Meeting date: Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 25 April 2018
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Social Security (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Social Security (Scotland) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Business Motion
- Social Security (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
- Social Security (Scotland) Bill
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
Social Security (Scotland) Bill
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-11802, in the name of Jeane Freeman, on the Social Security (Scotland) Bill at stage 3. We have a little time in hand because the amendment stage finished earlier than expected, so I can be a little generous with the speaking times as long as no one goes over the top; there is plenty of space for interventions, too.
This is a historic day for this Parliament. When we vote on the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, we will be marking the single biggest transfer of powers since devolution began. It will herald Scotland’s first social security system. More than that, it means that we now have a new public service for the people of Scotland—a principle enshrined in legislation. We should all be proud of that.
The bill has been an opportunity to set up a new service and to do things differently, and an opportunity to remake the system in a way that better fits the ambition that we have for ourselves as a Parliament and for our country—our shared ambition to live with dignity, fairness and respect.
I thank the many Scottish Government officials who have worked tirelessly on the bill and to set up our new agency—social security Scotland. In particular, I thank the bill team, who have been outstanding in their commitment and dedication.
I also express my gratitude to the clerks, to both conveners of the Social Security Committee—Sandra White, who steered it in the bill’s early days, and Clare Adamson, who steered it in the latter part of the process, particularly through stage 2—and to the members of the Social Security Committee. I thank them for the spirit in which they have taken part in our collective work on the bill and for rising to the challenge to do things differently and to do them better. I thank them for their amendments, their views and their considered deliberation and engagement with me throughout.
I also thank the many, many organisations that I met with and listened to. They have helped enormously in shaping the bill and I am grateful to them for their input at every point.
Most of all, I thank the people of Scotland, who have been at the forefront of the bill at all times. From the start of our engagement programme in 2016, I have been thankful—and humbled—that people felt able to open up and tell me about their personal experience of the Department for Work and Pensions and the current United Kingdom welfare system. That is not an easy thing for anyone to do, especially when they are talking about a system that, recently, has not served them well.
For the first time, a Government has recruited people to help it to shape the service and the system that it is establishing. We were, and remain, determined to make sure that our new public service works in the interests of the public. More than 2,400 people agreed to be part of our experience panels and we are working with them closely on each stage of the process. I thank them for their help and support so far and for the work that we will continue to do with them throughout this session of Parliament.
Our system will be rights based, recognising that social security is itself a human right with a set of founding principles at its heart and the central requirement that the system should treat everyone with the dignity and respect that they deserve. That is why, for example, we have introduced a right for a person to have a supporter with them at every stage of the process and a right to access independent advocacy for anyone who, because of a disability, needs that support to engage fully and effectively with the system.
That rights-based approach is one that the Parliament should be proud of. Inclusion Scotland said at an evidence session:
“We consider the greatest strength to be some of the principles in the bill ... and that people who use the system will be treated with dignity and respect. Those are important rights that disabled people have sought for many years ... We see the principles that underpin the bill as being an important signal of how social security will be delivered. The greatest quality of the bill is that human rights-based approach.”—[Official Report, Social Security Committee, 5 October 2017; c 2.]
That is why for disability benefits, for example, we are committed to making the right decisions from the outset. The onus will be on social security Scotland to get the information that is needed to make decisions. In that way, we can reduce the need for one-to-one assessments and significantly reduce the anxiety and stress that are caused by unnecessary assessments—a move that was described by Citizens Advice Scotland as
“the highest priority for the Scottish social security system”.
We will not require anyone to undertake an assessment that is delivered by the private sector.
Improvements such as our new “short-term assistance” will ensure that the fear of losing benefit payments will not act as a barrier to a person pursuing their right to challenge the decisions that affect them, which is a significant improvement on the current system. If people disagree with our decisions, rather than making things even more difficult, we will help them to make an appeal. We will work with them to make sure that the process is as simple and straightforward as possible, but that they remain in control and decide what they want to do about their situation.
Thanks to the bill, we will make sure that all our agency staff will communicate with people in an accessible way. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists recognised that improvement as
“the first time inclusive communication has appeared in any legislation anywhere in the UK”.
Members have made decisions on very important and sometimes very difficult issues, and the bill in its final form, which we have arrived at by working together—not just today, but throughout the bill process—is one that we, as a Parliament, can be justifiably proud of. I have spoken before about how the devolution of social security represents the greatest single increase in the responsibilities of this Parliament since devolution. Today, we write a new chapter in our history with a system that was built for the people of Scotland and designed in partnership with people in Scotland: a system with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart, and a system quite unlike any other that has gone before.
I am proud and honoured to move the motion in my name,
That the Parliament agrees that the Social Security (Scotland) Bill be passed.18:04
If I may say so, well said, minister. This is another of those very important days in the coming of age of our Parliament: it is, indeed, historic. Today, we are delivering on the welfare devolution that was legislated for, after the all-party agreement in the Smith commission, by a Conservative Government at Westminster in the Scotland Act 2016.
Throughout my entire life I have enthusiastically supported devolution, and I have worked with others for a number of years to try to deliver the devolution of social security. It will allow us to experiment and to try something new. It will allow us to learn from and build on others’ experience elsewhere, including failed experience, and to lead by example where we can. The bill delivers on all those ambitions, or at least it promises to, depending on what happens next.
Devolution in social security or welfare brings with it significant challenges, which should not be underestimated. The biggest single challenge is how we navigate our way through the inevitable labyrinth of shared rule between the Scottish ministers on the one hand and the DWP on the other. That is the wrong metaphor, because I need more than two hands—in fact, there is shared rule not only between the Scottish Government and the DWP, but with local authorities and the third sector.
The biggest single challenge that the Smith commission was presented with when we were thinking about social security was: “Whatever you do, don’t make it more complicated.” Devolution inevitably makes it more complicated. Social security in Scotland has never been as complicated as it is now, and it will only get more complex. The challenge that we have as lawmakers, and that ministers have as those charged with the responsibility of executing the law that the Parliament makes, is to ensure that that complication and complexity do not become a burden to the people in our society who rely on the laws and regulations that we make.
We will enthusiastically support the bill at decision time, as we have done throughout its parliamentary process. As the minister did, I would like to say a few thank yous. First, I thank the Social Security Committee, on which I have the privilege to serve, and in particular its still relatively new convener, Clare Adamson. I also thank our clerks, notably Simon Watkins, who is about to retire from the Parliament after long service. I personally thank Simon and his clerking team for all the work that they have done in steering us through a piece of legislative work that was not straightforward. [Applause.]
I thank my Scottish Conservative colleagues in the social security, welfare and social justice team, especially my good friend Jeremy Balfour, whose pioneering work, particularly on terminal illness and other aspects of the bill, has been inspirational, if I may say so. It is a real honour to work alongside him in this field. As long as it is not going to damage her political career too much, I also thank the minister, Jeane Freeman, and her officials and special adviser, Jeanette Campbell, for the constructive and mature approach that they have taken to the passage of the bill. I also thank Jeane Freeman for her generous comments earlier.
Throughout the legislative process, the Parliament has worked well to improve the bill. I will give three examples of areas in which the bill is stronger now than it was when it was introduced last year. The first example is with regard to the social security principles. We all agree on the importance of a principles-based approach to social security but, in turning that political ambition into statute law, the bill as first drafted ran some risks of unnecessary litigation. However, we fixed all that and we have tidied up the bill so that the provisions are much stronger now than they were a few months ago. Likewise, it is fair to say that we all support the idea of the social security charter but, again, writing that policy into law generated unanticipated complications, which were first identified and then resolved through the process of parliamentary scrutiny, making the bill stronger as a result.
More importantly, the bill as introduced conferred exceptionally broad rule-making and regulation-making powers on ministers, with no provision for external or expert scrutiny and with only minimal and plainly unsatisfactory provision for effective parliamentary scrutiny. Thanks to the detailed work on that that was undertaken at stage 2 by the Social Security Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, and earlier this afternoon, that area of the bill has now been substantially amended and improved. If I may say so, the minister deserves credit for engaging constructively with the Parliament’s committees and Opposition members on that critical matter.
Notwithstanding the fact that the bill is a significant improvement on the one that was published on introduction a few months ago, it remains the case that much of the bill, important though it is, continues to be only a framework, although I do not mean “only” in any derogatory sense.
The critical question in social security is, “Who is entitled to what?” The bill does not answer that question. All the eligibility criteria and rules about fixing the amounts of benefit to be paid will be provided in regulations that are to be made by ministers. Such matters are not addressed in the bill, but the bill sets the framework through which the regulations will be made.
In passing the bill, it feels as though we have achieved something, but there is an awful lot of detailed and painstaking parliamentary and legislative work to do before devolved Scottish social security is in operation.
Looking forward, what is next? I hope that we will turn away from questions about framework, process and procedure to the substantive question about who will be entitled to what. As we do that, the Conservatives have three concerns that we ask the minister to bear in mind as we go forward with the delivery of devolved social security between now and the end of the parliamentary session.
The first is a concern about the pace of transfer. Are we transferring powers from Westminster to Holyrood as expeditiously as possible or are there hints of delay?
The second concern relates to that and it is an on-going and deepening concern about the transparency of the intergovernmental process. We know that there are irregular but nonetheless frequent meetings of the joint ministerial working group on welfare. We know that we, as MSPs, are entitled to see the agendas of those meetings before they take place and the minutes of those meetings as soon as possible after they take place, and I am not sure that that always happens. The more transparent ministers can be about the conversations that they have at official or ministerial level with colleagues in DWP and elsewhere in Whitehall, the better able we as MSPs will be to do our job of helping ministers to deliver the powers as expeditiously as possible.
The third concern is, of course, cost. The Auditor General has recently brought those concerns to the attention of Parliament through her report on the implementation of the Scotland Act 2016.
I do not want to dwell on those concerns as negatives. They are all challenges that we share across the political spectrum, whether we are in Government or in Opposition. There is an awful lot of work to do to deliver devolved social security properly in Scotland. Today marks an important step along the way.18:12
I thank the clerks, my committee colleagues, the minister and her officials, the third sector and civic society for getting this important legislation to where it is today.
It is fair to say that, when it was lodged, the bill did not quite live up to the hype. If it was not for the support from across the third sector, which has the real expertise in social security, we might have been in a very different position. Almost 350 amendments later, and good debate at stages 1 and 2 and the amendment part of stage 3, I am proud to say that the bill is stronger than it was when it was introduced last summer.
At stage 1, I reminded members that we only get one first go. Today, I hope that members will consider whether we have got it right for the 1.4 million people who will come to rely on the system: the young mum who is worried about her child being born into poverty; the disabled person with hundreds of pounds of additional monthly costs; and the pensioner who is worried about their heating bill.
I am delighted that my Labour colleagues and, indeed, colleagues from Government and Opposition led the way on banning the private sector, protecting against means testing and securing a new right to advocacy on social security. At stage 3 today, we have secured a commitment to work towards automatic split payments, protected carers from the benefit freeze, secured the automation of benefits and ensured that assessments are conducted by suitably qualified persons. Those might seem to be small changes, but they are hugely significant and they should improve the new system.
We still have our differences. We still want child benefit to be topped up and we will soon look again at how we truly embed human rights into the system when the First Minister’s advisory group reports.
Together with my colleagues Pauline McNeill and Jackie Baillie, I have tried today to push the Government further on offences, redetermination and overpayments, on which we will all keep a watching brief.
Again, we should ask ourselves whether the bill is landmark legislation. Given the circumstances that led to the devolution of social security powers—the independence referendum, the vow, the Smith commission and the third Scotland act—it should be. However, although we have put such powers on to the statute books, it will be for the people who experience the system to decide whether we have put them to good use.
Given recent news stories about delays to the abolition of the bedroom tax, ministers asking for an extra year and the DWP readying itself to step in, it is quite clear that this is very much the beginning of a process that will be full of questions. As I said during the debate on amendments, while last week’s change on the definition of terminal illness is very welcome, it should make the chamber uneasy. We appreciate the First Minister’s pledge to listen and the minister’s action, and that victory is well deserved for campaigners and those who are terminally ill. However, that experience cannot be a template for how ministers will set up the system. With swathes of regulation still to come, including the intricate policy design of nine forms of assistance, the Government has to be sure that it is ready for the challenge ahead.
Two areas on which we made early progress were agreement on the use of a superaffirmative procedure and the creation of a new, independent commission, both of which were included in Labour’s response to the bill ahead of stage 1. While that scrutiny process may seem burdensome, it is clearly vital. Alongside it, last week, Parliament showed the Government that it should be far more transparent in its policy design, its listening and how it works across the chamber. The first sight of the Government’s initial amendment came on Tuesday evening, a few hours ahead of the final deadline for amendments. On something that is so fundamental to disability benefits, we would much rather that the key detail be published further in advance, and we hope that that will be looked at as we move forward.
The overriding message from stage 3 is that we, as a Parliament, have much more work to do so that the people of Scotland can be proud of its new social security system. The work that is done here will get vital support to disabled people and winter fuel payments to our elderly and, in time, will truly overhaul carers allowance. That is the responsibility of both the Government and the Parliament. As we have done on tax and on this bill, we look forward to ensuring that we have a functioning social security system that invests in the people of Scotland. Labour is ready for that challenge.18:18
I, too, begin by thanking Simon Watkins and his clerking team, the witnesses who took time to give the Social Security Committee their expert advice, and the many organisations with which we have worked throughout the process—there are too many to name, but we truly thank them all.
It is fair to say that members from every party on the committee have made the most sincere efforts to strengthen the bill: Labour, Scottish National Party and Conservative members have improved it significantly with their amendments. At times, we have discussed very difficult issues on which we fundamentally disagreed, but we have always done so with civility, for which I thank them.
I would also like to thank Jeane Freeman. Setting up a new social security system is quite possibly the biggest challenge that has faced a Scottish minister since 1999. I believe that the First Minister chose wisely in selecting Jeane Freeman for that task. She has undertaken it with passion, dedication and—when required—good humour.
The promise of devolution is that Scotland should have the powers to do things differently. Sometimes, that can mean taking existing UK policies and improving them with the knowledge and experience that we have here. At other moments, or on other issues, it means a more fundamental change. Social security is such an issue, and right now is such a moment.
For too many people, the current system fosters insecurity. We have only to look at the figures that the Trussell Trust published this week to see that. In 2017-18, the trust issued 170,000 three-day emergency food parcels in Scotland, of which 55,000 went to children. We appear to be losing the idea that society is strengthened when everyone is enabled to live a decent life. That is how we have got to the situation where disabled people have their benefits cut to bridge the deficit.
We have the opportunity to reclaim the idea that everyone benefits when we provide a good, reliable income for the most vulnerable people in society. The question before us today is whether the bill allows us to do that. On the whole, the bill makes progress towards that approach, and the Greens will vote for it at decision time.
Dignity and respect are at the heart of the bill. The problem with the current system is not just that support has been cut, although that is bad enough. The culture in which there is suspicion of people who ask for help from the benefits system is hugely problematic. When those attitudes prevail at the top, they filter down to distort the entire system. If we set up a new system that is founded on the idea that social security is a right and that we all expect to be treated with dignity and respect when applying for help, that will give rise to a quite different and more empowering and positive system.
I am pleased that, having begun with no provision on this at all, the bill includes a statutory mechanism for uprating four of the forms of assistance. I will continue to push for automatic uprating to apply to all benefits and urge the Government to continue to look at that issue.
As colleagues have said, even if we pass the bill today, we have yet to help a single applicant or recipient, so we have got much work to do. The new forms of assistance will be established in secondary legislation. For each and every new regulation, we will need to debate, discuss, highlight issues and ask the Government to think again, just as we have for the bill. We have seen progress on some issues. The topping up of carers allowance is a welcome start, but there are a whole range of unfairnesses in the current allowance that Scottish ministers should examine and then eradicate.
Disability assistance represents about half of the value of all the payments that are being devolved. The abolition of the disability living allowance and the introduction of the personal independent payment have been singularly disastrous. Indeed, 44 per cent of DLA claimants have either lost their entitlement entirely or had it significantly reduced; the figure rises to more than 50 per cent for some mental health conditions. Constituents are being driven to the depths of despair by the current PIP system. Therefore, quite rightly, expectations for the new disability assistance payments will be very high. That will be a great test of the Scottish Government’s resolve.
I am conscious of the time, Presiding Officer. Too many Scots have been pushed to breaking point and some, sadly, beyond it, by the system. The bill, if passed, will rightly set very high expectations for a more humane, generous and respectful system of providing financial help to those who require it. It is central to the credibility of the Parliament that we meet that challenge, and the Greens look forward to playing a role in that in the coming years.18:22
I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests: I jointly own a property, which is rented out to tenants who receive a direct housing benefit payment.
I lend my voice to the almost universal acclaim for Jeane Freeman’s work and that of her ministerial team and special advisers. She has conducted her dealings with me with great tolerance, given that I am not a member of the Social Security Committee. I was not always sighted on many of the issues that I was often told to lobby her about. She gave me great consideration and gave freely of her time. She also sought out my counsel when developments were moving quickly and always sought to include me. I am very grateful to her for her forbearance and for the consensus that she fostered.
During the stage 3 consideration of amendments, I mentioned the agreement that had been reached on the definition of terminal illness. I think that I even referred to that with the hashtag #rabbitoutofthehat, because she squared a circle that nobody else expected her to—and she did so to great effect.
In the stage 1 proceedings, I leaned on the words of the Liberal who helped to preside over the creation of the modern social security system in these islands as we know them, William Beveridge, who said:
“in establishing a national minimum it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than the minimum for himself and his family.”
That is the central tenet of social mobility around which he sought to build the UK’s social security system, and I am gratified to see that very much at large in the Scottish security system that we will launch today.
That is the first pillar. The second pillar has to be accessibility. We have heard a lot about that today. It is highly significant that the Government recognises and puts front and centre the very real problem that 500,000 families in this country do not receive in full the benefits to which they could be entitled. Therefore, it is great that the amendments that we have agreed to today will make the process for applicants far easier than it is for their counterparts whose system is controlled by Westminster. That is true of not just the application process but the appeal process. We have been happy, today and during the rest of the bill’s passage, to support amendments that will make that process easier for people who, through no fault of their own, have been found against although they should not have been.
It is important to mention the many representations that we have all had from organisations that provide and deliver independent advocacy, particularly those that do so in the benefits landscape, which can be a terribly confusing place and one that is often filled with stigma. Independent advocates navigate, communicate and articulate on behalf of people who might otherwise struggle to speak for themselves.
For me and, I am sure, for everyone else in the chamber, the final key principle of the new system must be its humanity. It is fair to say that that humanity has been disrupted in the systems in the rest of the UK. Today, we will restore some of that humanity, by providing for assessments to be conducted in a way that does not foster an atmosphere of suspicion but which puts claimants in the driving seat. The same is true with regard to issues such as overpayment recovery. One of the most important amendments that we agreed to today was on the splitting of payments, and I hope that we will drive the DWP further in that direction, to end coercive control and abusive relationships.
In addition, I mentioned earlier how important it is that we recognise the difficulty that is faced by those people who receive the awful diagnosis that they have only months or weeks left to live on this planet. Today, we have recognised that it is important that there should be no impediment to the state protecting them and their families so that they can conduct their affairs and quit this life in the knowledge that they will be supported.
The passing of the bill is a fantastic start. Today is a really important day for our history as a country and as a devolved nation. I remind the minister that I will be working closely with her and that I will not accept the excuse that we have to clean up Westminster’s messes. Now, we will have the power to introduce new benefits and to address specific issues such as the erosion of benefits for young widows and the women against state pension inequality.
However, today is a day for consensus, so I will finish on the note on which I started. I thank the minister, her team and the Social Security Committee, which I sometimes wish that I was a member of. I commend the bill to Parliament and assure members of the Liberal Democrats’ support for it.
We move to the open debate. I ask for four-minute speeches, but there is a bit of time in hand, so I can be generous.18:27
I am delighted to speak in this historic debate in the Scottish Parliament. Following the work of the Smith commission, the passing of the bill will put into statute the most significant transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament since devolution and will result in the devolution of £2.9 billion of social security benefits to Scotland. Eleven benefits will be transferred, and 1.4 million of our citizens will be impacted.
Although I am not speaking in the debate as the convener of the Social Security Committee, I would like to thank those people who, between June and October last year, took the time to share their experiences and views with the committee. We received 119 written submissions from individuals, charities, councils, universities, advice services, volunteering networks and professional bodies. I also thank the committee’s clerking team and, in particular, Simon Watkins, not only for his help with the stewardship of the bill but for his service to the Parliament since 1999. In addition, I thank my colleagues on the committee for their diligence and engagement, which other members have mentioned.
I want to talk about the aspects of the bill that underline the ethos and approach that will underpin the Scottish social security system. The approach will be markedly different from the one that we have at the moment and will be evidenced by the Scottish social security charter.
For the first time, we have a rights-based approach. Continuing Scotland’s long-standing tradition of support for human rights, we have enshrined it in the principles of the new system and in this legislation. The charter in the bill strengthens our guarantee of going beyond warm words to create a binding contract between the Government and its citizens who will be supported by the Scottish social security system. As the minister said in the deliberations this afternoon, it increases the accountability of the Parliament to its citizens.
Mr Balfour said earlier that the committee and the minister had been on a journey in one particular area. I would say that the whole thing has been a journey for us on the Social Security Committee and for those involved in the bill. We have met obstacles on the way—sometimes molehills, sometimes mountains. We have not often taken the same path, with some of us on the high road and some of us on the low road, but I believe that we have all arrived together at a destination, and one that we should be very proud of.
I believe that the strength of the bill is testament to the Parliament. Mr Adam mentioned maturity, but I would go further than that. That maturity has combined with consultation and collaboration to bring us all here today. I am struck by how often the consultation, the willingness of ministers to work with members, and the contribution of the third sector and interested organisations have been mentioned in the chamber today—not least the work of the social security expert system mentioned by Ms Johnstone.
During the debate, Alex Cole-Hamilton mentioned brutal application of the rules. It is fair to say that a lot of the challenges that we have experienced have been because of that brutal application of the rules, and that people’s experience of the DWP to date has been one of punitive application of rules and not a positive one. The current system is broken. A failure rate where more than 50 per cent of tribunals have their decisions overturned demonstrates that it is broken. As we move forward, I will look with interest to the Work and Pensions Committee at Westminster, which is now holding an inquiry into the benefits system that I think will enlighten the area further.
I am confident that the bill will change the experience of our citizens. The system will be conducted in a way that is not punitive or bureaucratic. It will be done with dignity, fairness and respect. I welcome it and I hope that it will be a beacon to other legislatures as to how citizens should be respected and how their rights should be enforced.18:32
Today, we have taken a historic step in creating a Scottish welfare system that is accountable to and tailored for the Scottish people. As Adam Tomkins has already intimated, the bill is enthusiastically supported this evening by Conservative members.
Through the mechanisms of devolution, and in line with the proposals that were set out by the Smith commission, the UK Government has transferred legislative competence over 11 social security benefits, as well as the right to top up benefits, which was reserved to the UK Parliament, and some rights to create new benefits, thereby enhancing not only the power of this Parliament but its responsibilities.
The bill sets out seven principles for Scottish social security, and perhaps the most important is that
“respect for the dignity of individuals is to be at the heart of the Scottish social security system”.
Colleagues across the chamber have worked hard to ensure that the legislation delivers that respect. Although there were some disagreements in what is a complex and challenging legislative area, the progress of the bill has been characterised by mature and thoughtful debate at every stage.
During today’s debate it was acknowledged that the most difficult aspect of the bill was to create a system that would deliver fair and dignified benefits for people who face life-limiting illnesses. I thank my colleague Jeremy Balfour, who lodged amendments on that and has worked hard to secure a fairer deal for terminally ill people. I also pay tribute to the Motor Neurone Disease Association and to Marie Curie, whose advice has guided us through that complex issue. I am delighted that the minister last week lodged an amendment that could be unanimously supported, and I hope that it will provide flexibility and a person-centred approach to benefits for people who are facing terminal illness.
However, despite the smooth progress of the bill as a whole, I still have reservations about some aspects of implementation. We have created the framework, but as my colleague Adam Tomkins made clear, the detail will be for the ministers to sort out.
I note the Auditor General for Scotland’s recent report “Managing the implementation of the Scotland Acts”, which makes it clear that, much the same as with the expansion to 1,140 hours of free childcare, there is still much work to be done, if Scotland is to have a successful social security system that delivers on time and within budget. It is worrying that the Auditor General’s report states:
“The Scottish Government has not estimated the total cost of implementation, or the extent to which this will exceed the UK Government’s agreed contribution. The excess will require funding from the wider Scottish budget.”
I understand that the Scottish Government is developing a five-year financial plan to examine that issue, but I agree with the Auditor General’s opinion that more detailed estimates of costs are required as the social security system develops—especially in relation to information technology systems, service delivery and recruitment.
Following the Smith commission’s recommendations, further tax-raising powers have been devolved to Scotland. The Scottish Government should ensure that the costs of that programme are kept within our means for the benefit of taxpayers, and to ensure that our other public services maintain their current levels of funding, in keeping with the principles of the bill. In the spirit of that principle, I ask the Scottish Government to take heed of the Auditor General’s recommendations to provide greater transparency and to implement as soon as possible the proposed fiscal policies of the director general of the Scottish exchequer to ensure that costs do not spiral.
That said, this has been a historic day of which we can all be proud.18:36
It has been an emotional journey for everyone who has been involved in the creation of Scotland’s very first social security system. We have all learned much, and I know that an incredible amount of hard work has been done. Creating a system that has dignity and respect at its heart is easier said than done, but that is what we all want to achieve. After months of hard work at the scrutiny stages of the bill, we are certainly a lot closer than we were to that.
I, too, record my thanks to the clerks, all the witnesses, the third sector organisations and the legal team, which has been absolutely brilliant. When we phone the team and say that we would like to do something, an amendment appears by magic. I know that there is a lot of hard work behind that.
I thank Jeanette Campbell, Chris Boyland and all the other officials who have, I know, been up until the very small hours of many mornings. I guess that Jeanette Campbell has probably not slept very much in the past few days, judging by the number of emails that I have received. I know that she emails everyone.
As other members have done, I want to put on record my thanks to Jeane Freeman for the way that she has worked with us all. She will be proud to have reached this stage. I was very pleased to work with her on uptake and automation of benefits, as I know that she shares my view on that. I hope that we will return to some of the outstanding issues relating to the tribunal system.
It is also worth thanking all those in the Smith commission and around it who argued for more powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. They did society a great service in doing that.
I think that Alison Johnstone said that the bill is probably the most important that we have done this session. We did not get everything that we would have liked to get, but there is a lot that I do like.
“I, Daniel Blake” is a powerful and moving account of one man’s experience of trying to claim benefits after years of working hard for a living. It brought many people to tears. Unfortunately, that experience is real. It is clear that we had a system that needed to be overhauled, and that we needed a more humane and responsive system. We are very fortunate in many ways that we have had the opportunity to design a new system for Scotland, and its opening cannot come soon enough.
As I have said, the process has been very much a living one. Every day, there is something in the inbox from Jeanette Campbell or the minister. Trying to search for anything has been a bit of a nightmare, because all we get is hundreds of social security headings.
However, the fact is that we have a human rights-based approach to social security that is in tune with the devolved settlement, with the people whom we seek to help and empower, and with the poorest and most vulnerable people and those who are most in need. They include people who have lived full and active lives but who, for one reason or another, find themselves jobless and in a period of economic uncertainty, or disabled by illness or accident. If I have learned anything from the process, it is that any one of us, or anyone from wider society, could fall into such misfortune. Acquiring help and assistance from a social security system is vital in such cases.
So much progress has been made in the bill in so many areas—for example, split payments, terminal illness and advocacy. I am particularly pleased to have contributed to the section in the bill that will ensure uptake of benefits by placing a duty on ministers to assist people who apply for benefits to get their entitlement to other benefits without their having to complete another form.
As Adam Tomkins pointed out, it is accepted that we have only a framework at present, and that the details will come down the line in the form of regulations. I believe that because of that the Social Security Committee must establish a high standard of scrutiny in the years ahead. It will be a test of whether the parliamentary system and individual politicians are up to the job and the powers that we have been given.
Use of the superaffirmative procedure is welcome, but we must pay close attention in order to ensure that it works. The Social Security Committee must show that it can take charge of the detail and continue to work with ministers and the new social security commission. It is worth a special mention that the social security agency can do a lot to tackle poverty. We have so much more to do, but I am privileged to have been part of the process, and I thank all those who have been involved in getting us here.
We come to the last of the open-debate contributions. However, this is an important occasion, so if any member would like to contribute to the debate for a minute or two, please press your request-to-speak button while Mr Adam is making his speech.18:42
Thank you, Presiding Officer, but I hope that you are not doing that to try to cut the time that you promised me earlier.
Like others, I thank the minister, Jeane Freeman, and her team, who have been excellent throughout the bill process. As a humble back-bencher, I have been able to go in to see them at any time and discuss any issues that I have had with the bill. When we are talking about how we will go about things in the future and how we will move forward, we should look at how we got to where we are today and how we managed to work together to get a bill that was fit for purpose. Last week, we did not think that we were in a position to get agreement on the issue of terminal illness in the bill, but we managed to work together and get something that is better and that is what the relevant groups want.
As other members have said, this is a historic debate that gives us, as parliamentarians, the opportunity to stand up for the people of Scotland in the way that they deserve: with dignity and respect. For me, this is not only a debate about social security, but an opportunity for us finally to take the reins and do things how we want to do them. For the first time in our Parliament’s history, we have the power to make new decisions, implement new procedures and, above all, put people at the heart of all that. This is, indeed, a significant moment for Scotland and, arguably, the biggest thing to happen here since devolution. The bill gives our Government and Parliament the opportunity to make different choices and to show the nation and the rest of the world what we are made of and what we are all about. However, above all, it shows that we can create a fairer and more just society when we take matters into our own hands.
Following the devolution of 11 social security benefits through the Scotland Act 2016, this is the first time that we, as parliamentarians, have had the power to make changes to the welfare system and demonstrate our strong desire to do things differently, put respect and dignity at the top of the agenda and ensure that the system does not make life harder for our constituents and the people of Scotland. By enshrining dignity and respect as the two unwavering pillars of our policy, we are taking a definitive step away from the approach that the UK Government is currently taking.
Although welfare cuts continue to cause misery, push people into further poverty and attract international criticism, for the first time in UK history Scotland is showing the way forward and implementing a system that is based on the statutory principle that social security is a fundamental human right.
The new Scottish social security system that the Scottish Government is proposing is taking a big leap forward and is paving the way for the devolution of powers over non-income-related disability benefits including disability living allowance and the personal independence payment. The Scottish Government has grasped that opportunity.
Despite the fact that I unfortunately hear stories of mistreatment at cold and uncaring assessment interviews and appeal hearings on a regular basis, I am often left shocked when people with disabilities come to my constituency office and tell me that they are left feeling alone, anxious and, frankly, abandoned by the UK system.
I will use an example that I mentioned earlier. This week is MS awareness week. My wife, Stacey, has multiple sclerosis. To find a great example of a community that has had difficulty with the system, we do not need to look any further than people with multiple sclerosis. As has often been said in talking about previous systems, having MS is often a case of being able to walk 10, 12 or 20 yards one day but being in bed for the rest of the time—and the situation is more severe than that. Most people with multiple sclerosis are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40—key working years—and nine times out of 10 those people end up in a situation where they receive benefits.
A couple of years ago, the MS Society Scotland had the MS enough campaign, in which it surveyed its members about benefits. It found that the vast majority of its members who had MS were on benefits and that, if there was any change to the system or to the members’ benefits, they would start talking about not buying food or not paying for electricity. When we are looking at everything that we can do through policy decisions, I know that we are talking about people with real problems such as those. We have to deal with them with dignity and respect, and we have to look after our people in a way that backs that up.
I could stand here and recount many constituents’ damaging experiences at such assessments but, as all members know, I am always about the positive things in life and looking to the future. Under our new system, people will have the right to a supporter at every stage, and independent advocacy services will be provided for those who need them. People who are eligible will also be able to receive short-term assistance during an appeal, so there will be no financial barriers to prevent Scots from taking further action. In addition, in order to cut down on the number of constituents who are left confused, frustrated and distressed by their assessment interviews, assessments will be undertaken only when they are absolutely needed. I, for one, think that that is key.
Will the member take an intervention?
Yes, I will.
It is a bit strange to be intervening on the person who is sitting right next to me.
We are talking about positive things, and the recruitment of so many people to the experience panels to get their input was a concrete way of showing that we are putting dignity and respect at the heart of things. We listened to people who were directly impacted. Does George Adam agree with me?
Unsurprisingly, after the years that I have worked with Ms Maguire, I agree with her most of the time, and I have learned that that is a wise way to be.
Ms Maguire is correct. That has been the foundation of the whole process. Has it been difficult for the minister and her team? It probably has been, but that effort shows in what we have ended up with now.
The bill tells us that the Scottish Government wants to hear from people. It wants to hear their stories. It wants to do all that it can to make the processes that people are going through in relation to social security at these very difficult times easier. That is what this really means. That is what dignity and respect mean.
As I have said from the start, Presiding Officer, this is a case of putting people at the very heart of the process. People are the reason that I got involved in politics and the reason why I continue to do the work that I do. We have a Government that is showing the way forward, and I commend the minister and her team once again for some fantastic work.
I call Sandra White, to be followed by Ben Macpherson. You have two to three minutes each.18:49
I am delighted to have two minutes at this historic moment. I believe that it is one of the finest moments that the Parliament has ever had, and I am delighted that I was part of the process from the beginning.
I thank everyone on the committee that led on the bill as well as the clerks, the minister, Jeanette Campbell and Simon Watkins, who worked so hard on it.
One of the reasons why people are emotional about the bill being passed, apart from its being the largest bill, is that it means so much to so many people. Having been out and about, as everyone has, and in the constituency office as well, dealing with people who have been round and round, through endless assessments while knowing that their illnesses are never going to go away, I am most proud of two things in the bill: that there will be no private contractors involved in that process—it was a horrendous system—and that there will be no more of the endless assessments about which people were so worried. If people turned up looking well dressed, they were told that they were fine. The fact that we are considering mental health is another thing to be proud of.
Although we all admit that there were difficulties at the beginning, the Parliament should be proud of how all parties worked very hard on the bill. As an MSP, I am immensely proud that we have managed to pass this fantastic legislation.18:51
I am grateful for the chance to add to the debate. Like other members, I feel a great deal of pride in having been a member of the Social Security Committee and in having worked with the clerks, who have helped us so much, and with the bill team and members across the different parties. Most of all, I am proud to have worked with Jeane Freeman as the minister. Her stewardship through the process has been remarkable and outstanding. I also thank all the third sector organisations that have been involved—both those in my constituency and those that make a national impact.
I am proud because I know that the bill will enable the Parliament to make an even bigger difference. It will enable us to increase the carers allowance, introduce a young carer grant and create a best start scheme for many children and families, all of which will make a difference. It will provide a right to advocacy when required, fast-track payments for sufferers of terminal illness, ban private sector medical assessments and promote the take up of benefits, which will also make a difference. It will uprate carers assistance, disability assistance, employment injury assistance and funeral assistance, and—most crucially of all in terms of the ethos of the new system—it will deliver social security as a human right that is based on the principles of dignity and respect.
All of that, as well as the process to achieve it, is something to be very proud of. It demonstrates that, when the Parliament is given more powers and works together for positive change, whether we are yellow, blue, red, green, gold or whatever, we make a substantial difference. By creating this public service for Scotland, we will take Scotland forward in a remarkable and important way. I commend all those who have been involved, because this is a really moving and important day in Scotland’s political history.
We move to the closing speeches and I call Mark Griffin. You can have up to six minutes.18:53
Thank you, Presiding Officer. As well as the thanks that I offered in my opening speech, I put on record my thanks to the British Sign Language interpreters who are at the back of the chamber and have been interpreting all day. [Applause.] While we have shared the burden of speaking across the whole team, there are far fewer of them interpreting and I can only imagine how tired they are feeling. It is a fantastic advert, in light of some of the changes that we have seen relating to accessibility, and shows Parliament in the best and most accessible light, so I thank today’s interpreters.
In my opening speech, I welcomed the work that we have done. Although I raised some concerns, I did that with the 1.4 million people who will use the system in mind; after all, at decision time, we will confirm that, under Scots law, social security is an investment in the people of Scotland. It has been a long day for some of us, but it is a far bigger day for the people of Scotland.
I have looked at some of the protections that are now included in the bill, and it is clear that we have set a new path to a better social security system. The ban on the private sector delivering assessments, a new right to independent advocacy for disabled people who are applying for disability assistance and protections against means testing of winter fuel payments move us beyond what exists under the UK system.
Two of the areas that I am particularly proud of are the improvements that we have agreed today on split payments and uprating the carers supplement in 2019. I am delighted that the Parliament today accepted the arguments about placing a policy commitment for automatic split payments in the bill following discussions that have been going on for months.
The single payment of universal credit is undermining women’s safety and reducing their financial autonomy. The Equality and Human Rights Commission plainly said that universal credit has caused a
“drastic shift in income from women to men”
and is, fundamentally, perpetuating gender inequality. Universal credit is systematically diverting money from women and taking funds away from raising children. The impact is that children are less likely to go to school having had the breakfast that they need or wearing the warm coat that protects them from the elements, which we know and understand to be evidence of poverty. Worse still, nine in 10 of the women who suffer at the hands of men are likely to suffer financial abuse, too, and single payments can only compound that experience.
That is why I am glad that we have changed course on split payments today. We have set the Government a challenge, but it has accepted it because there are people—women, children and some men—who will ultimately benefit.
The agreement to afford carers protection from the benefit freeze is similarly important and builds on the amendments that were agreed to at stage 2, when I argued that uprating for carers should be guaranteed, as happens under the current system. On paper, we have ensured that our joint commitment to the level of jobseekers allowance is protected as inflation erodes that commitment next year. In reality, we have protected carers from the erosion of benefit, which would have cost them £5 million in one year. We should now look forward to improving carers allowance more generally, including changing the studying restrictions, the earnings threshold and the package of passported support.
Our biggest job will be to support and scrutinise the Government’s plans for disability benefits. We are ready for that challenge, though I hope—as will many who are watching today—that we move far away from PIP, so long as that is done in a fair and supportive manner. This decade, disabled people have experienced a brutal transfer to PIP. We cannot repeat that, and protections should be afforded to them, just as income supplement should avoid a reliance on universal credit.
The overriding message from stage 3 is that we as a Parliament must ready ourselves for much more work to get this right. We on the Labour benches support the bill and are ready for the challenge ahead.18:58
As others have done, I thank the many people who have helped us get to where we are today. I thank those who have helped us get a bill that we can be proud of and which will take things forward: the clerks to the committee, the legislation team, the Scottish Parliament information centre and my staff in the Conservative group.
I also thank the minister for all the work that she and her team have done behind the scenes. She has been open to suggestions, to meetings and to telephone conversations—and even to sending emails in the early hours of the morning. For all those things, we as a Parliament should be grateful. As another member said, the First Minister made a good choice in appointing Jeane Freeman to take this legislation through.
I also thank the third sector for its work, over not just the past few weeks but the past year or so. Local charities have come to talk to me, as have national charities. We have not always agreed with them, as became clear today, but they gave us information and they gave us questions to ask. They, too, can be proud of what they collectively achieved in developing the bill.
There are things in the bill—which I hope will soon become an act—of which we can be proud. The setting up of an independent commission is a massive step forward that will help us to scrutinise what is going on by giving us the independent advice that the Parliament sometimes needs, given the pressure that we are all under.
The inclusion in the bill of provision for advice and representation is also a massive step forward. The right to advocacy, where it is required, will open up the system to many people.
We can also all be proud of the provision that we have made in relation to terminal illness, which is a horrible diagnosis. I hope that when the new guidance comes out, it will ensure that people are given the help that they need at that most difficult time.
As I think that I said earlier, we are just at the start of the second half of our journey. I ask the minister whether she is still committed to ensuring that all benefits will be up and running before the next election. If she is, and if the Government is, will they give us an outline as to when regulations on the different benefits will be laid and the stages in that regard?
In general, I am an optimist in life, and I think that the minister must be, too, because she has set a high bar for the delivery of social security in Scotland. There will be challenges to do with culture and delivery, and we have to be careful with the language that we use, so that we do not overpromise. I do not want to sound pessimistic; I think that we can have a system that is different and good and that helps more than a million people in Scotland. However, I think that we all have to be careful about what we promise.
Regulations will be the key. I am getting back on my hobby-horse—much to Alison Johnstone’s annoyance. Questions such as how far someone can walk before they can get a benefit will be key. Let me be the first person to lobby the minister on behalf of people with epilepsy, who I think face a real struggle under the current PIP regulations. We need to consider how we can help people who have that condition.
Ultimately, Pauline McNeill was right; indeed, my own assistant confessed last week that she was dreaming about the superaffirmative procedure—that cannot be a good place to be. There is a responsibility on not just the Scottish Government and the Social Security Committee but all members of the Scottish Parliament to ensure that we scrutinise the forthcoming regulations, to ensure that they are fit for purpose.
We must do that so that we help our constituents, as George Adam said. We can have the best motivation and the best framework and charter, but unless the right award is made and the right amount of money is delivered into someone’s bank account on the right day, the Parliament will have failed the people of Scotland.
Let us be glad today. Let us congratulate ourselves. Let us even have the weekend off. But on Monday morning, let us get down to business on the regulations and ensure that we get them right. Then we can be proud of what we deliver.19:04
We have had a debate that was fitting for what is an important moment in the history of this Parliament. It was fitting in its tone, its content and even its last-minute lobbying; I take the opportunity to assure Mr Balfour that, when we consider regulations, we will take account of the issue that he raised to do with people with epilepsy. We will look at all those matters.
I am also grateful for all the kind comments that have been made about me. However, to be clear, behind every minister is a most excellent team, and I have precisely that across the social security directorate and in my private office, and, of course, I have a very special special adviser. I am grateful to all of them.
The Social Security (Scotland) Bill was introduced last June following a detailed consultation and engagement process. Today marks the end of its parliamentary progression. In the 309 days since its introduction, the bill has been significantly improved and strengthened through discussion, debate and engagement with stakeholders, experts across the country and MSPs from all parties and those on the Social Security Committee. However, as Adam Tomkins and others have said, there is indeed much more work for us to do. Today is a special moment—of course it is—but we now have to go on to fill in the detail that makes up the flesh of the framework. The assurance that I give to Mr Tomkins and others is that we will approach that process in exactly the way in which we have approached the process up to now—looking for consensus, looking for ideas, working in collaboration and, above all, putting the people of Scotland first.
For some, today might feel like the end of the process, but it is the start of what matters for the people of Scotland: the delivery of benefits that, as Clare Adamson said, affect 1.4 million people—benefits that will be devolved and will be transformed.
We will start later this year by investing more than £30 million a year, with a 13 per cent increase through our carers supplement to take it to the same level as jobseekers allowance. That will benefit more than 70,000 carers. Only a few months later, in 2019, we will introduce the new young carer grant, which is a £300 annual payment for young adults with significant caring responsibilities who do not qualify for carers allowance because, for example, they are in full-time education.
Further, also in 2019, we will start delivery of the best start grant, which will be delivered to low-income parents across Scotland. That represents a significant investment in children and families and is a major improvement on the current UK provision. It will involve a one-off £600 grant on the birth of the first child in a low-income family and two further £250 payments in the early years of the child’s life. Because we do not place caps on our future generations, we will reintroduce grants of £300 plus those two payments of £250 for the second and all subsequent children.
Finally—this is still in 2019—we will also deliver the first Scottish funeral expense assistance to help people cope with the additional expense at a time of upset and distress on the death of a loved one. We have widened the eligibility so that more people who need that support can get it, and we will speed up and simplify the process so that people can know quickly what support they will get. Following the amendment that was passed this afternoon, we will uprate that benefit in line with inflation.
We have already begun recruiting the first staff to deliver those benefits—the first of our locally based staff, bringing support, advice and that human face to people in their own area so that they can get what they need and are entitled to more easily. When it is fully operational, our new agency—social security Scotland—will have created 1,900 new jobs across Dundee, Glasgow and local communities across Scotland, which represents a significant economic investment that will benefit all of the country.
Although the legislation has been agreed, the work will continue. We will continue to learn about the ambitions that people have for our new social security system in Scotland and the way that they want to see it set up. We will deliver a service that, as one of our experience panel members put it,
“is not just a bit better but one that is great”.
There is no shortage of people we can learn from. We will continue to learn from stakeholders and the many communities with an interest in the bill, working in collaboration with them, finding out more about what works best for them and welcoming scrutiny and challenge.
We will learn from the independent Scottish commission on social security, which will be established through the bill. Ministers and members of parliamentary bodies including, of course, the Social Security Committee will have the benefit of expert advice from the new commission when they come to consider future proposals for social security in Scotland. As the recent report from Audit Scotland highlighted, we have been
“learning lessons from previous public sector programmes by delivering in phases, and involving users in designing policies, processes and IT systems”,
following its advice and best practice to deliver a programme of implementation in a carefully planned and incremental way.
I have taken careful note of the concerns that were raised by Mr Tomkins, by Mr Griffin and by Mr Balfour in his closing speech. Now is not the time to deal with those concerns in detail, but I say again, as I have said publicly, that we are on track to deliver, as we have promised, in this session of Parliament. What I need and would welcome from members across the Parliament, particularly those who have colleagues in Westminster, is help to ensure that the DWP is also on track to match the pace that we are operating to.
I, too, thank our BSL interpreters, as Mr Griffin did, and I especially thank all those who have given up their time to be with us today in the gallery or watching at home. I am very grateful for their support, experience and ideas.
Everything that we do in this Parliament, as legislators and as parliamentarians, is important, but today we have achieved something that is not only important but a bit special. It is special in its content, special in how we have worked together here and across the country and special in its import for the people across Scotland we are here to represent, because at its core this is about people. This is about how this Parliament and this Government respect the citizens of Scotland and act to demonstrate that respect in all that we do.
We have achieved legislation to deliver a rights-based social security system for Scotland with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart, and a new public service that we can be proud of—one that will meet the needs and ambitions of the people of Scotland, and one that we will now go on to make a reality.