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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 20 November 2019

Agenda: United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Portfolio Question Time, Universal Credit, Health and Social Care (Investment), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, International Year of the Periodic Table


Universal Credit

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a Labour Party debate on motion S5M-19939, in the name of Richard Leonard, on universal credit.


Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Later this afternoon, the Parliament has an opportunity to unite in calling for the scrapping of the universal credit system, which has delivered so much misery and hardship, and even destitution, to so many people across Scotland and the United Kingdom—so much so that it has been described as

“a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse”.

That is the damning indictment by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston. I hope that, this afternoon, the Parliament will seize the opportunity to unite to call for the system’s immediate termination, although I fear that it will not do so.

My appeal to members on all sides in the Parliament is: do not wilfully ignore the evidence that is in front of us. That evidence is found in community after community across Scotland, from the welfare advisers who I listened to in Wick, who said that

“universal credit was an unmitigated disaster”,

to the people of Barmulloch in Glasgow, who told me of the impact on the human spirit of grinding poverty and the most extreme material deprivation caused by universal credit.

Those people know, and members of the Parliament ought to know, that universal credit has been a central part of the failed austerity experiment. It is an experiment in which someone who is on jobseekers allowance can be sanctioned for attending job interviews and in which someone who is looking for work can be sanctioned if they do not check for vacancies on Christmas day.

We need look no further than the case of a chronically anxious and depressed person who has been repeatedly sanctioned for not updating their online journal. That case was brought to our attention for the debate by Citizens Advice Scotland, which states:

“He has no computer skills or access to the Internet at home. He has no money at all and is reliant on Crisis Grants and food parcels. The distress is exacerbating his poor mental health and his overall quality of life is deteriorating, hindering his ability to find work.”

It is a vicious downward spiral that should shame us all.

Our social security system, which was conceived to provide a helping hand to people when they need it, from the cradle to the grave, has become so disfigured in the hands of the Tory Government—and let us not forget the role of the Liberal Democrats—that, instead of being a means of driving down poverty, it has become a vehicle for driving it up. Instead of being part of the solution, the system has become part of the problem. What is worse, with the two-child cap, the families and children who are in deepest poverty are penalised the most. Today, as many as 12,000 of Scotland’s poorest families are hurt by that measure alone. We then come to the moral outrage of the rape clause that accompanies it, which violates the privacy, dignity and, I would argue, human rights of women who are expected to complete form NCC1 06/19.

Then there is the benefits cap regime, which has had the effect of increased evictions and a rise in the use of foodbanks, and which has had a deleterious effect on health, both physical and mental. We know that the universal credit system quite deliberately pushes people into debt by legislating for a minimum five-week delay in payment. That is not by accident—it is by design.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

There is very little with which I would disagree in what Richard Leonard has said. However, regardless of our views on independence, does he agree with the Scottish National Party that we should demand that powers over all those things be placed in this Parliament’s hands?

Richard Leonard

The problem with Mr MacGregor’s argument is that SNP ministers asked the Department for Work and Pensions to delay the devolution of benefits twice, in 2016 and 2018. In February 2019, Scottish ministers revealed that the full devolution of benefits would be completed only in 2024. In June, they changed the date to one even further away—2025. They cannot be trusted to take on the powers when they are given them.

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Will the member take an intervention?

Richard Leonard


It is no wonder that housing associations report that 73 per cent of tenants who are on universal credit are in arrears, which is why Jeremy Corbyn and I backed Living Rent’s no-evictions campaign in Edinburgh last week.

There will be those who will say in this debate, “Give us our separate Scottish state and we will do it better”. However, they must read their own growth commission report, which talks about the billions that will need to be taken out of the system in order to pay for the creation of a separate Scottish currency, make up for the “Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland”—GERS—gap and offset the loss of the Barnett formula.

The Labour Party is clear: we recognise that universal credit is cruel, punitive and immoral, so we will end the benefit cap and the two-child limit, and we will do so with immediate effect. We will kick out, once and for all, private firms such as Atos, because, in the end, this debate is about choices: do we act or do we walk on by, and do we start now—immediately—to right a wrong, or do we wait another decade or even longer?

In Labour, we believe that the time has come to act decisively. Let us scrap universal credit and put in its place a helping hand that is based on the dignity of all and our shared sense of humanity.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that universal credit, the two-child limit and the benefits cap should be scrapped in Scotland and across the UK.


The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Universal credit is failing the people of Scotland and the people of the United Kingdom. It causes hardship, debt and a need for emergency aid, the evidence of which is indisputable. We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to halt the roll-out of, and the migration of people on to, universal credit, and to get those problems fixed.

The original aims of universal credit—to simplify the system and create a single source of support that adapts as circumstances change—were right and reasonable. However, the flaws in both the design and the delivery, coupled with the benefit cuts that were imposed by the UK Government, have made universal credit utterly unworkable. It is those many flaws that we need to scrap, and it is the Tories’ determination to use the excuse of austerity to punish the poorest in our society that needs to end.

Although I understand Labour’s call to scrap universal credit, at this point, I am still unsure what Labour members propose to replace it with, and I have not heard any more detail on that today. Are they planning a new benefit and, if so, would it be introduced after universal credit has been fully rolled out? Will the fixes to universal credit be made at the same time that a new system is being introduced? How long would it take for that new benefit to be designed, introduced and fully rolled out? We simply do not know.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

Will the cabinet secretary tell us whether she wants to keep universal credit, given that it is completely and utterly discredited?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will be very pleased tonight to support the Labour motion, which calls for the scrapping of universal credit, but first I will go through some of the details of the changes that would be made under the radically different benefit that I would like to see. With the greatest respect, I am still not sure what Labour members want. Do they want a new benefit? Do they want adaptations, or not?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned against the dangers of scrapping universal credit wholesale, saying that it leaves two systems, both with problems, uncertainty and increased complexity, and that it would be better to put all efforts into improving it.

Does universal credit in its current form need to be scrapped? For the benefit of Neil Findlay, I say absolutely yes. It can be replaced by a version that works to support people and provides the safety net that should be provided.

An uncaring, callous UK Government, with a revolving door of DWP ministers, has had its head in the sand when it comes to the clear flaws of universal credit. The ridiculous five-week wait for the first payment needs to be drastically reduced. Payments—not loans—must be provided at the beginning of a claim; there should no longer be a wait for getting much-needed financial support. The UK Government should also follow our lead and give people throughout the UK the choices of twice-monthly payments and direct payments to landlords, as we do through Scottish choices. The success of that approach is clear, as almost 50 per cent of people who are offered those choices take up one or both.

A step that could be taken immediately—it should be taken, as Richard Leonard quite rightly pointed out—is the scrapping of the two-child limit, which has already affected more than 9,000 families in Scotland. As he also pointed out, the abhorrent rape clause should be scrapped, too. That policy is still defended by the Tories in this Parliament; I wonder whether they will have the courage of their convictions today and admit to that support. Just like lifting the benefit cap, reversing the benefit freeze and scrapping the bedroom tax, those steps should be taken immediately to support people who have been hurt by years of UK welfare cuts. We have years of evidence about what needs to be fixed. We must prioritise making those changes in order to deliver a radically different benefit.

The Scottish Government is using its limited powers to make the lives of people in Scotland better. Unlike the UK Government’s system, our system does not, and will never, have a cap on the number of eligible children in a family who can receive support through our new benefits.

We have introduced a raft of new benefits and announced the new Scottish child payment. I am not entirely sure that Richard Leonard agrees with the timetable for that, given that he has just criticised the changes that we have made for our devolution set-up to ensure that we can allow that to happen by Christmas next year. It is deeply concerning that we cannot get support on that from the Labour Party.

This is a matter of political choice. The UK Government chose to introduce universal credit, with a myriad of complexities, and its cuts. The Scottish Government has chosen to introduce child poverty targets in legislation and to implement a £10-a-week game-changing new benefit to tackle child poverty head on.

That shows why social security should be in Scotland’s hands. I am talking about not just a partial devolution of powers but all powers. Only independence can ensure that we do not have policies imposed on us. We can choose our own path and bring fairness, dignity and respect to all social security and deliver a system that works for everyone.

I move amendment S5M-19939.3, to insert at end:

“, alongside the abhorrent ‘rape clause’, the benefit sanctions regime and the ‘bedroom tax’; notes estimates that UK Government social security spending will reduce by £3.7 billion by next year, and believes that an independent Scotland with full powers over social security can ensure that Scotland has a social security system that is built with the people of Scotland to meet their needs.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Michelle Ballantyne, who has four minutes. There is a little time in hand for interventions, which is why members will be given a little extra time if they take an intervention.


Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

In 2010, when universal credit was first announced, it received a cross-party welcome. Indeed, the Scottish National Party’s Westminster social justice spokesperson at the time, Dr Eilidh Whiteford, said:

“some of the measures set out today—particularly the Universal Credit—are very welcome”.

The Labour Party expressed cautious support for the principles of universal credit and an easier and more efficient social security system that offered one single payment and incentivised and rewarded paid employment opportunities.

Every political party recognised that the erstwhile system of legacy benefits was not working and that the system was in desperate need of fundamental reform. To pretend otherwise is fallacious.

During its time in power, Labour had ample opportunity to reform welfare in the United Kingdom, but it chose not to. Instead, it left a system that was in chaos; a system that was far too complex for its own good, in which each benefit had its own rules and methods; a system that paid out without due diligence, which resulted in fraudulent claims; and, worst of all, a system that acted as a barrier to people who wanted to get into work.

Labour’s motion makes no reference to how it would change the welfare system. There is no reference to what would replace universal credit and no reference to how Labour would improve people’s lives by encouraging them back into work and increasing their employment and earning opportunities.

Labour has never offered any practicable options; instead, it continues to dangle the possibility of a discredited universal basic income policy, which is a policy that proved to be unsustainable when trialled in Canada and Finland.

I believe that this debate is a perfect opportunity to set some of the record straight and recognise that, yes, universal credit has had its issues but it is the best way forward for welfare in this country. It is right that the roll-out of universal credit is done sensitively, as that allows any issues to be explored and addressed. That is why time is being taken to roll it out to those who are not new claimants.

The evidence is clear that universal credit is working for the vast majority of claimants. The 2018 claimant experience survey, which was published in January, revealed a satisfaction rate of 84 per cent in relation to the DWP and its services; it also revealed that 94 per cent of all claims and 84 per cent of new claims were paid on time.

Although universal credit works for the majority, it is important that we recognise and support those who have not had a satisfactory experience. We will never ignore the 16 per cent of claimants who say they that have not had a good experience. We can see in the design of universal credit that that is exactly what has happened. Universal credit has the flexibility to learn and change, and many adaptations and changes have been made following the feedback that has been given by people who have not had good experiences. The parties opposite, however, seem to keep ignoring some of the positives.

There is £2.4 billion of benefits unclaimed, and the Social Security Committee is currently looking at why people do not claim the benefits to which they are entitled. There are a number of reasons for that, including stigma and fear, but the commentary of many political parties does nothing to help that situation. It is estimated that around 700,000 more people will be paid their full entitlement because of the systems under universal credit. That is a positive improvement. It would behove the parties opposite to acknowledge some of those things.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Will the member take an intervention?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The member is just concluding and is almost finished.

Michelle Ballantyne

The fact is that there is an increase in employment under universal credit. We have the lowest unemployment levels for 45 years and the lowest number of people in low-paid jobs. This year, we are welcoming a number of changes that I think will move towards helping people and addressing some of the issues.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You must move your amendment, please. I am sorry—you did not take interventions, so I cannot give you extra time.

Michelle Ballantyne

I move amendment S5M-19939.2, to leave out from “agrees” to end and insert:

“supports the principles of universal credit and is committed to the programme and all universal credit claimants; welcomes the announcement that the benefit freeze will be lifted in April 2020, and recognises that the UK Government has been positively reforming universal credit to further support claimants, and notes the removal of the extension of the two-child limit on universal credit for children born before April 2017, the increased work allowances and the reduction to the taper rate, which have helped families and individuals to keep more of the money they earn.”


Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

In the three and a half years since members were elected for this session of Parliament, we have debated motions on universal credit five times, with today’s debate being the sixth. Universal credit was mooted by the Centre for Social Justice 10 years ago and legislated for more than seven years ago, yet we are still debating a system that is causing untold misery to tens of thousands of our constituents. That says something about how little has changed. In my short time today, I will focus on the impact of the benefit freeze on universal credit and the losses that people experience when moving into the new system.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Does Alison Johnstone agree that none of us is saying that the principle of simplifying benefits is wrong, and that we simply recognise, because we step out of our offices and speak to people who live in our constituencies, the real pain and suffering that universal credit causes for the people who have to navigate that ridiculous system?

Alison Johnstone

I agree whole-heartedly with Ruth Maguire.

The benefit freeze is scheduled to end in April next year, but the damage has already been done. The 1.7 per cent increase that has been announced will do nothing to replace the income that people have lost over the past four years, which amounts to around 6 per cent of their income. According to the House of Commons library, universal credit is between £888 and £1,845 lower in real terms than it would have been without the freeze.

A comparison of benefits incomes with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation minimum income standard reveals how inadequate the benefits system has become. The minimum income standard is based on surveys that ask people what they think the minimum acceptable standard of living should be—not a life of luxury, but just a basic standard. In 2018, an unemployed couple would have received income sufficient only to get them to 32 per cent of that minimum income standard. For a lone parent with two children, the figure would have been just 60 per cent. These figures have been falling for years, but they have fallen even faster since the start of the benefit freeze. It is not surprising, given that, that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that the freeze will

“increase poverty more than any other policy.”

The motion rightly mentions the benefit cap, which is one of the most insidious of the recent reforms. It perverts the needs-based nature of the social security system by assessing people as requiring a certain amount of support, and then reduces that support by an entirely arbitrary amount. That laser-targets women and children, because it impacts mainly on single parent households.

As part of the Social Security Committee's investigation into housing support, I met women from Leith in Edinburgh who had been made homeless by the benefit cap. They were no longer able to afford their rent and were trying to bring up their children in hotel and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Anyone who thinks that that is a good use of cash is misguided.

On top of the benefits freeze and the benefit cap, universal credit entitlement means for some people simply less money than they got under the previous system. The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that, under universal credit, about 1.9 million people’s entitlements are lower by at least £1,000 a year than they were under the old system. For many people, universal credit has been a cover for cuts, with reductions being masked in the move to the new system.

The motion and the Government’s amendment, both of which the Greens will support, are right to call for a number of the changes to be scrapped. However, we are still not addressing the fact that the social security system no longer provides an adequate standard of living for many people. The system has been chipped away at so consistently and for so long that, even before the two-child limit, the freeze, the benefit cap and universal credit, the system was not always adequately supporting the people who need it. For it to do that, we need a national conversation about what kind of society we want to live in and what level of support we should be offering. If we are to call ourselves a compassionate country, reserved and devolved social security should both reflect that.

I will close by reflecting on an exchange that I had in committee with former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Esther McVey, regarding the rape clause. I asked her whether she was comfortable with asking women to prove, in order that they can get support for their child, that they had been raped. All that she had to say to that was that the woman concerned would get “double support”. I fail to see how asking women, who have been through one of the most awful experiences that anyone could imagine, to prove that they have been raped, is anything like support.

Any member who votes against the motion today is saying that they are comfortable with that. I invite members to reflect on that when we reach decision time.


Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Universal credit is not working: evidence demands acceptance of that across the political spectrum. When food parcels are being distributed in their thousands, the system is not working. When people are being forced into a cycle of arrears, the system is not working. When hundreds of thousands of people need help to complete applications online, the system is not working, and when food bank usage has increased by 23 per cent, the system is not working.

The benefit system should be a safety net for use when it is needed, and it should be a catalyst to help people into work, where appropriate. In order to achieve those aims, reform of the previous system was necessary. Liberal Democrats supported the premise of universal credit: we believe that a streamlined system that is joined up and accessible is in the interests of the people who rely on it. Many anti-poverty campaigners agreed with the underlying principles. However, as universal credit stands, it is detached from the individuals whom it exists to help. A sensible premise has been thoroughly undermined, so reform is urgently needed. The two-child limit and the benefit cap must be removed.

Neil Findlay

Mr McArthur might have been coming to this, but will he take this opportunity to apologise for his party’s behaviour when it was in coalition with the Tories? They cut benefits for disabled people and housing benefit for young people. They made people poorer and gave tax cuts to the richest. Will he apologise for his party’s behaviour?

Liam McArthur

What I will do is remind Neil Findlay that his party also supported the introduction of universal credit. The tax changes that were made as a result of the Liberal Democrats being in Government lessened the tax implications on some of the poorest people in our community.

It is officially recognised that almost 240,000 Scottish children are now living in poverty. The arbitrary limiting of support that is available to vulnerable families means that that number is likely only to increase.

The benefit cap is equally counterproductive. It is expected that only 17 per cent of the people who are affected by the benefit cap are looking for work, but that is one of the stated aims of the policy. However, millions of people have moved to the new system, so scrapping it altogether and starting again is impractical, and would mean that more money would be spent on yet more administration, rather than on supporting people.

Labour is proposing to invest £2 billion less than the Liberal Democrats. Using the basic concept of streamlining multiple benefits into one, we need to fix the existing serious problems and construct a new system that provides dignity and respect. On that basis, Labour’s motion is flawed. Demanding that a system be scrapped, without a hint of what would be put in its place, is irresponsible.

To make such calls in the context of the wholesale failure to address the economic catastrophe that is Brexit is more irresponsible still. Above all, our social security system needs urgent investment, but that will be so much harder with any form of Brexit. Brexit undermines every part of our economy and threatens public services, including the NHS, yet Jeremy Corbyn still wants to “get Brexit done”.

The same applies to the argument that the chaos of universal credit, like Brexit, can be avoided by simply breaking up the UK.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Will Liam McArthur give way?

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

Mr McArthur is just closing.

Liam McArthur

The First Minister’s growth commission accepts that separation would lead to a decade of unprecedented austerity. The £50 billion remain bonus is available only if we keep Scotland in the UK, and the UK in the European Union.

We need to get back to debating seriously policies that have a genuine chance of making people’s lives better. Instead, the Labour Party’s proposal to scrap universal credit is nothing more than a Corbynite soundbite. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has made it clear that the proposal would lead to uncertainty, increased complexity and wasted resources. On that basis, we will not support the motion.


Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

My constituency, East Lothian, was the first local authority area in Scotland to implement universal credit fully, in March 2016. Because of that, people in East Lothian have borne the full brunt of the shambolic roll-out of the UC system. The harsh reality of universal credit for many constituents has been a spiral of debt and cuts to their benefits. Many have been plunged into poverty and are having to rely on family and friends, as well as on organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland and local food banks.

That is the reality of universal credit for the 5,500 people in East Lothian who are struggling on that iniquitous system. Last year, East Lothian Foodbank handed out 2,331 emergency food parcels, which helped to feed almost 5,000 people, of whom more than 1,800 were children. They were all referred to the food bank because of poverty.

What is more, within just one year of the introduction of universal credit, East Lothian Council saw a significant rise in rent arrears, as did the local housing association. That caused financial problems for the council and the association and, which was even worse, it threatened constituents with homelessness. The situation continues to worsen.

It is clear that universal credit must be scrapped.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

If that is the case, why has the Trussell Trust said that

“scrapping Universal Credit may only result in further upheaval”?

Why has that organisation said that we must not get rid of universal credit?

Iain Gray

I think that the Trussell Trust was talking about the capacity for change, which I will come to a little later on, in my remarks.

What kind of social security system no longer provides a safety net for the people who need it, but instead drives people further and further into poverty? A Tory social security system—that is what kind. The system is wrong in principle and in practice, which is why we must scrap universal credit and the Government that created it.

It is true that a new system would take time—the cabinet secretary made that point—but it is not true that Labour has not said how it would deal with that. Labour has committed to, on its election, an emergency package to mitigate universal credit, to getting rid of the five-week wait, to scrapping the two-child limit and the benefit cap, to suspending sanctions and to ending the digital-only approach. That is what a Labour Government would do with universal credit.

The SNP claims that the solution is devolution of universal credit. The truth is that, in the Smith commission, Labour argued for much of universal credit to be devolved. The Tories refused and the Lib Dems supported them—they were, of course, in coalition at the time. The SNP was lukewarm and preferred stand-alone benefits, which have been devolved since.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Will the member take an intervention?

Iain Gray


Labour did, however, win the argument that we should have the power to supplement reserved benefits. That is a critical power that ,the Scottish Government could use to end the rape clause in Scotland, just as we forced the SNP to act on the bedroom tax. The truth is that the SNP record on devolved benefits is one of dither, delay, lack of competence and failure of compassion.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Will the member take an intervention?

Iain Gray


Right now, we have an opportunity to return a Labour Government that will scrap universal credit in East Lothian and across the UK—right away, and once and for all. That is what my constituents need; they need it quickly, so we must take this chance.


Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Members who were present during general question time last Thursday might recall that I asked a question that was answered by Christina McKelvie, on the Government’s response to reports of women in Aberdeen, including single mothers, resorting to so-called survival sex because their universal credit payments do not cover the basic needs of daily living. The minister said that the very thought of it made her “blood run cold”, and that she was horrified by that, as I am. I hope that all members in the chamber are horrified—although I am not so sure of that, because last week one of the Tory members seemed to find it funny.

It is important to note that it was the local police who highlighted the issue to Community Food Initiatives North East, which is the biggest and most proactive food bank in the north-east. By the way, I note that the Government asked CFINE to carry out the pilot on period poverty. The police had recognised the problem of local women resorting to survival sex and wanted them to get help that would provide them with food, as well as allow them to get the benefit checks and other help that we know food banks provide.

It is well known that poverty and social security are heavily gendered, as Close the Gap and the other organisations that have sent us helpful briefings today fully recognise. They point out that women are twice as dependent on social security as men, so they have been disproportionately affected by social security change and Westminster welfare reform, including the benefit cap and the two-child cap.

That disproportionate effect is heaped upon the pre-existing inequalities of the gender pay gap, which is 13 per cent in Scotland, and of women accounting for two-thirds of workers who earn less than the living wage. That is most likely because they have more caring responsibilities than men, so they have to find work that allows them to balance caring responsibilities with work.

We also know that women who have disabilities are among the hardest hit by welfare reform. The latest figures show that 55 per cent of people on the personal independence payment are women, and that 65 per cent of those who are in receipt of attendance allowance are women.

Shockingly, the Women’s Budget Group found that Asian families in the poorest fifth of UK households will see their living standards fall by more than £11,600 per year on average through cuts to benefits and services. For black families, the real-terms annual average loss will be more than £8,400. Those are staggering reductions in income that is already low. Perhaps Conservative members who contribute today will tell us how folk are supposed to survive on that.

In addition, I point out that 48 per cent of single-parent households are living in poverty, and that 92 per cent of lone parents are women. Changes to child benefit, child tax credit, income support, maternity benefit and the benefit cap all have significant impacts on women who have children.

It is no wonder that some women feel that they have to take desperate measures, including engaging in survival sex. I am not sure how people who work in the field will welcome the prospect of another wholesale review of the social security system, because we know how adversely affected people are when they are transferred from one system to another. It might be good to hear from Labour members about what they want to put in place.

It is important to highlight how the Scottish Government is using the powers that it has over social security in bold and positive ways, including introduction, by the end of 2022, of the game-changing Scottish child payment for all eligible children under the age of 16. That will benefit up to 410,000 children. The Scottish Government has invested £1.4 billion in the past year to support low-income households, including £1 million to mitigate the most damaging aspects of universal credit.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Come to a close, please, Ms Watt.

Maureen Watt

However, as the UN rapporteur said, that mitigation is unsustainable. The answer to the problem is that full powers be devolved to this Parliament.


Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Today, we are expected to debate one of the most significant and complex reforms of our country’s social security system in little more than an hour.

Universal credit has a long background. It was designed to simplify the welfare system, to make work pay and to address the problems that stopped people getting into work or taking on more hours. With record numbers of people in work and wage levels rising, it is contributing to real change.

Today’s Labour Party motion specifically mentions three areas: the general roll-out of universal credit, the benefits cap and the two-child limit. The UK Labour Party promises to scrap universal credit, to replace it and to transition to a new system of income-assessed benefits. The response to those proposals has been damning.

The Trussell Trust pointed to further problems, saying that

“scrapping Universal Credit may only result in further upheaval”.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies was clearer, saying that “the upheaval” will be “huge”. The Resolution Foundation said:

“Now isn’t the time for”


“huge overhaul of our social security system.”

Perhaps Labour should reflect on how we got here. Despite similar proposals crossing their desks, Labour ministers before 2010 did not have the confidence to propose significant reform to the benefits system or to address the perverse disincentives that stopped people from moving into work.

When many of the proposals that are being condemned today were brought before Parliament in 2015, the Labour Party’s response was not to oppose them but to accept the two-child limit on tax credits, as it had accepted the benefit cap.

The then interim Labour leader, Harriet Harman, called for a reasonable approach. She said that opposition for opposition’s sake would not fly. She had seen the consequences from inside Government of Labour’s tax credit system paying out billions more than it had expected. The party acknowledged the consequences of the state simply subsidising low pay.

That was responsible, but today, Labour’s proposals on welfare are not serious. If Jeremy Corbyn was ever to get into Downing Street, he would face two choices: to disappoint his supporters or to deliver a reformed social security system, which would socially and financially ruin us.

Neil Findlay

Will Mr Halcro Johnston take an intervention?

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I am afraid that I do not have time.

The SNP is not immune to the same criticisms. In its independence white paper, it called for

“more streamlined systems for paying welfare that will keep costs down and which are easy to understand”.

Later, it proposed a single payment system, which sounded awfully like universal credit.

In 2013, the then First Minister, Alex Salmond, had already acknowledged the potential of a benefit cap. He told the Sunday Post:

“if you have the right cap, deployed in the right way, then that is a reasonable thing to have”.

Despite the SNP’s attacks on sanctions, it backed the conclusions of its own expert working group on welfare, which said that

“there is a general acceptance that receiving benefits will inevitably imply some form of conditionality”.

When people claim benefits as a jobseeker, as a condition of that benefit, the public expects them to do everything reasonable to find work.

Labour members had the opportunity to oppose many of the measures that they criticise today They did not. Under Jeremy Corbyn, their only plan seems to be for yet more upheaval and to push unfunded spending commitments.

As usual, we have heard a great deal about what the SNP Government is against but, when pressed on what it is for, its ideas dry up. It now has wide-ranging social security powers, but not the willingness to use them fully.

Both parties are sending the signal that they will continue to support uncosted spending on social security. However, when practical measures are proposed—as in last year’s budget, which injected hundreds of millions extra into universal credit and set an end point for the freeze on benefit uprating—they oppose them. Neither Labour nor the SNP is prepared to build positive change into the welfare system, tackle costs, or support people into good-quality, well-paying work.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

All parties have had a little extra time. Can members tighten up and speak for four minutes, please?


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward a very important issue, which greatly affects people in my constituency and across Scotland. Let us be in no doubt: universal credit is a policy developed in London that is failing Scotland. There are far too many children already growing up in poverty.

The roll-out of universal credit, as well as other horrendous policies, has had a damaging effect on people in my constituency, with huge increases in rent arrears and food parcel deliveries for those who cannot make ends meet. Indeed, the Coatbridge food bank has often had its supplies depleted to zero and has appealed to the public for help. That is why I get annoyed when Tory members bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the challenges of poverty.

Just today, North Lanarkshire Council’s communities and housing committee passed a proposal to implement and administer a universal credit assistance fund for council tenants who are falling into arrears due to the built-in waiting time for universal credit. I welcome that policy and applaud the officers, as well as the councillors of all parties, particularly Labour and the SNP, who made it happen. However, that a council should be forking out £1 million to mitigate the horrendous policy of universal credit, on top of what the Scottish Government is already doing, is a scandal.

The Scottish Government has certainly been mitigating that policy. In the last year alone, it has invested almost £1.5 billion to support low-income households. A sizeable proportion of that money is being used to reverse the abhorrent Tory policies that are being dictated to us from Westminster. As has been quoted in the chamber many times before, a UN expert on poverty has stated:

“It is outrageous that devolved administrations need to spend resources to shield people from Government policies.”

The main thing about Labour’s motion that I cannot understand is why it is not taking the opportunity to call for the full devolution of welfare powers. As I said in my intervention on Richard Leonard’s speech, if we could put aside our differences on independence, surely we could agree that we do not want any chance that such crucial powers could be in the hands of the Tories and not the Scottish people.

Daniel Johnson

That is why you should vote Labour.

Fulton MacGregor

From his sedentary position, Daniel Johnson is shouting that we should vote Labour. However, it does not matter whether the forthcoming general election brings a Labour or a coalition Government to Westminster: while there is still a chance that it might bring a Tory Government, we should seek to have all powers on welfare in Scotland devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

I turn to more local matters. This Friday, I will host the first of three networking events that will bring local people and organisations together to discuss how we can tackle inequality and poverty in Coatbridge and Chryston. Since being elected in 2016, I have been in awe of the work that is done across my constituency by individuals and volunteers from local charity and voluntary organisations. They work day in, day out to help to improve the lives of others, but they do so in the hope that, one day, they will not have to. They also work in conjunction with fantastic local government initiatives, such as club 365, and in tandem with Scottish Government policies such as the pupil equity fund, which aims to reduce the education attainment gap by putting funding straight into the hands of headteachers.

I have supported some of those local organisations, such as cool school uniforms, Baby Loss Retreat and shining stars, since their inception. They join many other individuals and organisations, all of which are supporting our most vulnerable friends and neighbours. There are far too many to name them all, but good examples are Coatbridge food bank, Coatbridge citizens advice bureau, the soup kitchen, the safety zone, and local churches and their affiliated organisations.

As a member of the Scottish Parliament, I care passionately about my area and I want to do whatever small bit I can to reduce the inequality that exists there. I hope that Friday’s event will allow the local organisations that I have mentioned—and many more—to come together with national charities and local authority services. We want them to share what works and to discuss how they can all work together to challenge inequality and shape our local response to the plight of poverty that has been forced upon us.

It is time to take welfare powers into our own hands. I will support the Government’s amendment, and I urge other members to do likewise.


Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I remember the days when we had a welfare state into which people paid through their taxes and from which they rightly received the benefit of a safety net when things went wrong. When they were ill or out of work, the state stepped in to help them to get back on their feet.

Claiming benefits has never been pleasant—people have always had to prove their entitlement and to face questions at a time when they are least able to face them—but that is how the system works.

One of my first jobs involved working with unemployed people and administering schemes to get people into work. I saw at first hand how those people turned up on day one. They were downtrodden with no spark of life and deeply depressed. The health impact of unemployment on its own is the equivalent of smoking 200 cigarettes a day and that figure comes from a time before universal credit. How much worse is it now?

When they found work, those same people were unrecognisable. A number of them came back after they had found work, perhaps to hand something back or simply to speak to their project worker, and on many occasions, I did not recognise them. They were alive again—they had a spark, and a spring in their step. Getting a job was transformational.

That was some decades back, when we had a safety net. I can only imagine the impact on people now. I wonder how they can ever pick themselves up under this draconian system. That experience was formative and shaped my politics.

Women bear the brunt of the effects of universal credit because of their caring responsibilities and the inherent disadvantage that they face through the gender pay gap. They are twice as likely as men to depend on social security, and the current system doubles down on that by targeting women with things such as the two-child cap and the rape clause. Women make up 74 per cent of the people who claim carers allowance. Almost half of lone parents are living in poverty and they are predominantly women.

We all know that a child’s life chances, education and wealth are directly related to their mother’s wealth and education. We are failing those children, as well as their mothers, with this Dickensian system. Those children are all our futures; they are the scientists, doctors and nurses of the future. We fail ourselves if we fail them.

As a young person, I never saw food banks. There was poverty but not on the scale that we see today. We are beginning to see poverty impact on health with the return of diseases such as rickets, which we thought would never be seen again in a rich country. We have huge wealth, but far too many of our population have livelihoods that have more in common with those that are seen in developing countries, and that is totally wrong.

People are caught between two Governments that do not care: the heartless Tories who only care about accruing more wealth to themselves at the expense of the most vulnerable in society, and the Scottish National Party, which pretends to be socialist but stands aside and does nothing to help, because that would let the Tories off the hook.

The SNP also sees the injustice as one of the biggest recruiting sergeants for its only goal—that of independence. What they do not tell the people is that independence would make the situation a whole lot worse.

Dr Allan

Will the member take an intervention?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Ms Grant is just closing.

Rhoda Grant

The SNP’s growth commission report says that there would be 10 more years of brutal austerity in an independent Scotland, and you can bet that that is the best gloss that they could put on it. There would be 10 more years of hunger, poverty and failing services, and there are people in our communities who would not survive that.

The Scottish Labour Party puts people above self-interest and fairness above amassing riches, and it will bring about real change.


Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

There are many things in Labour’s motion today with which, despite some of the previous speech, most people in Parliament—except the Tories, no doubt—are likely to agree. As other members have said, the Tories’ implementation of universal credit has had a disastrous human impact on many families in Scotland, as most MSPs will know from their own inboxes.

Parliament’s Social Security Committee has heard enough evidence on that over the past year to convince all but the most hardened of hearts. A system that in some cases sanctions people for not being in highly enough paid jobs must have something wrong with it and, although we want to move people to digital solutions wherever possible, the committee has heard repeated evidence from communities around the country that universal credit’s digital first approach is leaving behind many vulnerable people who feel wholly unprepared for the task of explaining the multiple problems in their lives to a website, however sophisticated it may be.

From the five-week wait, to numerous administrative difficulties, to the appalling rape clause, universal credit has adversely affected families with children and many of our other most vulnerable citizens. But members should not just take my word for it. As others have alluded to, following his visit the UK, Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, memorably and shockingly said:

“through it all, one actor has stubbornly resisted seeing the situation for what it is.”

The UK Government

“has remained determinedly in a state of denial. Even while devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are frantically trying to devise ways to ‘mitigate’, or in other words counteract, at least the worst features of the Government’s benefits policy, Ministers”—

UK ministers—

“insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan.”

It is clear that all is not well or running according to plan, unless the plan was to increase emergency food parcel handouts by 23 per cent in the past 12 months or to cause substantial increases in rent arrears, which, according to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, is what has happened .

Although the Scottish Government has made major efforts to mitigate all that, Professor Alston points out that it is neither acceptable nor, ultimately, feasible for Holyrood to use its resources to clean up an ever-wider oil slick of UK policy failure in reserved areas.

As I have said, there is much that I agree on with my Labour colleagues, even if their motion offers little by way of solution. The motion suggests that their plan is for Westminster to roll out an unspecified new system before universal credit is itself fully rolled out. As other members have mentioned, that could create a two-tier system and create more confusion and anxiety for recipients.

We should instead be fixing here in Scotland the things that are wrong, but that of course means mentioning a subject that Labour does not want to be mentioned in polite company: the powers of this Parliament. Labour knows fine well that the Scottish Government does not have the powers to change the abhorrent two-child limit policy or anything else about universal credit or child tax credits while the relevant powers remain reserved to Westminster.

As ever, the tragedy of Scottish Labour is its misplaced faith in Westminster to put all that right at some unspecified point in the future. It is time for Labour finally to join the widening consensus that all aspects of the benefits system should be in Scotland’s hands—not in Boris Johnson’s.


Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I have found this afternoon’s short debate slightly disappointing. I was surprised initially that this subject was brought forward; it shows a lack of imagination by the Labour Party that our devolved Parliament is debating something that is reserved to Westminster. That maybe sums up where the Labour Party is with regard to policies in Scotland—it has none. The second disappointing factor is that the debate has ignored the facts and information that have been gathered by the Social Security Committee and others. As Michelle Ballantyne pointed out, those figures show that between 80 and 85 per cent of people who are on universal credit today are satisfied with the service that they get. If we are going to have a debate, let us have one about how we can improve universal credit for the 16 per cent, but let us not bring down the others who have benefited from it.

I will give an example that I do not think that anyone in the chamber has given so far. There is one big advantage that universal credit has for those who have disabilities, in particular. Under the old system, people had to make six applications to six different departments and had to fill out six different forms. For many parents of disabled children, that bureaucracy was a minefield. The advantage of universal credit is that people can make one application rather than six and can have such an application dealt with in one way. That point should not be missed in the debate.

I laugh slightly at Fulton MacGregor—I am not laughing at him as an individual but at the comments that he made about wanting powers to come to the Scottish Parliament completely. Every time we get a power, we just give it back to the DWP. If we had the power devolved, it would probably be 2040, 2050 or—

Fulton MacGregor

Will the member give way?

Jeremy Balfour

I am sorry—I do not have time. Some members say, “Let’s have all the powers.” We have powers at the moment regarding PIP, but we are simply asking the DWP to continue to do it all for us.

The UK Government has listened to those for whom universal credit has not worked, and it has amended the system in such a way that it has brought more people in. To simply rip it up and start again would be a disaster. As Jamie Halcro Johnston pointed out, it is not us who think that that would be a disaster; many people in the third sector have commented on that. We have heard that the Trussell Trust and other organisations do not want universal credit to go away.

Would the Labour Party do what it has suggested? I accept that Mr Gray gave an outline of what Labour would do. How much would that cost on day 1, and how much would it cost the UK in the first financial year? Can Labour give us a figure, or is that simply an uncosted pipe dream?

We have to be careful about the language that we use. Alasdair Allan spoke about sanctions. If we examine the figures for the percentage of people who have been sanctioned in the United Kingdom, we see that it is roughly the same number of people—in fact, it is exactly the same number—who were sanctioned under the legacy benefits.

When he was a minister, Keith Brown—that well-known supporter of the Conservative Party—said that universal credit had merits, and it does have merits. It is working for the overwhelming majority of people here in Scotland and in the United Kingdom. Yes, it needs tweaking and changing, and that is what the UK Government has done. I suggest that we get behind and support universal credit, rather than talking down people who are benefiting from it.


Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is clear that the vast majority of members at least agree that universal credit is a failure. Many people have given specific examples of how it has brought people further into poverty and have talked about the anxiety and rent arrears that often go with that.

The Scottish Government has been at the forefront of highlighting where the UK Government welfare policies are hurting people—particularly those that are disproportionately affecting women, children and disabled people—just as we have been at the forefront of pointing out the flaws in universal credit and calling for it to be halted while those clear flaws are fixed.

Against the backdrop of social security spending in Scotland being cut by £3.7 billion by 2021, the Scottish Government has invested more than £1.4 billion to support low-income households, including £100 million to mitigate the worst impacts of the UK Government’s welfare reforms.

However, as the UN rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, who has been quoted regularly this afternoon, said:

“mitigation comes at a price”,

and it is “not sustainable” for devolved Administrations to spend resources to fix the UK Government’s policies.

Iain Gray

Surely if a benefit is devolved and is then improved and made more generous, those resources would have to be found within the Scottish Government’s resources. That would always be the case, would it not?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We will endeavour to ensure, in every single budget, that we are doing our best within the block grant that we have. What I cannot remember—because it has not happened—is the Scottish Labour Party coming forward in any budget with any specific proposals to improve welfare. It is all about the headlines, with very little—indeed, nothing—about the substance that goes behind that.

Iain Gray

Will the cabinet secretary give way on that?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I think we have heard enough from Mr Gray. What we heard from Mr Gray was details of what Labour might like to change around universal credit, but we have not heard anything about the new benefit that Labour would like to replace it with—or, in particular, about how long it would take for it to be designed, introduced and fully implemented.

We can talk about the role of the Scottish Government and what we can do, but there is a responsibility on the Opposition parties to demonstrate what they would like to do differently and how that should be paid for. We have set out a safe and secure transition for the benefits that we will be taking, and we are working with stakeholders to ensure that the timetable is relevant to what they are doing.

I was exceptionally disappointed when Richard Leonard opened this debate by criticising the alterations that we made in June that will allow us to bring in the Scottish child payment. It is desperately disappointing that the Scottish Labour Party has actually criticised this Government for using the powers that we have to ensure that we are delivering on our ambition to tackle child poverty. I thought that that was something that we could and should have come together on.

We have heard a lot today, and quite rightly, about the UK Government making some changes to address the flaws in universal credit. It is only fair to point out that, frankly, they are absolutely inadequate. Reducing the waiting period for a first payment from six weeks to five is not helping the people I see in my surgeries or, I am sure, those who other members across the chamber see in their surgeries. The fact that people have to pay back their advance payments from universal credit, thus running into further debt, is not helping the people we are here to serve. That is why it is time for the UK Government to take responsibility, but the best solution—the real and only solution—is for the UK Government to devolve all social security powers to this Government so that we can put dignity, fairness and respect right at the heart of the system here in Scotland.


Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Today’s debate about scrapping, once and for all, the cruel benefit cap, the hated two-child limit and universal credit—a set of welfare reforms that are having a catastrophic impact on women, children and the communities we represent—has been a vital one to have ahead of next month’s election. Across Scotland, families have the daily agony of having to keep on top of a universal credit claim or of having to figure out how to pay the rent. It has been decided that they are not allowed what they need; a family cap or a benefit cap has been imposed for no reason other than cruel Tory austerity.

Members have spoken about the devastating five-week wait. I whole-heartedly agree with what was said and I am proud that Labour will commit in our manifesto this week to an interim payment before universal credit is scrapped. The abolition of the two-child limit, the rape clause, the benefit sanctions regime and the bedroom tax will also be in our fully costed manifesto this week, along with the other immediate changes that Iain Gray set out.

Everyone has spoken about the very real challenges that their constituents face every day to get by and raise their children—everyone, that is, except the Tories, who blindly ignore the people facing poverty, rent arrears and destitution because of this despicable system. We have all heard about the problems reported, as well as the more complex and obscure, even vindictive, changes that universal credit has brought in: tax rebates from previous years swallowed up; students amassing huge arrears because the DWP does not process the information; and the proliferation of debts to the DWP, which amounts to more than £15 million in my region alone. These welfare reforms are affecting people who are just trying to live their lives.

Many in this chamber will have heard me reflect on my family circumstances amid the damaging Tory welfare reforms. I was one of four children. My parents worked hard—my dad as a welder and my mum as a bank clerk—to support the family they chose to have. When my dad was diagnosed with a serious heart condition at the age of 37, he was unable to carry on doing the job he had done for 20 years. My parents did not plan for that situation—who does plan for such a situation when they start a family?

What today’s debate has shown is what each party will do to help. We do not need reminding of what the Tories offer. The proclamations from the Conservatives in previous, similar debates—that poor people should not be allowed to have too many children and that the rich should not have to make a contribution to those in need—have told the chamber enough. The devastation is already eating away at our communities, but the Conservatives say that we should be thankful that 200,000 more children in poverty across the UK because of the benefits freeze will see a paltry 1.7 per cent increase in their parents’ benefits, and that we should be thankful that the extension of the two-child limit on universal credit for children born before April 2017 will not be rolled out. Amazingly, just days after Willie Rennie offered a half-hearted apology for the bedroom tax, the Lib Dems’ amendment proposes holding on to the system that they, hand in hand with the Tories, helped to usher in.

In the face of the catastrophic poverty that it has caused, and of heartbreaking testimony, they continue to support it, save for a few tweaks.

However, the SNP’s position is the strangest—it is confusion, confusion, confusion. Today the cabinet secretary says that she is happy to scrap the system, but MSPs on the back benches say that change is too difficult. Last night, the SNP group was briefed that we should stick with it and tinker with it until it worked, in a helpful briefing that was issued to all MSPs’ researchers.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Mark Griffin is just making that up.

Mark Griffin

I will forward to the cabinet secretary the briefing that the SNP researcher sent to the whole Parliament. I am sure that SNP members have relied heavily on it.

Richard Leonard

We have read it.

Mark Griffin

Yes, we have all read it.

Let us not forget that, last week, the First Minister outlined a different choice: another independence referendum, or more of the same from another Tory Government. That choice leaves 9,000 families stuck with the two-child limit, and 200,000 households languishing on universal credit, as little more than collateral damage.

Given that it will take the SNP a decade to deliver all the benefits that have already been devolved, how can SNP members expect families to wait for independence and for an amended version of universal credit perhaps another 10, 15 or 20 years down the line?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Will the member take an intervention?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Mr Griffin is closing.

Mark Griffin

The families that we are talking about need real change, right now. That is what a Labour Government will deliver.