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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 26 September 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Common Agricultural Policy, Social Security, Human Rights Defenders (Support and Protection), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, European Atomic Energy Community (Impacts of Leaving)


Social Security

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-14075, in the name of Christina McKelvie, on supporting and protecting—I beg your pardon, I am getting ahead of myself. Sorry, Ms Somerville, you must have been wondering what I was up to—I am wondering what I am up to!

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on dignity and respect in Scotland’s social security system. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions. Cabinet secretary, you have 10 minutes—and my apologies.


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

I could not possibly comment, Presiding Officer.

It is a pleasure to address the chamber in my new role as Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People.

It is just 30 months since the passing of the Scotland Act 2016, which devolved powers over social security to the Scottish Parliament. However, in that time, we have put in place the legislative framework for delivering benefits through the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, which was passed unanimously by Parliament five months ago; we have delivered our first benefit payments, with carers receiving the carers allowance supplement, which will increase their financial support by £442 a year; and, assuming the Department for Work and Pensions keep to pace and plans, we will deliver the first best start grants by Christmas, more than six months ahead of schedule. In addition, we are establishing a new social security chamber, we are making provision for an upper tribunal in the Scottish tribunals system to hear devolved benefit appeals and we have launched our consultation on young carers grants.

None of that has been simple or straightforward. We are carrying out a difficult and complex transfer of benefits and powers that will impact on 1.4 million people across the country. Therefore, I pay tribute to the stakeholders, our expert groups and our engagement panels, which have done so much to support the Scottish Government in keeping up the pace to deliver the social security system that Scotland needs and deserves. Their hard work is very much appreciated. I also pay tribute and record my thanks to my predecessor, Jeane Freeman, for her commitment and dedication in getting us to this point.

A key point that Jeane Freeman made over and over again is that social security is an investment in our people and a public service. That principle is so important that it is enshrined in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. It is also why, in April last year, she announced her plans to establish a Scottish social security agency to deliver benefits. I am pleased to say that, this month, the new public service—Social Security Scotland—is up and running, and I have had the privilege of meeting staff recently in our headquarters in Dundee.

I am delighted to announce to the chamber that, in line with the important principle of public service, I have decided that our new public agency, Social Security Scotland, will deliver assessments to determine eligibility for disability assistance, fully supported by public sector healthcare professionals. I want to ensure that disabled people can access a flexible, person-centred assessment service the length and breadth of the country, and it is clear to me that Social Security Scotland is best placed to deliver that.

That decision has been taken after an extensive period of research and analysis to consider how assessments for disability assistance should be delivered, and after careful consideration of all the evidence. In a clear demonstration of the trust that we want people to have in the system, our five criteria for determining the assessments process were dignity and respect; equality and poverty; efficiency and alignment; implementability and risk; and economy and environment. That work has shown that an in-house approach will deliver on our principles.

We have also consulted with stakeholders and sought advice from the expert advisory group on disability and carers benefits, which is led by Dr Jim McCormick and which fully backs our in-house approach. As we further develop our model over the coming months, that engagement will continue, and I greatly value all the group’s input in ensuring that we deliver a service that is right for the people of Scotland.

To deliver a successful disability assessment process, we have considered what is needed for a social security system that ensures dignity and respect at every stage. We have also looked at what does not work for people. Throughout our engagement with individuals, we have heard repeatedly about the stress and trauma caused to ill and disabled people by the United Kingdom Government’s current assessments system. That system is failing people and has been widely criticised, including by the Westminster Work and Pensions Committee inquiry and by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We have learned the lessons of the UK Government’s failures. We have also taken account of the two independent reports by Paul Gray on the failures of the UK Government’s personal independence payment assessments, and his subsequent recommendations.

The Scottish Government ruled out the use of private contractors in the delivery of disability assessments in April 2017, and in April 2018 that commitment was enshrined in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 by ensuring that no one will be forced to undergo an assessment that is carried out by a private sector provider. It is clear that the UK Government is content with an approach that sees private sector assessment providers prioritise profits over people. This Government puts people first and foremost, so individuals’ assessments will not be farmed out to private companies.

The experience that people have when trying to access disability assistance is the Government’s responsibility. From application to award, we will provide a service and will manage performance, quality and outcomes. It is that approach that will embed dignity and respect throughout and ensure that people can trust in the benefits system.

The Scottish Government remains committed to significantly reducing the proportion of people who are required to attend a face-to-face assessment. It is enshrined in legislation that individuals should not be required to do so unless it is the only practicable way to make a decision about their entitlement. I will make sure that, when a face-to-face assessment is carried out, the process is right for people. I would therefore also like to update the chamber on four clear actions on that process. The actions have again been developed following consultation with stakeholders and extensive engagement with experience panel members and our expert advisory group.

It is clear to me that the current UK Government disability assessment system has not been designed to prioritise the needs of the individual who is being assessed; instead, it is structured to maximise case volume, deter flexibility and ensure rigid compliance. We have heard from a great many people about their dissatisfaction with the way in which assessments are organised. We have heard about people having to travel for hours to get to assessments; those who are too ill to leave the house being refused home assessments; and those who unavoidably miss their assessments being told that they must start the entire application process again.

The first of four actions that I want to outline is that we will put the needs of the individual at the centre of our system by providing greater choice and control. Therefore, I can announce that individuals will be provided with choice and flexibility, taking into account the distances that people are expected to travel and their location preferences. When people are invited to assessment, it will be at a time that suits them. Secondly, for those who have difficulty travelling to an assessment centre, I will ensure that we have a service that can deliver home-based assessments to those who need them.

The third action aims to build trust among people who currently have no trust in the DWP assessment process, which is exacerbated by a lack of transparency. I can announce that we will introduce the audio recording of assessments as standard. We want people to be confident in the knowledge that there is an accurate record of all that has been said during their assessment. Recording will also provide assessors with an additional tool that they can access when writing assessment reports, ensuring that reports are an accurate reflection of the assessment.

It is our intention that a properly functioning assessment system, robust decision making and a thorough redetermination process will bring about a marked reduction in the number of decisions that are taken to appeal. However, we recognise that, in any social security system, there will still be instances when individuals challenge the decision that is made about their entitlement, and they should do so. We want to get appeals right, so my fourth action is that we will ensure that the tribunal can also use the audio recording to inform its determination.

I am proud of what has been achieved so far and of the actions that I have outlined. They are a further demonstration of how we will embed dignity, fairness and respect in everything that we do. I look forward to further updating the Parliament on progress towards delivering Scotland’s system of disability assistance. The Scottish Government will continue with the kind of innovative engagement that has led to the proposals that I have outlined. We will continue to build a social security system that the people of Scotland want and deserve.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We now have 20 minutes for questions.

Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for the advance sight of her first statement. We welcome the commencement of the delivery of devolved benefits, and we thank all those who have helped in the process.

Last October, a Scottish Government report highlighted the clear divergence in PIP award rates between local authorities across Scotland. The report stated that, for new claimants, award rates varied between 52 per cent in East Dunbartonshire and 37 per cent in Dundee city. Has there been any investigation into, or evaluation of, why the success rates of PIP claimants varied across Scotland? Can the cabinet secretary assure the Parliament that there will be a robust on-going analysis and quick response to any such variations in the new system to ensure equality of outcome for claimants?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my statement, we will ensure that the social security agency ensures that we have a process in place to keep a very close eye on what is happening across the country. That is exactly why we believe that the assessments should be delivered in-house.

I gently point out to Michelle Ballantyne that the problems with the current PIP awards under the UK Government are an exact demonstration of why the news that the Scottish Government will be looking at disability awards in the future will be gratefully received by people across the country. Our challenge at the moment is that it is not within the Scottish Parliament’s gift to do anything. It will be soon, and we will see a very different system when it is.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the cabinet secretary to her new role. Her statement is very welcome. It seems only yesterday that I was arguing with her predecessor that it was possible to include a legal ban on the private sector performing the assessments. I am glad that the Government has finally listened to Labour members and is now moving on to delivery.

The cabinet secretary spoke at length about the assessment process, which is very important, but disabled people are also desperate to know what criteria they will be assessed against and the value of the assistance. Can the cabinet secretary set out a timetable for when the qualifying criteria and the value of disability assistance will be publicly available? Finally, the Government recently began a tender process for the design of the new assessment process. Can the cabinet secretary tell us today, in line with the spirit of the law, that she will block any involvement of the private sector in the design of that assessment process?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As Mark Griffin well knows, and as I said during my statement, the Scottish Government and Jeane Freeman made the commitment that there would be no private sector involvement a year before the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 went through Parliament. It is now acknowledged that the Parliament wished that to be in statute, which was absolutely the right decision.

Today’s statement lays the foundations for what the disability assessment process will look like, but we still have some work to do on the details. For example, the expert advisory group is working through details on sources of evidence for making benefit decisions, the meaning of “suitably qualified” assessors and the duration of the award. Those are the next steps that will come from the advisory group, which is due to give me that advice by the end of this year and we will respond in due course.

We are on a journey in delivering the assessment process and, as I made clear in my statement, there is no place for the private sector in the delivery of that process in Scotland; the Government will hold that very dear.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Eleven members wish to ask questions, so I am going to be tough on preambles. You have been warned—I do not want long preambles; I want questions.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. The statement is welcome both for its broad vision for disability assessments and for many of the specific proposals. We know that those assessments have caused—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No—I said what I said, Ms Johnstone. You must ask your question.

Alison Johnstone

Thank you, Presiding Officer. The assessments have, literally, worried people sick, so I ask the cabinet secretary how far her ambitions run in terms of reducing the need for unnecessary face-to-face assessment. Is the very high number of above 80 per cent of applications—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you.

Alison Johnstone

—going to carry on, and what—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I said “Thank you.” Please sit down.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

This morning I met colleagues from Inclusion Scotland, many of whom talked to me very vividly about their personal experience of going through that process—the stress and ill health that it has exacerbated. I made the commitment to them, and make it to the chamber, that we are absolutely determined to bring down markedly the number of face-to-face assessments that take place. We need to reach the right decision earlier in the process, rather than waiting for that assessment. I am meeting Alison Johnstone soon and I will be happy to discuss that in more detail with her then.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Mr Cole-Hamilton. I do not want to be Mrs Nasty again.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I welcome the cabinet secretary to her role. The flexibility that has been outlined in the new proposals is welcome. What assurance can the cabinet secretary give people who are waiting for assessment that the flexibility will not lead to extended waiting times?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I assure those who will go through the process that we are determined to get it right for them, which includes the amount of time that it takes to go through the process. I heard this morning about the stress and anxiety that are caused by waiting for the assessment process to conclude, and about the further stress that is caused when people have to go to appeal because the assessment process has gone against them. Flexibility will be in-built and we provide an assurance that Social Security Scotland will be adequately staffed and funded to deliver that for the people who go through the process in due course.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Assessments for PIP and employment and support allowance under the UK Government have had a negative and distressing effect on my constituents. Will the cabinet secretary set out the next steps that the Scottish Government will take to ensure that the new Scottish system gets that right for people? Importantly, will she provide assurance that disabled people and the disability expert group will be meaningfully involved in the process, including on the criteria, on an on-going basis?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I give that assurance to Bob Doris. One of the fundamental problems with the current system is that it is not designed for the people who use it. People talk about fighting the system, rather than being supported by it, which is why the engagement that we have had with our experience panels and expert advisory group has been critical. We have ensured that they are at the heart of everything that we have done in designing and building the system, including the work on what that system feels like as people go through it.

I am more than happy to assure members today that we will continue that inclusive engagement, as it is exactly what it is needed to ensure that we deliver a benefits system that is right for the people whom we serve.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I remind members that I am in receipt of PIP and have been through the assessment process.

I welcome the fact that the new agency will do assessments in-house. How will we retain the independence of assessments, so that an assessment is seen as an independent document and not as something that is used by the agency? Secondly—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You get only one question. Sorry.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The process that individuals will go through has to be something that they have faith in and that they can trust looks at their application and the impact on their lives as a whole. We have brought the process in-house to deal with the challenges that Jeremy Balfour raised.

The decisions that we have taken about how we deliver the assessment process will give assurance to people. The transparency that we are building into the system—for example, people being able to see assessment reports, and to hear the audio recordings of assessments, which I announced today—along with the in-house assessments will, I hope, take on board points that Jeremy Balfour has brought up.

Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

I welcome the in-house approach to assessment that has been announced. Will the cabinet secretary set out how assessor performance will be ensured and monitored by the Scottish Government?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The most important issue with assessor performance is that how assessors are recruited and trained ensures that they have the right attributes and attitude for the job. We need to ensure that everyone who works for the agency, including assessors, embraces its ethos of dignity, fairness and respect. That is the reason behind the criteria and why we chose to make the service in-house. As the agency has direct oversight of assessor performance and the assessments that they carry out, we will be able to make improvements, where necessary, in a swift and positive manner.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary says that she wants to get the appeals system right. When will she report to Parliament on the number of appeals that might drop off following unsuccessful redeterminations? Will she appoint new judges to refresh the tribunal system?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I believe that I will be attending committee—if not next week, then the week after—to discuss some of the secondary legislation around tribunals. I will be happy then to go into much more detail than I might be allowed to go into today.

It is important that we get the appeals process right. I refer to the point that I made earlier about trying to ensure that we have fewer face-to-face assessments, that we have the right decision making in place to ensure that we do not need as many redeterminations and appeals, and that the tribunals process is less in demand. All that action has to be followed through.

The tribunals process will be set up if the regulations are agreed by Parliament. Until we have full devolution of all benefits to Scotland, we will ensure that that process is fully staffed. We are sure that the judiciary is in a good place to deal with the cases that it has without our building up a system that is bigger than it needs to be for the small amount of benefits that we have at this time.

As I said, I will be happy to go through that in further detail as the regulations go through committee.

George Adam (Paisley) (SNP)

Is the cabinet secretary aware of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee’s inquiry into the UK Government’s PIP and ESA, which found that a “pervasive” lack of trust has undermined the operation of PIP and ESA assessments? How does the cabinet secretary plan to build trust into what is thought of by many people who are living with disabilities as—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No, that is fine. Point made.

George Adam

—a failed system?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No, Mr Adam. Sit down.

George Adam

It is quite important, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I beg your pardon.

George Adam

It is important, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Everything is important in life, but when I tell you that you are finished, you are finished.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

George Adam raised an important point about trust. As I said during my statement, there is no trust in the current system that is run by the DWP.

I recognise that we need to ensure that we have trust in our system. That is difficult when we are starting a new service, but that is also, in essence, the answer to the question. We are not making slight changes to a faulty system; we are not tinkering around the edges as the DWP has done and will continue to do. We are building a new system. We are building our own system, which will be based on dignity, fairness and respect. In that way, through our action, we will demonstrate to the people of Scotland that they can trust in what we are doing.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

How will the staff who carry out assessments be recruited, from where will they be recruited, and will they be on permanent full-time or part-time contracts and on specified hours?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is one of the areas that the expert advisory group will look at in great detail. For example, it will look at what is a suitably qualified assessor and who that will be. It is right that I wait for the expert advisory group to look into that.

We are also ensuring that discussions are on-going with the ill-health and disability benefits stakeholder reference group, which includes representatives from the British Medical Association and the national health service. There has also been significant ministerial engagement with key individuals from the medical profession. Now that we have made the decisions that I have announced today, we will be able to open that up further.

I await the recommendations and advice of the expert advisory group, which will build more detail on the foundations that I have set out today.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

If members continue to be brief, I can get the final three questions in.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Given the stigma that is attached to the DWP’s work capability and PIP assessments, and the current high turnover rates for healthcare professionals undertaking PIP assessments for the DWP, does the cabinet secretary foresee any issues in recruitment and retention?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am well aware of the high turnover rate among people who provide assessments on behalf of the DWP. We are committed to building an entirely different system and culture to those of the DWP. That is important not just for people who undergo assessment, but for those who carry out assessments.

It is vital that staff are properly supported, that they have the time and resources that they need to do their work and that they feel valued. Through Social Security Scotland, I am determined that we will achieve that.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I very much welcome the statement. Will the cabinet secretary guarantee that the healthcare professionals who support assessments will be specialists who are qualified to assess individuals’ conditions?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am aware that that subject was discussed very much during the Social Security (Scotland) Bill’s progress through Parliament. The expert advisory group is looking into the subject, which we are also discussing with healthcare professionals.

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

How will assessments be delivered in island and other rural areas to meet the distinctive needs of people who live in those areas?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The DWP system presents many challenges, but there are specific challenges that affect people who live in rural and remote areas. No matter where people live, Scotland’s social security system must deliver and must give people access to the same quality of service. That is why, as I have said, we will wherever possible make desk-based assessment decisions, which will reduce the requirement for face-to-face assessments.

When a face-to-face assessment is necessary, we will ensure that the person’s needs are considered. As I said in my statement, that will include taking account of distance and the person’s ability to travel, and ensuring that the location and time of appointments fit people’s needs. I hope that that reassures Dr Allan’s constituents.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes questions. I was a bit hard on members, but we managed to get everyone in, which was fair to those who were later on the list.