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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 29 September 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motions, Scottish Budget Update, Topical Question Time, Complaints against MSPs (Committee Bill Proposal), Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill, Sentencing Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Mossmorran (Just Transition)


Contents


Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is the stage 3 debate on motion S5M-22845, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on the Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill.

15:57  

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

I thank all those who have contributed to and supported the development of the bill. I know that the past months have been hard on everyone, so I am particularly grateful to the organisations, groups and individuals who have worked hard to help us with the bill and to improve it.

I give grateful thanks to the members of the Scottish Government’s disability and carers benefits expert advisory group and members of our ill health and disability benefits stakeholder reference group, to colleagues in the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and to the chief medical officer, the chief nursing officer and staff in their offices. Their work has been invaluable in ensuring that the bill is as it is today. I thank the stakeholder groups that have contributed, including Citizens Advice Scotland, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Scottish Association for Mental Health, Inclusion Scotland and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland.

I also extend my thanks to all the members of the Social Security Committee, past and present, and to the committee’s convener and the clerking team, who have supported a process of parliamentary scrutiny that was undertaken in difficult and unprecedented circumstances. Of course, I also very much thank my bill team and private office for their support throughout.

As that list of involved and interested parties makes clear, the bill covers a broad range of matters. It is an important package of changes to the framework of Scottish social security legislation, which is still very new. The changes that the bill will make are necessary and valuable, and, in the case of provisions that are required before the launch of the Government’s brand-new benefit, the Scottish child payment, they are urgent.

I will take a little time to talk through some of the improvements that were made to the bill during its earlier stages. In relation to appointees, I am pleased that the bill now includes safeguards to ensure that the process of appointment is not misused. The guidelines that govern how decisions on appointments should be made will now be on a statutory footing, and the list of safeguarding principles, which include principles drawn from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, was added at stage 2. Those provisions will ensure that, when an appointment is made, it will always be the best and most appropriate arrangement for the individual. In the event that those arrangements are not appropriate, the bill now provides the right to apply to the First-tier Tribunal for a review of the appointment decision.

A second improvement has been the extension of the existing duty in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 to inform individuals of their potential eligibility for other forms of assistance. That was based on the Social Security Committee’s recommendation that the section 53 duties should be extended to cover benefits, such as the Scottish child payment, that are made using the top-up powers in section 79 of the 2018 act. I was more than happy to accept that recommendation. Promoting the take-up of Scotland’s social security benefits and removing the barriers to claim entitlements is the right thing to do. It encapsulates many of the principles of the 2018 act, including that social security is an investment in the people of Scotland, that social security is a human right, that the Scottish social security system is there to contribute to reducing poverty in Scotland and that delivery of social security is a public service.

The bill also makes some adjustments to provide for cases in which a diagnosis of terminal illness is made by a medical professional who is based outwith the United Kingdom, who will, of course, not be subject to our chief medical officer’s guidance. The new guidance does not specify how healthcare professionals should be trained. The issue was discussed in detail during stage 2, when I made it clear that I absolutely recognised that the improved terminal illness definition in Scotland introduces a change in the way that some of our health professionals will carry out their duties in relation to terminally ill patients. That is why the CMO’s guidance is very detailed; it is also why we have taken other steps to ensure that the right support is in place—for example, by developing additional support measures with the terminal illness national implementation group.

I am pleased that, in the end, we have agreed a sensible approach to ensuring that only appropriate health professionals provide a clinical judgment by including a number of requirements and criteria in a combination of regulations and guidance from the CMO.

During the bill process, a clear case was made for us to provide for suspension and non-payment of assistance in a very narrow and specific range of circumstances. To ensure that there will be no negative consequences of the use of those provisions, there are a number of safeguards to ensure that the rights of the individual are respected at all times. Our amendments to allow for the value of certain types of assistance to be set at zero will also be used only when it will be of benefit to the individual concerned—for example, by allowing payments of specific on-going benefits to be restarted more quickly when the individual’s stay in a care home or in hospital has come to an end. I am pleased that organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group, Citizens Advice Scotland, Inclusion Scotland and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland have all responded positively to those changes and that they consider them to be improvements to the bill.

The final way in which I think that the bill has been improved is in the opportunity that it presented for the Scottish Government—prompted by Jeremy Balfour—to reaffirm our commitment to moving areas of competence and jurisdiction that the sheriff court currently holds to the First-tier Tribunal, in relation to the recovery of money that is owed to Social Security Scotland. We made changes at stage 2 that demonstrate that commitment but that also allow a consultative and considered approach to be taken that will ensure that the transfer is effected appropriately while guarding against unintended consequences.

I am pleased that the final additions to the bill that have been made today have had support from across the chamber. Those additions will bring forward the increase in the value of the Scottish child payment in line with inflation. I am pleased and proud that, in the teeth of a global pandemic, the Scottish child payment will open for applications in November, with the first payments to start from the end of February 2021. That is only two months later than we previously planned, despite the impact of Covid. The amendments that have just been agreed to will ensure that the payment will be uprated every year in line with inflation from April 2022 onwards.

In conclusion, I thank everyone who has helped to shape the bill.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill be passed.

16:04  

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I am delighted to open on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives, and I want to thank everyone who gave evidence for the purposes of the bill. Its development has been an unusual process as we have coped with the Covid-19 restrictions. I also want to put on record my thanks to my colleague Graham Simpson, who was previously a member of the Social Security Committee and who contributed to the bill’s consideration.

The bill offers solutions to the problems that have been experienced through the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, as well as offering claimants dignity and respect. In short, it corrects previous shortcomings in social security legislation, which the SNP should have sorted out the first time round, and it makes several procedural changes that we, on the Conservative benches, support.

Behind the legislation, we must all be mindful of the fact that Scotland’s social security programme provides crucial support for people in need across Scotland. People must have confidence and trust in the system, and we all know that we cannot afford to let them down, especially in these uncertain times during the pandemic.

An aspect of the bill about which I felt strongly earlier in the bill process is suspended payments. The provision was not included when the bill was introduced, but I believed that it was crucial to ensuring fairness and understanding the changing circumstances of claimants and their families. Jon Shaw of the Child Poverty Action Group emphasised its importance to the committee. He told us:

“Simply stopping entitlement in these circumstances will create further problems around passported entitlement to reserved benefits. There may be gaps in entitlement even if the benefit is later reclaimed. We believe amending the Act to allow for the suspension of payments will be the most effective way to deal with these issues.”

A number of other organisations, including Citizens Advice Scotland and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland, also called for the ability to enable carer and disability benefits to be suspended rather than stopped. CPAG raised a further important point, stating that the ability to suspend payments would offer claimants greater flexibility and put a stop to the need for them to reapply.

The Department for Work and Pensions exercises the suspension of payments, and it was inevitable that the issue would arise in Scotland. However, we did not have the relevant provisions in the original version of the bill, as I said. CPAG reiterated the point in its written evidence, stating:

“The power to make an award of benefit but to suspend payment is used by the DWP in circumstances such as when claimants go into hospital or care homes, or are in legal detention. Payments are also suspended prior to terminating a claim when, for example, the DWP has lost touch with a claimant. All these issues will arise in the Scottish social security system.”

I am glad that the cabinet secretary recognised that deficiency and rectified the matter at stage 2.

As I said, claimants deserve dignity and respect. Section 7 of the bill, on terminal illness, will enable a wider range of healthcare professionals to certify that a person is terminally ill, in order to fast-track a claim for Scottish disability benefits. Under the 2018 act, whether someone is terminally ill is a matter for the clinical judgment of a registered medical practitioner based on guidance issued by the chief medical officer.

Given the fantastic work of Macmillan Cancer Support’s nurses, I am glad that it highlighted the following in its written evidence to the committee:

“Nurses will already be demonstrating and evidencing the required clinical competencies in line with the relevant NHS Knowledge and Skills Competency Frameworks for their roles. In this regard, they do not require ... specialist training to act under the terminal illness provisions, however, as with all professionals, nurses should be supported to access relevant Continuing Professional Development ... to keep their knowledge and skills up to date.”

By encompassing a wider range of appropriate health professionals with in-depth knowledge and experience, the bill will ensure that those who work the closest with terminally ill claimants can make valid judgments.

The bill offers crucial support for those who need it, but it is worth examining the Government’s wider record of delivery on a Scottish welfare system in order to see the wider context. As we know, all future devolved benefits delivery has been halted due to the coronavirus. Fortunately, we have been safeguarded in that the UK Government has agreed to continue to deliver the benefits on behalf of the Scottish Government until it is in a position to deliver them safely.

Nevertheless, that does not excuse the fact that the programme of delivery by the SNP Government has already been delayed, with full responsibility for the devolved benefits not being expected until 2025. What does that mean for Scots? It will be nearly a decade since the Scottish Government received powers over the devolved benefits before all cases are transferred from the Department of Work and Pensions to Social Security Scotland.

We, on the Conservative benches, very much support the bill at stage 3. It is an important and much-needed opportunity to make amendments to address issues that have been identified since the passing of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, including through making provision for the introduction of the Scottish child payment.

I again thank those who gave evidence that helped to inform the bill process and that shaped the bill for the better.

16:10  

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Building a social security system that is fit for purpose clearly takes many years and a lot of hard work. I imagine that it must have been a very stressful day for officials and the cabinet secretary when they discovered that there were some omissions from the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. I put on record Scottish Labour’s thanks to the cabinet secretary, her officials and the organisations that have come together with the committee to come up with the changes that are needed.

We welcome and support all those changes. They will ensure a robust appointee system by putting into statute guidance for that system, including for adults with capacity who wish to be represented by an appointee. Nurses and other allied health professionals will now be able to sign off benefit forms, which will make it considerably easier for people to access benefits quickly. The bill will also ensure that fraud offences can apply to the proposed Scottish child payment and any other Scottish benefits that top up United Kingdom social security.

We know that the Scottish Association for Mental Health welcomed the cabinet secretary’s commitment to report annually on how often the powers to withhold harmful information from claimants is used in relation to applications for standard disability assistance and assistance on the ground of terminal illness, which will ensure a good measure of transparency.

I want to say something about the Scottish child payment, which the cabinet secretary spoke to the committee about last week. We know that applications will open in November, but someone need not apply if their child turns six before the February eligibility date. The cabinet secretary has put on record that that is because a “flood of applications” is expected, and that

“backdating provision would add a great deal of complexity”

and

“increase the risk of error”,—[Official Report, Social Security Committee, 24 September 2020; c 12.]

which would put pressure on the agency. She said that checking eligibility for each of the 14 weeks from November to February would introduce a huge burden for the agency.

I acknowledge the complexity of the matter and I know that the cabinet secretary has said that she will work on the question of backdated payments, but I believe that there will be a loss to many families whose child is not yet six when applications open but who will not get the benefit. They will see that as unfair, and that is disappointing.

I want to make some remarks about automation. Mark Griffin—who has served on the Social Security Committee since its beginning—and I raised that issue and we continue to raise it. I acknowledge the cabinet secretary’s support for that idea. Given that the Scottish child payment is a passported benefit and that the Scottish Government has the data on exactly who is entitled to it, it seems ripe for automation. I appreciate that the cabinet secretary is concerned about the time that it would take to build that into the system, and we do not want to delay payments, but I put on record that Scottish Labour wants to see a commitment to automation of the Scottish child payment at a future date. We would like to discuss with the Scottish Government whether a timetable for that can be set. It may well be that, as we move into the next parliamentary session, that is a matter for a future Administration, but I hope that someone can pick up the issue.

I remain concerned that those in the most extreme poverty might not apply for the benefit—I think that probably everyone involved has that concern. We should continue to look at the most effective ways of advertising the benefit. People who are entitled to other benefits need the opportunity to see that they might be entitled to the Scottish child payment.

We need to remember that one in four children in Scotland still lives in poverty. The chief executive officer of One Parent Families Scotland, Satwat Rehman, said:

“39% of children in single parent families were living in poverty before COVID-19, and the effect of the virus and resulting lockdown has only added to the pressure for single parents who are balancing the responsibility of caring for their children and bringing in an income alone.”

In conclusion, Scottish Labour welcomes the uprating of benefits. When the Scottish Government introduced the Scottish child payment in June 2019, it made the commitment to uprate it annually in line with inflation. My colleague Mark Griffin repeated the call for that, and we are delighted that that is now in legislation. As the first payments of the Scottish child payment will start from the end of February, the duty to uprate will be effective from April 2022. I think that we all wish and hope that the work that has gone into the issue will ensure that there will be an extremely high uptake of the Scottish child payment.

Scottish Labour supports all the amendments, and I am pleased to support the bill at stage 3.

16:15  

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I, too, thank everybody who provided evidence to assist our scrutiny of the bill.

The main purpose of the bill is to make adjustments to our new social security system so that the Scottish child payment may be introduced. Research that was commissioned by the Scottish Government projected that relative child poverty could reach as high as an unthinkable 38 per cent by the early 2030s, so the child payment cannot come a moment too soon.

The Greens will be pleased to vote for the bill later today so that hundreds of thousands of Scots families can get much-needed support at a time when many—too many—of them will be under intolerable financial pressure. However, the Government must leave no stone unturned with the powers that it currently has to get additional money into the pockets of poor families.

In response to very reasonable calls to uprate the child payment by higher earnings growth or inflation, the Scottish Government cited

“a significant and persistent impact upon the wider Scottish budget”

as the reason for not putting that in place. However, the cost would be just £4 million in the first year. The cost of child poverty, which has been estimated to be over £20 billion a year across the UK, has an even more significant and persistent impact on the budget.

The Scottish Government’s intention is to begin to uprate the payment in 2022. Provisions to allow that to happen are in the cabinet secretary’s amendments today. However, a number of organisations have questioned why that is not being done at the first opportunity, in April 2021. That uprating would be almost three years—with three years of inflation and devaluation—after the new payment was first announced. That should be reconsidered.

I welcome the bill’s provisions to place a requirement on the Scottish Government to inform people about their eligibility for top-up benefits such as the child payment. It is vital to ensure that everyone who is entitled to the child payment is made aware of their entitlement and is supported to claim it. Recent figures from the Scottish Fiscal Commission show the size of that task. The commission has projected that 20 per cent of eligible families will not take up the payment when it is launched for under-sixes. That figure rises to 27 per cent for when the payment is fully rolled out in 2024-25. According to projections, at least 39,000 children may miss out when the payment is launched, and that is not even taking into account families who are not claiming the qualifying payments. I would be grateful if the cabinet secretary addresses in closing how the Government intends to support those 39,000 families to take up payments.

The Scottish Government has taken the opportunity of the bill to make a number of other changes, which are largely very welcome. Our hard-working nursing staff will often know terminally ill patients better than any other health professional, so the Greens welcome the bill’s provision to enable more types of health professional to help terminally ill people to access devolved benefits. I understand that that is primarily meant to apply to nurses.

I am also pleased that the Scottish Government has listened to the Poverty Alliance and other groups in establishing a power to suspend benefit payments without stopping a claim altogether. There are a number of circumstances in which that would avoid recipients having to reapply, and that is very welcome.

The Greens recognise the need for benefit appointees to receive benefits on a person’s behalf. Since stage 1, the Scottish Government has worked hard to incorporate safeguards, which are very welcome, but I note that the Law Society of Scotland is concerned that the provisions are not compliant with the European convention on human rights. The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 recognises that social security is a human right, so that was concerning to hear. Any assurances that the cabinet secretary can give on that would be gratefully received.

The Greens welcome the bill as a genuine attempt to make our social security system work more effectively and to pave the way for the Scottish child payment. Although I have some budgetary disagreements with the cabinet secretary, I respect the way in which she has engaged with me, the committee and stakeholders to improve the bill, which the Greens will support later.

16:19  

Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

Although the Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill is a short, technical bill, it makes some important changes to the administration of Scottish social security with regard to appointees, terminal illness and topping up reserved benefits. The bill also extends existing provisions to allow judges from other jurisdictions to sit on Scottish tribunals.

Although the bill is technical, it will do some important things, including allowing regulations that create top-up benefits to include provisions on offences and investigations, which will apply to the Scottish child payment. One of the main reasons for the bill is the urgent need to create statutory offences in primary legislation in relation to the Scottish child payment. Without the bill, no such offences are in place in relation to top-up assistance, and no powers currently exist to create any.

The Scottish child payment has rightly been described as a “game changer” in tackling poverty, which illustrates the need for the legislation. According to the latest figures from the Scottish Fiscal Commission, across Scotland, 194,000 children aged under six could benefit. Once fully rolled out to under-16s in 2022-23, the Scottish Fiscal Commission estimates that there could be 499,000 eligible children. In my home city of Dundee, an estimated 5,200 children could benefit from the Scottish Government’s groundbreaking antipoverty payment.

I am sure that there will be a good uptake of the new benefit, particularly, as other members have said, during this time of added financial hardship and uncertainty. I have some sympathy with the point that was made by Pauline McNeill about the automation of the Scottish child payment. I hope that that is considered in due course.

Although the Social Security Committee, of which I am a member, was generally supportive of the bill at stage 1, the committee report stated that there were issues around the appointment of individuals to receive benefit payments on behalf of another person that required further discussion. I add my thanks to those who gave evidence, which has helped to improve the bill.

The committee report also made recommendations about non-disclosure of health information, top-up of reserved benefits, who can diagnose terminal illness and tribunal membership. The committee highlighted a concern about the lack of public consultation on the bill, and stated that the proposals on appointees in particular might have benefited from more public input. However, I am pleased that the cabinet secretary’s response to the report took on board many of the committee’s recommendations.

The Scottish Government’s stage 3 amendments allow the uprating of the Scottish child payment, and the intention is to uprate it annually in line with inflation. During the stage 1 debate, concern was raised over the issue of appointees, and the lack of appropriate procedures and necessary safeguards. At the committee’s meeting on 10 September, the cabinet secretary said, in response to those concerns, that the Scottish Government had

“engaged with our experience panels, the ill health and disability benefits stakeholder reference group and the disability and carers benefits expert advisory group”,

and that amendment 7 at stage 2

“requires the guidelines to include information on how ministers will determine the suitability of an appointee; how they will handle requests for reviews of decisions about appointments; how they will include persons with an interest in their decision-making processes; and—crucially—how they will undertake periodic reviews and handle any concerns that are raised. Amendment 7 also requires all that guidance to be developed with stakeholders and to be published.”—[Official Report, Social Security Committee, 10 September 2020; c 2.]

Amendment 7 also set out

“a set of safeguarding principles, including principles that are drawn from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”—[Official Report, Social Security Committee, 10 September 2020; c 3.]

On the issue of diagnosing terminal illness, I am pleased that the Scottish Government has listened to the views of those who are on the front line, and is extending responsibility for diagnosing terminal illness for social security purposes to include registered nurses. That is very welcome, and will help to avoid delays and prevent additional burdens falling on doctors. That will help the social security chamber to cope with the arrival of significant numbers of new cases.

I will support the bill at decision time this evening.

16:24  

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I speak as a former member of the Social Security Committee. I was technically in charge of the bill for my party for a very brief period, in my stint as shadow cabinet secretary for social security and other issues. It was a hugely successful period in which absolutely nothing went wrong. I had the pleasure of shadowing the cabinet secretary. I found her easy to work with, and I was encouraged by her willingness to work with the DWP for the good of everyone we represent. I hope that I have not caused her any issues with the good people of Dunfermline in saying that.

As I said in the stage 1 debate, this is a largely technical bill, so I do not intend to speak for long. I imagine that the chamber will be delighted at that.

The bill has four main themes: appointees, top-up benefits, terminal illness and tribunals. On appointees, it would allow ministers to appoint a person to receive benefit payments on someone else’s behalf if the claimant was a child. If the claimant is an adult, they must agree to the appointment. On top-up benefits, it would allow regulations that create top-up benefits to include provisions on offences and investigations, and that would apply to the Scottish child payment, which is due to start early next year. On terminal illness, it would allow medical professionals other than doctors to confirm that a person is terminally ill, for the purpose of fast-tracking their benefit claim. On tribunals, it would allow the temporary appointment of judges from other jurisdictions to sit on Scottish tribunals, including those that are dealing with Social Security Scotland benefits.

Jeremy Balfour and I lodged amendments at stage 2. That spurred the Government to lodge similar, but better, amendments. I and Mr Balfour, not being precious souls, considered that job done and performed a tactical withdrawal. We had amendments on the appointments, on the recovery of overpayments, on suspended payments, on overseas healthcare professionals and on eligibility for the Scottish child payment. Members have heard about them already, and I will not repeat what has already been said.

The bill might not be the most contentious in the world—in fact, it is not—but it is no less important for that. It is an example of how parties can work together for the greater good. Let us hope that that example rubs off on future bills in the Parliament—we can but hope.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Stewart Stevenson is the last speaker in the open debate.

16:27  

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Congratulations to Graham Simpson, who has made the bold and, I am sure, entirely justified claim that nothing went wrong on his watch. Of course, he was careful to draw his frame quite narrowly, so I dare say that we might have revelations at another point in his parliamentary career that draw a distinction from the claim that he has made today. However, he and the other members of the committee have done a fine job in bringing to the Parliament a proposal on whose merits there is universal consensus.

In a perfect world, everyone who requires assistance would be able to act in their own interest at all times. In the case of juveniles, of course, such actions on their part cannot be unqualified, and an adult is needed to oversee their decisions. However, the voice of juveniles must be heard in important jurisdictions that affect their futures. The children’s panel is an excellent example of where the child’s voice is often decisive in determining what should happen in particular circumstances.

The appointment of someone to look after a child’s interests with regard to social security is not to be thought about casually. It is important that, as parliamentarians and legislators, we are somewhat cynical when we look at this topic. Why cynical? Because a small number of the people who are given that responsibility will abuse that trust. We need to make sure that there are provisions to cover that circumstance and penalties for those who take away from the deserving youngsters the emoluments that are provided from the public purse. The bill takes good steps towards ensuring that we can protect the interests of our youngsters. It also makes some more general provisions in that regard.

The bill also tidies up some of the imperfections of previous legislation. It would, however, be naive of us to imagine that there is a perfect act out there that reflects the perfect parliamentary process and absolutely everything that might have been relevant to what is going on. Indeed, when the Parliament was established by the Scotland Act 1998, one of the little errors that it contained—it was not particularly important, but it was an error—was that it made no provision for what should be done about who got elected if, in calculating the last position to be elected from the list, there was a tie. As the 1998 act was first passed, everyone who was tied for last position would be elected to the Parliament. Far from having a limit of 129 members, we almost had, in a sense, no limit at all. That might be trivial, and it was very unlikely to happen, but every bit of legislation that we might get ourselves involved in will have some flaw somewhere. If we are very lucky, it never matters and it never emerges. It is, therefore, right and proper that the Government brings forward legislation that deals with some of the things that were not quite right in the first iteration of legislation.

I particularly welcome the provisions that take beyond the view of registered medical practitioners the ability to confirm whether someone is terminally ill. I spent a brief period 56 years ago as a nurse in a ward where quite a few of our patients could reasonably be so categorised, and it did not require a doctor to know that. Even as a callow 17-year-old, I could see that mortality was beckoning for some of our patients, although I would not have been sufficiently qualified to give an opinion that could be relied on. Nurses are, however, often closer to their patients than general practitioners or other practitioners in hospital. They spend more time with them, and that is a good and proper thing to say.

I will conclude my short contribution to the debate by welcoming some of the things that Rachael Hamilton said. She said that we should not be working together with the UK Government. Curiously enough, I think that we have a collaborationist Government, which is a good thing because we collaborate across the chamber, and we collaborate with the UK Government, if it is in our mutual interests to do so. If Rachael Hamilton wants to argue that we should not be doing that, I will make common cause with her—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Can I stop you there, Mr Stevenson? You might think that you have made a short contribution, but you are already a minute and a half over.

Stewart Stevenson

I am most obliged to you, Presiding Officer. As I peer at my screen, I can now see the clock. I will draw my remarks to a conclusion there by saying that I will be happy to support the bill at decision time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you. I appreciate that it is difficult when you are attending remotely. Notwithstanding my little scolding of Mr Stevenson, we might be able to bring decision time forward to around 4.45. I say that in fairness to other speakers who are getting only four minutes.

16:33  

Pauline McNeill

There is not much to add. When Graham Simpson reminded us that nothing went wrong during his brief stint as shadow minister for social security, I was reminded that six members of the Tory party have joined us on the Social Security Committee: Adam Tomkins, Michelle Ballantyne, Gordon Lindhurst, Graham Simpson, Jeremy Balfour and Rachael Hamilton. They have all made an excellent contribution to the work of the committee; I say that genuinely, even to Graham Simpson, but I wonder whether there was a requirement to serve on the committee.

Mark Griffin and I, and I think Alison Johnstone, have served on the committee from the beginning of the session. It is worth while serving on the committee—even for a brief period—because what we have been doing, with the organisations that have been mentioned during the debate and the ministers, is creating from scratch a completely new social security agency for Scotland. It is clear that a great deal of hard work goes into that.

I will summarise a few issues. Moving the jurisdiction for the recovery of payments from the sheriff court to the First-tier Tribunal, which was proposed by Jeremy Balfour, is a significant and important amendment to the bill, because it allows easier access.

The extension of the duty to inform people of their eligibility is important, because it will ensure that ministers do that for the Scottish child payment and other top-up benefits. That duty is a distinct feature of our social security system that applies to other benefits and it is important that it applies to this one. It is a really important concept.

The bill also allows overseas healthcare professionals to determine whether a person who is terminally ill meets the definition, which is a niche area but it will turn out to be really important for someone at some time.

The suspension of assistance and the zero value that can be attributed to that is also an important provision, because, as the cabinet secretary said, it allows for easier starting of payments. Those may appear to be niche issues, but they will be very important for the people who rely on them.

I recognise that there is still a lot of work to be undertaken by officials and health professionals, but the uprating provision has completed some of that work in anticipation of the payment kicking in next year. I was pleased to hear Shona Robison talk about the importance of uptake and automation, on which she and others have made many comments, showing the broad-based support that there is for that idea. I appreciate that the cabinet secretary cannot commit to that because we will be dissolving the Parliament soon and it will be for the next Parliament to do it. However, I know that she is committed to the idea and it would be good if we could set up a timetable for a future Parliament to look at the automation of benefits as a sign of things to come.

Scottish Labour whole-heartedly supports the bill.

16:37  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

This has been a consensual debate—so much so that even the convener of the committee has not felt the need to intervene.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I was going to intervene on Pauline McNeill, who is the deputy convener, but I will intervene on Mr Balfour instead to put on record my thanks to fellow committee members. The Government informed us of the short timescale for scrutiny of the bill and the committee has done Parliament and the people whom we aim to serve proud. I thank the committee members for all their support in doing that.

Jeremy Balfour

I thank Mr Doris—that is probably the most positive comment that he has made in the past four and a half years. [Laughter.] I was about to say that the committee has worked really well on the bill in a very short time. Having been slightly rude to the convener, I pay tribute to him for the fact that we were able to take evidence from which both Opposition MSPs and Government were able to bring forward suggestions and amendments, which has meant that we have ended up with a bill that is much better than it started out.

It is very much a tidying-up bill, as many members have said, dealing mostly with technical issues, but they are ones that will affect people dearly. I will make three quick observations. It is appropriate that Jeane Freeman has just walked into the chamber as I say that one of the lasting things from the original Social Security (Scotland) Bill, which the previous cabinet secretary took through, will be the issue around terminal illness. Allowing people to get benefits as quickly as possible was a key principle that Parliament passed with that bill and people in future generations who are going through difficulties and hard times will be in a much better position because of it. I welcome the further amendments in this bill that tidy things up and allow the appropriate people to sign the forms in an appropriate way. Collectively, members across the chamber can be pleased with and proud of what we have done on that.

The second issue, which both Pauline McNeill and the cabinet secretary mentioned, concerns the appropriate jurisdiction for hearing appeals in regard to payments. It is wrong that, where we have tribunals, the process starts in the sheriff court. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to move quickly on that consultation so that those changes can come forward with—I hope—cross-party support but, more importantly, with support from the third sector and other stakeholders, so that we can have a fairer and more modern system that works well.

Finally, my one gripe is that even where we are today is still not where we should be. I accept that we have gone through a difficult seven or eight months and things have been put on hold, but we have to recognise that, as Rachael Hamilton said, even if it had not been for Covid, we would still not have had every benefit devolved within the current five-year session of Parliament. That is a disappointment—we should and could have made quicker progress.

There are people in Scotland who would wish that the new agency was looking after all their benefits. Although others have disagreements with the DWP, it is worth putting on record that, if it were not for the DWP continuing to deliver people’s benefits monthly into their bank accounts, those people would miss out. We can, and others will, criticise the DWP, but we should recognise that the DWP and the UK Government are helping to ensure that those payments happen and that the most vulnerable people are still being protected.

With those remarks made, I reiterate that we on the Conservative side of the chamber welcome the bill and look forward to it becoming an act and, more importantly, to its bringing forward practical ways that will enhance the lives of those who are the most vulnerable in our society.

16:42  

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank all members for their contributions to the debate, and everyone who contributed at stages 1 and 2 of the bill’s passage. Pauline McNeill was quite right to refer in her closing remarks to the “niche” issues that are addressed in the bill; some have called it a technical bill, and I have even heard it called a dry bill.

Graham Simpson quite rightly said that the bill is not contentious. However, as many members have pointed out during the closing speeches in particular, that does not mean that the bill is not important. It is vitally important, and it progresses a number of vital issues in relation to social security.

I thank Graham Simpson and Jeremy Balfour in particular for their amendments at stage 2. That constructive engagement is in large part why the bill is in such a good state as we move to close the final stage. If it is okay with Graham Simpson, I will not put his kind words on my election material in Dunfermline or elsewhere, but I thank him for his contribution, and I will certainly bear it in mind.

I fully agree that it would be good if all stage 3s were as simple as this one. I simply suggest that, in future, Opposition members should feel free just to vote for the Scottish Government amendments at stages 2 and 3, as they have done with this bill. I am sure that the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans in particular, who has just arrived in the chamber, would be grateful for that too.

In all sincerity, the suggestions and input during the bill process have got us to a point at which we have managed to resolve matters positively in all instances, and I am grateful for all the work that has gone into that. The bill provides a package of improvements to the social security system. They are technical changes, but they are significant in what they will do.

As Jeremy Balfour rightly said, the provisions have real effects and will impact on people in their day-to-day lives. The legislation will ensure, for example, that on occasions when it is right for an individual to have somebody else appointed to act on their behalf, there are safeguards around those appointments and we will ensure that that is always the best and most appropriate relationship for the individual.

A number of members have pointed to the work to make the system for the suspension of payments better and fairer. In considering the contributions that have been made during this stage 3 debate, I point out to Rachael Hamilton that the work on the devolution of benefits has not been halted, although Covid has of course had an impact. That work is on-going, and we will report on a new timetable in due course. One of the important aspects as we move forward with discussions on that new timetable is the availability of health and social care staff to allow us to develop the delivery and implementation of the disability benefits in particular, together with the DWP. Indeed, we cannot forget that this is a joint programme. Covid has not just affected the Scottish Government or the UK Government as a whole; it has of course had a particular impact on the DWP. As I have done in the past, I again pay tribute to the work that the DWP has had to undertake during Covid to ensure that people are receiving support, such as it is, through the system.

Talking about timetables, I gently point out that universal credit was first announced in 2010; its introduction is now forecast to be completed seven years after the originally intended date of 2017. We should bear it in mind that the Conservatives do not exactly come to the chamber with a strong record when it comes to their work on the application of new benefits.

I welcome Stewart Stevenson’s deliberations, at the end of the open debate, on legislative imperfections. We always learn something new from Stewart Stevenson in every speech, including about the possibility of having an unlimited number of MSPs, which is probably not something that anyone would welcome the sight of. However, Stewart Stevenson rightly points out the challenges that arise when passing a very large piece of legislation, as with the Social Security (Scotland) Bill in 2018. Amendments can sometimes be lodged at a late stage, as was the case in relation to terminal illness at stage 3. It is not surprising if we wish to proceed with technical amendments to ensure that the legislation delivers what the Parliament wanted at the time but which it was not possible to include in that debate, after amendments were lodged at such a late stage. That is an example of making technical improvements to this bill that will make a real difference.

Pauline McNeill spoke again, quite rightly, about the automation of benefits. As she knows, I am particularly keen that we move on that. As I know she is aware, we have ensured that the Scottish child payment is linked to the three payments of the best start grant and best start foods, ensuring that there is one application for all. That will assist people. We will of course review the Scottish child payment and all its workings, including automation, when we review the Scottish child delivery action plan. I have committed to that in the past, and I am happy to do so again now.

Both Pauline McNeill and Alison Johnstone mentioned uptake, which is crucially important for the Scottish child payment. Both those members will be aware that the Scottish Fiscal Commission has increased its forecast for the take-up of the benefit, which is due in part to what is planned for communications and for the stakeholder engagement work that the agency has in train. I assure the Parliament that we take uptake exceptionally seriously. The entire purpose of the Scottish child payment is to make a difference to families the length and breadth of Scotland, and the only way that we can do that is by ensuring that we are fulfilling our obligations to improve take-up in that process.

Alison Johnstone made a point about the Law Society of Scotland briefing on the ECHR. I appreciate that the Law Society has concerns about whether the bill is compliant. In its briefing, it was pointing to amendments that were lodged at stage 2. I assure the Parliament that we are convinced that there are no difficulties with what we have proposed in the bill.

When the bill was introduced, the driving force was to ensure that the Scottish child payment was delivered as soon as possible. Little did we know then that, by the time we reached stage 3, we would be in the middle of a global pandemic. The Scottish Fiscal Commission has estimated that the Scottish child payment could support up to 194,000 children this year; that number has increased by 14 per cent since the Scottish Government released forecasts in 2019, which is largely due to the increased universal credit case load resulting from Covid-19. That tells us that this support is needed now more than ever. That is why I am proud that we are using the social security powers that are available to us to benefit children and families across Scotland at a time when financial security is uncertain and some people are struggling and face financial hardship.

It is our intention to open the Scottish child payment for applications in November, with the first payments being made in February.

As I noted in my opening remarks, we were happy to be able to agree to the amendments made at stage 2 and 3, across the chamber and in the committee. That is testimony to the hard work of the Social Security Committee and the Parliament to deliver a social security system that we can all be proud of.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, cabinet secretary. When I am waving my pen and glowering at you, it means that you are running well over time. I might have to do other gestures; I will invent some.

That concludes the debate on the Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill.