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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 15 November 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Point of Order, Single Market and Trade (European Union Referendum), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, Business Motion, Decision Time, Women-led Business


Topical Question Time

Social Security Benefits

1. Christina McKelvie (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government when powers over social security benefits will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. (S5T-00202)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

The Scottish Government has consistently been clear that we will have a Scottish social security agency delivering devolved benefits by the end of this parliamentary term. Our overriding priority has also been consistently stated: it is the safe and secure transition of the devolved benefits.

It is the biggest transfer of powers since devolution began, not least because it is not a lift-and-shift transfer of a complete system—much as that is what we argued for—but the transfer of responsibility for 15 per cent of the payments that are made by an integrated welfare system that has developed piecemeal over more than 50 years, and is currently undergoing further reform and change.

The scale and complexity are clear. As everyone who sits in a democratic Parliament knows, to deliver such a transfer safely is not possible without the underpinning of a legislative framework and a robust delivery infrastructure.

Members of the Social Security Committee will be well aware of the need to work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the Scottish and the United Kingdom systems are aligned. We are determined to work closely with the UK Government, to iron out issues and to resolve the complexities, and we are determined not to allow the important transfer of powers that affect 1.4 million people in Scotland to be used as a political football.

Christina McKelvie

I thank the minister for that detail on the transition. How will the Scottish Government ensure that no one who transfers to any of the benefits that will be delivered by the Scottish Government slips through the gaps between the two systems during the transition?

Jeane Freeman

Ms McKelvie has gone straight to the heart of what is important, which is safe and secure transfer of the devolved benefits to ensure that every one of the 1.4 million people who rely on that support receive the money to which they are entitled on the day when it is due. Throughout the three-month consultation that we have just finished, no one asked us to do that quickly; everyone asked us to do it safely. That is why the experience groups—people who have lived experience of the current benefits system—and the other expertise on which we will draw are so important, and it is why we will ensure that Parliament has the time that it needs to scrutinise fully the primary and secondary legislation that will be required before we can deliver the benefits.

That is as it should be, in the interests of the people across Scotland who wake up every day in a cloud of worry and anxiety that has been brought on by the impact of the UK benefits system. It is therefore deeply disappointing that, in recent days, Tory and Labour members have tried to score political points on the basis of unfounded assertions, with utterly careless disregard for the impact that their words have on the people whom they claim to represent.

Christina McKelvie

The minister has got to the heart of the issue, which is that people seek safety and security. How will she reassure people who have been victims of the “conscious cruelty” of the current system—people with motor neurone disease, with long-term conditions and with life-threatening conditions—that the new system in Scotland will not replicate the failures of the current system but will address the failures that people have experienced?

Jeane Freeman

I note that Ms McKelvie used the words of Paul Laverty, the scriptwriter of “I, Daniel Blake”, to refer to the callous conditionality and benefit sanctions regime of the Department for Work and Pensions. We will learn a great deal from the experience of the DWP and the UK benefits system—not least about rushing to give timescales and commitments that are persistently not met. For example, universal credit was announced in 2010 and delivered in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, but its roll-out is not expected to be complete until 2022.

That is why the approach that we have taken in the consultation of directly listening to people who have lived experience of being in the benefits system, to those with expertise who work with such people, and to people who deliver the benefits system, is exactly the approach that we will continue to take in the weeks and months following the consultation, through the experience groups and other matters that I have referred to.

Unfortunately, with responsibility for only 15 per cent of the system, we cannot change all the unfairness in the current system. However, with the limited powers that we have, we are determined to take the time. We will listen, we will not be bullied into giving false timescales and deadline dates and we will, within the lifetime of this Parliament, deliver for Scotland a social security system of which everyone in Scotland can be proud.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The Labour Party has supported the minister when she has talked about a social security system that has fairness, dignity and respect at its heart. Why, then, has the Government chosen to delay assuming its powers and to continue with a system that its own back benchers say is one of “conscious cruelty”? Why the delay? Why leave the powers with the DWP?

Jeane Freeman

To call the situation “delay” is to completely misunderstand the process of building a new public service. First, we need the legislative competence, so we will bring before Parliament the draft bill that Mr Griffin will be entitled to scrutinise—as will everyone else. That draft bill will form the framework within which we can begin to deliver on executive competence.

I am surprised, to be frank, that Labour has chosen to join the Tories in an attempt to use the situation for political posturing and to make political points. Labour has broken the consensus and agreement that we had that we would work together on the matter. You should know full well, sir, that we need to take the time not only to listen to current recipients in the benefit system but to put in place the significant infrastructure on which the system will depend. We also need to test that infrastructure, because the last thing that I want—I imagine that it is the last thing that Mark Griffin wants—is a single person out of those 1.4 million people falling through a gap simply because members in this chamber are more concerned with the interests of their political parties than they are with the interests of those whom we are here to serve.

Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

If there is confusion about whether there is delay, perhaps that confusion has been caused by the Scottish Government’s refusal to explain to Parliament timeously what it is asking for during meetings of the joint ministerial working group on welfare. The most recent minutes of the working group disclose that it is Scottish ministers, not UK ministers, who have asked for something called “split competence” with regard to transfer of welfare powers. Can the minister explain, for the first time and for the benefit of Parliament, what exactly “split competence” is? Can she clarify whether split competence will apply only to tranche 2 and not to tranche 1? Can she also clarify what impact split competence will have on the timing of the transfer or commencement of powers under sections 22 and 23 of the Scotland Act 2016? Finally, can the minister explain why none of that—none at all—was explained to the Social Security Committee until after Damian Green had given evidence to us on 3 November? What do ministers here have to hide?

Jeane Freeman

That is quite astonishing. Mr Tomkins is a member of the Social Security Committee. I will read a few words from the appearance of the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities before the committee on 30 June this year—a number of months ago. It is unfortunate that Mr Tomkins did not have his listening ears on. She said:

“It is important to distinguish between commencement and delivery of the powers. The legal commencement of powers is the first stage in a process and is some distance away from the delivery of new or existing benefits.”—[Official Report, Social Security Committee, 30 June 2016; c 7.]

I think that that is clear. I repeated it myself when I attended the committee on 29 September and it has been repeated in debates in the chamber. It is unacceptable, not to say downright disingenuous, for any member—particularly a member of the Social Security Committee—to claim that that is news to them or that it was unknown.

The principle does apply to tranche 2, and I have already explained the difference between legislative competence and executive competence. Legislative competence allows us to bring to Parliament the draft bill that will be the framework on which we will establish a social security system for Scotland; executive competence will then allow us to deliver the benefits within that system and from that agency. The difference is clear: I would have expected someone of Mr Tomkins’s learning to have understood it.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

The minister clearly has her brass neck on today. In 2014, the SNP told the Scottish people that it could establish all the mechanisms and institutions of a new state within 18 months; now we find out that it cannot even administer 11 benefits within the next three years. Was the claim that was made in 2014 a mistake? Was it a typo in that great organ of truth, the white paper on independence, or was it just a blatant attempt to mislead the voters?

Jeane Freeman

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I have no “brass neck on today”, but Mr Findlay should be ashamed of himself. If he reads the white paper, he will see that we made it very clear that there would be a period of transition.

Mr Findlay should pause for a moment, think less about himself and his party and consider what is required. I appreciate that because it is some time since Labour was in power he might have forgotten what is required to bring into being a new public agency in Scotland. It requires that we take the time to get it right—unlike the UK Tory Government—and that we have in our sights, first and last, the 1.4 million people who will rely on us to deliver the benefits on time, in the right place and to the right account. They are our first and last focus. How unfortunate it is that that is not the case for either Labour or the Tories.

Local Government Review

2. Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether powers will be removed from councils by its local government review and, if so, which. (S5T-00194)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

My ministerial colleagues and I are engaging with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on a wide range of public service reform issues.

We believe that local control by, rather than on behalf of, communities is key to delivering better public services and improving outcomes for all in Scotland. The Scottish ministers are engaging with COSLA on a wide range of public service reform issues. Our discussions will include consideration of the scope and timing of a review of local government functions. That review will be an opportunity to build on emerging good practice, to energise local democracy and to increase community empowerment.

Graham Simpson

The Times reported on Friday that ministers are planning a

“major assault on town halls”

through measures such as forcing councils to merge services, devolving services down to local areas and stripping councils of some areas of responsibility such as roads. The idea of a national roads service with no democratic accountability fills me with horror. The article further said that the plans were meant to be kept secret until after next year’s council elections. All that comes on top of the Government’s raiding of council coffers to pay for a national priority.

I ask the minister for a straight answer. Was the article correct in any of its claims? If not, can he guarantee that none of those things will happen?

Kevin Stewart

First of all, we do not have town halls in Scotland. We should start from basic knowledge of how we do business here.

Local government is essential to the health, wellbeing and prosperity of every community in Scotland, and we hugely value the work that local authorities do. The Scottish Government and local government share the same ambitions for stronger communities, a fairer society and a thriving economy. Local government is and always will be an essential and equal partner in creating a fairer and more prosperous Scotland, and that includes being a key partner in our work on community empowerment.

I will read out a quotation:

“We understand how difficult it is to throw off the shackles of the current way of looking at democracy. However, the reality is that if we are serious about making Scotland fairer, wealthier and healthier then we need to start putting local communities in control over what matters to them.”

That was what Councillor David O’Neill said after publication of the commission on strengthening local democracy’s report. I agree with Councillor O’Neill on that.

Graham Simpson

The minister has not answered the question that I asked, which I asked him to give a straight answer to. Let us try again, shall we? The article said that ministers—including Mr Stewart, presumably—were planning to force councils to merge services and to strip councils of areas of responsibility such as roads. Is any of that incorrect? Will he give us a straight answer to that?

The minister mentioned COSLA. COSLA is so engaged with the Government that it does not even want to talk to it about the educational attainment fund, because the Government does not want to engage with the issue of democratic accountability, which it has stripped away from local government.

Kevin Stewart

As is the case with Mr Simpson’s knowledge of local government in Scotland, much of the article in The Times displays a lack of knowledge.

As I have said already, we are engaging with COSLA at the moment. That is an opportunity to build on emerging good practice and to energise local democracy. I entered politics to ensure that people had a real say in the public services that are delivered—not public services that are delivered to them but public services that they have a say in shaping. That is what we intend to do and that was the way in which the Government progressed during the previous session of Parliament with the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill. We intend to go much further and we intend to do that in partnership with local government colleagues.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Does the minister acknowledge that many local authority services are buckling at the seams under the financial pressure that they have been under for some time now? Over 27,000 jobs have gone in local government since 2009. However, the demand and the pressure on those local government services have not reduced, and we can imagine the pressure on the staff who are left. Public service reform is one thing, but it must be set against a backdrop of increasing cuts in services. Did the minister read the report by the Scottish Parliament information centre, the University of Glasgow and Heriot-Watt University on the impact of the cuts in local government in last year’s budget, which clearly showed that there was a disproportionate impact on the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities? In looking at the settlement for local government this year, will he ensure that there is a proper impact assessment on how it will impact and who it will impact most?

Kevin Stewart

The Scottish Government has treated local government very fairly, despite the massive cuts to the Scottish budget from the United Kingdom Government. [Interruption.] That is fact, absolute fact. It would be more apt for Labour members to point the finger at the UK Government for continuing to cut our budget here in Scotland. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Order, please.

Kevin Stewart

Instead of carping from the sidelines, Labour members should be joining us in fighting Tory austerity. Instead, Labour members’ Westminster colleagues marched through the lobbies to sign up to George Osborne’s austerity compact—they should be ashamed of that.

Inequalities (Research)

3. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to research carried out by Heriot-Watt University regarding ways to reduce income and other inequalities. (S5T-00189)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities (Angela Constance)

The Scottish Government pays close attention to research on reducing inequalities and welcomes the Heriot-Watt University research, which supports the rationale behind one of the Scottish Government’s key priorities of extending the provision of free early learning and childcare. That includes increased provision for all three and four-year-olds to 600 hours per year and extended provision to include over a quarter of two-year-olds; and we are committed to nearly doubling free early learning and childcare entitlement to 1,140 hours per year by 2020. That will save families more than £3,000 per child per year. In addition, our fairer Scotland action plan outlines 50 concrete actions that we are taking to tackle inequality and create a fairer Scotland.

John Mason

I am grateful that the minister talks about helping women into work through childcare and other ways. Can she confirm that the Government will also tackle the gender pay gap, which is mentioned in the report?

Angela Constance

Yes, absolutely. Mr Mason rightly recognises the importance of childcare in alleviating pressure on family households’ costs of living, with entitlement free at the point of need, and its importance in freeing up women in particular to enter the labour market.

Mr Mason raised an important point about the gender pay gap. As well as identifying the investment in early learning and childcare, the research that he mentioned identifies the importance of policies that close the gender pay gap. I am pleased to say that the evidence that was published by the Office for National Statistics a few weeks ago showed that the gender pay gap in Scotland is continuing to reduce, and we have outperformed the United Kingdom in that regard. However, the fact that we still have a gender pay gap means that we need to continue with our work on occupational segregation and work to encourage public and private sector employers to publish information on the gender pay gap. Of course, we also need to do the long-term work to encourage more women to pursue and remain in careers relating to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

John Mason

I think that we all believe that we should grow the economy but, up to now, the gap between those who have high incomes and those who have low incomes—the richest and the poorest—has been unacceptably large. Can the Government confirm that, as well as growing the economy, we are committed to reducing the gap between the richest and the poorest?

Angela Constance

We know that inequality has a negative effect on economic growth. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, rising income inequality between 1990 and 2010 reduced the UK’s economic performance by 9 percentage points. That is why inclusive growth is central to the Government’s economic strategy and our approach to a fairer Scotland. We must ensure that we tackle inequality so that everyone can benefit from a more prosperous economy.

Obviously, that chimes with the research that has been published by Heriot-Watt University. As well as talking about investment in early learning and childcare and endeavours to close the gender pay gap, it talks about the importance of regionally balanced economic growth. That is reflected in both our economic strategy and our labour market strategy, and also in some of the work in the fairer Scotland action plan, which is pragmatic and contains 50 concrete actions that are about tackling poverty and inequality in all their forms.