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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 28, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 28 February 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Hearing Day and Hearing Awareness Week 2019, European Union Exit (Impact of United Kingdom Immigration Policy), Devolved Benefits (Delivery), Point of Order, Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Standards Commission for Scotland (Appointment of Member), Decision Time


Contents


Devolved Benefits (Delivery)

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on the delivery of devolved benefits. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement.

14:39  

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

Last year was a momentous one for Scottish social security, as we started to build a new public service for Scotland. The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 passed into law last June. Three months later, our country’s new agency, Social Security Scotland, opened its doors. Since then, we have put more than £35 million of additional funding into the pockets of people in Scotland by delivering the first two payments of the carers allowance supplement and the best start grant pregnancy and baby payment.

This year, we will introduce four new benefits to help young carers and low-income families. We are also consulting on our new job grant for young people who are moving into employment. We have made a strong start and, today, I will set out our plans for beyond 2019.

We have already taken responsibility for carers benefits. Our carers allowance and carers allowance supplement are, together, an investment of £320 million in 2019-20 alone. On 1 April next year, we will take full responsibility for the remaining devolved benefits, which means that benefits will start to be fully funded by the Scottish Government. From that point, Social Security Scotland will progressively take over the administration of those benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions. For the first time, the Scottish Government will make regular social security payments, week in, week out, directly to people’s bank accounts—payments that Scottish families will budget into their weekly shop or monthly heating bill.

The complicated nature and interdependencies of social security and devolution mean that this is no mean feat. Two Governments and two agencies will share clients. The payments that people will get from the DWP and Social Security Scotland will affect and, in some cases, need to interact with one another. This is not a lift-and-shift approach whereby we take over the whole of social security and start making changes from the inside out. That would have been my preference, and it would arguably have been a simpler process. However, we are starting from scratch in that we need to untie one set of benefits from a labyrinthine DWP system, build our own system to allow for the transfer and then ensure that the systems work together seamlessly. It is imperative that we get that right, so that people not only get the right money at the right time but remain eligible for other assistance to which they can be passported. That is a formidable responsibility, which I do not underestimate, but it is also a great opportunity to forge a social security system that is infused with dignity, fairness and respect.

It is clear to me—as we have heard repeatedly from people who have direct personal experience of the current system—that we must ensure that people who are entitled to those benefits are protected during the transition. They must be protected from aspects of the current DWP regime, yes, but protected, too, from the errors that inevitably follow when politicians rush through big changes in social security. We do not have to look far. There was the debacle of the DWP’s migration of people from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance, and the migration of the disability living allowance to personal independence payment was due to finish first in 2015, then in 2019, and it is now delayed until 2021. Above all, there is the universal credit programme, for which the original date of completion was 2017—it is now 2023. Six years later than planned, it is still fundamentally flawed. We all need to learn the lessons of those failures. It is clear to me that changes to social security need to be implemented with painstaking care, always at pace but never rushed, or we run the risk of people falling through the gaps.

The message that I am hearing is that we should take the time to get this right. Last month, we conducted an experience panel survey about people’s priorities as our agency takes over cases from the DWP. Fifty-seven per cent of the more than 400 respondents said that they want the Scottish Government to strike a balance between transferring cases quickly and ensuring that there are no mistakes. A further 29 per cent would rather that we took still more time in order to avoid errors.

Since my appointment, I have been listening. I am well aware of how high the stakes are, and I will not take risks that endanger people’s payments. We have seen that it is the people who rely on payments the most who pay the price. Over the past eight months, I have been talking to people with lived experience and challenging my officials on what can be achieved while balancing pace and risk and with clear principles in mind. Those principles are: protecting people and their entitlements, acting quickly to reform the aspects of the current system that cause the most stress and ensuring that we put in place a dignified and respectful system that works for Scotland. After careful consideration, I have determined a timetable for taking over the remaining benefits. On the basis of the current plans, I believe that that timetable, although challenging, is realistic.

As I said, from April 2020, we will become responsible for the remaining devolved benefits. I am delighted to say that, starting next summer, the first disability benefit that will be open to new claims will be disability assistance for children and young people. We will also deliver on our manifesto commitment to extend eligibility for that benefit from age 16 to age 18, which will allow continuity for families during those crucial transition years when a child becomes an adult. Also from next year, children who receive the highest care component of disability assistance will also be entitled to winter heating assistance, which will mean that 16,000 children and their families will get a £200 lump sum to help with their heating costs.

I am pleased to say that, in early 2021—keeping up the pace—we will introduce an additional payment for the estimated 1,800 Scottish carers who look after more than one disabled child, recognising the higher costs that they face. By the end of 2021, we will also start paying winter heating assistance in its current form to eligible older people in Scotland who receive another type of payment from our agency, and we will make the first cold spell heating assistance payments.

New claims for disability assistance for older people who are over the state pension age and need someone to help them because of a disability will be introduced by the end of next year. Building on that progress, in early 2021, we will introduce the largest and most complex form of disability assistance: the new claims service for working-age people, which will replace the DWP’s PIP.

I remain committed to co-designing the benefits with the people of Scotland, and a person-centred approach will be at the heart of Scotland’s three forms of disability assistance. Through major reform of the assessment process, we will significantly reduce the number of face-to-face assessments, and, when assessments are needed, we will deliver them through our agency and not through the private sector. People will be invited to attend assessments at a time and place that suits them, with the assessor coming to them, if required.

By the end of 2021, we will deliver new claims for the Scottish carers allowance and will fold it together with the carers allowance supplement and additional money for carers of more than one disabled child in a way that meets carers’ needs.

I have carefully considered whether the Scottish carers allowance could be delivered more quickly. I know that carers are, rightly, keen for us to take it over as soon as possible. However, I have concluded that, above all, we have to take the time to get the carers allowance right, as it interacts in a particularly intricate way with functions that remain reserved. It affects income tax, for example, meaning that we will need new data-sharing arrangements with HM Revenue and Customs to administer it effectively.

The carers allowance is also a gateway to other benefits that are in the gift of the United Kingdom Government, such as the carer premium, which is worth around £36 a week on top of someone’s means-tested benefit. The last thing that I want to do is jeopardise such additional payments by rushing the delivery of the Scottish carers allowance before the necessary agreements with the UK Government are in place.

I also do not want to encourage the growth of a two-tier system of new and existing claims. By introducing new claims in 2021, we can ensure that we protect payments for carers who rely on them. That will also allow us to focus on getting all three forms of disability assistance right to support the people who are cared for by our carers. That is particularly important given the scale of change that we are proposing in the application process, the desk-based decision making and the face-to-face assessments. I am therefore pleased to say that, by the end of 2021, we will deliver new claims for all disability and carers assistance, and we will support families with their winter fuel bills.

I turn now to the task of moving people’s existing claims from the DWP to Social Security Scotland. I have mentioned the importance of protecting people’s benefits as they transfer, and that is as true for existing claims as it is for new claims. We must move people to our agency in a way that causes them minimal anxiety while safeguarding the payments that they currently get.

Feedback from our experience panels shows how we can achieve both of those aims. I mentioned a survey that we conducted last month among people who are experienced in the current system. We asked what is most important to them as we take on their cases. Their top two priorities were that people should continue to receive the correct payments at the correct time and that no one should be subject to a DWP face-to-face reassessment for disability benefits. We will use that research as the basis for a set of client-centred transfer principles that are agreed with user and stakeholder input.

Let me be clear: we will protect people’s payments during the transfer. In addition, I guarantee that, from early 2021, when we launch new claims for our PIP replacement, no one in Scotland will undergo a DWP face-to-face reassessment for disability benefits. Before someone reaches the end of their DWP award period, we will take over their case so that that cannot happen. I also guarantee that, unlike for universal credit, we will not require people to make a new claim to move on to the Scottish benefits. Instead, we will work with the DWP to arrange for the transfer to happen automatically, and we will keep people informed—before and during the process—about what will happen and when.

We will start the work of transferring people from the DWP to our agency next year. That will involve moving more than 500,000 cases—10 per cent of people in Scotland. In the past, when the DWP has migrated people within its own benefits system, such transfers have caused huge problems. Transferring people from one Government’s agency to another’s has not been done before, and we must do it effectively, securely and in conjunction with the DWP. With its co-operation, I expect the majority of people to be transferred by 2023, with all cases fully transferred by 2024.

I had not anticipated that, during that work, there would be further delay to the DWP’s DLA to PIP migration, which means that people of working age will still be on two different benefits when we would have expected to transfer them to a single form of Scottish assistance. My officials are in close contact with DWP officials on the matter, and I have requested a meeting with DWP ministers to discuss its implications. I will, of course, report back to Parliament once those discussions are more advanced.

We will work with the DWP to develop agency agreements to partially administer the devolving benefits until Social Security Scotland delivers them in full. Such agreements will ensure that people receive the regular payments that they have already been awarded with minimal disruption and distress. That is an administrative function only; it will not affect when we commence powers or start funding benefits. As I have said, from April 2020, benefits will be fully funded by the Scottish Government.

Delivering the devolved benefits is very much a joint enterprise with the DWP, and we rely on it to match our ambition and pace. The timescales that I have set out remain very challenging, and there are many unknowns within our work on social security devolution and beyond. We will therefore keep our plans under careful review, and I will keep Parliament updated on our progress.

We should not forget that we are the first Government to begin the partial separation of a highly integrated welfare system between two countries. That cannot be done without taking difficult decisions on timing. However, as we break new ground every day, we gain more experience of how to accomplish the most complicated feat of devolution that has been attempted since the Parliament was reconvened.

A great deal of activity is already well under way to make our current plans a reality. Today, I will publish 11 policy papers that set out the extensive work that has gone into designing how the benefits will operate. Next week, I will publish a consultation on disability assistance. We will seek the views of the public on our proposed reforms, including the introduction of rolling awards, with up to 10 years between reviews for people whose condition is unlikely to change, and on how we can ensure that the people who undertake our assessments for disability assistance are suitably qualified. In parallel, we will pursue our ambitious timetable for 2019. By the end of this year—just 18 months from the passing of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018—we will have delivered three of the 11 devolved benefits and four brand new payments.

Two years hence, Social Security Scotland will have delivered more than £210 million in benefit payments, agency staff will have supported 200,000 people and we will have brought a new culture of dignity, fairness and respect to Scottish social security. We certainly have our work cut out as we deliver devolved benefits to the people of Scotland, but the prize is great.

Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement.

I absolutely agree that the transition must be handled properly. It is about making sure that people get the support that they need; they are the priority in all of this.

However, the cabinet secretary must see the hypocrisy that the statement exposes. For two years, you have slammed the DWP, used highly charged language about the UK Government’s administration of benefits and raised the expectations of some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people and promised them the earth. After repeated promises that the new system would be up and running by the end of this parliamentary session, we now learn that it will be 2024 before the successor to PIP is in place. That is from the party that said that it could set up an independent country in 18 months. It will have taken nine years to introduce the devolution of 11 social security benefits. Can the cabinet secretary not see that that is deeply embarrassing?

Next April, the cabinet secretary will take over executive competence. Will you now apologise to the hard-working Scottish DWP staff whom you have repeatedly denigrated and whom you are now asking to keep running benefits on your behalf for another five years?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Let me be absolutely clear: I will make no apologies for criticising the DWP for the way in which it tackles universal credit and other aspects of this issue. It is never the staff who are responsible for the policies of their political masters but, unfortunately, it is the staff on the front line who have to bear the brunt of the policies of the Tory Government.

The successor to PIP will be in place in 2021. It is important to recognise that that is the area in which most people have a criticism of the present DWP system. That is why we are making substantial changes to the assessment process, the application process and the desk-based process. You may think that that is not a good thing to do and that we should just lift the DWP system and transfer it over, but what a missed opportunity that would be for the Scottish system.

It is absolutely not the case that this can be compared to what would happen with independence, because, as I said in my statement, this is an attempt to prise out 15 per cent of benefits from the system and not a lift and shift of the system. Part of the reason for the intricacies of the programme is that it is partial devolution. I am sure that Michelle Ballantyne would have been more aware of the difficulties that we face in that if she had she been able to take up the programme development opportunities at Victoria Quay that she was given, when she would have been able to talk through the challenges of developing the system.

It is very disappointing that, rather than seeing the opportunities that we have as we deliver a substantially improved service through Social Security Scotland, Michelle Ballantyne still thinks that the DWP, under the Conservative Government, is doing a good job. That is exactly why we will have a very different policy up here, and why people will have a very different experience of social security through our agency.

The Presiding Officer

I encourage everyone to keep their remarks respectful and through the chair, and not to use the term “you”.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I am disappointed in—disgusted at, even—some of the details that have been brought to the chamber. Labour has long called for details of the timeline for delivery of a social security system that is built on dignity and respect, and now we know why we have been told so little. Yet again, the sick, disabled people, older people and carers will have to wait to see a fairer social security system.

This morning, the cabinet secretary said that it was a choice whether to use the consumer prices index, a choice whether to use agency arrangements, and a choice whether to force carers to cut their working hours. Today, the cabinet secretary wants to force those same choices on Scotland’s disabled communities, and she will no doubt pay millions to the DWP for the privilege.

When vulnerable people will have been waiting a decade for the full devolution of social security powers, it makes a mockery of Scottish National Party promises in 2014 that a separate Scottish state could be set up within 18 months.

I am not asking the cabinet secretary to apologise to DWP staff. I want the cabinet secretary to apologise today to every single disabled person she is leaving in the hands of the Tories for another five years.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I set out in my statement, we have published 11 policy position papers today that detail the work that has been going on to get to the decisions that I have set out today.

Mark Griffin did not attend the information session with social security directorate staff either. Had he been through that, he would have seen some of the decision-making alternatives that we have been looking at.

I make a genuine offer to the Labour Party, as we go through this process. If it has alternatives, I am all ears. We cannot go through the detail of this today, but I will today be sending out an invitation to the spokespeople of all the political parties to discuss this in much more detail. If the Labour Party has alternatives, bring them forward, but make them realistic. Labour should not pretend to people that it has an alternative, because, at this point, it has never demonstrated that it can deliver a safe and secure transition and deliver what people want, which is to get the right payments at the right time. That is what the timetable that I announced today is doing. If the Labour Party has a credible and realistic alternative, I am all ears. However, I fear that, just as it was with the budget, Labour will be all talk and no delivery, because that is exactly the way it acts in opposition.

The Presiding Officer

We have had lengthy open exchanges. Please keep the rest of the questions and answers succinct.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Given that the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights described the UK Government’s approach to welfare as

“punitive, mean-spirited and often callous”,

does the cabinet secretary think that it is important to reassure people by reiterating our ambition to do things differently in Scotland and to build a social security system that is based on dignity and respect and which works for people and not against them?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Yes, it is imperative that people are able to put trust back into the system, as we build our new social security system. It will work for people, rather than against them. We will do that by ensuring that we get decisions right the first time. Our redesigned application process will be accessible and clear and, because we recognise that it can be difficult for clients to gather relevant evidence, Social Security Scotland will help them to do that. We will use the supporting evidence to make more award decisions without the need for face-to-face assessments, and where they are required, as I set out in my statement, our commitment is that they will be undertaken by assessors who are suitably qualified and at a time and location that suits clients. All awards will be rolling, with no set end points, and reviews will be set at dates that take account of clients’ conditions. We will ensure that people with fluctuating health conditions do not face additional reassessments because of regular changes that they experience as a result of their conditions.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

In her response to Ruth Maguire, the cabinet secretary highlighted the fact that no face-to-face assessments for disability assistance will be carried out for children, young people and older people, and that for other applicants, all efforts will be made to use existing evidence. That came from a Green amendment to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, which I am very proud of and which was supported by all parties in the Parliament. What is the extent of the cabinet secretary’s ambition in that regard? For example, is she aiming for the great majority of working-age applicants not to have to go through a face-to-face assessment?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We are determined to get the level of face-to-face assessments down to the minimum possible. When the disability consultation is launched next week, the Parliament will see that we have asked the expert advisory group for a great deal of advice on that issue, to see how we can get the application stage right and the desk-based decisions correct, so that the face-to-face assessments are not required. I went back and asked for more advice and guidance on that issue, because I want to make sure that, at those initial stages, we do everything we can to ensure that face-to-face assessments are not required. We see them as being required only if there has been no other way to gather the necessary evidence. Of course, it is the responsibility of the agency—not the individual—to gather that evidence.

As I said in my response to Mark Griffin, letters will go out to all the spokespeople from all the political parties. I am determined to ensure that we do whatever we can to minimise face-to-face assessments. I am happy to consider that in much further detail with Alison Johnstone once she sees the full consultation next week.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

The cabinet secretary and I have often shared common ground in our opposition to what was called the disability living allowance takeaway, where DLA payments to children and their families were removed after protracted hospital stays of 87 days or more. The cabinet secretary has announced that the new system of benefits for children with disabilities will open for claimants in 2020. Can she confirm that there will be no such impediment for Scottish children who have to go into hospital for protracted periods of time?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is one of the areas that the consultation, which will be launched next week, can look at and determine. We must ensure that, when we look at all three disability payments that are coming forward, we look carefully at people’s priorities for what they want us to change. That might mean that we cannot do everything that everybody wants at the first time of asking, because that might have implications for how long it would take to deliver and build the system. I am looking for a genuine and open frank discussion during this process about people’s priorities and the implications for the programme, if any, if we implement those priorities. I know that that is an area in which Alex Cole-Hamilton has a very keen interest; we can get into those discussions during the consultation process.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

In yesterday’s debate, there was much discussion of the welcome increase in financial support to carers. Will the cabinet secretary outline how the decisions that have been taken so far support carers and show what can be achieved when a dignity and respect approach is taken to social security?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We have prioritised support for carers in our new social security system; indeed, our first change following the coming into force of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 was to increase the financial support to carers.

Through carers allowance supplement, we have improved the incomes of more than 77,000 Scottish carers by £442, bringing them into line with jobseekers allowance. That is an increase of 13 per cent and an investment in carers of more than £33 million in this financial year. We have committed to increase the supplement annually, in line with inflation, so that, in 2019, carers will receive an extra £452.40 compared with counterparts in the rest of the UK. With our full funding of carers allowance and the supplement, investment in carers in 2019-20 is £320 million. We will also introduce an additional payment for carers who look after more than one disabled child, which will benefit around 1,800 Scottish carers from early 2021.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

The message that we got on Tuesday lunch time was very different from what we are hearing today. I am sure that the cabinet secretary will be speaking to her colleagues Alasdair Allan, Keith Brown and Shona Robison about not being at such a vital meeting.

I will go on to a very important issue. I remind the chamber that I am in receipt of PIP. For those of us who receive PIP, will our transfer across in 2021—or after that—be done under the present DWP regulations or under the new Scottish regulations? If it is done under the new regulations, will that require a fresh filling out of forms to assess whether the benefit is of the right value?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The transfer, particularly for people who have moved from DLA to PIP, is something to which I have given a lot of consideration—as, I am sure, Jeremy Balfour will recognise—because there have been some difficult and distressing experiences in the past. We have ensured—and today commit again to ensuring—that a person who transfers over to the Scottish agency will not have to reapply or be reassessed. Our assurance is important; we will not put additional barriers in front of people as we move forward with transferring their cases.

If an individual requests a reassessment, perhaps because a condition fluctuates and there are changes or because a condition has deteriorated, that will be looked at differently; but for a simple case of someone being transferred over to the new agency, there will be no requirement to fill in new forms or to be reassessed. I hope that that provides reassurance to Jeremy Balfour on that issue.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I see every day in my casework the horrendous problems that are caused by universal credit and the transfer to PIP. Is there anything that the Scottish Government can do to support people who are in receipt of benefits from any further upheaval?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I outlined, in part, to Jeremy Balfour, we will do things very differently from recent DWP migration. Our case transfers will be based on the needs of people who have lived experience of the current system. We have sought their initial thoughts and, once our consultation has been launched, members will be able to see that we will be developing transfer principles to underpin our transfer requirements.

As I have guaranteed again today, when people’s cases transfer, their payments will be protected. They will get the right money at the right time, which is an important reassurance for people, along with the fact that they will not be subject to a face-to-face assessment.

The other aspect, of not forcing people to reapply, is also very important. We are learning the lessons of what was proposed for universal credit, which many stakeholders say will cause people to fall through the gaps during the migration process. Our transfer process will be very different from that.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

This morning, the cabinet secretary said that carers face a choice about whether to risk going over the carers allowance cliff edge if they earn more than the threshold. However, this afternoon, the cabinet secretary is telling people that she will maintain that choice for years to come.

Will the cabinet secretary tell me what to say to Scotland’s 80,000 unpaid carers about what they should say to their bosses when they have to ask for fewer hours rather than completely lose their entitlement to the supplement? How will she make up for the income lost because of her choice to extend the full transfer of powers for social security by three years, to 2023?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

This morning, the Labour Party voted against an increase in the carers allowance—that is what happened in the Social Security Committee this morning. It is deeply disappointing that Labour did so. At the committee meeting, we discussed the fact that there is an agency agreement that allows the Scottish Government to quickly deliver the carers allowance supplement. As I said to committee members—I say it again—if we did not have that agency agreement, we would not have been able to deliver the carers allowance supplement. Therefore, just as the Scottish Government has made choices, I think that the Opposition parties need to be responsible and, if they do not want the agency agreement, be frank with people, who would not have had the carers allowance supplement—because that is the reality of what they are saying.

If Labour is looking to change the agency agreement, it should be frank about the implications of doing so. That is why I made it very clear, in my response to Mark Griffin, that if Labour has realistic proposals to make, my door is always open. However, I doubt that that will happen.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

How can the cabinet secretary guarantee that the Scottish social security system will treat people who have disabilities differently and challenge the stigma around benefits that is associated with the UK Government’s system?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I think that it is important that we challenge the stigma around benefits, which people, unfortunately, face at the moment—that came out loud and clear as we developed the social security charter and is reflected in the charter.

That is why I am determined to ensure that disabled people in Scotland get access to the benefits to which they are entitled in a way that supports their needs and treats them with the dignity and respect that they deserve. We will ensure that we have a person-centred service, with dignity and respect embedded in the framework of disability assessments.

To give a concrete example, as well as what I have already outlined in relation to assessments, I have very serious concerns about the 50-metre rule in relation to disability assessments and the negative impact that it has had. I want to find a better way to understand people’s mobility needs to ensure that people get the best benefits that they are entitled to.

We want to get that right and we will be working with stakeholders and clients in the consultation to find a different and better descriptor for that issue.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

The cabinet secretary says that she expects the majority of people to be transferred by 2023 and all cases to be fully transferred by 2024, but that is not a guarantee of anything. She originally said that all the affected benefits would be transferred before May 2021, but that has now been kicked down the road. Will the cabinet secretary tell us what the extra cost of that horrendous delay will be?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We will take full responsibility for all the devolved benefits from April 2020, exactly as we promised. I use the word “expect” in relation to the transfer because it is a joint programme with the DWP—I cannot deliver the timetable without doing so jointly with the DWP. I expect to be able to deliver the transfer of the majority of people by the end of 2023, and I expect to do all transfers by 2024; however, it is not in my gift to do so. If the member would like to take that up with the secretary of state and to encourage the UK Government to deliver change and at our pace, I would appreciate his support.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I appreciate the time that Government officials took this week to talk Jeremy Balfour and me through the complexities of the social security programme. I was struck by the scale of the programme, the new systems required and the information technology that is being built. It was very impressive.

Has the cabinet secretary learned lessons from other large-scale public sector projects or from Audit Scotland, which regularly reviews the programme? After all, getting it right first time is the best way to deliver for claimants.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Bob Doris is quite right to point to the fact that we need to get it right first time for everyone involved, because people are relying on us to ensure that their payments come through. That is why we have said right from the start of the project, under previous cabinet secretaries, that safe and secure transition is our absolute priority.

We are undertaking the largest and most complex programme of change since devolution and are building a robust and future-proof digital system that will deliver a high volume of payments. That is a very complex task, and we have learned from other major initiatives in recent times, with our focus on reuse, before buy and before build. That is an innovation in the public sector, which reduces the risk of data duplication, provides value for money and is in line with Audit Scotland’s “Principles for a digital future”.

Regularly reviewing our programme structures and processes and adapting as we grow to change are also the right thing to do. That is good practice for any programme, as Audit Scotland highlighted in its report last year, as is the incremental approach to the development of social security.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

The Government’s tackling child poverty delivery plan to 2022 specifically says:

“within this first Delivery Plan ... we are absolutely committed to introducing a new income supplement for low income families.”

After today’s statement and with social security barely devolved by that date, does the cabinet secretary honestly believe that the public and the estimated 300,000 children who will be living in poverty by then can trust that a single penny of the supplement will be in their pockets by that date, as the Government has broken its promise to fully devolve benefits by the end of the session?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I say once again that 15 per cent of benefit payments will be fully devolved in April next year. The reason why the income supplement was not mentioned in the statement is that it referred only to the benefits that are devolved under the Scotland Act 2016. They are at the stage at which we are able to give a timeline, having undergone planning and delivery consideration.

Members will know that there is an options appraisal to examine the potential policy and delivery options for the income supplement, based on our two key principles of reaching the greatest number of children in poverty and ensuring a robust and viable delivery route. The commitment that is contained in the delivery plan is that we will work towards the introduction of the income supplement over the lifetime of the plan, and that is exactly what we intend to do.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

In her statement, the cabinet secretary mentioned a new culture of “dignity, fairness and respect”. Can she say anything about how that will come into play, so that we do not see examples such as the one that we saw in the film “I, Daniel Blake”, in which an ordinary member of staff tried to help somebody who was claiming benefits and was jumped on by somebody from senior management?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

John Mason again raises the very important point that it is not the DWP staff who are to blame for the system, but the UK Government, whose policies they need to implement. We are determined to do things differently up in Scotland, based on the social security charter and what it enshrines. It is a powerful document, because it has been developed not by the Government but by those with lived experience of the social security system. It will ensure that the principles of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, which legally define our approach to social security—which is based on dignity, respect and human rights—are upheld in every single interaction that any individual has with our system.