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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 30 May 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Social Security Benefits, Higher Education Access, Destitution (Asylum and Immigration), Decision Time, Vale of Leven Hospital (GP Out-of-hours Service)


Contents


Social Security Benefits

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by Angela Constance on social security benefits. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

14:25  

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities (Angela Constance)

Today, I will outline plans for the first social security benefits to be delivered by the Scottish Government. They include the new best start grant, funeral expense assistance and the supplement to carers allowance. This is the next milestone in building Scotland’s new social security system, and those are the first benefits that our new social security agency will deliver.

This is the largest and most complex programme of change in the history of devolution and we have made excellent progress since the election. We are building on four years’ experience of delivering the Scottish welfare fund and using discretionary housing payments to mitigate the bedroom tax. We are also building on experience of the smooth devolution of DHPs at the beginning of April, and we have made progress with the Department for Work and Pensions to agree the implementation of universal credit flexibilities.

We have already announced that we will create a new social security agency with an efficient central function and a strong local presence across Scotland. Last year, we held a wide-ranging consultation exercise and heard from people about what they need from a social security system. People with lived experience will continue to inform our decisions and our deeds at every step of our journey. That is why we invited people to join our experience panels; I am delighted to say that about 2,300 people have volunteered for them.

We have also appointed the disability and carers benefits expert advisory group, which will advise Scottish ministers on policy options on disability and carers benefits, and o actions that will change lives for the better.

As the Minister for Social Security told Parliament in her recent statement on the social security agency, there will be no contracting with the private sector to undertake assessments for disability benefits.

Building on that momentum, my announcement today sets the timescale for delivering the first devolved benefits. During the current session of Parliament, 10 benefits will transfer to us. DHPs have already transferred successfully and are being delivered by local authorities. Our top priority is that people receive the right payments at the right time. That is a big task. Once all the benefits have been devolved, we will make more payments each week than the Scottish Government currently makes in a year, so we need to get it right. That is one of the most important things that people have told us through the consultation and our other engagement.

One of the lessons from previous social security changes by the United Kingdom Government is that setting arbitrary target dates without a clear plan to meet them will lead to failure, as we have seen with universal credit. We have always been clear that the devolution of social security powers is a phased approach taking many incremental steps to the safe and secure transition of powers, as opposed to its being a one-off event.

Let me start with our plans for the best start grant and funeral expense assistance. Those early benefits will make an immediate difference to people and will fulfil commitments that we set out in our manifesto. We will start delivery of Scotland’s first new benefit—the new best start grant—by summer 2019. This replacement for the sure start maternity grant is a substantial investment in a child’s early years. As part of our wider work that aims to give each child the best start in life, it will contribute to tackling child poverty, improving health and raising attainment.

The current UK Government sure start grant is a single payment of £500 to families that are on low incomes. We will increase that to £600 for the first child, in recognition that the UK rate has not increased in over a decade. We will also reintroduce payments of £300 for second and subsequent children—which the UK Government cut in 2011. We will make no judgment about the number of children that people decide to have and will set no limit on the number of children we help in any qualifying family. We will also provide two payments of £250 during a child’s early years, around the time when they start nursery and before they start school. That means that qualifying families will receive £1,100 over the course of the early years of their first child’s life, compared with just £500 at present, plus further support for additional children. For a two-child family, that means an additional £1,400.

We have started work on the application process for the best start grant. From the earliest stage, we have been working with parents who would be eligible. We have shared and tested a draft application form and have made changes based on feedback from the people who will need the grant to ensure that it is clear, simple and easy to follow. We will reach more people by making the application process easier to follow and by joining up support with the services that parents use day to day. That includes linking with healthy start food vouchers, which provide nutritional support to pregnant women and young children. Take-up of the sure start maternity grant is low, at about 50 per cent, so improving take-up and increasing the support that is provided will make an immediate impact on low-income families in Scotland.

We will deliver the new funeral expense assistance by summer 2019, thereby providing critical support to people at a difficult time. We heard through our consultation about the stress that is caused by the complexity of the application process and the time that it takes to make payments. We have already committed to the aim to process applications within 10 working days of receipt of the completed application. As with the best start grant, a key area of work is development of an application process that is easier to understand. We will listen to people who have experience of the current system and we will seek expert opinions, including from the funeral payment reference group. Simplifying the process and increasing awareness will increase take-up from its current level of about 60 per cent.

I turn now to carers allowance. We are all agreed on the vital contribution that carers make to Scotland: it is not right that people with caring responsibilities receive less support than others. That is why the First Minister committed in October 2015 to increasing the level of carers allowance to that of jobseekers allowance. We have been working hard with the DWP to investigate how to increase that support as quickly as we can, and I thank the department for its constructive and collaborative support in helping us to achieve that commitment as early as possible. I can announce to Parliament today that we will do so from next summer.

As an interim arrangement, in order to get that done as early as possible, people in Scotland will continue to receive carers allowance from DWP, but they will receive the increase from our social security agency, and they will receive that support twice a year. Although the first payments will be in the summer of 2018, they will cover the period from April 2018, so carers can be assured that they will get funding that covers all of the 2018-19 financial year. We will invest more than £30 million a year in increasing that support. I am delighted that the policy will now be delivered by the Scottish Government, and I look forward to seeing a future United Kingdom Government follow our lead.

All that is, of course, subject to the consideration of Parliament. When we introduce the social security bill next month, I hope that the support that we have had to date for our approach to social security, from within and outwith Parliament, will continue.

Our plans for the first wave of benefits show the difference that we can make to the people of Scotland through our social security powers. The best start grant—our first new benefit—will greatly improve the support that we provide, and it aligns better with our other work to support children and families. Funeral expense assistance will make important changes to the way that we support people with the cost of funerals, and will provide more certainty and clarity for people at a difficult time.

We are working as quickly as possible to give carers in Scotland more money. It is right that the first act of the new social security agency will be to address the unfairness of the current system, in which carers receive less support than others.

The benefits that we will deliver may be different in nature, but there is one common thread that binds them: investment in the people of Scotland. The changes that we will make are changes that we know are needed, because we are listening to people with lived experience, responding to what they say and ensuring that they are treated with dignity and respect.

Those are the principles that we set out for social security last year, and the timetable that I have set out today shows our determination to bring them to life as quickly as possible.

Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of her statement today. Since before last year’s Scottish parliamentary election, we have been calling on the Scottish Government to get on with the job of delivering the substantial array of social security powers that were devolved under David Cameron’s Conservative Government, so it would be churlish of me not to welcome the statement, even though it comes some months later than it should have done. Even now, however, much of today’s statement merely reheats things that we have known about for a long time, such as Scottish ministers not being able to deliver devolved social security without the on-going help and assistance of the UK’s DWP—help and assistance that we on these benches warmly welcome.

Significant holes remain in the cabinet secretary’s account. She talks of the new Scottish social security agency, but says nothing about where it is to be located, how many DWP and other job losses there will be as the new agency takes on its responsibilities, how its eye-watering £150 million annual running costs have been calculated or, indeed, how those costs are to be paid for.

The value of the best start grant for the first child is to go up as will the value of the grant for the second and subsequent children. In addition, there are to be two further payments to children in eligible families. Over this Parliament, what will that cost, assuming ministers are successful in increasing the grant’s uptake, as they wish to be?

Angela Constance

Of course, it is too much to expect the Tories to give a whole-hearted welcome to the progress that we have made, collectively, over the past year. I remind the member that tranche 2 of the regulations commenced only last month, and here I am, less than a month later, on my feet, keeping Parliament informed—as I should—of every milestone and every step on the way. This is a journey on which we will travel together. This Government will be proactive in informing all members and those who utilise services—whether they are reserved or devolved—about the services, and we will ensure that their views inform our deeds and actions.

Of course, it is too much to expect the Tories to welcome the progress that we are making, or the fact that, starting from next year, we will be putting money into the pockets of hard-pressed families, the bereaved and those who care for a loved one. Those are the families and people who are most impacted by Tory austerity. Those are the people who are paying the price for Tory cuts, for Tory cruelty and for Tory complexity in the current system.

On Mr Tomkins’s specific question on the best start grant, the cost will be £20 million. He will also recall that, not that long ago, the Minister for Social Security came to this chamber and made a full statement on the social security agency’s operating model. In that statement, she said that there was a further appraisal of options to go through before we make a statement on the agency’s location this autumn.

On the costs of the agency, I would have thought that, by now, Mr Tomkins, the good professor, would have read the outline business case that was published on 27 April cover to cover and would be standing in the chamber reciting it backwards in Latin.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Scottish Labour welcomes the announcement of the first social security benefits, particularly the plans for the best start grant, which will be introduced in the summer of 2019, replacing the sure start maternity grant. It is an important measure in tackling child poverty and an important measure for low-income families. Is the cabinet secretary able to say now, or will she write to me about, how many families will be helped? I am interested in getting that information. I am sure that she will agree that the high levels of in-work poverty require measures that include low-income families in work.

Furthermore, does the cabinet secretary agree that high priority needs to be given to improving uptake of the benefit, which is at only 50 per cent? I suggest that a radical approach is required, including a commitment to an advertising or promotional campaign, to encourage people to apply.

Will the cabinet secretary also consider working with local authorities on automating benefits, given the links to eligibility and the benefits system? Does she agree that a more radical approach is needed and that, as the transfer of the social security budget from the UK Government to the Scottish Government will determine the budget for the future, it is important to begin that work now?

Angela Constance

I thank Ms McNeill for the tone and tenor of her questions. She is right to point out the impact of the new best start grant and the additional income that it can get to low-income families throughout a child’s early years. Later in the week, we will debate the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill. It is important to stress that the new best start grant can make an important contribution to tackling things such as material deprivation as well as to improving children’s life, health and educational attainment.

We expect 62,000 claimants to benefit from the best start grant. The member is right that we have work to do to improve take-up. We are looking at the issue of automation. The member makes an important point about the link between the benefit take-up campaign and the resource that will be transferred from Westminster although, like me, she will be aware that Westminster has the habit of changing the goalposts before resources are actually transferred. However, I am sure that we will all be ever vigilant on that.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I thank the cabinet secretary for her statement, particularly the announcement that carers allowance will be increased for Scottish carers. That will provide much-needed additional support to carers, who as we all agree do so much to support families and friends. Can the cabinet secretary tell me and Parliament how many people will benefit from the increase when it is introduced?

Angela Constance

I am delighted to say that the increase will benefit almost 70,000 carers in Scotland and will cover the whole of the next financial year, starting in 2018. The increase has been a long-standing policy of our party and Government, so I am delighted to make the announcement and that it is our Scottish Government that is proceeding with the increase. As I said, I hope that the next UK Government will follow suit.

Opposition members, in particular, should perhaps remember that our progress is of course dependent on the Scottish parliamentary timetable, which, rightly, is in the hands not of Government but of members of the Parliament. The UK regulations that transfer to the Scottish Parliament competence over carers allowance came into force this month. The next stage is legislation, which is a vital part of our democratic process. I am confident that we will work together as the proposed social security bill goes through its legislative stages, so that we are in a position to deliver the benefit from next year.

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

In the cabinet secretary’s statement, she adverted to the fact that the Scottish Government has invited people with recent lived experience of benefits to join experience panels to help to inform decisions as the Government moves forward with its development of the Scottish social security system. I welcome that, because my understanding is that the stated intention is to ensure that the system works. Therefore, what is the Scottish Government doing to bring into consideration, in a similar fashion, the experience of individuals who work to deliver the services in question, from the other side of the equation, as it were? To be clear, I am talking about individuals rather than their representatives—whether trade unions or otherwise—which the Government no doubt will have consulted or spoken to.

Angela Constance

I thank Mr Lindhurst for his endorsement of the importance of the experience panels. It is a great success that around 2,300 people are volunteering their time and expertise to ensure that, as we progress on this journey together, at every stage, we get every milestone and every detail absolutely right.

Mr Lindhurst raises an important point about the experience of people who currently work in the DWP. We have former employees of the DWP now working in the Scottish Government. He is right that we liaise with employee representatives through the Public and Commercial Services Union and will continue to do so, but we are open to different forms of communication to liaise with and listen to people who currently work at the coalface under quite difficult circumstances, with the austerity agenda and the massive challenges that the UK Government faces with the roll-out of universal credit.

That coalface experience of DWP staff is important to listen to, but so is the experience of voluntary sector staff who work in advice services and who also see at first hand the impact of the cruellest cuts and uncaring aspects of the current reserved service.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary said that take-up of sure start and funeral assistance is low and, therefore, people have not been getting the financial support that they are eligible for. When the Scottish Government has successfully increased take-up, what additional resources could the UK Government provide to further encourage people to take up benefits that they are eligible for and entitled to, but which they do not currently claim?

Angela Constance

That is a good point. Under the fiscal framework, the UK Government will not provide the Scottish Government with additional resources if benefit take-up rates in Scotland are higher than those in the rest of the UK. Nonetheless, that will not stop us carrying out our duty to increase some of the abysmal take-up rates of benefits that people are eligible for.

To date, the UK Government has done little to encourage the take-up of benefits or, indeed, to help people with the application process by simplifying it. It is ridiculous and a damning indictment of the current system that we talk about people having to navigate their way through the benefits system. It can make a huge difference to people’s lives if they get the financial support that they are entitled to. I see that as a key role of Government. Unfortunately, the Tories do not see that as a key responsibility for Government.

Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to make the application process for funeral expenses assistance more straightforward and to provide a timeous response to applicants for that assistance. Those are two of the key recommendations in the February 2016 Citizens Advice Scotland report on funeral poverty. Does she recognise that the other key recommendation in the same section of the report was that the payment should be

“set at a level to allow for the full payment of a basic funeral in any part of Scotland”?

Will she confirm whether she has come to a conclusion on that?

Angela Constance

I thank Mr Leonard for his thoughtful question. He and his colleague Mark Griffin have done a lot of work on funeral payments and the broader issue of funeral poverty. I hope that I can offer him and his colleagues some assurance when I say that the work that we are taking forward on funeral expenses assistance is at an advanced stage. However, it must not be out of sync with the broader work that we are doing to address funeral poverty. We have other commitments on which we are working with the funeral industry, local authorities and advice services.

During the summer, I hope to make a further announcement on our commitments on a funeral cost plan. We are still to finalise the exact eligibility criteria. There are a number of issues about process, payments and what we can agree to in principle. We recognise that we need to remove uncertainty and complex details from the system. We are considering that in detail. That work is at an advanced stage.

I take Mr Leonard’s views on board. We know that there is a real issue with funeral poverty in this country. We will do our damnedest to address it. We will cut through the complexity and give more certainty to applicants as well as addressing the broader issues of the rising cost of funerals—the average cost has risen by 92 per cent over the past 10 years.

George Adam (Paisley) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, by no longer supporting third and subsequent children in low-income families, the Tories are determined to treat children as unequal? With the cap on child tax credits, larger low-income families will be significantly worse off, no matter the outcome of next week’s election. Will she explain the difference that the new best start grant could make to low-income families with three or more children?

Angela Constance

By way of example, I reiterate that our best start grant will provide, for the first child in a family, three payments over the child’s early years, totalling £1,100. Each subsequent child will receive payments totalling £800. That means a financial investment during the children’s early years of £2,700 for a family with three children, and of £3,500 for a family with four children. That compares with just £500 per family from the UK Government’s current sure start maternity grant.

As the Tories take income away from poorer families through major changes to universal credit and other benefits, many families, particularly larger ones, will struggle to manage. Although it might feel like we are fighting poverty with one hand tied behind our back, we are nonetheless determined, in the face of austerity, to provide a better future for low-income families through a number of measures, including our new best start grant.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of the statement and welcome the announcement that carers allowance will increase to jobseekers allowance level in 2018. However, there is evidence to suggest that carers allowance is used to meet the costs of caring as well as replace income lost through not working, and that that would not be covered by the proposed increase.

What assessment of the costs of caring has the cabinet secretary made in determining the increase? Is she considering a premium for carers who care for more than one person, which incurs extra costs?

Angela Constance

Ms Johnstone will be aware that we have a manifesto commitment on carers allowance for people who care for more than one disabled child. That, in addition to the matters that she raises, will be for the carers benefits advisory group, which will give us expert advice, to consider. She will know from her engagement with the Minister for Social Security that we work closely with health colleagues to consider the most holistic response to the support that carers need.

Once again, I express the importance of the experience panels—the 2,300 volunteers who will walk this journey with us all and who will advise us about the issues that Ms Johnstone has raised today and on other occasions.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of her statement and I echo much of the praise that she has been given about it. I welcome in particular the funeral expense assistance scheme.

How we help those who are in grief is a measure of a civilised society. I was recently contacted by a constituent who, very sadly, was widowed in her 30s and is part of an organisation that is called Widowed and Young. She brought to my attention the fact that, following changes to the widowed parents allowance, newly bereaved spouses could miss out on as much as 17 years’ worth of financial support.

What representations has the Scottish Government made to Westminster about that? Has the Scottish Government looked into options for using the new powers that are coming to this place to ensure that vulnerable families do not miss out on support that they should be entitled to in such a time of loss?

Angela Constance

I assure Mr Cole-Hamilton that the Minister for Social Security quickly wrote to the UK Government when it became apparent that it was withdrawing significant financial support from bereaved parents and their children. That went against the grain of what it had said previously, which was that it would look at reform but that that reform would not involve a cut. Of course, we have heard all that before.

Alex Cole-Hamilton’s point about how we support people in their time of need—in bereavement, when they are working through grief—is well made. We are making representations to the UK Government and we have received representations from concerned citizens in Scotland.

Alex Cole-Hamilton made a broader point about mitigation. We can and do mitigate, and we will continue to have a lively debate about that. However, our ability to mitigate is not an excuse for a callous Tory Government to do whatever it likes. We must recognise that, although we will have 15 per cent of welfare spend in due course, which will give us enormous opportunity, it will not necessarily address the inherent unfairness in the remaining 85 per cent. However, we are alive to all the debate on the matter.

Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

I, too, welcome the progress and measures that are outlined in the statement, but I am concerned about whether the cabinet secretary expects any UK Government cuts to funding before the transfer of the benefits that she mentioned. I am especially concerned that, if the Conservatives get back into power at Westminster, we may face cuts to the winter fuel payment. What would be the impact of such cuts?

Angela Constance

As we have seen with the winter fuel payment, which Ben Macpherson mentioned, no benefit is safe in the Tories’ hands. If any benefits that are due to be devolved are cut in advance of the funding being transferred, that will automatically mean a cut in the resources that are transferred to Scotland. The Tories have a track record on that, as they cut employability funding by 87 per cent before employability programmes were transferred to Scotland.

We see social security as an investment in our people. The Tory Government’s most recent uncosted announcement, in its manifesto, is nothing short of an assault on pensioners at a time when pensioner poverty levels are rising. That demonstrates that the nasty party is back in town.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

Funeral poverty is a huge issue. Has the Scottish Government assessed the cost of the new funeral expense assistance? Given that the fees that are charged by councils and funeral directors vary widely across Scotland, will the assistance cover all the costs, wherever they are incurred? Given that the costs of a basic burial vary from £701 in the Western Isles to £2,253 in Edinburgh and given that cremation costs range from £552 in Inverclyde to £849 in the Highlands, has work been done to ensure that those who are in the most expensive areas do not lose out?

Angela Constance

Graham Simpson raises important issues for our colleagues in local government. Going by the tone of his question, I think that perhaps he is not aware that at the end of last year I held a funeral poverty conference and that, before that, I chaired three round tables on the subject—one was with local government, one was with advice services and other experts and one was with the funeral industry.

Costs vary hugely across the country, and we will continue to have dialogue with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities as we move forward. I want to make progress over the summer months with our commitment to announcing a funeral costs plan. It is important not to see the work on funeral expense assistance in isolation from that broader work, with which it will be connected and done in tandem.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

There has been discussion about the timetable for introducing the changes. How does it compare with the timetable for introducing previous major changes, such as when Labour brought in child tax credits and the Tories brought in universal credit? Will the cabinet secretary commit to keeping to the timetable that she has laid out?

Angela Constance

I remain very confident that we will deliver on our timetable. Unlike the current Tory UK Government, we have not been pushed into making arbitrary or unreachable promises on dates. That is particularly important given that we have to work closely with the DWP to ensure the smooth delivery of benefits for the people of Scotland.

As John Mason rightly states, the implementation of other benefits that the UK Government has introduced, whether for good or ill, has taken much longer, and that is with an existing infrastructure in place. We are building Scotland’s social security system from scratch, and the infrastructure is necessary, alongside the other essential component, which is the legislation that I spoke about earlier. In short, we are confident that we can deliver on the timetable that we have announced today.