared understanding of the priorities for devolved benefits within the DWP’s wider work.

As the member highlights, the delay to the BSG has not been a one-off. I should put on record, however, that my officials have a strong working relationship with officials in the DWP. I stress again that this is about prioritisation within the DWP. It is about ensuring that we have a shared understanding of the importance of our approach and the fact that it is a shared project, and a shared responsibility to deliver it on time and effectively.

I am grateful for advance sight of the statement, and I am pleased that the Scottish Government is placing emphasis on the goal of increasing uptake and setting some targets for that. However, even if we reach those higher targets for uptake, a great many families who could benefit from the best start grant will still not benefit. I am keen to know what research the Government relies on to understand the reasons for the low uptake.

Awareness is obviously a critical factor, but it is probably not the only factor that inhibits people in accessing the benefits to which they are entitled. Can the minister tell us what role income maximisation programmes such as the healthier, wealthier children programme may have to play in helping to drive uptake even higher than the Government’s targets?

It is important that we encourage uptake. I am mindful that we have to work with groups that perhaps would not normally be encouraged to apply for payments or that may not know that those payments exist. I reassure Patrick Harvie that we are looking at not just take-up in the round but the specific challenges that certain communities face in ensuring that they know what is available to them.

Patrick Harvie mentioned the healthier, wealthier children programme, which is important because it tries to embed knowledge of the best start grant into existing pathways, of which it is one. Work is also being done through financial health checks for those on low incomes, and we are building information on the best start grant into the “Ready Steady Baby!” booklet, which is another way to move that forward.

The Government’s forecasting looks seriously at the issue and at the types of challenge that different communities will face. We will, of course, update the Parliament on our continued work on the take-up strategy in due course.

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for providing early sight of her statement, and I associate the Liberal Democrats with what her Government is doing. We particularly welcome the provision that is being made for young parents, whereby those who are under 18 will not need a qualifying benefit to apply for the best start grant. Will the cabinet secretary consider extending that provision to people with care experience up to the age of 25, given that such people often do not have the parental support that most other new families have?

Alex Cole-Hamilton will be aware of the importance that the Government places on delivering for care-experienced young people. Following our analysis of the information as part of the best start grant regulation process, I am confident that the vast majority of care-experienced young people will be included in the eligibility framework that has already been put in place through the regulations.

To tie that into the point that Patrick Harvie made, it is important that we link in to the agencies that care-experienced young people trust to ensure that they have information about the best start grant and can get that information out directly. I am confident that, through that two-pronged approach, we are delivering for young parents and, in particular, for those who are care experienced.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to extending the eligibility for the best start grant in various ways, the additional payments that will be made and the length of time that will be given to apply for the grant. How many more children is it estimated will benefit from the best start grant compared to the number who benefit under the UK system that it replaces? Can the cabinet secretary provide any additional information regarding those welcome extensions?

The member is correct in saying that the Government has extended eligibility and the application window. The focus of that is to make it easier for people to access and apply for the best start grant. We estimate that around 400 additional pregnancy and baby payments could be made in 2019-20.

For example, on eligibility, we have extended the qualifying benefits so that anyone who is on a tax credit or housing benefit qualifies. We have removed the requirement to have a qualifying benefit for young mothers who are under 18, as Alex Cole-Hamilton said, and we have extended the responsibility test to kinship carers who receive a DWP benefit for the child whom they care for. The application window has been extended so that BSG can be claimed from the 24th week of pregnancy rather than from the 29th week, which is when the DWP scheme starts, and we have increased the period to six months after birth, which gives parents longer to apply.

I, too, welcome the announcements that have been made in today’s statement. Will the cabinet secretary consider using the BSG application process as an opportunity to reach out to expectant and new mothers and provide information on wider issues such as perinatal mental health?

As I mentioned in my previous answers, we will embed the BSG process into the pathways that are already there for expectant parents. We will speak to and encourage midwives, for example, and those who are in contact with potentially eligible parents to encourage take-up of the grant.

We will also integrate the system for delivering the BSG with the system for delivering best start foods. Both systems will be administered by Social Security Scotland so that clients will be required to complete only one application form. That is yet another attempt to make the process easier for parents at what is a very busy time in their lives.

Given that the DWP’s sure start maternity grant has one of the lowest rates of take-up of any benefit, will the Scottish Government commit to ensuring that the BSG is straightforward for claimants to access?

Indeed, I can testify to the fact that there is a very easy application process, having gone through the online application process recently with officials as part of our go-live testing.

Unlike the payments that it is replacing, this benefit can be applied for online with a simple form. The application can also be undertaken by phone or in paper format. We are encouraging greater choice, depending on the needs of the client. I hope that, together with the points I have discussed in previous answers, that gives Jenny Gilruth reassurance that we are taking seriously the challenge of the sure start maternity grant having one of the lowest rates of take-up of any benefit. We do not in the slightest want to replicate that with the BSG.

I welcome today’s statement. In particular, I welcome the fact that the grant clearly opposes the despicable Tory child-cap policy approach to social security.

Given the cross-cutting nature of poverty, however, will the cabinet secretary encourage her Government colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to consider changing the criteria for post-P3 free school meals to those for the BSG, so that it applies to more families with children and not just to those on the lowest incomes?

We started by ensuring, as a basis for the BSG, that those who are eligible for the sure start maternity grant are eligible for the BSG, and we then looked to see whether further changes were needed.

I appreciate where Elaine Smith is coming from. There are different eligibility criteria for the different benefit payments that are available to those with young children. I am also mindful of the fact that it is not necessarily a bad thing that there are different eligibilities. I do not want to see a cliff edge whereby people are either able to apply for everything or reach the point at which they can apply for nothing.

I take Elaine Smith’s point that there are two distinct sets of eligibility criteria, and I will look closely at the eligibility criteria for the BSG, as I am sure the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills looks at the eligibility criteria for free school meals.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm what plans the Government has in place for multiple-birth families who face additional expense from having twins or triplets?

We specifically wanted to address the costs of a multiple birth, and we have introduced the multiple birth supplement of £300 in recognition of the additional costs. For a twin birth, which the majority of multiple births are, the payment would be £600 for the first birth and £300 for the second, with a payment of £300 for the multiple pregnancy supplement, giving a total of £1,200 in financial support. I stress that, within the payment, we will always recognise children who are born subsequently—there will never be a cap on the number of children under Social Security Scotland.