Meeting date: Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 23 November 2016
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Rail Services, Social Security, Business Motion, Decision Time, Year of the Dad
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-02651, in the name of Jeane Freeman, on the future of social security in Scotland. Members will be aware that we now have no spare time in hand, unfortunately. I call the minister to speak to and move the motion.15:20
I am pleased to open this debate on the future of social security in Scotland.
The new social security powers will devolve a total of 11 benefits to the Scottish Government. The benefits affect one in four of us—1.4 million people across Scotland. It is no exaggeration to say that transferring the new devolved benefits safely is the biggest challenge that any Scottish Government has faced since devolution. When our Parliament was reconvened we collectively took responsibility for existing Scotland-specific institutions, laws and delivery infrastructure in health, education and justice. There is no Scotland-specific social security legislative framework or infrastructure. Our job is to build a social security system—a public service—from scratch.
The 11 benefits that will be devolved represent 15 per cent of the total United Kingdom spend on welfare. What we have to do together is simultaneously unpick an integrated UK benefits system that has developed in a piecemeal fashion over the past 50 years, design and build the Scottish social security system and plug it back into the UK welfare system, which will, for the benefits that it retains, carry on operating in Scotland and will itself be undergoing reform at the hands of the UK Government.
The scale is large—11 benefits and 1.4 million people—and the task is complex. I will give a couple of examples so that members have some idea of the complexity. The existing cold weather payment rests on 11 different Department for Work and Pensions information technology systems that have to work together to give us the data on who in Scotland is eligible for the payment. The industrial injuries disablement benefit is paper based. That means that for us to simply know who in Scotland receives the payment—the basic information of name, address, age and payment level—someone will need to go through all the brown folders, one each for everyone in the UK who receives the benefit, and pull out the Scottish postcodes so that those paper folders can be passed to us.
We need to understand that the UK Government’s approach to transition will also have a bearing on timescales—introducing devolved benefits does not simply depend on what we do but depends equally on what the DWP has to stop doing. We are not, and will never be, entirely in control of any timetable or the switch-on or switch-off of social security powers.
The minister has given a detailed summary of the bureaucratic stuff that has to go on behind the scenes, but none of that is new. This has been going on for some time. Why was a commitment given in the white paper that all this could be introduced in 18 months?
We have gone over this before. I urge Neil Findlay to go back and read the white paper. The white paper commitment refers to the transition platform of 18 months, which would set the framework in which all the subsequent work, including this transfer, would go ahead.
My point about complexity is to demonstrate, I hope, to members who are not hard of understanding that unpicking 15 per cent from a total is a lot harder than taking 100 per cent and redesigning the system from scratch. We have dealt with that, so I will carry on.
If we set that scale and complexity against our overall primary objective, which is to ensure the safe and secure transfer of benefits, I hope that members will understand why no one outside this chamber has at any point asked us to move more quickly, and why everyone has urged us to move safely.
We need to make sure that, when we take over delivery of the 11 benefits—which will happen in the timeframe that we have consistently given, which is within this parliamentary session—every one of the 1.4 million people receives the money that they expect, at the level to which they are entitled, on the day when they expect it. Not one person can be let down or can fall into a gap between the Scottish and the UK systems because we have not taken the time to think through and work out every aspect and angle of what needs to be done.
We have been clear from the outset that the social security system that we will build will be based on a clear premise and guiding principles. Social security is an investment that we collectively make in ourselves and in each other, and our system will operate from the premise that everyone who comes to it for help and support does so because they need to. Further, the service and the system will have the principles of dignity, fairness and respect embedded throughout its operation.
We are also very clear that, to get it right and to deliver on those principles, we need to build the system from the ground up. We have recently completed a three-month consultation, which was specifically designed to hear directly from those with lived experience of the current benefits system, from those who work with and support them, and from the people who deliver the system. More than 120 events were held, covering every local authority area in Scotland, and many hundreds of people were reached. More than 500 written responses have been received, more than half of which were from individuals, and they were published on our website yesterday.
The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities and I went to many of those events and we were privileged to hear many people tell us about their experience. Very often, it was not easy for those who told us their story. We heard experience after experience that had the common threads of a lack of information; a difficult-to-access service; assessments that did not touch on how life really is for the individual concerned; decisions that are based not on the evidence presented but on what appears to be subjective judgment; and a process that feels heartless and impersonal and leaves people feeling judged, demeaned and diminished. Members around the chamber will have heard very similar stories from their constituents.
It was not easy for the people I listened to or for the many more who spoke out at those events, but I am profoundly grateful to them for their trust in us. They trusted that we were listening and that their experiences will be at the forefront of every step that we take and every decision that we make to build our new social security system for Scotland. I am sure that every member in the chamber will want to take the opportunity to put on record our thanks as a Parliament to everyone who was involved in the consultation for taking the time to give us the benefit of their experience and their knowledge.
We cannot fix every wrong or address every unfairness that we heard about. Those wrongs and that unfairness exist in a UK welfare system that the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has rightly condemned for “grave or systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people.
The minister is perfectly right to say that 11 benefits are devolved under the Scotland Act 2016. However, she has not said anything yet about the fact that, in addition, the Scottish Government has the powers to top up any reserved benefit and to create new benefits within devolved competence. Will the minister say anything about that in her remarks?
No, I do not intend to, although Mr Tomkins is correct that those powers have been transferred to us.
Where was I?
It was something to do with the UN committee—I was listening.
Yes—interestingly, Mr Tomkins interrupted me right in the middle of what I was telling members about the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Let me repeat that it condemned the UK welfare system for “grave or systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people.
The Scottish Government will not replicate those mistakes, nor can we fix the cumulative loss to Scotland of £2 billion a year by 2020 as a result of the UK welfare cuts made since 2010 , which the Sheffield Hallam University research for the Social Security Committee highlighted. However, we can ensure that our social security system will not be ruled by an ideologically driven intent to impose cuts on those who are least able to withstand their impact and those who are least responsible for the state of public finances, unlike what we have seen from the Westminster Tory Government.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, I will not.
Each and every response that we received, and each and every one of the conversations that we had, is important. The consultation responses are now being independently analysed, and we will publish that analysis and our response to it in early 2017.
As we have said, the devolution of these powers is a process. In that process, there are key stages. The relevant sections of the Scotland Act 2016 need to be commenced by the UK Government, this Parliament needs to make its own legislation and the Scottish Government needs to ensure that the necessary operational infrastructure is in place. In the words of the motion, that all adds up to
“a robust delivery infrastructure and a legislative framework scrutinised”—
as it should be—
“by the Parliament”.
A number of parallel work streams have begun. In January, in order to continue to reflect our absolute commitment to build our social security system on the foundations of lived experience and grounded expertise, we will launch a recruitment exercise for 2,000 volunteers to join our experience panels. The volunteers will be people who currently receive one or more of the 11 benefits, and they will work with us in the long term to help us to make the right improvements and changes to every aspect and detail of how our system will work, how it will communicate, how it will engage and how it will make decisions. We already have people coming forward to express their interest in joining us, and I hope that members will make sure that their constituents know about that opportunity and will encourage their involvement when we launch in the new year.
At the same time, we will bring together people with direct experience and expertise in providing benefit advice and support services to help us to ensure that the benefits that we deliver are aligned with the UK system and that we do not create unintended negative consequences by improving Scottish benefits in a way that creates knock-on detrimental impacts on the benefits that an individual receives from the UK system.
Alongside that, we will engage more real expertise in delivering payment systems—benefits and others—to help us to design the processes and build the working culture of dignity, fairness and respect that will be essential for those who will deliver our social security system in Scotland.
All that work will run in parallel with drafting the necessary legislation, which we will introduce in this parliamentary year. To provide additional strategic oversight to our work and help us through the challenges of improving critical areas such as the assessment process, we will establish a disability and carers benefits expert advisory group, working with us in the long term from early next year.
The scale and complexity of our task is clear. However, so, too, is the golden opportunity that we have not only to build a social security system for Scotland that brings our founding principles alive but to build that system in direct response to the lived experience and long-term involvement of those who know best what needs to change.
Every party and every member in the Parliament have a direct stake in the future of social security in Scotland. Our collective job is to put the people of Scotland first and political point scoring last, and to get on and build this new public service as an exemplar of fairness, accessibility and transparency that is focused on doing the right thing for those whom it serves.
That the Parliament agrees that social security is an investment in the people of Scotland, by the people of Scotland; expresses its thanks to all the individuals and organisations across Scotland who responded and engaged with the recent consultation on the future of social security; notes that the Scottish Government will continue that engagement and will harness and use the lived experience of people across Scotland as the social security system is developed; understands that this is the largest transfer of powers to the Parliament and will require a major programme of transition and implementation in order to ensure that Scotland’s future social security system meets the needs, expectations and ambitions of its people; recognises that this transfer will affect 1.4 million people and that therefore the safe and secure transfer of benefits must be the priority and is only possible with the underpinning of both a robust delivery infrastructure and a legislative framework scrutinised by the Parliament, and agrees that reform of the benefits to be devolved is necessary in order to build the fair, accessible and dignified social security system that Scotland needs and deserves.15:33
Social security in Scotland is now the joint—that is to say, the shared—responsibility of the Scottish and UK Governments. In the Smith commission, nobody seriously advanced the proposition that the state pension should be devolved, and that accounts for nearly one half of social security spending in Scotland.
To have devolved all of working-age social security would have been to fail to respect the result of the independence referendum, in whose immediate aftermath the Smith commission met. In that referendum, a clear majority of Scots voted to maintain the pooling and sharing of risk and resources that the union of Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom represents. In no field is that pooling and sharing more important than in social security. Therefore, working-age social security was split, with some of it remaining at the UK level and some of it being devolved. The UK is responsible for about two thirds of that, and the Scottish Government for one third. However, even within the two-thirds share that the UK remains responsible for, Scottish ministers will have powers to top up reserved benefits, powers to create new benefits and powers to alter the operation of reserved benefits in Scotland. I say all that because Jeane Freeman’s motion bizarrely fails to acknowledge any of it, hence our amendment to include “the UK” as well as “Scotland” in the opening words of the motion.
We realise that social security devolution is novel and complex and we are surely all agreed—right across the chamber—that the priority in the design and delivery of devolved social security must be the welfare of the people in Scotland who rely on it. However, it is also important that the Scottish ministers be open with, and accountable to, the Parliament for the decisions that they make about social security devolution.
It emerged earlier this month that, in October, the Scottish ministers asked the UK Government to consider a wholly novel split competence approach to the devolution of certain welfare powers under the Scotland Act 2016. No one had heard of that notion before and, for all their protestations to the contrary, neither the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities nor the Minister for Social Security explained to the Social Security Committee, on which I sit, what precisely they mean by it or what impact it will have on the timing of the transfer of the welfare powers to the Parliament. When we sought to ask questions about it last week, we were accused of playing political football. It was only late yesterday afternoon that members of the Social Security Committee finally received an explanation of what is going on.
Will Adam Tomkins give way?
I want to finish the point about split competence.
Will Adam Tomkins give way on that point?
I will finish the point if the member will permit me and then, of course, I will give way to the convener of the Social Security Committee.
Obtaining accurate information about the process of so-called split competence has been like pulling teeth. It is simply not good enough. The Scottish ministers have an obligation to explain to the Parliament in advance of joint ministerial meetings what they propose to discuss at those meetings. In this case, no such advance notice was given, in clear breach of the Government’s written agreement with the Parliament. If the Government wishes to avoid giving the impression that it is delaying the transfer of welfare powers, perhaps it should start to explain itself in good time, rather than leaving us chasing ministers for scraps of information about what they have sought to arrange behind closed doors.
As convener of the Social Security Committee, I do not recollect anyone talking about political football in the committee meeting—perhaps in private, but certainly not in public. You mentioned letters, Mr Tomkins, and the Scottish Government or the minister operating in secrecy. You all have a reply and the answer that you were given in the committee was already written on 8 November and also in June. You got the answer, so perhaps the political football and blaming are coming from you, Mr Tomkins—from the Tory side.
Please do not use the term “you”—just the names of the parties.
I apologise, Presiding Officer.
I am just trying to understand exactly what the Scottish ministers mean by split competence. The expression “political football” was used in open session by the minister and by me and was quoted by the First Minister at First Minister’s questions last week, so it was not in private at all.
A second area of confusion which, again, has been caused entirely by the Scottish ministers, concerns the use of conditionality in devolved employability programmes. We know that it is the Scottish Government’s desire that its employability programmes operate without the use of sanctions. We think that the Scottish ministers are in danger of being naive if they are really of the view that effective employment support can be run without conditionality but, if that is what they are minded to do, so be it. I wish them well.
The confusion arises when we think about the relationship of devolved employability programmes with reserved benefits such as jobseekers allowance and universal credit, which will continue to be operated by the DWP. A successful social security system will be one in which the reserved benefits for jobseekers and the Scottish Government’s employability programmes operate together as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. Therefore, it was with some concern that we read that the cabinet secretary, Angela Constance, said in an interview in September:
“While we can’t stop the UK Government putting conditions on the work-related benefits, we’re not going to be giving them any information or responding to inquiries if we think that might lead to a sanction.”
So much for not playing political football.
Will Adam Tomkins give way?
No, I want to develop this point.
UK ministers have made it perfectly plain that the design of Scottish employability programmes is a matter entirely for this Parliament. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions reaffirmed that point only this week in a letter to the convener of the Social Security Committee. I should have thought that it was perfectly obvious that there is a world of difference between DWP ministers clarifying that the design of Scottish employment support programmes is a matter for us and not for them, on the one hand, and DWP ministers accepting that everyone on a Scottish employment support programme will somehow be free of conditionality in respect of the reserved benefits that they may continue to claim, on the other. However, that elementary distinction seems to have escaped our rather confused cabinet secretary.
Will Mr Tomkins give way?
If I can finish this point, I will absolutely give way to the cabinet secretary.
Angela Constance has apparently interpreted the UK Government’s commitment to the devolution of employment support to mean that
“a deal had been struck with the UK government which would mean that Scots won’t face the threat of sanctions”.
Similar comments appear from Jamie Hepburn in today’s Herald and Guardian newspapers.
I am not sure whether the Scottish ministers have deliberately misunderstood what the secretary of state has said in order to stoke yet another nationalist grievance or whether the complexity of the matter is simply beyond them. Perhaps Angela Constance can answer that question now.
Briefly, please, cabinet secretary, as Mr Tomkins is now into the last minute of his speech.
I remind Mr Tomkins that I have some history on this matter, as I was previously, a few portfolios ago, Minister for Youth Employment. Sanctions have never applied to Scottish employability programmes. Our position on the UK Government’s disproportionate, out-of-order and broken sanctions regime is well known. We were never going to have a sanctions regime for employability; nor were we going to do anything to perpetuate it. I am pleased that Damian Green has confirmed the position that Iain Duncan Smith originally articulated some years ago.
I therefore beg to differ. I think that the confusion lies at Mr Tomkins’s door and at that of the UK Government, not ours.
I will give you a little bit of extra time to deal with that, Mr Tomkins.
That is very kind of you, Presiding Officer. I am grateful.
There is a difference. Everybody understands that the employability support programme that will be run by the Scottish Government will be a voluntary programme, but it does not follow from that that people on those programmes who are claiming jobseekers allowance under the still reserved DWP-administered programmes will not have to prove or demonstrate that they are looking for work. If members read the second page of Damian Green’s most recent letter as well as the first page, they will find that that is confirmed.
Whatever the case is, the devolution of employability programmes is yet another area of Scottish social security where, instead of clarity, which is all we are asking for, there is obfuscation from the Scottish ministers. Rather than co-operation with the UK, there is belligerence and hostility. Instead of getting on with it, the Scottish National Party is dragging its feet, more enthusiastic about contrived grievance than constructive government. Six months into this session of Parliament and the mid-year report on the future of social security in Scotland is “Must do better.”
I move amendment S5M-02651.2, to leave out from“, by the people” to end and insert:
“and the UK, by the people of Scotland and the UK; expresses its thanks to all the individuals and organisations across Scotland who responded and engaged with the recent consultation on the future of social security; notes that the Scottish Government will continue that engagement and will harness and use the lived experience of people across Scotland as the social security system is developed; understands that this is the largest transfer of powers to the Parliament and will require a major programme of transition and implementation in order to ensure that Scotland’s future social security system meets the needs, expectations and ambitions of its people; recognises that this transfer will affect 1.4 million people and that therefore the safe and secure transfer of benefits must be the priority and is only possible with the underpinning of both a robust delivery infrastructure and a legislative framework scrutinised by the Parliament, but is concerned at the lack of accountability regarding the Scottish Ministers’ proposals on the commencement of sections 22 and 23 of the Scotland Act 2016 and at the confusion that the ministers have generated over the future use of conditionality in the context of devolved employability programmes.”15:42
I welcome the opportunity to debate the future of social security in Scotland.
When it comes to the devolution of social security powers,
“It is important that the transition is smooth and people do not find themselves with a gap in payments. We recognise that this is a complex process and will take time to get right but it is also important that where we can help people now, we do this. The current social security system is failing people every day and we should not delay any opportunity we have to improve the lives of people on low incomes.”
Those are not my words, but the words of the Poverty Alliance.
“The longer no action is taken, the more disabled people will suffer and die at the hands of the Tories.”
Those are not my words but the words of the Scots film maker, in today’s Daily Record, who has documented the harrowing testimonies of those who have been subjected to personal independence payment assessments.
The devolution of welfare powers gives us the chance to restore dignity to the heart of the social security system, yet now we know that the SNP has delayed the devolution of the key welfare powers that it claimed to want urgently. The Tories will continue to make their cuts, and the most vulnerable will continue to suffer.
That is the same Scottish Government that told us that a whole new independent country could be set up in 18 months, but it now turns out that it will take years to devolve 11 benefits.
Will Mr Griffin give way?
I would like to make some progress. I have a specific point on the timetable and the delay that the cabinet secretary would perhaps like to address, and I will happily bring her in then.
The Scottish Government has spent its entire time in office arguing for the powers to enable it to make different choices from the Tories. Now, it is signing deals to delay the delivery of those powers that would allow it to choose a different path.
The cost to Scotland of leaving those powers with the Tories is substantial. Sheffield Hallam University calculates that Scotland has already lost £1.1 billion a year in social security payments, with another £1 billion to follow. Between 2010 and 2020, Glasgow alone looks set to lose £167 million, while West Lothian will lose £38 million, Fife will lose £74 million and North Lanarkshire will lose £78 million.
One of the most concerning examples of how that decision could impact people in Scotland is the migration from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment. The United Kingdom Government is currently moving disabled benefit recipients from the old benefit—DLA—to the personal independence payment, which could lead to Scots losing a collective £190 million a year.
Leaving executive competence in the hands of the UK Government could mean that 150,000 people on the old benefit remain at risk of going through the new assessment process while the Scottish Government waits for full control over those powers. During that time, the Tories will continue to make their cuts and the most vulnerable will continue to suffer. In the minister’s constituency, almost 3,000 people may have to endure a Tory PIP assessment while the Scottish National Party delays the transfer of powers. That also applies to another 2,260 people in the cabinet secretary’s constituency. In the region that I represent, almost 20,000 people will be at risk of going through the new assessment process and losing out because of the delay in assuming control over those benefits.
Mr Griffin, who is normally very eloquent and insightful, started off by quoting the Poverty Alliance. However, the Poverty Alliance has said to the Government and to every member in the chamber that we should proceed and conclude matters safely.
I must correct Mr Griffin—the minutes of the joint ministerial working group go to the Social Security Committee. On the cheap point that he tried to make about independence, if Scotland had voted yes in 2014 we would have been independent this year, but the welfare state would not have transitioned fully into our grasp until 2018. We need to set the record straight in that respect.
I said that I had a particular point to make about the delay in assuming those powers. That related to the danger for people who are on DLA and are reassessed and moved over to PIP. There has been no answer on that from the Scottish Government, but I hope that the minister will address the issue in summing up.
Approximately 20,000 people in my region, more than 2,000 people in the cabinet secretary’s constituency and 150,000 people overall across Scotland are on DLA and at risk of being reassessed and moved over to PIP because the Scottish Government is leaving executive competence with the UK Government.
Will the member take an intervention?
I will happily leave it to the minister to respond to those points in summing up—I have progress to make.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the future of social security in Scotland, but for people who rely on that support, the future is tomorrow, next week or next month—it is not 2020. The constituents who come to see us daily just cannot wait that long.
In September, we called on the Government to use the social security bill to set a legal duty on its new social security agency to increase the uptake of social security benefits and maximise incomes in Scotland.
Ahead of this debate, Labour has released new figures that show that 56,000 carers in Scotland do not receive the carers allowance to which they are entitled. Those figures have been verified by the independent experts in the Scottish Parliament information centre. They show that carers allowance worth £170 million has not been collected by 56,000 carers in Scotland who are entitled to it. Carers are often the unsung heroes of our country. Thousands of people dedicate their lives to caring for others and save the Government—in particular our national health service and social care system—billions of pounds through their selfless care and attention.
All parties in the Scottish Parliament agreed to increase carers allowance to the same rate as jobseekers allowance. That is an increase of £11 per week—the very least that carers deserve—and it will be worth £600 a year. To truly make sure that carers benefit, we want to increase the amount that they receive and ensure that every single carer who is eligible claims it. We believe that that could be achieved by placing a statutory duty on the new social security agency.
I will wind up there by simply asking members to support the amendment in my name.
I move amendment S5M-02651.3, to leave out from “understands” to “scrutinised by the Parliament” and insert:
“recognises the considerable work that local government and third sector welfare rights organisations do across the country to support people to maximise their incomes; believes that an extensive public information campaign, complemented by a well-resourced welfare rights network, can further this work in advance of the transfer of social security powers; agrees that a statutory duty on the new social security agency to maximise people's incomes is necessary to ensure increased take-up by those who are eligible; understands that this is the largest transfer of powers to the Parliament and will require a major programme of transition and implementation in order to ensure that Scotland’s future social security system meets the needs, expectations and ambitions of its people; recognises that this transfer will affect 1.4 million people and that therefore the safe and secure transfer of benefits must be the priority, but believes that the complexities of devolution must neither undermine or impede the delivery of real changes for Scotland’s most vulnerable, and that devolution must be realised before 2020 to allow the Parliament and the Scottish Government to halt and reverse the worst effects of Tory social security cuts”.15:50
I have been looking forward to the opportunity to speak in the debate, but first I want to clarify something for Mr Tomkins. The letter that he referred to says:
“Dear Sandra, ... as I confirmed to the committee DWP will make referrals to devolved employment programmes on a voluntary basis.”
It goes on:
“For the avoidance of doubt, a voluntary referral means that a benefit sanction would not be applied for failure to attend or participate in the programme.”
That is that issue laid to rest, and I hope that Mr Tomkins will take that on board.
Will Sandra White give way on that point?
I will take an intervention.
I feel an exchange of quotations coming on.
You read my mind, Presiding Officer. On the very next page of the letter, the secretary of state goes on to say:
“It is also worth noting that these claimants will still be required to meet other conditions to continue to receive benefit—meaning they will need to demonstrate that they are looking for work”,
otherwise they will still be eligible for conditions.
Ms White, do you have another quote back?
No, I do not want to quote back, but I want to say something to Mr Tomkins. He quotes the second page of the letter. He is also very confused. If Mr Tomkins turned up at meetings and did not have two jobs to go to, he might not be so confused. I will not take any lessons from someone who publicly said that he could not live on an MSP’s salary so he had to have a second job. I will leave it there, but perhaps Mr Tomkins can think about that. Maybe he is confusing—
Could we return to the motion?
I will, but that is part of the motion.
I am proud of the SNP Government, which is committed to taking the new system in a very different direction from what I see as the archaic and punitive structure that the Tory Government has put in place. The SNP will deliver a system that will treat people with dignity and respect. I welcome that commitment and I sincerely hope that other members, regardless of their party, welcome it too. As the minister said, a timetable is in place for the safe and secure transfer of powers. It is the responsibility of the Social Security Committee, which I convene, to ensure that the social security bill is thoroughly scrutinised.
I was rather concerned by Mark Griffin’s remarks. I think very highly of Mark Griffin, but the Labour Party and the Tory party seem to be hand in hand in scaring people—that is what they are doing. We want a smooth transition that does not result in people falling through the net, but that will not happen if the legislation is rushed through, and Mark Griffin knows that.
We are clearly not working hand in hand with the Tories, since we are criticising the fact that the powers are remaining with the Tories. Perhaps Sandra White could address the point that 150,000 people in Scotland are in danger of being reassessed when going from DLA to PIP because of the delay in the transfer of executive competence from the UK Government. Why does Sandra White not want to protect her constituents and mine who are at risk of reassessment?
Obviously, I want to protect them. However, Mr Griffin does not seem to grasp the point. Of the people who are on DLA at the moment, those who are 65 and over will always be on DLA and some will go to PIP. That is complicated enough without all of a sudden saying that we are going to do something within a couple of months. It is not a delay; it is looking at the issue responsibly. I would have thought that, of all people, Labour Party members would want the measures to work, not just for their constituents but for all the people of Scotland. We have a golden opportunity to do something absolutely different, yet members still carp from the sidelines and frighten people. That is what they are doing, and that is quite unforgivable.
We have to focus and ensure that we deliver for the people. The minister mentioned some of the initiatives that are being taken, such as the experience panels. That is a great and very people-focused initiative. It is a welcome move that will inform the initial design of the system and improvements to it going forward.
As has been said, we have to remember that 85 per cent of the powers will stay with Westminster. We wanted 100 per cent of the powers to be in the Parliament, and it is rather sad that the unionist parties did not want that. Let us be quite honest about that, and let us not confuse the people out there. We wanted 100 per cent and we could have delivered that 100 per cent. We have only 15 per cent but, as I set out to say, we are where we are and we have to make the best of what we have got.
I thank the Daily Record for its continued support with regard to PIP payments. It has done a good job on that and I am sure that it will continue to do so. We must not kid people on that the changes will happen in a couple of months. Their lives depend on it, and I do not want to be responsible for kidding them on.
Many members will have seen the film “I, Daniel Blake”. I was asked to go along to a screening of it last Thursday and to take part in a question-and-answer session afterwards with Monica Lennon, who is not here today; Paul Laverty, the screenwriter; and representatives from food banks. The film was absolutely heartbreaking. I have heard some people say that it is not true to life, but I assure members that it is. Constituents come to us who have been sanctioned simply because they have an illness and, perhaps, they could not make it that morning. They have been told, “If you don’t turn up on time, the reason doesn’t matter. You will be sanctioned.” That is punitive and it has nothing to do with people’s actual lives. We have to look at it in a different way.
After seeing that film, I pledged to the people who were there that night that I would try to get a screening here in the Scottish Parliament, and that is in process. I believe that every member should be able to see that film and be charged with ensuring that we have no more Daniel Blakes.
Thank you. I do not know whether you were hitting the microphone, but something was crackling. Perhaps it was your passion. Also, although I recognise passion, I remind members to speak courteously to each other in the chamber. Thank you.15:56
As Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act of 1935, which was the first act of its kind in the USA, he said:
“We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.”
I suggest that there can be no better definition of what a social security system should be and I hope that the Scottish Government takes inspiration from it.
I am grateful for the representations from the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Enable Scotland and Inclusion Scotland, to name but three of the many that I was pleased to receive, which make it clear that this is not just about protection but about emphasising that each individual is treated with dignity and respect.
Adam Tomkins was clear that, when the powers are devolved, the rest of the UK will remain responsible for around two thirds of social security, and that deserves respect. The motion is wrong to ignore that and the amendment is right to bring it up.
Working-age benefits perform two different functions: they support people with very low incomes and they support people with additional needs. Most of the former fall to be considered under universal credit, which will remain reserved to the UK Parliament, and most of the latter will be devolved. We agree that the priority in the design and delivery of devolved social security must be the welfare of the people in Scotland who rely on it, and the system should exhibit fairness, respect and responsibility. Those must be the watchwords for the Scottish Government as we move towards Scotland’s first ever social security system.
However, fairness is two way. Real fairness requires that where people cannot work, they must be supported, but where they are able to work, they should do so. We believe that a successful system of social security is one that encourages an individual into fulfilling work for, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation tells us,
“Work is the best route to economic security and a better standard of living.”
The Scottish Government must therefore design with respect. It should acknowledge the success of the UK Government’s welfare reforms and policies designed to help people to get back to work, such as—
Will the member take an intervention?
I wondered whether I would get an intervention on that point. I will of course give way.
Mr Adam, you are on cue.
Well, yes. It would have been quite obvious. The member mentioned
“the success of the UK Government’s welfare reforms”.
Does he agree that sanctions and the process for PIP reassessment have been proven to damage people’s physical and mental wellbeing, in some cases leading people to commit suicide? Is that part of the success of the Tory Government’s welfare reforms?
Sanctions are an important part of the benefits system. Of course I do not condone any of the things that George Adam described, and if there is evidence in that regard I will be pleased to consider it, but sanctions are a part of our benefits system.
I am sure that the Scottish Government will welcome the good parts of the UK Government’s welfare reforms. It will no doubt also welcome this afternoon’s announcement by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, that the personal allowance will be increased to £12,500, which will take 113,000 people out of income tax altogether.
Will the member take an intervention?
Presiding Officer, if I take the intervention will I be allowed more time at the end of my speech?
I will give you a little more time, because it is a shame not to have interventions.
Does the member think that a 65 per cent success rate in appeals against PIP decisions is an advantage of the UK system that we should take into account? Does he think that the roll-out of universal credit, which has been postponed and postponed again, causing severe difficulty in the areas in Scotland where it is being rolled out, with a peak in applications to our Scottish welfare fund, because applications are failing—
That is a long intervention, minister. That is enough—
Does he think that those are good examples—
I am sorry, minister. You have to sit down.
I thank Jeane Freeman for her speech. I say in response, and to move on, that we support a system that is uniquely designed for Scotland. In her earlier speech, Jeane Freeman said that we have to design and build a Scottish system together. We agree. We will constructively engage with the Scottish Government on that. That is what a fair social security system should have at its core, so let us get on and build it.
The Scottish National Party has complained long and bitterly about not having powers over welfare and social security. It can complain no longer. Soon, this Government will have serious decisions to make. It is right—indeed it is of the utmost importance—that the Government should take possession of those powers only when it is good and ready, because the powers are, by far and away, the most important ever held by this place. That is responsibility.
I find myself agreeing with Angela Constance and Sandra White—perhaps uniquely. Mark Griffin is usually balanced, interesting and good to listen to, but to say to this Government, “Get on and do it now, before you are ready”, is, to me, the height of responsibility. [Interruption.] Irresponsibility.
Make your mind up.
It is crucial for the Scottish people that we all have full confidence in whatever welfare system is created by the Scottish Government, because it will be the Scottish Government’s system, not Westminster’s. If there are faults, they will be the Scottish Government’s faults. If there are delays or hold-ups to payments, they will be the Scottish Government’s delays. Controversial or difficult decisions that have to be taken will be the Scottish Government’s decisions. That will take some getting used to.
I am genuinely pleased and relieved that the Scottish Government has admitted that it is not ready to take on these immense new powers and has asked for a delay. However, let us all remember that the UK Government is ready to press ahead. Jeane Freeman talked about the UK Government having the right attitude to transition. Let us never lose sight of the fact that, as Messrs Mundell and Green made clear, the UK Government is
“willing to commit to try the untested method of splitting competence, using best endeavours to work with Scottish Government to transfer legislative competence by June 2017”
“recipients of benefits are core to considerations”.
Let us have less complaining and less of the isn’t-Westminster-awful attitude and maybe a bit of acknowledgement that we are all trying to do the best for the people of Scotland. We can start by voting for the Scottish Conservative amendment today.
I call Ruth Maguire. I can give you a very tight six minutes, Ms Maguire.16:03
During the election campaign, social security was one of the main issues about which people came to speak to me. The message was clear: people are suffering and we need to do things differently.
The Scottish Parliament can and must do better, where we are able to do so. We need a system that is better than the one that the United Nations condemned as leading to “grave” and “systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights. It must be better than the one that gave rise to the UK Supreme Court’s ruling that the UK Government’s changes to housing benefits discriminate against disabled people. It must be better than the one in which people are wrongly found fit to work and are driven to despair and worse. It must be better than the one that has brought international shame on us, as people watch a film about the UK benefits system whose storyline is almost too awful to believe that it is real.
Colleagues across the chamber know that the horrors of the UK welfare system are all too real. We have taken disturbing evidence from groups such as the black triangle campaign, as well as from trusted MSP colleagues, about vulnerable individuals committing suicide as a result of distressing, inaccurate work capability assessments. The secretary of state expressed his distaste at the matter being brought up in committee, but that is the reality as set out in the DWP’s own inquiry reports as well as in people’s personal testimonies. He levied the charge of politicising individual tragedies, but let us be clear: this became political the second that the UK Government embarked on its programme of ideological austerity and made the decision to target the poorest and most vulnerable groups in society in the name of deficit reduction. It is those who are responsible, their apologists and their cheerleaders whom I find distasteful. Tory welfare reform is a horror show and a shambles. If we can learn anything from it, it is how not to do things here in Scotland.
Eighty-five per cent of welfare powers will remain under Westminster control, and even those that are being devolved are impacted by cuts. It is estimated that, by the time that the responsibility for personal independence payments is devolved in 2018, a further £190 million a year will have been taken from claimants in Scotland. As a result, a smaller budget line will eventually be handed over. Despite that—and although I would rather have seen 100 per cent of power and responsibility sitting with our Scottish Parliament—I am pleased that the 15 per cent that is being devolved includes disability benefits, which will allow us to take a different approach to one of the groups that has suffered the most under the morally bankrupt welfare reform of the Tory party.
It is bad enough that the welfare reform is morally bankrupt but, to add insult to injury, it does not even work. Academic research has concluded that
“there is no evidence across Scotland that welfare reform has resulted in higher levels of employment or higher levels of labour market engagement.”
The Tories’ work programme has been a disaster. Figures show that people were five times more likely to be sanctioned in one year—2014—than to find a job between 2011 and 2014. That is one simple illustration from an abundance of research evidence that establishes that punitive sanctions are an ineffective way to get people into work. No financial incentive will cure disability or illness, but stress and worry will exacerbate most conditions. To put it bluntly, you cannot starve people into jobs that do not exist.
The more deprived the local authority, the greater the per capita financial hit from welfare reform. My area of North Ayrshire is the third worst hit, with claimants estimated to experience an annual financial loss of £380 per working-age adult by 2020-21, which penalises and alienates those who are already most disadvantaged in society. It also takes money away from our local economies—the economies that face the greatest challenges—compounding already difficult situations and heaping more pressure on our public services. The same areas that were devastated by Tory de-industrialisation in the 1980s are being hit again now. It is interesting, but probably of little surprise, that the places that are least affected by welfare reforms are those from which the Tory party draws its political support. As Professor Steve Fothergill says:
“There is an amazing coincidence involving the electoral geography of Britain and the impacts of the welfare reforms.”—[Official Report, Social Security Committee, 17 November 2016; c 13.]
Social security cannot be entrusted to the hands of the Tories. Their universal credit is currently five years behind schedule and has been fraught with administrative difficulties and errors that are causing real harm in our communities. Figures that were published recently by the Trussell Trust show that benefit delays were the most frequent reason for referral to a food bank and that benefit changes were the third most common factor. The delays and changes have resulted in families being unable to eat—that is the reality of Tory welfare reform. Our priority must be the safe and secure transfer of benefits. Our Scottish Government must not let itself be pushed into false timescales or accused of fabricated delays by a Tory party whose own benefits reform is an absolute and on-going shambles.
I could not be more conscious of the weight of responsibility on us all to get this right for the 1.4 million people who are relying on us to ensure that no one falls through the gap and to create a social security system that they can trust—one that is based on dignity and respect. I am proud to support a Government with those values at its heart, and I will do everything that I can to ensure the success of this complex and most important of undertakings as we build our Scottish social security system.
Before I call Neil Findlay, I remind members—in particular Mr Liam Kerr, who left the chamber immediately after his speech—that under the Presiding Officer's guidance there is a convention that you remain in the chamber for the next two speeches after yours. I expect Mr Kerr to explain his leaving to the Presiding Officers. This is not the first time that I have had to comment to members on the benches to my right and I very much regret that.
I apologise to Mr Findlay. You will get your time back.16:10
I begin by probably doing Ruth Maguire’s career no good whatsoever by saying that in the main I thought that she just made a tremendous speech. It was one of the best speeches on welfare that I have heard in this Parliament.
This debate gets to the very heart of what we are about. Are we a society that acts as individuals, in which people—no matter what misfortune life deals them—have to fend for themselves, left to the mercy of the market, or are we a society that believes in the principles of collectivism, empathy and social and economic solidarity?
The minister, before she abandoned socialism for nationalism, would have been familiar with the phrase, “From each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs.” That, to me, sums up what our social security system should be about. All of us, at any point in our lives, could experience a bereavement, illness, disability or lose our job. We could all be like Daniel Blake—or Katie, the young woman—in the film, and I absolutely concur with Sandra White that we should bring the film “Daniel Blake” to Parliament as soon as possible. Personally, I would force every single member to watch it, whether they wanted to or not.
I want us to take the chance to create a system based on those principles that I set out. What we do is critical to the 33,000 children in Scotland who receive DLA; it is critical to the 103,000 people of retirement age who receive it too; and it is critical to the one in three people of working age who rely on the current social security system and live on benefits that are to be transferred to this Parliament.
I support the call from the Govan Law Centre to move the debate on from what they call “techno-speak”, to what is really important—the eradication of poverty and inequality. I agree with the motion that social security is an investment in the people of Scotland and that it is the lived experiences of those who have experienced the system that should shape any new set-up. We have to use this opportunity to end the crude, dehumanising and dispiriting rules steeped in callous Tory ideology. I see at this point that Mr Tomkins rightly has his head down.
Last week, in a performance filled with arrogance and bravado, the minister blamed anyone and everyone for her Government’s failure to bring in the new powers on time. All through the debate of the last five years the SNP made promises and raised expectations that the Government would use Scotland’s new powers to reduce inequality. On social protection, the white paper on independence stated:
“We will ... work to ensure the transitional period is as short as possible,”
“end in 2018."
Now we are told that those timescales cannot be met for another two years, extending people’s misery. If the minister had a shred of humility she would stop lashing out at others for holding the Government to account for what it said, and would apologise for its previous claims.
Will the member take an intervention?
Mr Findlay, I am not lashing out at others, but people need to learn to count. The white paper talked about a transition period between 2014 and 2018; that is four years. We are talking about introducing the social security powers—the delivery as well as the legislation—in the lifetime of this Parliament. That will be slightly over four years, once the consultation is concluded. I do not really understand the point that Mr Findlay is trying to make, unless it is just a political go.
We would never accuse the minister of trying to use the benefits system for political gain—God forbid.
We cannot allow technical barriers to get in the way of alleviating hardship. The Govan Law Centre suggests using local authorities in the interim. They already successfully distribute the Scottish welfare fund, discretionary housing payments, council tax and housing benefit. Why can we not exploit that expertise? Personally, I think that the reality is that this Government does not trust or respect local government and will do all it can to undermine it. That is a big missed opportunity, because the Tories are savaging our social security system now; people are suffering now. We need to implement solutions now, even if they are only interim solutions.
Some of the organisations that have provided briefings for today’s debate, such as SCVO and Unison, have urged us not to use the phrase “claimants’ charter”. I agree with them, as I think that it strikes the wrong tone. Many of them favour a rights-based system; again, I agree. I hope that that will be up front and on the face of the bill, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will confirm that when she sums up the debate.
I also suggest that the new system should ditch the dogma of everything having to be digital. Not all people can or want to use digital systems and they should have a choice.
If the new system is to be target driven, can we have a target to ensure that all people who are entitled to a benefit get it and that payments are delivered accurately to ensure that carers, the disabled, families and the unemployed receive the support that they need? That is in line with the recommendation of the First Minister’s independent adviser on poverty and inequality.
If we are genuinely to deliver on ending the poverty and inequality that blight our communities, there needs to be a concerted, long-term redistribution of wealth and power. Rather than tinkering with the council tax, we must scrap it and fund local government fully. There should be a right to food, and hard cash should be directed to areas of most need. We should end subsidies for companies that exploit workers and avoid paying their taxes, provide adequate funding for youth employment initiatives such as B.L.E.S Training in my region, whose budget has been slashed by Skills Development Scotland, and end the cuts to health and social care budgets.
Would you close now, please, Mr Findlay?
I was to get a bit of extra time for interventions.
No. Close now, please, Mr Findlay.
The previous Presiding Officer said that I would get the time back.
Close now please, Mr Findlay.
What is the so-called “reformed benefits system” that the Tories have been celebrating as a means of covering up their vicious cuts to the incomes of the most vulnerable? It involves a Westminster culture of blame and punishment. Whether it is the disabled, the mentally ill, migrants, refugees or Muslims, the Tories have successfully fanned the flames of anger away from their own failures. A great many of the fundamental components that are built into the current system have more of a flavour of Dickensian patronage than they do of the 21st century.
I imagine that the just-completed Scottish Government consultation on social security will contain expert and end-user reports on how the existing system has made them feel diminished, humiliated, demoralised and helpless. That message is reiterated by groups such as Inclusion Scotland, the Glasgow Disability Alliance, Engender and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland, all of which are calling for the same main principles, which are guided by human rights standards, to be set in legislation.
Engender highlights the disproportionate effect that welfare reform has had on women. It cites the following figures:
“Disabled women are amongst those most affected by social security policy. Over the course of the current UK parliament alone, £4.4bn worth of cuts will come from disabled people, a majority of whom are women. In Scotland, 55% of those on personal independence payments ... are women, as are 65% in receipt of Attendance Allowance.”
It is bad enough to be punished for being a claimant, but to be doubly punished for being a woman with a disability is frankly obscene.
Christina McKelvie is a great and passionate advocate of human rights. What is her position on the right to work? Will she join me in celebrating the facts that there are more jobs in the British economy than ever before, more disabled people in work in Britain than ever before and more women in work than ever before?
I will be more than happy to join Mr Tomkins in celebrating that right if he signs my motion condemning the impact of the UK Government’s welfare reforms on people with disabilities, as identified in the United Nations report. Quid pro quo, Mr Tomkins.
Our Scottish system must be more positive and must support a culture of change around social security. Our approach needs to be inclusive and to involve in co-production the people who access the system, and the whole package should be guided by international human rights standards and set in legislation.
As members know, I continue to campaign on behalf of motor neurone disease sufferers. The current MND Scotland campaign, “Let’s get benefits right for people with MND”, reveals the story of Yvonne Nee and her dad, Bill Lavery, who lived in Hamilton. Sadly, Bill died as a result of MND in 2014.
“I speak as the broken-hearted daughter of a great man who was taken from me by this cruel illness. My dad was diagnosed in July 2014 and passed away in September 2014.
I was involved in applying for benefits for my dad during this short time and he worried about the outcome of the application every day. This was horrible to watch and financially a terrible time as we tried to secure the best deal for our dad.
MND sufferers have enough to deal with, without constant fear of benefit review. Their condition will not improve.
The day before he died he was awarded his benefits.”
There are many heartbreaking stories like that one, but are we to blame this man for being so inconsiderate as to have had a brutal, terminal illness? Are we, in his dying days, to worry him about whether he will get his benefit payments?
Is there some bizarre Tory rationale that generally asserts that illness and disability are something that people can control? I think that most of us would respond by saying, “Don’t be ridiculous! Of course you can’t blame people for having health issues.” However, the truth is that that is exactly what the current system does. In effect, it says, “How dare you have a long-term health condition. Get on your bike.”
We are going to receive the largest ever transfer of powers. Yes, it is still less of a transfer than I would like, and it will be challenging to redesign a social security system when you have access to only 15 per cent of the funds, but this is where we can really start to make a positive change to the lives of 1.4 million people in Scotland. That said, we need to recognise the context and the simple fact that the proportion of the Scottish social security budget that will be devolved to Scotland amounts to only £2.7 billion of the total £17.5 billion spent here every year.
This Government—our Government—has worked hard to find out where the problems are, to consult with the individuals and the organisations involved, and indeed to consult with this place. We now have strong data to work from so that we can make the right decisions; we have set down five essential principles for moving forward; and we will have a national social security agency to administer payments. I say “payments” rather than “claims”, as they are a right rather than something that has to be screamed for, and they are to be made from within a balanced society that recognises and appreciates our diversity in all its colours, shapes, races, disabilities, genders, sexuality and much, much more. Any one of us might have to reach out for that kind of support at any point in our lives; we should never assume that we will not be one of those individuals.
We know what we need to do. We need to ensure that this transition is efficient and seamless in order to deliver on fairness, dignity, equality and respect.
You must close, Ms McKelvie.
We will not be given lessons through a failed Tory policy.16:22
At the weekend, I was reading a document that mentioned welfare in Scotland a number of times. It predicted a rosy future with increased “fairness” and healthy handouts for all who need it. Here are some of its claims. It said that there could be
“A halt to the rollout of Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments in Scotland allowing future Scottish governments to develop reforms to our welfare system that meet our needs”.
It went on to say that
“If we leave welfare in Westminster’s hands, our welfare state is likely to be changed beyond recognition.”
The document, which was produced before the independence referendum, also said:
“Following independence, the immediate priorities will be to reverse the most damaging and counterproductive of the UK welfare changes”,
and concluded that
“If the result of the referendum is No, decisions on welfare, defence and foreign policy will continue to be taken by Westminster for Scotland, whatever the views of the Scottish electorate.”
Those are some of the 211 mentions of “welfare” in the Scottish National Party’s independence white paper. We should remember that this was when it was telling us that we could be an independent country in just 18 months.
So—what of the claim that decisions on welfare would be taken by Westminster? Apart from the fact that Westminster is a district of London that no more takes decisions than Lambeth does, that has not proved to be the case, has it? Since September, the Scottish Parliament has had the power to create new benefits in devolved areas, to top up reserved benefits, to provide discretionary payments and assistance, to change employment support, and to make changes to universal credit with regard to the costs of rented accommodation and the timing of payments and receipts.
Unfortunately, Jeane Freeman did not want to take an intervention from me. I was going to ask what she intends to do with the first tranche of powers. Perhaps she will tell us that now. I see that she will not.
The party that told us that it could create an independent country in 18 months now says that it does not want to take control of any more welfare powers—all £2.7 billion-worth of them—until 2020.
Members of other parties need to get their story straight. Graham Simpson says that we are not dealing with the powers quickly enough and Mark Griffin agrees, while Liam Kerr says that it would be irresponsible to move too quickly. Which is it? Do members want to work together and take our time to try to ensure that we get it right, or should we just leap in and take charge right away?
I am always delighted to hear from Ms Evans. I point out that Mr Griffin is not a member of my party. If Ms Evans wishes to hear my whole speech, she will get the answer.
We have the carers allowance, the disability living allowance, personal independence payments, maternity grants and winter fuel payments. At the end of the process, the Scottish Government will be responsible for 17 per cent of benefits.
As Adam Tomkins pointed out, the request to go down the route of asking the UK Government to share the load until the SNP is ready came from left field, but the UK Government is helping. We should be grateful for that, so I hope that we will hear the words “Thank you” from the minister later. The situation reminds me a bit of the teenager who wants to fly the nest but still wants their washing to be done for them.
Let us ask what social security is for. It is a safety net—that much is obvious. Some people will need to be on welfare until the day they die, but for most people it should act as a financial cushion to help them to move on. The problem used to be that we had the benefits trap. [Laughter.] I am sorry that George Adam finds this amusing: it is not.
With the benefits trap it simply did not pay to come off benefits and go into work, which was cruel, demeaning and bad for society. Employment must always reward people who are able to work, and the benefits system has to be simple and understandable. That is why we have the universal credit system and the work programme.
Will the member take an intervention?
More people are now in work across the UK than ever before. [Interruption.] I say to Mr Adam that I am not taking an intervention.
Please sit down, Mr Adam.
If Mr Adam had not been chortling at the back, I might have taken an intervention from him.
Scotland’s employment rate remains lower than that of the UK, and it is lower now than it was when the SNP first came to office: it stands at 59.2 per cent, which is lower than it was in May 2007, when it was 61.1 per cent.
Adam Tomkins, whom I have never seen play football and never wish to see play football, rightly accuses the SNP of playing political soccer over sanctions with those who refuse to play ball. We need to get real. If the goal is to get people off benefits and into work and on the best route out of poverty, sanctions or incentives must be part of the system. We all need to pull together on that.
Will the member take an intervention?
No. It is too late, Ms Haughey.
I am in my final minute.
All parties and all Governments need to pull together. The time for game playing is over.16:28
I pay tribute to the manner in which the consultation has been undertaken. Devolution of responsibility for some aspects of social security is a major change in Parliament’s powers. Those social security powers have a huge impact on the lives of more than 1 million Scots, and a new system will have to be created from the ground up. Accordingly, a serious, wide-ranging and open-minded consultation was required. For the most part, that is what we have had in the past few months.
We know that women are more likely to receive support through social security than men are. Benefits comprise 20 per cent of the average woman’s income, compared with 10 per cent for men. With the gender pay gap, that means that women are more likely than men are to experience poverty.
Christina McKelvie, too, noted that some of the benefits to be devolved are significantly gendered. For example, 64 per cent of attendance allowance recipients are women, as are 68 per cent of carers allowance recipients. That is why I particularly welcome the increase in the value of carers allowance and the Government’s efforts to administer the increase initially through the DWP so that the money can be paid as soon as possible.
The Scottish Government’s own 2013 analysis of the gender impacts of welfare reform showed that the child benefit freeze impacts on women’s income substantially, because 95 per cent of child benefit claims are paid to women. It is estimated that between 2011-12 and 2015-16 a family with two children would have received £1,100 less than they would have done had child benefit been uprated by the retail price index measure of inflation. By 2020, child benefit will have lost about 28 per cent of its previous value.
However, Scotland does not have to accept that. As of September this year, the Scottish Parliament can top up the value of benefits even if they are reserved to Westminster. As well as easing women’s poverty, a £5 top-up would make significant inroads into child poverty by decreasing relative child poverty by 14 per cent and affecting positively the lives of 30,000 children.
With the Scottish Government wanting to put child poverty targets back into law, I was encouraged to hear from Jeane Freeman at the Social Security Committee that a child benefit top-up is being considered. I ask the minister to update us on that consideration and on progress that is being made on the commitment to providing a young carer’s benefit.
I will now address devolution of benefits that assist people with costs arising from disability. Disability living allowance and the benefit that replaces it—the personal independence payment—and the attendance allowance for older people represent about 50 per cent of the value of benefits that are being devolved. Members will already be familiar with the harrowing stories of Scots who have lost thousands of pounds in the switch to PIP. I encourage those who are not familiar with the stories to watch the short films that have been made by the stop PIP campaign.
Does Alison Johnstone accept that many people are transferred seamlessly from DLA to PIP? Their cases are not being heard simply because they do not correspond with us or with MPs. We have to take them into account when we are discussing the issues.
I point out to Jeremy Balfour that 30 per cent of claimants who are reassessed get no PIP award at all, and that of those who qualify for a transfer to PIP, 46 per cent of DLA higher-rate claimants are moved to it at a lower rate, which is having a devastating impact. In the long term, that could result in approximately 46,000 disabled people losing automatic entitlement to concessionary travel.
We have heard from Adam Tomkins and Liam Kerr that we should celebrate the right to work, but what about the people who would very much like to work but now cannot get to work because of the blue-badge cuts and Motability car cuts that are leaving them isolated? For those who currently work, the cuts are making it much more difficult for them to keep their jobs.
The figures are even worse for new claimants, 58 per cent of whom get no award. With 40 per cent of claims being changed after an internal review and 63 per cent of applicants having claims reinstated on full appeal, clearly something is deeply wrong with PIP.
I very much welcome, therefore, the Government’s pledge to establish a disability benefits commission and to move towards long-term awards for recipients who have long-term conditions. However, that will take time. In the meantime, more claimants will be subjected to the obviously flawed assessments, and those who have already been reassessed and had their awards reduced or removed entirely will continue to suffer.
I would therefore like the Scottish Government to consider the following three interim measures. First, that it requests of the DWP that all DLA-to-PIP reassessments be put on hold until the relevant part of the Scotland Act 2016 is commenced. I do not believe that it is in the spirit of the devolution settlement for such extensive changes to be made to a policy area that is scheduled to be devolved. Secondly, I ask that, from the point of devolution, new applications for PIP be made under the old DLA assessment until a new system can be developed. Thirdly, I ask the Scottish Government to seek to compensate the worst-affected claimants until they can be reassessed under a new system.
Devolution of social security is a major test for this Parliament—perhaps the biggest test since 1999. Creating a fairer system will not be easy, particularly given the huge cuts that have come in recent years, but it is clear that the corrupting and warping of our social security system that has taken place—
You must close, Ms Johnstone.
—has not been done in the name of or with the will of the Scottish people. If this Parliament is to retain credibility, we must challenge that.
You must close, Ms Johnstone.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.16:34
The enduring test of this Parliament is how we answer the challenge of inequality in our society. So, newly empowered with the levers that are necessary to build a uniquely Scottish safety net, we must get it right for all the 1.4 million people on the fringes and in the mainstream of our society who are relying on us to do that. We must put aside our differences and seek to coalesce in the construction of a new system that is steeped in the values of compassion, simplicity and fairness. We need to use this opportunity to build a system that exists to catch the people who fall through the tears in the fabric our society: a system that is responsive, dignified, clear to understand, inviting, flexible and swift in its application.
My party leader, Willie Rennie, has spoken many times in support of the Government’s approach to social security. Indeed, there exists an ideological symmetry across the progressive parties in Parliament, which makes it easy to support the Government’s motion.
In the past, we have supported the Government’s efforts to mitigate and correct the failures of the existing welfare system. I refer first to the DLA takeaway, which was an iniquitous loophole that was accidentally created in the corridors of Whitehall under the misapprehension that the parent of a disabled child who had to go into hospital for 87 linked or consecutive days was absolved of all caring responsibilities. However, if members were to ask any caring parent who has been in those circumstances, they would find that that is far from the truth. I congratulate the Scottish Government for taking action to remedy that loophole in the previous session.
We were full throated in our support of the fund for local authorities to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax and we were unified in our commitment, which was matched by the SNP at the election, that the carers allowance should be given parity with jobseekers allowance. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the silent army of carers in our country—whom, in many ways, we exploit—who do what they do out of love for their families, and who in some cases are just one late-night hospital dash from surrender. We must not rest on our laurels after empowering them and giving them more money through the carers allowance; we must increase access and provision of respite.
We must also recognise the legions of young carers in our society. The minister joined me at the young carers festival in the summer; she could not have failed to be moved by the contribution that young carers make to our society.
The debate rightly shifts our focus to the art of the possible—the suite of powers that are now afforded to this chamber and the Government, and how best we might put into practice the ideological symmetry that I described. In and around administration of the housing benefit component of universal credit, we need to work with the DWP to reinstate the option for rent to be paid directly to landlords. Many families and third sector organisations are deeply anxious about that, and it may ring the dinner bell for unscrupulous elements in our society who see more disposable income in chaotic families.
While our gaze is on housing, we must address existing problems that fall under the powers of Parliament, including local authorities freezing benefit payments when there is a dispute about a claim. Sometimes we rely on the goodwill of social landlords not to evict people when they do not receive payments. I refer Parliament to my entry in the register of interests, which states that I am a social landlord.
The transference of powers over disability benefit offers us the opportunity to shape an empowering offer to those in our society who are affected by disability—a new offer that builds on the progressive approach that the Government took to the DLA takeaway and is based on evidence and the lived experience of those in our society who have faced repeated humiliation in an assessment regime that is based on suspicion and a drive to disapply their qualification.
Does Alex Cole-Hamilton accept that his party stood hand in hand with the Tories as architects of the austerity that has caused some of the worst benefit cuts in this country?
In this country, we now see the effects on disabled people of a Tory Government that is unfettered and unmitigated by Liberal Democrat control.
In all 11 benefits that will pass to the Scottish Parliament, we have the opportunity to address the aspects of the system that the minister rightly described as “heartless” and to make it far simpler for people to access the system. We would do well to heed the views that are given in the Poverty Alliance Scotland’s briefing.
Throughout the debate, we have heard that transfer of the powers will be necessarily complex, and that they must be transferred with a degree of safety and an understanding of what the implications are for those who will receive them. I find it astonishing that nowhere in the dark vaults of Victoria Quay or SNP headquarters is there a position paper, blueprint or white paper that underpins the foundations of the new system. In the nine months since Scotland might have received full independence—during which time babies have been conceived, gestated and safely delivered—the canvas of our new social security system is still as blank as the Parliament’s webpage for active bills.
I will finish on a slightly more conciliatory note. I applaud the steps that have been taken by the Scottish Government to address and mitigate the faults of our existing welfare powers using the levers of control that it has at its disposal. That is why the Liberal Democrats will support the Government motion, as amended by the Labour Party amendment.
I heard my colleague speak earlier about the Presiding Officer’s written convention that members should be in the chamber for two speeches before their own and two speeches after. There are always exceptions to those things, so notes of apologies are grand, but it is even better if people let us know beforehand that they might be required elsewhere. Please be assured that we are aware of people leaving and coming back into the chamber, and do not need to be reminded too often by members.16:42
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I can assure you that I am well aware of the rules and regulations with regard to chamber etiquette.
I am extremely pleased to be speaking and taking part in the debate for two reasons in particular. First, I have many constituents who can tell horror stories about the so-called Tory welfare reforms. Secondly, the powers that we will have in the future can and will make a difference to the lives of those constituents.
The first issue that we need to address is the safe and secure transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament, because we are dealing with real people who, in many cases, live in very difficult and challenging circumstances. This is not some cold, academic debate; it is far more important than that. We need to ensure that, when the day comes, the Scottish Government can ensure that everyone gets the payment that they are due at the time that it is due.
During this debate, the Conservatives have played a bizarre role. While their friends and colleagues at Westminster are cutting and slashing welfare budgets and their Westminster team is making ordinary people’s lives in Scotland hell, they have the cheek to criticise the Scottish Government and not their own Government in London—or Westminster, or whatever Graham Simpson wants to call it.
I will give some examples of the devastation caused by Tory Westminster welfare reform and I will explain to Mr Tomkins why I am aggrieved. I am aggrieved about an unemployed man in Paisley who was sanctioned for not turning up to his required appointment at the job centre for employability training. He never turned up and he never even phoned them, but that might have been because he was in a hospital bed in the Royal Alexandra hospital following a major heart attack. However, he was sanctioned.
I am also aggrieved about the young man who was sanctioned for going to a jobs fair in Aberdeen, even though he had informed the job centre that that was what he was going to do.
Further, I am aggrieved about a woman in Paisley, who has a long-term condition and who went through the Tory PIP process only for the mobility part of her award to be taken away. She has given her car up this week. My constituent was encouraged by the DWP to not appeal the decision, even though 60 per cent of benefits are reinstated on appeal. When she decided to appeal, it was too late.
Those stories are the norm, but there are others that take a more tragic turn, such as the stories of people who take their own life after being forced through the Tory PIP assessments, made to feel as if they are nothing, a drain on society and not worthy. We all know that they should not feel that way. We know that that is not the country that we want to live in—the country that we want for the future—and we will work towards ensuring that we can correct many of the issues that the current system has created. How can people feel valued by a system that is designed to wreck their lives?
The UN report that was published on 7 November and mentioned by my colleague Christina McKelvie described the austerity policies introduced into welfare and social care by the UK Government as amounting to “systematic violations” of the rights of people with disabilities. The report condemned the UK Government for bulldozing through the changes to social security in the knowledge that they would have an adverse impact on disabled people and called on the UK Government to carry out a study of the impact of all spending cuts on those with disabilities.
The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities began its investigation in 2012 after receiving evidence from disability organisations. The Tories refuse to accept the report’s findings, claiming that they present an inaccurate picture of life for disabled people in the UK and saying:
“While the government continues to improve and build on the support available to disabled people, it stands by and is proud of its record”.
This is a Westminster Government that is proud of the human devastation that it has caused. I will not—and, collectively, we must not—look to the Conservatives for any lessons.
That brings me to one of the groups of people for whom we must ensure that we create a better system: those living with long-term conditions. Many people know that my wife, Stacey, has multiple sclerosis and that she has been dealing with that challenge since she was 16 years old. Along with 11,000 other people in Scotland, she deals with the challenges of MS day in, day out.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Damian Green, who came to a meeting of the Social Security Committee, might think that he understands that condition because he employs someone with MS, but the situation is much more complicated than that. At the committee’s recent evidence session, he showed how flawed the system actually is.
Some 80 per cent of people with MS need to give up employment within 15 years of diagnosis, due to their condition, which demonstrates the importance of disability benefits to people with MS. Ninety-one per cent found the process of claiming disability benefits such as PIP stressful, and stress is one of the main triggers of an MS attack. The current system does not work for people living with MS. The assessment process is wholly inadequate.
One respondent to a survey that was run by the MS Society said:
“With conditions like MS that have no cure, and don’t just go away, there must be a fairer way for people to be treated throughout the benefits process. To be assessed less than a year since my original assessment makes me feel like a benefits scrounger, a cheat, as if they are trying to catch me out. Living with MS on a day to day basis is hard enough without being scrutinised by the DWP/ATOS”.
When we design our new system, we need to prove that dignity and respect are more than just words; we must ensure that they are part of an ideal and a promise to make life better for those living with long-term conditions.
We must ensure that there is a safe and secure transfer of the powers, because 1.4 million people rely on the benefits that are being devolved, and it is vital that the transfer ensures that everyone continues to get support.
Tressa Burke of Glasgow Disability Alliance said:
“I firmly believe that the Scottish Government having control over more social security powers offers more hope”.
We need build on that trust and that hope, and work towards delivering for all the people of Scotland.
I inform members that I have to cut the remaining speaking times to five minutes.16:48
I declare an interest, as I am in receipt of PIP and, until May this year, was a tribunal member who heard PIP and DLA cases.
As a Scottish Conservative, I want to see three principles at the heart of a new welfare system. The system should support those in need; should be flexible and personalised; and should support those who can work and want to work.
Welfare must be there for those who genuinely need support and should provide a generous safety net for those who require it. However, it should not become an alternative to work. Instead, it should include incentive structures and practical assistance programmes to help people to live independently of the state. The Scottish Government should acknowledge where there have been elements of success in the UK Government’s welfare reforms and stop decrying everything that has happened in the past few years. We have seen a work programme that has encouraged many people back to work, and those people are benefiting from that.
“For those who can, work represents the best route out of poverty.”
Those are not my words but the words of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
A new social security system in Scotland will be welcomed and the Conservative Party will play its part, but the system must address some important questions. How do we ensure that it supports people into work and does not stop them going to work? How do we ensure that it does not create low-pay traps? How do we ensure that it is cost effective? How do we design a social security system that complements other anti-poverty and in-work strategies?
In 2014-15, just over 500,000 people in Scotland received attendance allowance, PIP or DLA. Social security is, therefore, vital to many disabled people, and any new benefit system that we design must benefit people and help them to gain dignity and respect. I fear that, with all the debate, we will throw the baby out with the bath water in our design of the system.
When I went for my assessment—a process that everyone decries—I could not have been treated better or more respectfully. That is what I hear from many people, too. My PIP was increased, not decreased, because of my disability. That, too, is the experience of many people. Of course people who have had bad experiences will contact us; they should do that, and we should put their cases. However, there is a large number of silent people who have benefited from PIP, whose award has gone up and who have been treated well by the system. Without acknowledging that, we misrepresent the system.
The law is very clear: if someone has a condition that is likely to continue for a number of years, they should not have to be reassessed. An award is meant to be for life unless the person is going to improve.
Is the member aware that that does not happen in reality? My argument is that the whole PIP process is flawed. The previous DLA process involved a desk-based exercise 70 per cent of the time and fewer than 1 per cent of cases were found to be fraudulent. What was wrong with that system? Why did the Westminster Government have to change it to the PIP system, which is expensive and puts people through pain?
You have 30 seconds, Mr Balfour.
Under DLA, people still had to go through an assessment, fill out forms—which was stressful—and come to tribunals. I benefited from DLA for 20 years. Suddenly to say that DLA was perfect is simply to misrepresent the situation for many people in Scotland. PIP has improved many people’s lives.
I appreciate that my time is ending. When we consider the matter, we need to think about how to get disabled people back into employment, because we are simply missing a trick on that. The figures are going in the wrong direction, and we need to challenge that.16:53
I mention for the record that the First Minister has appointed me as the parliamentary liaison officer for the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities.
This is the first time that the Parliament has been tasked with building an entirely new public service—one that will deliver the 11 benefits that have been devolved to Scotland. The social security system that we set up and the benefits that we deliver will not only directly affect the lives of a huge number of people across Scotland but determine the standards by which we hold ourselves accountable and enshrine our values as a country. That is why I am proud that the standards and values that we look to adopt as the foundation of the new system in Scotland are the fundamental values of dignity, fairness and respect—fundamental values that are sorely lacking in the current system.
The impact of welfare cuts and reforms, of the completely abhorrent sanctions regime and of the cuts to tax credits that have been driven by the Tories’ austerity agenda has been well outlined in the debate. To be perfectly frank, it is hard not to feel completely outraged when we examine the cumulative outcomes of those acts.
Report after report on poverty in our country has been published, and those reports make for sobering reading. In June this year, the report of the independent working group on food poverty outlined the food poverty that we face. Trussell Trust figures show that, in Scotland in 2012-13, 14,000 referrals were made to food banks. Jump to this year, and 133,000 referrals were made, including referrals for 43,000 children.
This month, we were given the Scottish child poverty estimates by the End Child Poverty coalition, which found that 22 per cent of our children live in poverty. Only this week, another study was published—this time by Policy in Practice. That study found that welfare cuts have left those families who have been patronisingly deemed JAMs—the families who are just about managing, as the Prime Minister likes to call them—£2,500 a year worse off.
All those reports highlight the severe poverty in our country, and all of them point to Tory policies having a direct hand in developing the problems and making them worse.
It is the disabled and their families who are disproportionately affected by the cuts and changes. I welcome Alison Johnstone’s comments about DLA and the transfer to PIP, with many people having already fallen through the cracks. The starkest statistics were highlighted in the briefing paper that we received from Inclusion Scotland. As Alison Johnstone said, 30 per cent of DLA claimants, when reassessed for PIP, received no award at all, and only 42 per cent of new claimants get any sort of award.
There is also a particular issue with the mobility component of PIP because of a change in eligibility, as a result of which thousands upon thousands of people have lost out on concessionary travel, the blue badge scheme and Motability schemes. That is a particularly pressing problem in rural constituencies such as mine, where people often have to depend on their own transport and where Motability really is a lifeline. Those who fail to meet the new criteria can have their vehicles repossessed within a matter of weeks, leaving them little time, if any, to arrange alternative transport. That not only increases social isolation but prevents those who can work from getting to work and attending appointments.
If all that was not enough—and if dealing with debilitating illness or disability was not enough—there is also the wider impact and stress of the cuts in benefits and payments. Given the sheer volume of contacts that we have received from different organisations, we can see how many people the debate touches. They show in stark terms the reality that many people face.
From HIV Scotland, we learn that 39 per cent of the people struggling with HIV it surveyed struggled to buy food, 45 per cent struggled to pay for their utilities, 48 per cent had poorer physical health, and 58 per cent described having poorer mental health.
The MS Society Scotland found that 30 per cent of MS sufferers have had to reduce spending on food. One third of them do not claim any benefits because of stigma—a stigma that was created and very deliberately fostered by the Tory Government to demonise those in need of help and support and to justify its relentless cuts.
To deliver benefits in Scotland and to do it right will take time, because it is absolutely vital that we get it right. We have seen what can happen through bad policy choices and poor delivery: the impacts on poverty, food poverty, child poverty, social isolation and stigma, and the links to poor health, to increasing rates of poor mental health and to suicide.
In Scotland we have the chance to do something different and to mitigate some of the damage that the Tories have done, and I look forward to the powers becoming fully operational.16:58
It is striking that most of the briefings that have been produced by organisations for the debate highlight the need to keep emphasising the importance of treating people with dignity and respect. I say that it is striking because I was brought up in the mining village of Kelty, where treating people with dignity and respect was the normal thing to do. Indeed, most people today, I think, would say that treating people with dignity and respect is still the right thing to do.
In those briefings, people refer to the Tory welfare reforms, which, far from treating fellow human beings with dignity and respect, instead stigmatise and demonise. Very few of us can ever say that we are absolutely certain that we will never be in a position in which we need some form of help or support, either for ourselves or for family members or friends. Driving people into despair and, for the first time in almost a century, bringing about absolute poverty in communities up and down Scotland—that is what the Tory welfare reforms have achieved.
Today the message to Ruth Davidson’s Tories in this Parliament must be that they should show some backbone and come out and oppose any more of the welfare reforms that are creating such misery in communities throughout Scotland.
It is because of the Tory attacks on the most vulnerable, the disabled, the mentally ill and the poor that I say to the Scottish Government that it must seek to take control as soon as possible over the powers that are being devolved.
The Poverty Alliance says:
“The current social security system is failing people every day and we should not delay any opportunity we have to improve the lives of people on low incomes”.
I agree. The Child Poverty Action Group makes the point that the Government needs to get the introduction of those powers right, but it goes on to say:
“there are elements of the new social security powers that can be utilised more quickly.”
We should explore the various areas to see which powers might be brought forward more quickly. CPAG also argues that the Government should seek now to make arrangements with the DWP on the way in which PIP is structured and delivered to claimants in Scotland. Again, I agree.
Another area that the Government can act on now is benefit take-up. We know that almost £0.5 billion pounds in tax credits is not being claimed and that £170 million for 53,000 carers remains unclaimed in Scotland. Councils and third sector welfare groups should be given support now to increase their work on benefit take-up. The Government should sign up to Labour’s proposal for a legal requirement on the new social security agency to do all that it can to ensure that people get the support to which they are entitled.
Marie Curie states that carers allowance should be a benefit in its own right, rather than being tied to a person who is in receipt of other benefits.
There are also top-up powers, which have not been considered in the consultation. CPAG is asking the Government and the Parliament to consider a child benefit top-up payment of £5 a week, which it says is projected
“to reduce child poverty in Scotland by 14%—meaning 30,000 fewer children in poverty than would otherwise be the case”.
That proposal must be investigated further.
Many organisations take the view that the administration and delivery of benefits should not be contracted out to the private sector, and I agree.
Engender Scotland is calling for the development of pilot schemes for a citizens basic income in Scotland in the next session of Parliament. I believe that we, as a forward-looking Parliament, should be willing to consider that. This weekend, at a meeting in Govan, an association will be set up to look at the idea, and a similar meeting is taking place in Fife this week. The fairer Fife commission and Fife Council have said that they would support such an idea. I am very keen to look at those proposals, which are not in the consultation but should be examined.
Ultimately, Ruth Davidson’s Tories need to show some backbone and reject the welfare reforms that are causing such damage in our communities throughout Scotland.17:03
I echo the minister’s statement that we all have a direct stake in social security. It is a collective and Government responsibility to provide security to all our constituents. In doing so, we should consider what security means in that sense. It is about human solidarity and creating a society in which fewer of our fellow citizens suffer from fear and distress, unnecessary pressure and negative circumstances. It is a system that we believe in together, in which we see social security payments as payments—as Christina McKelvie powerfully said—rather than claims. In that context, we can think about the current system, the insecurity around it and how people are treated within it.
There have been several mentions of the film “I, Daniel Blake”. I do not know which members have seen it but, for me, watching it brought back the faces of so many constituents who have sat in front of me in surgeries. Constituents have been badly treated by the approach and the culture of suspicion and judgment in the current assessment process. They have had to go through huge six-week waiting periods while being reassessed for employment and support allowance. As Alison Johnstone appropriately said, they have suffered cuts to their mobility capacity in the transition from DLA to PIP.
As I watched the film, I also thought about the outcomes in the current system and the fact that the UN has concluded that disabled people are suffering a “systematic” abuse of their human rights due to UK Government benefit cuts. I thought about the fact that DWP statistics revealed that, in the period from December 2011 to February 2014, more than 2,000 people died after claiming for employment and support allowance because work capability assessments found them fit for work. I thought about the fact that there has been so much suffering for those with mental health conditions and fluctuating conditions.
As we think about that failure in the status quo and the current system, we must look forward, with a huge sense of responsibility, to what we can do in the Parliament through the powers that we are getting in this new stage. We must consider what the Scottish Government is proposing and what will come after that in years ahead.
It is important to emphasise the environment that we are in and the wider problem of austerity and the social and economic damage that it is doing. It is ideological austerity. Sheffield Hallam research has illuminated that, by 2020, there will be cumulative cuts in the welfare system of £2 billion a year. That will have an effect not only socially but economically, as Ruth Maguire powerfully articulated.
I am listening carefully to the member, and he is making a number of good points. However, does he agree that the Parliament could do so much more with the powers that it has? For example, we could tax the wealthy using the new tax powers and we could scrap the council tax and make it much fairer. There is a host of other things, but does he support even those two initiatives?
The wider point about the fiscal situation is of course correlated with the current system of welfare provision.
As we look forward to how we evaluate the implementation of the new social security powers, we also need to think creatively. Alex Rowley rightly mentioned that an interesting debate is taking place on the potential for providing a universal citizen’s income in the years ahead. I am proud that the Social Security Committee will look at that issue in the course of this parliamentary session.
We also need to think clearly and carefully about delivery. We must ensure that our focus is on what we can deliver within the current constraints and on how we implement and create an effective system for that delivery. That is why I welcome the statements from Inclusion Scotland and the Child Poverty Action Group in evidence to the committee that they agree that setting up the various systems and the new agency will take time and we should do it responsibly.
My time is coming to a close, so I will finish by saying that the process will be a collective investment in ourselves and each other as members of the Scottish Parliament and as individuals, and we should work together to get it right for all of Scotland.
We move to the closing speeches.17:08
Introducing the new Scottish social security system might be the most significant thing that the Parliament has ever done, if we get it right. We will have 11 benefits, and 1.4 million people could have a new experience with the new system. As many members have said, we have the opportunity to design something completely different with a different ethos from that of the UK system. That system has made people feel shame about claiming and it has put people off because of its complexities. As Neil Findlay said, people are sometimes unable to speak to a human being and cannot get access to a computer to get their benefits.
Those are the factors that characterise the current welfare system. It makes people feel stressed about claiming and they feel that it is onerous. For the most part, they feel that it is anything but a right. The SCVO says that we must get away from the current culture that people are, de facto, almost guilty until they are proven innocent.
Scotland has a chance to create a new system, and many of us agree that it must be based on insisting that people actually get their benefits. That is covered in Labour’s amendment. We believe that people’s entitlement to their benefits should be a basic right that is enshrined in law and that the system should work to get them those benefits.
We also need a system that is based on advocacy and face-to-face contact. I know that the minister has talked about that in the past. There is a good quote from the Poverty Alliance, which says:
“People need people to help them in their time of need, not machines”.
We know from the briefings that we have received that thousands of people do not claim benefits that they are entitled to. Some 100,000 Scots do not claim working tax credit or child tax credit, to the tune of £428 million, and 56,000 carers in Scotland do not receive the benefits that they are entitled to. We need the new system to have a legal duty to assist claimants, as that will maximise the benefits that are claimed. As well as helping people, that will maximise the total benefits that people get before the date on which the powers are transferred over. The amount that is spent in the previous year will determine the budget that the Scottish Government will get to administer its welfare system, which is another good reason to ensure that we recognise the full entitlement of those claimants who are going to have their benefits administered by the new Scottish system.
As the Social Security Committee heard from many of its witnesses last week, on the devolution of the new powers, we will inherit a lump sum. We will not be bound to replicate all the current benefits but will be able to design new ones if that makes sense. Professor Kirstein Rummery said that we are getting powers over only 15 per cent of the welfare budget, and we have heard that in many debates, but the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government will have control of the administration of how that budget is delivered, which is important. That is potentially far more powerful than we realise, because it is the administration of the scheme and not the sums of money involved that causes the most damage to claimants.
I want to say a word or two on why Labour believes that it is important to take the powers sooner than 2020. The Government’s motion makes no particular reference to the matter and it is not asking us to vote on its position tonight, but it has arrived at its decision. The committee received the minute of the joint ministerial working group some weeks ago but, as Adam Tomkins said, it would be helpful if, in future, we could receive a formal letter. The committee’s attention should have been drawn to the Government’s decision. I would like that to be the format in future so that, when the Government makes decisions, we are clear about that and the information is not simply contained in minutes. However, that is a side point.
Alison Johnstone asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Damian Green, whether, with the devolution of employability programmes, it will be voluntary for claimants to participate. I am clear that I heard him say that it will be, but I fully support the Scottish Government pursuing that once again so that we are clear that programmes will be voluntary and not compulsory. However, that is on the official record.
Sandra White accused Labour of frightening people by asking the Government to reconsider its position. I would like to respond to that point. Members might not agree with us, but we have a rationale for what we are saying. Many people have talked about the migration from DLA to PIP, but we know that at least 150,000 people will be reassessed in that period, and those people will be exposed to the UK welfare system; it will not be administered by any new Scottish social security system. We feel a sense of responsibility to make that point in the debate.
Brian Whittle made the point that there are many cases where there are no problems, but he seems not to recognise that, as many of the witnesses that the committee has heard from have said, time and again there are deliberate decisions to reduce public expenditure by taking people off DLA and putting them on to PIP. I close with that point, and I hope that it is taken on board.17:15
I absolutely understand and appreciate the need for a structured period of transition, and in the context of last week’s revelation I understand the slightly defensive tone of the Scottish Government’s motion. I recognise that Scotland needs to take time with its new legislative competences and must set up new, bespoke mechanisms and agencies that meet its social security needs.
We encourage such an approach, but if we are to accept the transition period, I sincerely hope that the SNP will accept that it should be used constructively to consider what the Scottish Government can do rather than to continually talk about what it perceives the UK Government is getting wrong.
As Graham Simpson said, the SNP’s white paper, whether or not it was intended to set out a “transition platform”, was incredibly ambitious in its aims. What happened last week just shows that governing is not always plain sailing, by the SNP’s own admission. The SNP Government cannot blame us for being a little suspicious about last week’s revelation that it had requested split competence over a number of new welfare powers until 2020.
I welcome the amendment in Adam Tomkins’s name, which rightly acknowledges that social security is now the shared responsibility of the UK Government and the Scottish Government. The novelty and complexity that arise from the new arrangements are such that politicians should be wary of creating confusion about how benefits and conditionality will work.
New and extensive powers are coming to the Scottish Parliament. When the devolution of powers is complete, the SNP Government will have complete responsibility for a third of all working-age social security expenditure, which equates to around £3 billion. The Scottish Parliament will have complete control over a number of benefits, including DLA, PIP, attendance allowance and carers allowance. It will have the ability to create new welfare powers in devolved areas and, most important, it will have the ability to top up any reserved benefit, including universal credit, tax credits and child benefit.
Should the onus therefore not be on the Scottish Government to tell us today how the new system will alleviate poverty in a way that is sustainable in the long term? How will employment programmes that are delivered on a voluntary basis be balanced with the need genuinely to help the long-term unemployed while providing a cost-effective system for the taxpayer?
Of course, a new system should have fairness at its heart and protect the most vulnerable in our society. It should be flexible and it should be tailored to the needs of the Scottish people. It should also support people who can and want to work—that is important, and I will talk more about that.
The Scottish Conservatives have championed the use of new devolved benefit powers in Scotland. In our manifesto this year, we proposed that carers allowance be aligned with jobseekers allowance to support the hard work of the 60,000 carers in Scotland. I very much welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to the policy.
We have not proposed changes to the social security payment that is made to the largest number of people in Scotland—the winter fuel payment—other than to reconsider at what time of year it is paid.
Can the Tory party stop this act in which it purports to be the new, cuddly Tory party and the benefit claimant’s friend? The Tories have supported every single cut that has come down the line over the past five years and they should be ashamed of themselves.
I thought that this debate was about the future of social security in Scotland, and I want to ensure—
You are making cuts that are happening in Scotland. Have some humility.
I want to ensure that my party and I consider what we can get right for the people of Scotland. That is where I am coming from. I am making a constructive contribution to a debate on the future of social security in Scotland.
When it comes to reserved benefits, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Damian Green, has spoken of taking a “hard-headed” rather than a “hard-hearted” approach. The Government announced last month that it would bring an end to health assessments for the chronically ill, which will benefit more than 100,000 people across the UK. That move was praised by charities. Only today, in the autumn statement, chancellor Philip Hammond announced a change to the taper rate for universal credit that will benefit 3 million households across the UK.
However, positive announcements will not stop the SNP’s charge against even the mention of conditionality when it comes to social security. As Adam Tomkins pointed out, when it comes to conditionality, the Scottish Government has created confusion over how conditions that are attached to reserved benefits such as JSA and universal credit will operate within Scotland’s newly devolved employment services.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am sorry, but I am about to conclude.
The UK Government has been fair on the issue, and Damian Greene stated explicitly in a letter addressed to the convener of the Social Security Committee that the UK Government would not stand in the way of new employment programmes being voluntary in their operation. Despite the SNP’s open admission that it could block the passing of claimant information to the DWP on the issue, the UK Government rightly maintains that claimants will still need to demonstrate that they are looking for work—and that is only fair. As Jeremy Balfour pointed out, it is right that we create financial cushions, not welfare traps. For those who can work, it will always provide the best route out of poverty—I cannot stress that enough.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement of a £14 million work first Scotland programme to assist those with disabilities into work. However, I urge the Scottish Government, in considering future announcements of a Scotland equivalent of the work programme, to reflect on the chancellor’s announcement today of the devolution of employment services to London and think about whether a similar deal could be struck in Scottish cities such as Glasgow. After all, devolution should not stop at Holyrood.17:21
We have heard some substantial speeches this afternoon. I single out Ruth Maguire and Alex Rowley for the heft that they added to proceedings.
When she opened the debate, Jeane Freeman said that we all have a stake in the future of social security in Scotland. That was reiterated by many members including Jeremy Balfour, who spoke of his own positive experience of the process of migration from DLA to PIP. I am not going to detract from Mr Balfour’s personal experience, but I will draw some parallels. I am a woman in politics: I have the privilege of holding one of the most senior positions in Scottish politics, but that does not mean that we do not have a problem with underrepresentation of women in the Scottish Parliament. I say to Mr Balfour and other members that this is not about me or them; we have to look outside this place, at society and the broader experience. Members and I must always remember that that lived experience is not about them or me.
Jeane Freeman also pointed out that it is no exaggeration to say that the safe and secure transfer of new devolved benefits represents the biggest and most complex programme of change in the history of devolution. I did not hear anyone demur from that this afternoon. It is a unique journey and we are taking unique approaches, which gives us some unique opportunities. We have the opportunity to build a new system from the ground up, not from the top down, in a spirit of co-production with Parliament, civic Scotland and—most of all—the people who have lived experience of the current benefits system.
We must learn from the mistakes of the UK Government. Universal credit was meant to take four years to roll out, but it will now take a minimum of 12 years to roll out. I say to Mark Griffin that we do, indeed, look at the calamitous process of migration between DLA and PIP. The Scottish Government has repeatedly called on the UK Government to stop the roll-out. Maybe the difference between Mark Griffin and me is that I want the power to do more than just write letters calling on the UK Government to stop something iniquitous.
I appreciate that the cabinet secretary has never rested for a minute in calling on the UK Government to change its position on how it deals with claimants. However, she has not really expressed any concern so far about the fact that we could bring the powers here before 2020 and at least have claimants being assessed not by the UK welfare system but by the social security system that we all want in Scotland.
It is unfortunate that Pauline McNeill and others, along with the Tories, have perhaps not paid as much attention to committee proceedings as they should have. We have repeatedly said that transfer of the powers is not an event but a process.
I am on the record as saying that for very good reasons we are not going for a “big bang” approach, in which at some point in the near future we will go into a building, switch on the lights and deliver all 11 benefits at once. It has to be a safely managed process. We have repeatedly explained at committee and in the chamber that there are three broad processes to undertake. First, there is commencement of the powers, along with the very important consultation, then there will be legislative competence and introduction of our legislation, which I am quite sure will be debated and tested to the point of destruction, after which we will move to the delivery phase.
We are also on record as saying that we can look to deliver some of the benefits soon, but that we will need to take considerable care with some of them—in particular, the most complex ones. I will not play fast and loose with the lives and livelihoods of the people who rely on the benefits.
I say to Alison Johnstone and others that it is absolutely imperative that we work together to turn words into actions. Specifically on the point about the young carers allowance, we are looking at introducing a package of measures, including financial support, and we are discussing the matter with the various young carers organisations.
I say to Alex Cole-Hamilton that we are designing an assessment process that prioritises the needs of the disabled person and not of the people who will conduct the assessment. I also point out that Alex Neil, my predecessor, published back in March this year the document “A new future for social security in Scotland”. That was the start and the blueprint.
I say to my friend and colleague Christina McKelvie that we will look very closely at long-term conditions and lifetime awards. We are on record as making commitments to such people because we want to stop the revolving door: we want to replace the present inhumane, expensive and error-ridden regime.
We will support the Labour Party’s amendment tonight. Unlike the Government at Westminster, we do not see social security as a source of easy cuts; we see it as an investment. It is very much to be regretted that the UK Government has not taken the opportunity that has been afforded it by the autumn budget statement to reverse the highly damaging cuts to ESA and so on.
I reiterate to all members across the chamber who spoke of the powers that we have to top up reserved benefits and to create new benefits that there is a debate to be had about how we use our new powers to full effect. I, for one, will not at this important time be closing down that debate. However, members have to acknowledge that we have a manifesto to deliver—I am sure that we will be held to account on that. We also agree with the Labour Party that we must increase take-up rates of benefits, which will have a financial impact.
Graham Simpson—as did others—talked glibly about topping up reserved benefits or creating new benefits, and then had the audacity to accuse Jeane Freeman and I of acting like teenagers. Oh, I wish! He seems to expect that it will be the women in this Government who will run after his Tory pals in the UK Government to clear up their mess and the mistakes of all their broken promises and disastrous cuts on the poorest people. I say clearly to them that at the end of the day, people will well and truly show the Tories the door. Of course, there is only one way to do that.
I want to end where I started. We all have a stake in the future of social security in Scotland, we all want to build a system that we can all be proud of and we all want to turn words into actions. As we go on the journey together, we will all need challenge and we will all need to work together to build consensus. We in the Scottish Government want to do as much as we can as quickly as we can, but I reiterate that we will not be blown off course and we will not be bullied into providing timescales, because we will not compromise on the need to get the system absolutely right. I repeat that I, for one, will not play fast and loose with the lives and livelihoods of the sick, the disabled and the dying.
I will end with a quote. Tressa Burke of the Glasgow Disability Alliance said:
“I firmly believe that the Scottish Government having control over more social security powers offers more hope.”
Although contributions to the debate have varied in content and tone, I firmly believe that, in our own ways, we all believe that the new powers offer hope to Scotland. Scotland is leading the way in creating a fairer system, and we can all be proud of that. If we work together to make it happen, that will represent the Scotland that we seek and the country that we truly want to be.