I beg to move amendment 128, page 21, line 39, leave out from “of”
to the end of line 7 on page 22 and insert
“a disabled person or person with a physical or mental impairment or health condition in respect of effects or needs arising from that disability, impairment or health condition.”
The current definition of ‘disability benefit’ used in the Bill is restrictive and could place unnecessary limits on the kind of replacement benefit the Scottish Government has the power to introduce. It may not, for example, allow the Scottish Government to introduce a benefit to assist people with very low level disabilities or those for whom the effect of their disability is largely financial
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 112, page 22, leave out lines 6 and 7.
Removes the word “short-term” in the clause devolving disability benefit. It is not clear what “short-term” means in this context, how it will be defined or whom it may exclude from receiving the benefit.
Amendment 48, page 22, line 45, leave out sub-paragraph (a).
Clause 19 stand part.
Amendment 115, in clause 20, page 23, line 27, after “financial”, insert “or other”.
This amendment would enable the provision of assistance, in relation to benefits for maternity, funeral and heating expenses, in a form other than cash
Amendment 49, page 23, line 33, leave out “8” and insert “9”.
Amendment 50, page 23, line 34, leave out “8” and insert “9”.
Clause 20 stand part.
Amendment 12, in clause 21, page 24, leave out lines 9 and 10.
Clause 21 stand part.
Amendment 129, in clause 22, page 24, line 27, leave out from “who” to “appears” in line 32.
The current Exception 6 would extend the power to provide discretionary housing payments only to those already in receipt of housing benefit. Those who lose entitlement to any housing benefit as a result of the under-occupancy charge are precluded from accessing discretionary housing payments. The amendment seeks to allow the Scottish Parliament to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax.
Amendment 116, page 24, leave out lines 36 to 48.
This amendment would remove some of the restrictions, including those relating to sanctions, in relation to discretionary housing payments.
Amendment 13, page 24, leave out lines 36 and 37.
Amendment 132, page 25, leave out lines 1 to 8.
The exception in the Bill could be problematic where claimants have had their housing benefit wrongly suspended. The amendment would allow the Scottish Parliament to provide discretionary housing payments in cases which might be regarded as arising from non-payability of a reserved benefit
Clause 22 stand part.
Amendment 8, in clause 23, page 25, line 28, leave out “short-term”.
Amendment 117, page 25, leave out lines 30 to 37.
This amendment would broaden when discretionary housing payments can be made by removing some restrictions including those relating to sanctions.
Amendment 111, page 25, line 39, leave out “occasional”.
Amendment 131, page 25, line 45, at end add “or
(b) who are part of a family facing exceptional pressure.”
Clause 23 stand part
New clause 31—New benefits—
A benefit not in existence at the relevant date provided entitlement to or the purpose of the benefit is different from entitlement to or the purpose of any benefit that is—
(a) in existence at the relevant date,
(b) payable by or on behalf of a Minister of the Crown, and
(c) otherwise a reserved benefit.
For the purpose of this exception—
“the relevant date” means the date of introduction into Parliament of the Bill that becomes the Scotland Act 2015;
“reserved benefit” means a benefit which is to any extent a reserved matter.”
This New Clause broadens the circumstances under which the Scottish Parliament can create new benefits, as recommended by the Smith
This afternoon, we are competing with the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon; I hope we do not damage its ratings as Andy Murray kicks off his tournament. Of course, everyone in the House wishes Andy Murray well—not just for today’s match, but for the rest of the tournament. We apologise in advance if nobody watches his tennis match because their eyes are focused on this Chamber.
It is a privilege to speak on the Bill’s welfare provisions, to move amendment 128 and to speak to the other amendments as well as the very important new clause 31, which stands in my name and those of other hon. Members. I hope that Scottish National party Members—I had called them a braying mob, but there are slightly fewer of them this afternoon than last night—will not implode when I start by complimenting them: we will support their amendments 115 and 131, to which I have also added my name.
This area of the Bill devolves to the Scottish Parliament new and substantial powers over welfare, transferring to it £2.5 billion-worth of welfare responsibility. This is a real opportunity for Scotland; today we could pass amendments that fundamentally transform the Scottish Parliament’s relationship with the welfare system. It would then be up to the Scottish Government of the day to design the system that they want, and that the Scottish people have voted for, and find the resources to pay for it.
As much as the SNP has been desperate to be disappointed by the Bill, its approach to the welfare section has been broadly similar to Labour’s. I think that the only major difference arises from the SNP amendments to devolve national insurance. As I said yesterday—perhaps this was lost in the melee of the debate—that is a perfectly legitimate amendment for a party that believes in independence, but we disagree with that fundamental principle. As the party of devolution, we believe in a strong Scottish Parliament within the UK. We passionately believe that it is in the best interests of all Scots and the rest of the United Kingdom that there should be a pooling and sharing of resources, redistributing wealth from the haves to the have-nots.
The Conservatives believe in the redistribution of wealth from the nots to the haves. Since 2010, the House has seen a sustained attack on the most vulnerable. It was not the poorest and most vulnerable who caused the worldwide recession, but the reckless gambling on the financial markets. That led to a Government income crisis, which led to a Government obsessed with austerity, and that has choked off demand in the economy, hitting the poorest hardest right across the United Kingdom.
There are many examples, but the most pernicious, unfair and unequal of those welfare changes must be the bedroom tax. It has hit the most vulnerable very hard for the sake of very few savings on the welfare budget. A further £12 billon of unfunded welfare cuts were announced at the general election, with no detail whatever about where they would fall.
The Government’s problem is that they are failing to deal with the welfare system’s underlying problems. For example, the lack of affordable and social housing is increasing the housing benefit bill as many are forced into the much more expensive private rented sector. I see that happening every single day in my constituency.
There are reports in the press that Labour and the SNP are proposing to introduce higher welfare payments in Scotland and higher welfare bills, which the Bill would allow them to do. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that both parties should spell out which taxes the Scottish people would have to pay to fund those commitments?
We have a number of proposals relating to the Bill, including devolving housing benefit, which we will discuss this afternoon. We think that that money should be reinvested, wherever possible, in the building of social and affordable housing, because that would ultimately bring down the housing benefit bill. The hon. Gentleman tends to forget that if we invest in the fundamental underlying problems in the system, we can bring the benefit bill down.
Getting people into work, introducing higher pay and building social housing to get people out of the more expensive private rented sector would all make a huge difference to the benefit bill. More money would then be available to reinvest in the system. Our double devolution proposals to get the Work programme, the Work Choice programme and Access to Work into the hands of the local authorities, which are in the best position to deliver them, would allow us to reinvest into the system. The Conservatives’ response of simply cutting the welfare bill rather than dealing with the fundamental underlying problems is the reason why the bill has been going up despite all the changes that the Government made during the last Parliament.
Let me make it clear that Labour is the only true guardian of the UK welfare system, supporting pensioners and the most vulnerable against Conservative cuts that will hit working people the hardest and against an SNP group determined to break up the system without having any idea of the consequences. That is why the Bill is so important. According to the House of Commons Library, if the Bill were passed in its present form, the Scottish Parliament would be responsible for 62% of all public expenditure. If the new clause proposing the devolution of housing benefit were passed, that figure would rise to 65%, but that is within the integrity of the UK welfare system.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a reasonable man, and I do not want him to get too carried away with his narrative of how beastly the Conservatives have been to the poorest people. In my constituency, no new social housing was built during the 13 years during which we had a Labour MP. Now, 100 new social houses have been started. His narrative is precisely the one that his party tried, and failed, to get across during the general election. Does he not agree that it is time to look at welfare in a completely different light?
That might be the experience in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency surgeries on a Friday and Saturday, but it is not the reality for my constituents. Many disabled people, and all the disability and voluntary sector organisations that have contributed to these parts of the Bill, have said something completely contrary to what he has just said. That might be the experience in his own backyard, but it is certainly not what I see in my constituency. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Child Poverty Action Group, Shelter Scotland, Enable and many other disability charities have all said that the situation is completely contrary to the one he is describing. I do not think that having the lowest level of house building since the 1920s is anything to be proud of. We should be doing something about that, across the House.
The hon. Gentleman’s preamble was slightly depressing, because it failed to wake up to a fact that I thought Labour Front Benchers had woken up to—namely, that all his party’s intentions and warm words about welfare would come to nothing if they were not underpinned by a strong economy.
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was listening to my preamble, as he puts it, because I was talking about the underlying problems in the welfare system. They include: a lack of affordable social housing, which pushes people into the more expensive private rented sector, which pushes up the housing benefit bill; a lack of higher pay, which pushes up the benefit bill; and a lack of skills and opportunities to progress in the workplace and increase productivity, which also pushes up the welfare bill. Indeed, in Business, Innovation and Skills questions this morning, the Business Secretary said that the UK had a problem with productivity and that it had to be resolved. If we could resolve those three underlying problems in the welfare system, we might be in with a fighting chance of making life better for people in this country and of bringing the welfare bill down.
Is my hon. Friend suggesting that, although the baseline will always be the UK welfare system, lifting some of the restrictions that the Bill would place on the Scottish Parliament would allow it to build on the provisions?
I shall come on to that. Indeed, new clause 31, which SNP Members have signed, too, incidentally, would essentially give the Scottish Parliament full power to introduce new benefits in all devolved areas and to top up any benefits in reserved areas. Anybody who wished to put together a manifesto for a Scottish parliamentary election would have to determine what they would do with the welfare system and would consequently have to pay for that, but the important principle is that the UK welfare state would remain integral and the Scottish Parliament, as an autonomous and powerful Parliament, would be able to make its own decisions to reflect the interests of the Scottish people.
The exact amount of money that is spent and who spends it are not the key concerns of the Bill, which is about ensuring that powers are exercised where they most benefit the people of Scotland. The Labour party was the architect of the welfare state—the system of social insurance that covers every citizen, regardless of income, from cradle to grave and that is perhaps one of our greatest achievements and the purest expression of our common values and shared purpose. As the architect of the modern welfare state, the Labour party will do everything it can to ensure that it serves the needs of people not just across the UK but, crucially in terms of this Bill, in Scotland. That is why we have sought to be the driving force in this section of the Bill, tabling a total of 21 amendments and new clauses, more than any other party, to ensure that the Smith agreement is not only delivered consistently in spirit and in substance but that the Bill goes much further in welfare provisions.
Each and every one of the amendments has a purpose: to improve the lives of families in Scotland while maintaining the fundamental principles of the underpinning of the UK welfare state. May I take the opportunity to thank all the charities and voluntary sector organisations from across Scotland who have assisted me in this task? They do valuable work day to day with those who are most in need, and we should thank them every single day for what they achieve. Without them, society would not operate in Scotland and across the UK. To put it simply, we should all thank them.
I am glad that the SNP has seen fit to support a number of the amendments. We will work closely together to ensure that we can deliver them. In the same spirit of inter-party co-operation and consensus, I have signed a number of the SNP’s amendments that attempt to improve the Bill. Although this is a fairly technical exercise and welfare is hugely complicated, I want to make it clear that fundamentally our amendments will ensure, as I said in response to my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne, that the Scottish Parliament has the unrestricted power to create any new benefits in areas that are devolved, in addition to the guarantees of the UK benefits and pension system, as well as the power to top up any benefits that remain reserved in this Parliament. That wide-ranging provision effectively gives the Scottish Parliament the power to design its own welfare system in its entirety. However, unlike others, we are determined to ensure that the welfare state remains an integrated and UK-wide system of social security to allow for the continued pooling and sharing of risks and of resources.
We will also actively pursue our policy of double devolution by devolving as many powers as possible to local communities so that they can be tailored to local needs and circumstance, starting with the Work programme, Work Choice and Access to Work, which we will debate later. Subsidiarity should be at the heart of the Scottish Parliament to ensure that the public are engaged and that there is full community spirit in designing the system that is best for community needs.
Before I speak about Labour’s specific amendments, I want to place on record my disappointment at the comments made by Stewart Hosie during yesterday’s debate. He described the proposals in the Smith agreement as “miserable”, and I think that that is quite wrong in the context of this Bill. We should be using this opportunity to improve on the provisions in front of us and to make the system better in Scotland. The Secretary of State has consistently said that he will consider sensible amendments to improve the Bill, both in substance and in spirit, and I hope that he will see many of our amendments on welfare as worth while, tabled in the spirit of co-operation and trying to make the Bill better rather than trying to make political points.
Clauses 19 to 23 concern the devolution to the Scottish Parliament of a number of welfare benefits, including power over disability benefits, industrial injuries allowance and carer’s allowance, the power to introduce top-up payments for people receiving reserve benefits, control over discretionary housing payments and the power to introduce new discretionary payments to help alleviate short-term need. The powers in the clauses are extensive, but there are a number of areas in which I believe they fall short, particularly as regards limiting the scope of the Scottish Parliament to make discretionary payments and create new benefits.
Paragraph 51 of the Smith commission’s report states that the Scottish Parliament
“will have complete autonomy in determining the structure and value of the” devolved
“benefits…or any new benefits or services which might replace them.”
As I have said, we are committed, wherever possible, to abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the Smith commission’s recommendations. We believe that the term “discretionary”, as applied in this context, should not necessarily refer to the strict definition of the recipient of a payment or the duration or frequency with which they receive that payment. As Professor Paul Spicker stated in evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Devolution (Further Powers) Committee:
“A payment is discretionary, not because it is short term or individual, but because it is in the power of the delegated authority to determine whether or not the payment will be made.”
However, the Bill as it stands adheres to a more restrictive interpretation of what constitutes a discretionary payment and includes a number of definitions of who can receive benefits and for how long and how often they can receive them, which would limit the autonomy of the Scottish Parliament in a way that, in my opinion, Smith did not intend.
Our amendments seek to ensure that the Scottish Parliament will not face unnecessary restrictions in its provision of discretionary payments to carers, those with disabilities or any other applicant, both in terms of who they are paid to and for how long and how often they are paid.
Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as being an unnecessary restriction in the legislation, the definition is also likely to give rise to a dispute about the ambit of the Bill? A wider definition that would embrace more people would be much simpler to administer.
I agree, and we should be removing as much ambiguity as possible from the Bill. If the Scottish Parliament wanted to introduce a new benefit or a top-up benefit in one of these categories, the definition should be as wide as possible to enable it to do so. We do not want to end up with a dispute between two Governments or between recipients and the deliverer of the benefits or services about the definition in the Act. It would be good to get some clarity about what is meant by clauses 19 to 23.
As an example, I will consider disability benefit. As Inclusion Scotland has argued, the definition of disability benefits in clause 19 might “restrict the autonomy” of the Scottish Parliament in constructing a new disability benefits
“system based on empowering disabled people to lead active and productive lives and promoting the human rights of disabled people and independent living.”
We have therefore tabled amendment 128, which offers an alternative, broader and more flexible definition of disability benefit that would, among other things, allow the Scottish Parliament to introduce a benefit to assist people with low-level disabilities or those for whom the effect of their disability is largely financial.
Likewise, the definition of what constitutes a “relevant carer” is also, we believe, overly prescriptive. As ENABLE Scotland observes, it
“prescribes to whom carers benefits would be payable, stipulating that the recipient would be over 16, not in full time education and not gainfully employed; and requiring that the cared-for person is in receipt of disability benefit.”
“The Committee is concerned that the current definition of carer in the draft clauses appears overly restrictive and could limit the policy discretion of future Scottish administrations in this area. The Committee recommends that the clause should be re-drafted to ensure that the future Scottish administrations are able to define what constitutes a carer.”
I agree with both ENABLE Scotland and the Scottish Parliament Committee that the clauses as drafted unnecessarily limit the scope of the Scottish Parliament’s powers and might limit their ability in future to create new benefits. We have therefore tabled amendment 48, which seeks to remove the definition from the Bill to allow the Scottish Parliament to arrive at its own definition. I am pleased that the SNP has supported the amendment and want to reciprocate by supporting amendment 115, which provides for the provision of non-financial assistance as regards benefits for maternity, funeral and heating expenses, and amendment 121, which inserts the additional qualifying criteria for provision of discretionary payments and assistance for being part of a family facing exceptional financial pressure.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the overall approach being taken in the UK now is of concentrating on tackling poverty by giving people skills, pushing the work obligation and removing barriers to employment, and that it is important that the welfare system should dovetail with that? There are of course provisions in this Bill to that effect. Does he agree that it would be wrong if Scotland were to take a different approach and go back to a dependency culture?
It is not the purpose of our amendments to create some kind of dependency culture. Indeed, in my last sentence as the hon. and learned Gentleman was seeking to intervene I said that we accept the SNP’s amendment 121 that addresses payments and discretionary payments for families facing exceptional pressure, and the amendments on carers and disabled qualifications widen the definitions, so it becomes not just about supporting people with a financial need, but about work assistance and getting people back into work.
The issues around the Work programme, the Work Choice programme and Access to Work schemes are the third part of this Bill. We will come on to them later and examine some of the points, because the Government have tended to forget that this process is not just about forcing people off welfare; it is also about giving them the opportunity to get back into work and supporting them through that process. We want to support more people in that way, particularly disabled people and those who find it particularly difficult to access the labour market, and we should make sure the legislation is flexible enough to do that.
One of the key aims of the UK Government is to ensure work always pays better than being on benefits. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be a pity if any of these reforms altered that balance for Scotland?
I do agree, but I find it a little ironic that the hon. and learned Gentleman says from the Conservative Government Benches that everything should be designed to encourage people into work, when in fact the whole design of the tax credit system was to encourage people into work and the first aim of the Conservative Government seems to be to cut tax credits which would make it less attractive for people to be in work. There is a fine balance to be struck between supporting people into the workplace and in the workplace and making sure work always pays. I think all Members would agree with that principle, but cutting tax credits is not the way to make sure work pays, because it will force people into choosing whether they are better-off out of work or in work. We must strive for much higher pay in order to reduce the welfare bill in tax credits, rather than cutting tax credits; that would be coming at it from the wrong angle.
I was talking about amendments 121 and 115. These are straightforward and common-sense amendments that grant greater autonomy to the Scottish Parliament in the way it provides support to the vulnerable and those at risk in Scotland. We have tabled a number of other amendments to this section of the Bill, including amendment 112 to clause 19 which removes the phrase “short-term” in regard to disability benefits, and amendment 111, which removes the reference to “occasional” financial assistance in clause 23.
Meanwhile, our amendments 12 and 13 to clauses 21 and clause 22 respectively would allow the provision of discretionary financial assistance in a reserved benefit. I do not believe any of these amendments are particularly controversial. Indeed they have garnered a broad cross-section of support from charities, including ENABLE Scotland, Inclusion Scotland, Learning Disability Alliance Scotland and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.
These amendments might not be controversial but does my hon. Friend agree that they send the important signal that a strong devolved Scottish Parliament should be able to determine the benefits for the Scottish people?
That is right, because the commitment that was given to the Scottish people after the no vote at the referendum last September was that we would create one of the strongest devolved Parliaments in the world. In order to be able to do that, we have to give the necessary tools to the Scottish Parliament to determine not only its own direction in welfare and a host of other policy areas, but the finances it raises to pay for that. Accountability comes with that kind of financial responsibility and that is what, according to Smith, the Scottish Parliament was missing before the Scotland Act 2012 and the Scotland Bill before us today.
The Scottish Parliament needs to be given the ability to make its own decisions. Using terms such as “short-term”, “discretionary” and “on a short-term basis” do not give that flexibility. If someone were putting forward a new system of welfare in Scotland, it would be up to the electorate to decide whether they wanted that and wanted to pay for it.
I now come to arguably the most important amendment to this part of the Bill, new clause 31, which broadens the circumstances under which the Scottish Parliament can create new benefits, and brings it more into line with what I believe the Smith agreement intended. It has been co-signed by SNP Members and for that I am very grateful. Due to its significance we should be able to use it to transform this part of the Bill.
New clause 31 creates a new exception 9 in section F1 in part 2 of schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998—I know all Members will have read that and will know exactly what I am referring to—which allows for the creation of any benefit not currently in existence, payable by or on behalf of a UK Minister of the Crown, or otherwise a reserved benefit. In essence, this would allow the Scottish Parliament to create any new benefit which is not in existence on the date on which this Act is passed. This, I believe, goes significantly further than what is currently in the Bill.
I will be grateful if the Minister responds specifically on why this, in his view, would not be desirable or practicable, because it ensures that the power to create new benefits in Scotland rests with the Scottish Parliament and therefore the Scottish people, and that it has the flexibility and autonomy to exercise this power free from unnecessary restraint, in keeping with the spirit and substance of the Smith agreement. Of course, there will have to be joint working between the Governments to ensure that it is deliverable, and that brings me to an important common theme that has run through these Committee debates so far: the need for both Governments to work much closer together in partnership for the benefit of Scotland. We cannot emphasise that enough. We must have a much more solid partnership working and relationship to make these provisions work.
Let me be absolutely clear on this point so that there is no ambiguity: I believe in the fundamental principle that the final say on the creation of new benefits, the type of benefit created, whom it is paid to, and how long and how often it is paid, should reside with the Scottish Parliament. That is my view, and that is the view of the Labour party across the UK.
On the exchange my hon. Friend had with Sir Oliver Heald on the impact of the Government policy of cutting tax credits, which will hit people who are in work more than people who are simply on benefits, will these amendments, many of which have the support of the SNP, give any extra protection to the people in Scotland against the impact of cutting tax credits that will happen in England, or not?
New clause 31 allows the Scottish Parliament to top up any reserved benefit in the UK and create any benefit in devolved areas, so there would be an ability to create a system that mitigates the reduction in tax credits. As I understand it, tax credits are not a benefit in terms of the system; they are done through the income tax system, so topping up tax credits would be outwith the scope of this arrangement, but there is no reason why under new clause 31 an additional benefit could not be put in place for people who are in work and have children, for example.
I am very pleased that we have managed to get cross-party support for new clause 31 and if the Government agree it, it would give the Scottish Parliament full autonomy on the welfare state, which I think is what the Scottish people and Scottish Parliament want. If the Government are going to support any amendment, I urge them to make it new clause 31, although I also recommend our other amendments.
This is an interesting debate and a wide range of points have been made on welfare and benefits in general. I will try to stick to the two detailed amendments I have tabled, but I cannot resist making the general point that I see this as Scotland pioneering many of the things that should be commonplace throughout the Union. I hope that, if we are successful in proposing some of these amendments and progressive ideas, they will be available to everybody else in the Union.
This is the federal Parliament; this is the Parliament of all the four nations. The success of one nation within that Union should lead to the success of all. Those who wish to do this in Wales, Northern Ireland or parts of England should have that opportunity.
I hope we can tie this to the local government and devolution Bill currently in the other place. Its proposals will enable large parts of England—many of the constituent parts are actually larger than Scotland by combined authorities—through effective devolution from the massive, over-centralised state in Whitehall, or through regionally banding together to create their own units, to deploy some of the things that many found commonplace before 2010. I well remember the work programme put forward by my local city council. It was immensely successful but was then abolished by the incoming Government in 2010. I hope very much that places around the Union will be able to use these useful precedents of freedom and liberation at the lowest possible level—in this case at a national or even a sub-national level—to ensure the good welfare of people in their areas.
I have tabled amendments 129 and 132. Exception 6 in clause 22 requires those receiving discretionary housing payments to be also receiving housing benefit at the same time. Amendment 129 removes that prior requirement; it removes that restriction so that those people can receive discretionary housing payments without having first to claim housing benefit. What that does is quite simple: it allows people in the relevant place to make a judgment on this, rather than some “superbrain” in Whitehall. In this case, the Scottish Parliament would have the chance to work out its own manifesto commitments—Labour party manifesto commitments and Scottish National party manifesto commitments to scrap the bedroom tax. [Interruption.] Forgive me, but I think the important part of that sentence was “scrap the bedroom tax”, which we can probably agree on; I hope the SNP will agree with that.
I will not make this consensus fragile by referring to all those SNP Members who voted with the Conservatives last night. That would be to do something that has been pointed in my direction in the past, so I do not want to raise that sensitive issue. We are dealing with an issue—the bedroom tax—where people of good will throughout the Committee can rattle off examples in their own constituencies about how it has been an appalling thing visited on many of our constituents, with most of them being the most vulnerable and least able to look after themselves, and where some with chronic disability have been targeted. The phraseology we always hear—we heard it a little earlier—relates to the idea that people on benefits are scroungers. Never do we hear about the fact that most people on benefits are pensioners who have worked most of their lives to get their pension or are people who have suffered from the chronic nature of their disability and need help—in any civilised society, we would all expect to help each other. Anything, even the limited change I am proposing to mitigate the worst effects of the bedroom tax, will, I hope, be welcomed by all those parties.
I will, although I must say, through the Chair, that if the hon. and learned Gentleman wants a debate on the broader concept of welfare, I will try to answer his questions but I may well be called to order.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his amendment 132, like the SNP’s amendment 117, undermines the sanctions regime, which is there to ensure that taxpayers’ money paying for good advice to jobseekers is properly spent and that people turn up for their appointments? The sanctions regime is there for a purpose but he is undermining it—why?
The hon. and learned Gentleman may be holding his amendment paper upside down, because it does not say that at all. I will now go on to explain this to him—I always help people, whether they have literacy problems or they are members of the Conservative party, to understand what my amendments mean. I think I know what my amendment means. Amendment 132 states that, if someone suffers financial hardship from having a benefit reduced or suspended, they can receive the discretionary housing payment again—that is in exception 6 in clause 22, and I say that just for the hon. and learned Gentleman. This potentially excludes people who have been sanctioned or had their benefits suspended due to perceived non-compliance with conditions attached to a reserved benefit and to accessing discretionary housing payments.
On a point of order, Ms Engel. The hon. Gentleman described me as illiterate, but he is in fact describing an undermining of the sanctions regime, which is what I put to him. Is that in order?
I wish that it were a point of debate, but it is a point of accuracy and I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman cannot accept when he has been inaccurate. I hope he will forgive me for keeping pointing that out to him.
On whether or not people should suffer a further sanction, I want to ask the hon. Gentleman about circumstances encountered by one of my constituents. He was sanctioned for not turning up to an appointment with the Department for Work and Pensions, but his letter had been sent to the wrong street, albeit the same number, and he was not aware of the appointment. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is wrong to further impose a sanction after that?
The whole sanction regime needs a proper and thorough review, and it should be based on evidence of the sort the hon. Gentleman brings, as I can, rather than on prejudice and electoral gain. Although it may, sadly, go down well in certain leafy suburbs, those of us who have relatives who are pensioners or people with a disability, and those of us who represent people who are suffering because of the bedroom tax, have a slightly different perspective. I am trying to share it with some Government Members, but, sadly, this is with a mixed degree of success.
On amendment 132, exception 6 uses the example of non-compliance, but if someone’s claim had been wrongly suspended—the point the hon. Gentleman makes and I fully support—they would be put in a worse position as they would also lose discretionary housing payments. If the rhetoric about trying to get people back into work and about making work pay is meant, making people suffer a double disbenefit flies in the face of trying to help individuals back into work. It is a catch-all and a broad brush, and it is insensitive.
One of the best ways to tackle those problems, which we all encounter in government, is to make government as close to people as is humanly possible. My suggestion in this case is that that should be within the province of the Scottish Parliament, but in other cases we may even be talking about a lower tier of government. I wish briefly to deal with the question of double devolution, which was raised from the Front Bench by my hon. Friend Ian Murray, but just to finish on amendment 132 let me say that it would remove the provisions and the possibility I have described altogether. In summary, it would give the Scottish Parliament the ability to pay the discretionary benefit when a person cannot be paid a reserved benefit such as housing benefit. That is relatively straightforward and I hope I have put it as succinctly as possible.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly important speech, and I just wanted to clarify something for him. The reason why we have not signed his amendment is that we had an amendment to devolve the entirety of housing benefit, which would of course take into account all those discretionary housing benefit levels. That is why we have not supported his amendment; it is purely because we have the overarching devolution amendment.
I totally understood that and I see why my hon. Friend has done what he has done. I hope we will get a broader consensus in the Committee as a result.
I wish to make one final point on this couple of detailed amendments, and it relates to double devolution. Again, I am not trying to tread on any sensitivities. I am an irregular visitor to Scotland, but when I go there, as I did over the weekend, I often hear people talk about local government in Scotland being centralised, not, for once, to Whitehall, but to Holyrood. I hope that my good friends in the Scottish National party will be clear when they speak in this debate that they reject a recentralisation of power from Whitehall to Holyrood. Such a recentralisation would fly in the face of proper devolution.
I know that the SNP’s long-term agenda is not devolution but separation of Scotland from the rest of the Union. Separation is the long-term goal of SNP Members. That time may never come, or it may come in some number of years. I do not know; none of us can predict. In the interim, I ask parties of all descriptions in Scotland to put themselves at the service of the Scottish people so that they can get the fullest possible benefit from the devolution proposals. Devolution should not merely transfer the ability to tell people what to do from Whitehall—which I resent—to a Scottish Parliament that has accumulated power. Once power has been fought for, granted from the centre and taken down to the lowest level possible, all of us who believe in devolution must avoid the temptation to look at people on the ground and say, “I wonder what we could have from them? I wonder how we can tell them what to do?”
There are some wonderful precedents in Scotland for the other nations of the Union. I hope that all my friends of different political complexions in Scotland will fight as strongly as they fought for their own Parliament to push as much power down to the local level as is humanly possible. I think that we all agree about the need to be sensitive and help people, but it must be done by people as intimately connected with them as possible. That will be another step of progress.
The Scottish National party has always spoken of powers for a purpose. The reason why we are having this debate is that we were promised, as were the people of Scotland, in the run-up to the referendum that we would have a new federalism that was as near to home rule as possible. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that that is the position of the SNP and what the people of Scotland can expect. We want to grow our economy and bring some fairness to society right now, but the hon. Gentleman took to the Lobby with the Government to support further austerity for Scotland.
Unlike the hon. Lady, I never mistake the interests of the Scottish people for the interests of the Scottish National party. Those of us who believe in devolution can unite with those who believe in the separation and break-up of the Union because we will all be better off if we put the interests of the Scottish people first and learn the lessons that they can teach the rest of the nations of the Union.
I shall speak to amendments 115, 116, 117 and 131, tabled in my names and the names of my colleagues, and in support of amendments that have been jointly tabled by Labour and SNP Members, including amendment 48 and new clause 31. All the amendments would strengthen the provisions in relation to the benefits system and bring it more closely in line with the Smith commission recommendations. We should remember that those recommendations were agreed by all five main political parties in Scotland and reflect the democratic demand of our people for the power to make decisions in Scotland for Scotland.
The amendments would improve our social security system by ensuring that it is tailored to our needs and circumstances and fits our policy objectives. That in turn will enhance governance and strengthen democratic accountability in Scotland and make a real difference to the lives our citizens.
It is worth restating that paragraph 49 of the Smith agreement recommended that powers should be devolved on benefits for carers, disabled people and those who are sick—attendance allowance, carer’s allowance, disability living allowance, personal independence payments, industrial injuries disablement allowance and severe disablement allowance. The agreement also recommended devolution of the benefits that currently comprise the regulated social fund—cold weather payments, funeral payments, Sure Start maternity grants and winter fuel payments, as well as discretionary housing payments. It proposed that new arrangements for the Motability scheme in Scotland for DLA and PIP claimants should be agreed.
I welcome what the hon. Lady is saying. Looking at amendment 117, is the SNP really turning its face against conditionality and the focus on work in the benefits system in favour of a system in which, even if someone does not turn up to see the adviser and is sanctioned, they still get the benefit? How can that be right?
On the very last day of the last Parliament, if the hon. Gentleman remembers, the Work and Pensions Committee—with a majority of coalition Members—called for a root-and-branch review of the sanctions regime. The reason why it did that should be self-evident to every Member of the House. We have seen repeatedly how the most vulnerable people in our communities fall foul of that sanctions regime. People with mental health problems and single parents are being disproportionately sanctioned. Members of Parliament can turn up five minutes late to meetings all over this place and do not lose their pay, so why should the most vulnerable and the disabled be subject to sanctions? I agree with the Work and Pensions Committee, which twice in the last Parliament called for a root-and-branch review. We could do so much better in Scotland.
I will not give way again because I want to make some progress.
Paragraph 51 of the Smith agreement was quite explicit that the Scottish Parliament should have
“complete autonomy in determining the structure and value of the benefits at paragraph 49 or any new benefits or services which might replace them. For these benefits, it would be for the Scottish Parliament whether to agree a delivery partnership with DWP or to set up separate Scottish arrangements.”
I come back to the point about amendment 117. It should be for the Scottish Government to tailor policies that suit our purposes and take cognisance of the circumstances in which we live and work.
Smith was also clear that there should be powers to create new benefits and to top up benefits in reserved areas, by making, as it says in paragraph 54,
“discretionary payments in any area of welfare without the need to obtain prior permission from DWP”.
The agreement says explicitly:
“Any new benefits or discretionary payments introduced by the Scottish Parliament must provide additional income for a recipient and not result in an automatic offsetting reduction in their entitlement to other benefits or post-tax earnings if in employment.”
When we compare these sections of the agreement with the Bill, we see all too clearly that it fails to live up to what was proposed. A number of the amendments in this group seek to rectify some of those shortcomings, and I hope that the Secretary of State will take that seriously and accept some of the practical measures that would substantially improve and strengthen this Bill.
As it is currently worded, the Bill places restrictions on the ability of present or future Scottish Parliaments to provide appropriate support for sick and disabled claimants and those who provide them with unpaid care at home. We have already heard from Ian Murray that the definition of disability benefit in the Bill places limits on the types of support that the Scottish Government could introduce, and therefore we support the wider scope that amendment 128 would give to shape policy in Scotland—for example, by enabling those with long-term and temporary conditions to receive support. That is a pragmatic but potentially far-reaching improvement.
In a similar vein, amendment 48 would remove the definition of who can be considered a carer. It is important that the restrictions on carer’s allowance eligibility definitions be removed from the Bill. If the Scottish Government could vary the eligibility conditions, or indeed the amount of a new carer’s benefit in Scotland, we could do more for the 62,000 carers in Scotland currently in receipt of carer’s allowance and potentially, depending on the will of Parliament, look at long-standing issues such as how many hours a person can study while being a carer, or how much of someone’s earnings is counted in determining their eligibility.
Is not the important issue that for as long as they wish to remain within the United Kingdom, the Scottish people have the guarantee of the United Kingdom benefits system as the baseline, but through the democratic process of the ballot box, if the Scottish people seek to have a more generous and more compassionate welfare system north of the border, they should be able to have that through the Scottish Parliament?
I entirely agree. The democratic will of the Scottish people over the past few years from the 2011 elections and again more recently—just look around this Chamber—is very clear. They want an alternative to austerity and a fairer social security system.
I am keen to highlight new clause 31, which I hope we will have an opportunity to vote on later. If Labour do not press it to the vote, we will. It gives explicit power to create new benefits in devolved areas, giving effect to that Smith agreement recommendation, and it could be used to improve the support offered to carers. I am pleased that there is a great deal of consensus on the Opposition Benches about the need to move that forward.
“the flexibility for the Scottish Government to define the terms of the new ‘Carers benefit’ as it provides the Scottish Government with an opportunity to improve carers’ benefits in Scotland.”
That is why there is that degree of consensus on the Opposition Benches. Carers are understandably concerned about the speculation on where the Chancellor’s £12 billion of social security cuts will fall. We know that carers and the disabled people they support are likely to see further squeezes on their already squeezed incomes. These amendments offer an opportunity to consider alternatives.
In Scotland we realised some years ago that carers are integral to meeting the long-term challenges we face in delivering health and community care. Unpaid and family carers are the backbone of the community care system and they are irreplaceable; they are part of the solution to meeting our social care challenges. Since the advent of devolution the Scottish Parliament has pioneered policies that have improved support for carers and those receiving care in the community, but when carers fail to get the support that they need to continue to care, the pressures on our public services become far less manageable.
It is worth pointing out that the positive policies for carers pursued in Scotland under existing devolved powers contrast sharply with what we have seen from Westminster over recent years. Particularly over the past few years, I have met carers under increasing strain because of the failures of the work capability assessment and the implementation problems that have accompanied the personal independence payment regime. One of the consequences of someone losing benefit because of inadequate assessment procedures is often a big knock-on financial impact on carers, who find themselves having to support their relative financially, as well as providing practical care. Also, in the absence of other support, the intensity of the care they have to provide often increases.
I find the hon. Lady’s speech very illuminating, particularly on carers, an issue close to my heart and that of my constituents. However, a thought occurs to me: is not the real agenda to turn back the clock on benefit reform, effectively ending accountability for those claiming benefits and allowing a return to rampant welfarism, which destroys communities and keeps people trapped in dependency?
The hon. Gentleman’s intervention demonstrates that he has completely failed to understand my point—that carers are holding up our social care system. They are providers of care, not benefit recipients. They stop the state having to look after people who would otherwise require considerably more support from the NHS and from community care services. Let us not pretend that carers are a drain on our resources. They are a resource on which we are hugely dependent. Let us face it. The support that we give to carers in no way compensates for the care that they provide for free. [Interruption.]
When carers stop being able to care—often because their own health has been severely compromised—our local authorities and the NHS find themselves having to make—[Interruption.]
The point I was trying to make is that when carers’ own health is compromised, that puts an enormous strain on our local authorities and our NHS. They have to make more crisis interventions, which are costly in human and in financial terms.
There is no doubt in my mind that we can and we must do better for sick people, disabled people and their carers, and that with more effective devolution we can align policy more closely with areas such as health and social care that are already devolved and that are most relevant for carers. What this amendment, like others, really comes down to is who can be trusted to safeguard carers’ interests: a Tory Government with one lonely Scottish Tory MP, or the Scottish Parliament which is democratically representative, accessible and accountable to the people it serves. A clear majority of the people of Scotland have indicated their support for substantial and meaningful delivery of those powers as they were set out in the Smith agreement, as have key stakeholder groups.
I know that the Secretary of State takes a personal interest in support for carers, and I urge him to listen and to accept these amendments that will move us a small step closer to what was promised, and will make a big difference in people’s lives.
Amendments 116 and 117 relate to the proposed powers over discretionary housing payments, other discretionary payments and the sanctions regime. Our clear view is that the proposed powers over discretionary housing payments in clause 22 fail to deliver the Smith commission recommendation for autonomy because they are subject to various restrictions. As the Scottish Government said in their response to the Scottish Parliament’s Devolution (Further Powers) Committee’s interim report on the draft Scotland Bill clauses,
“the exclusion of the ability to make payments where the need arises from the impact of UK Government policies on conditionality and sanctions constrains the effectiveness of these powers in providing necessary support to key groups”.
Our amendments would remove some of these constraints, including those relating to sanctions, which we have already discussed, and bring the Bill into line with the Smith recommendations in relation to when discretionary housing payments and other discretionary payments and assistance can be made.
I very much welcome the support of Labour Members for amendment 115, which enables the provision of assistance in forms other than cash, for benefits related to maternity, funeral and heating expenses. That might seem quite a small thing, but I am sure that many Members will share my experience of people presenting themselves in the constituency office at half-past four on a Friday afternoon facing a weekend with no money and no electricity. Often they have spent the day battling bureaucracy and have come to the MP as a last-ditch attempt to get assistance when all else has failed. Often we can secure emergency food parcels through local church food banks, or access emergency power cards.
This amendment would enable non-cash provision such as power cards or, in the case of funeral payments when people’s bank accounts can be frozen in the event of a sudden death, emergency support for people who are in a very difficult situation. Thanks to innovative technology there are now clever ways to deliver emergency support through mobile phones, which is particularly useful in rural areas such as mine, where there are ever fewer banks and post offices in villages, and those that remain keep ever more limited hours. If people can receive support on a mobile phone that can then be used in their local shop, it provides a lifeline to those most vulnerable and in need of emergency support.
Amendment 131 would amend clause 23 and extend the power of the Scottish Government to provide support in exceptional circumstances. This issue has been raised by the Child Poverty Action Group, which points out that exception 8 is narrowly drafted and does not include families under exceptional pressure among the categories of those potentially eligible for
“occasional financial or other assistance”.
This group is currently eligible for community care grants under the interim Scottish welfare fund and was also eligible for the predecessor social fund administered by the DWP. Failure to reference this group in the Bill and put beyond doubt the protection of families under exceptional pressure as a priority group in their own right could put the health and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable families at risk. I very much hope that the Secretary of State will look sympathetically at this amendment and accept it. I look forward to the Government’s response.
A letter in The Herald today signed by 12 leading third sector organisations in Scotland points to the concern among charities and civil Scotland about just how damaging the next round of welfare cuts will be. They are right to say that those least able to cope are likely to be hit the hardest. Today MPs have an opportunity to strengthen the Bill so that it lives up to the recommendations of the Smith commission. This would enable us to shape a fairer future for Scotland’s social security system and bring more of those welfare decisions and the levers to grow our economy into the hands of the Scottish Parliament.
This Tory Government have shown time and again that they cannot be trusted with social security. They seem utterly determined to press ahead with eye-watering further cuts of £12 billion. Scotland’s charities are making it clear today that the axe should not be falling on the least well-off in our society but should be shared more equitably.
At the general election the SNP received an unprecedented mandate to speak up for Scotland, and today I am asking Westminster to listen, to live up to the spirit and intent of the Smith commission with regard to welfare, and to deliver the powers we need to shape a social security system that supports and empowers people when hard times hit, rather than punishing them. These amendments take a step in the right direction, and I hope that the Government will accept them.
I welcome the huge transfer of welfare and tax powers set out in the Bill, but I want to make one point about conditionality. Over the past 15 years or so one of the insights that has struck in the field of work and pensions and welfare is the idea that tackling poverty is not just about benefits; it is also about helping people into work, education and skills and removing barriers to work. Conditionality is part of that process, and it was introduced by Labour. It says to the taxpayer and benefit recipients, “Look, if we pay huge amounts of money to train a cadre of people in the jobcentres, if we hire expert companies to advise jobseekers and if we involve the disability groups in the process, as taxpayers we are making a big investment in trying to help people into work and end the dependency culture.”
Therefore, is it really right for somebody who has been offered an opportunity to go to the jobcentre for an advice session or training not to attend and not to explain why? When they are sanctioned, is it really right for us to say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter, because the taxpayer can just pay the bill and there will be no consequences at all”? That would be the effect of the two amendments that would take out the guts of clauses 22 and 23 and remove conditionality.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not accept these two points? First, 55% of people in receipt of benefits are already working, so they do not need help into work. They are on benefits, doing the right thing and trying look after their families, but they are the people who will be hurt by the reductions that the Government are proposing. Secondly, although I accept that those in receipt of benefits have responsibilities, the Work and Pensions Committee has said on two occasions, as Dr Whiteford mentioned, that the sanctions regime is too fierce and needs to be adjusted. Does he not accept the Select Committee’s findings?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I served on the Select Committee for many years. I accept that the sanctions regime needs to be reviewed and that it needs to work properly, but that is not the same as scrapping it. The amendments would undermine the regime so severely that it would be fatally damaged. I am not saying that there should not be a wide transfer of powers; I am simply asking Opposition Members to think about their taxpayers, about those people who are investing in services for jobseekers and all that help. Is it really right that there should be no conditionality?
During the election campaign I met a man in my constituency called Dave Grieve. He had found very little support at the jobcentre to help him get into employment, so he took the initiative of setting up his own Facebook page. He now has 11,000 followers. He advertises the jobs and promotes the opportunities that are not provided through the jobcentres.
The Select Committee visited Scotland on occasion—[Interruption.] No, it is a UK-wide Committee, so we visited all parts of the United Kingdom. We found some excellent services. The hon. Gentleman might have a bad example, but overall across the United Kingdom, including Scotland, there are some excellent services that taxpayers are paying for. I think that these amendments would undermine the conditionality that is important to that.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. It seems to me that the Secretary of State, when he responds, needs to be very precise about his objection to the amendments that have been tabled in relation to a number of key principles. He will first need to be explicit about whether he believes the proposals to be at odds with, and moving in the opposite direction from, the intention of Smith. I think that a number of the amendments would give better effect to Smith than would the Bill as currently drafted. Therefore, the argument is not about whether we share the same intention, but about whether the legislation is adequate for the task. I hope that he will bear that in mind when responding.
The second thing that some of the amendments that I and my hon. Friends have tabled seek to achieve, as indeed do some of the SNP amendments, is to simplify the legislation. It is a little too complicated and hedged about with who is in and who is out of the provision of certain exceptions, for example in relation to definitions of disability, or too narrow in relation to definitions of carers. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to explain precisely what his objections are to the amendments that seek to make the legislation easier to give effect to and plainer in its intent.
The third thing, which I think is the substance of this debate, is to a degree a sideline debate. It is not specifically about the legislation; it is about our intentions for the welfare state. I think that the Secretary of State should acknowledge that we are talking about a welfare state that enables people. Where benefits enable people’s full social participation—for example, carers’ benefits and benefits that enable disabled people to live decent and independent lives—there is no case for decrying them on the basis that they create a dependency culture, because what they create is a culture of dignity and participation. I hope that he will be able to distinguish between the two.
Having said that, I do not think that there is a wish, certainly on the part of Labour Members, to say that there should not be a conditionality regime. Our party has always accepted that in a conditional system there must be a backstop of sanctions for people who wilfully refuse to comply. Of course, the vast majority do not wilfully refuse to comply; they get caught up in a completely baffling and increasingly unjust system. Sir Oliver Heald has rightly accepted that that system now needs to be reviewed, because it is clearly well beyond what any reasonable conditionality and sanctions regime should look like. However, that is not really the purpose of this legislation or what this debate is about.
I want to make two or three specific points in support of some of the remarks that were made earlier. First, in relation to disability benefits, I think that the way clause 19 has been written will cause considerable confusion and dispute about who falls within the ambit of the benefits that the Scottish Government can create or top up. For example, does the fact that somebody needs to be suffering significant adverse effects and be unable to carry out day-to-day tasks exclude someone who suffers from double incontinence? Arguably, that person should be within the ambit of the legislation, but why do we need to have any doubt? Does “short-term” mean that someone suffering from a fatal illness that is likely to lead to fatality within three or four months will be within the ambit of the legislation? It seems to me that if we stuck to a much plainer description of disability benefits and of who is eligible, we would avoid a lot of unnecessary dispute and heartache, and we might enable the Scottish Parliament to prescribe much more simply that certain conditions or circumstances would automatically give rise to benefit entitlement, as is the case with the UK’s legislation.
On that point, my hon. Friend will know that patients who are terminally ill with less than six months to live are automatically entitled to disability living allowance or personal independence payment. The contrast between that specificity and the vagueness before us today is very stark.
That is an extremely good example. Those with a terminal illness and less than six months to live are automatically routed through and fast-tracked to eligibility for PIP. We could also talk about those on dialysis and double amputees, who are automatically able to get the higher rate of mobility, as are those with severe sight impairment. It would be simpler if the Scottish Parliament could legislate to route some of those people through to benefits automatically, as is now the case in UK legislation.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Motor Neurone Disease Association has cited cases in which people with six months left to live who have had the DS1500 assessment have actually been challenged by the Department for Work and Pensions, which is so insulting as to be mind-boggling? That is why we need very clear guidelines and definitions, which the Bill does not provide.
That is insulting, obviously very distressing and quite unjust. I hope that the Secretary of State will look at amendment 128, which seeks to bring clarity to the legislation in relation to entitlement to disability benefits, and, if he is not able to accept the amendment, that he will give us clear reasons why not.
On carers, I recognise that the definitions encompassed in the Bill mirror the current entitlement to carer’s allowance. As I think Dr Whiteford was trying to explain, carer’s allowance is both a very useful benefit from the point of view of society as a whole and an enabling benefit to enable people to provide care for their family and loved ones. We should be very keen to extend those enabling benefits as far as possible and, as she rightly said, in alignment with the landscape of social care and support provided through our public services. If Conservative Members will forgive me, I do not think that it is creating a dependency culture to facilitate carers in their caring role. Indeed, from a UK perspective, I must say that I am rather envious of this opportunity to extend the definitions. I again hope that the Secretary of State, if he feels unable to accept amendment 48, will be able to explain clearly why not.
Finally, I want to pick up on amendment 129, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Allen, who is not in the Chamber at the moment. As I understand it, the effect of his amendment would not be to remove the provision from applying to someone who had been sanctioned, but would mean that someone who had fallen out of the ambit of entitlement to housing benefit altogether—including because the operation of the bedroom tax meant that they could no longer receive that payment—could none the less access a benefit that the Scottish Government might wish to introduce to deal with that situation.
As my hon. Friend Ian Murray said, we intend to address that point in a later amendment that would devolve the whole of housing benefit. However, it is important to understand that amendment 129 is not about trying to subvert the sanctions regime or the conditionality regime, with all its current flaws, but is about trying to reopen access to support with housing costs to those who have fallen foul of a tax, the bedroom tax, which Opposition Members are united across parties in opposing. I hope that the Secretary of State will recognise that fact.
This has been a full debate on a range of important issues in which there is a great deal of interest from Members of this House, Members of the Scottish Parliament and people throughout Scotland. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has made clear on many occasions during the Bill’s passage, the Government are committed to implementing the Smith commission agreement in full, and we believe the provisions of the Bill meet the spirit and substance of the agreement.
I will explain the Government’s approach as I respond to the proposed amendments in turn. Before I do so, however, I want to reflect on the fact that the Bill will give the Scottish Parliament very extensive new powers on welfare. Benefits for which powers are being devolved accounted for £2.5 billion of spending last year, which is about a quarter of all welfare spending in Scotland outside the state pension.
The clauses on welfare provide tremendous opportunities for the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to design, implement and structure welfare in Scotland. Such a huge change should not be underestimated. If the Scottish Government and Scottish National party want to spend more on welfare, they will of course be able to do so. The consequence of the Smith agreement is that the UK and Scottish Governments will in future work together to provide welfare systems for people in Scotland, and we need to co-operate in doing that. Scotland’s two Governments already work together well and achieve a great deal, and I am confident that that will continue as we seek to implement the devolution of these significant welfare powers.
Will the Government now agree to accept some of the amendments? I tell the right hon. Lady that she had better not even be thinking of amending the Bill in the House of Lords, out of sight of democratic scrutiny by this House. Will she assure me today that the Government will not table amendments in the House of Lords, but will do so on the Floor of the House of Commons?
As the hon. Gentleman will have heard the Secretary of State say, the Library simply does not say that at all. I will go through the specific amendments that we are debating, and it is important for the hon. Gentleman to hear the points I will make by way of clarification. We have only just started day three, and I think he should give the Government the benefit of the doubt and listen to the arguments that we will advance.
Amendments 128 and 112 relate to the disability benefits aspects of clause 19. The clause, and specifically the interpretation of what is meant by “disability benefit”, is intended to allow the Scottish Parliament to legislate in areas currently covered by attendance allowance,
disability living allowance and personal independence payment. There are a number of common features to these disability benefits. The key ones are, first, that they are usually intended to contribute towards additional costs that people with physical or mental health conditions or disabilities can incur; secondly, that they should primarily be directed at people with long-term physical or mental health conditions or disabilities, rather than conditions of a transient nature; and, thirdly, that disability is by reference to the significant effects or needs arising, rather than the fact of being disabled.
I want to focus on the third aim. Clearly, disability and long-term health issues affect many people across the UK. In fact, they currently affect more than 12 million people under the Equality Act 2010 definition, and disability has an impact on each of those 12 million people in an individual and very specific way. We know that many disabled people can fully participate in society and can work, and that they have no or very modest additional costs, but we also know that others of course experience great barriers that some disabled people or non-disabled people simply do not have. Let us be clear: it is right that support through the social security system is targeted. That targeted support is there to help them, and it is provided by targeting needs and effects, rather than diagnoses or conditions primarily. That is the approach taken for all disability benefits.
It is in that context that the Government have approached their commitment to devolve disability benefits to the Scottish Parliament. By setting out the broad parameters to the benefits, we can confer legislative competence for a defined policy area in such a way that allows the Scottish Parliament to determine how it achieves that and does not tie it to using existing rules and criteria. In that spirit, our approach has not been to take the seemingly more obvious route of somehow mimicking the existing legislative provisions or providing a formulation that sets absolute boundaries; our view is that either of those approaches could place unnecessary restrictions on the Scottish Parliament. Our approach must reflect the benefits as they stand, including, importantly, the fact that they contain exceptions both to allow entitlement and to restrict payment where necessary. I emphasise that the Bill will provide ample flexibility and allow the Scottish Parliament to legislate for myriad outcomes for people who would not meet the more general requirements.
The Minister says that the Government do not want to place unnecessary restrictions on the Scottish Parliament. Which of the amendments that hon. Members have spoken to would do that?
I am talking about the definition of a disability benefit, which we want to ensure provides ample flexibility for the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a range of outcomes for people who would not otherwise meet the requirements.
Amendment 48 relates to carers’ benefits. As with disability benefits, our approach has been to describe the key features of the existing carer’s allowance, but clause 19 will not restrict the Scottish Parliament to following all the detailed features of that allowance. For example, it will not be restricted to making a benefit payment to only one carer in respect of each disabled person. Taken together with existing devolved powers in areas such as social care, the clause will ensure that the Scottish Parliament has powers to set out how support for carers is provided, including the rate at which it is paid and whether it is paid as a benefit or provided in some other way.
There is also a broad definition of a disabled person in respect of whom a carer’s benefit can be paid. Amendment 48 would extend the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence still further, allowing it to provide a carer’s benefit to children under 16, people in full-time education or those who are gainfully employed. I will take each category in turn and explain why we do not consider that there is a case for that expansion of competence.
It is a long-standing principle of the social security system that those under 16 are normally supported not by the benefits system but by guardians, local authorities or parents. With regard to those not gainfully employed, carer’s allowance is designed to recognise those whose opportunities to work are limited because of the time that they dedicate to caring duties. There needs to be a threshold so that we can judge whether a claimant is in employment. The reference to gainful employment provides that threshold.
Those in full-time education are normally supported not by the benefits system but by the education maintenance system of loans and grants. Clause 19 will allow the Scottish Parliament to decide on the details of who carers’ benefits are paid to, how much is paid and what the eligibility criteria should be. The parameters of the definition of “relevant carer” are appropriate and reflect long-standing principles about the purpose of carers’ benefits.
The Minister has explained the restricted definition of carers, but if the Scottish Parliament has full power to set up a new devolved benefit on top of a reserved benefit, why should it not be up to the Scottish Parliament to decide on its own definition of carers? That should not affect the provisions in the Bill.
As I have said, the clause will allow the Scottish Parliament to decide on the details of who carers’ benefits are paid to. I want to make progress now, because I need to come to many other points that have been made.
I am grateful to the Minister; I think there is some problem with Ministers getting to the House.
How will the block grant be adjusted to take into account both the extra welfare responsibilities and the extra revenues? That is a rather important point if we are to understand the significance of the clauses on benefits.
That is subject to the discussions taking place on the fiscal framework.
Returning to carers, we recognise and appreciate, as everybody in the House will, the contribution of informal carers, who provide tremendous support to parents and other family members.
Amendment 115 relates to the powers being devolved on the provision of the regulated social fund. Clause 20 will give the Scottish Parliament legislative competence over support currently provided through a number of reserved benefits such as funeral payments and maternity grants, which some Members have briefly touched on today. As with our approach to disability benefits and carers’ benefits, the clause devolves not simply the existing benefits but the subject matter of them. That will give the Scottish Parliament wide-ranging powers to make its own provision for the areas in question.
I wish to respond briefly to Members’ points about amendments 132 and 117—Mr Allen, who is no longer in his place, spoke to the former. The Government have made significant changes to the clauses on discretionary payments since they were first published in draft in January, having listened to the views of the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and key stakeholders. The Bill now includes new top-up provisions in clause 21, and we have removed some provisions on discretionary housing payments that people felt would unnecessarily constrain the powers being devolved. Together, clauses 21 to 23 will give the Scottish Parliament significant powers to legislate for discretionary payments to people in Scotland, whether by topping up a reserved benefit or by providing assistance to meet short-term needs. The Scottish Government will be able to provide people with money additional to that provided by the UK Government.
Some Members mentioned welfare reforms and tax credits. I should point out that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will bring his Budget to the House next week, when further measures will be highlighted. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned the letter in today’s Herald and spoke about children, and I want to put it on the record that the proportion of children in poverty is at its lowest level since the mid-1980s.
There has been some discussion of welfare reform. The Government are absolutely committed not just to reforming welfare but to supporting families into work. The best route out of poverty is work, and I make no apology for all our efforts to raise incomes by expanding employment opportunities. We will of course have a debate about employment opportunities in a later group of amendments this afternoon, and because we are short of time I will not touch on that subject now.
Members mentioned sanctions and conditionality. Conditionality is an important feature of our welfare system, and I note that both the Labour party and the Scottish National party have always stated that they agree that there should be conditionality in the system. I put it on the record again that there has been an independent review of sanctions, the Oakley review. The Government have accepted all the recommendations highlighted in it and have already implemented a number of provisions, including improvements to the hardship payments process.
The Minister is right that the Oakley report made a number of recommendations about process, but Oakley was not asked to address the real concerns of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which were about whether sanctions were being applied fairly and proportionately. What can the Minister say in response to the Select Committee’s recommendations on the problems with the substance of how sanctions are operated?
I will not give way, because we are running out of time.
Members mentioned clause 23, on discretionary payments. I assure the Committee that the clause will not limit the Scottish Parliament’s existing competence and will not prevent the making of discretionary payments to people in families under exceptional pressure.
Finally, I turn to new clause 31, which would insert a new exception into the social security reservation in the Scotland Act 1998, giving the Scottish Parliament the power to create new benefits. As set out on Second Reading and in our discussions with the Scottish Government, the Government agree with the principle in the Smith commission agreement that the Scottish Parliament should be able to create new benefits.
For the record, let me say that we have other groups of amendments to discuss this afternoon. I will happily have that discussion and I will come on to some of those other points in later discussions. There is no excuse.
Perhaps I may continue. We believe that the Scottish Parliament can already create new benefits under either existing powers or those devolved by the Bill. The Smith commission was clear about which welfare powers were to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and the Bill delivers those powers in a way that allows that Parliament to replace the benefits and payments for which powers are being devolved.
On areas of devolved responsibility outside welfare, we believe that the Scottish Parliament has the powers to provide financial assistance to people in devolved areas—it currently does so in some areas already. We do not consider that the social security reservation prevents the Scottish Parliament from providing such financial assistance. The proposed new exception would give the Scottish Parliament competence to legislate to create new benefits in any area other than those where reserved powers existed on
Undermining the social security reservation in that way would simply limit the freedom of the UK Parliament when introducing new welfare benefits, or making changes to existing reserved benefits in the future. We will discuss many other clauses and groups of amendments this afternoon, and I will happily cover some of those points in those discussions. At this stage, however, I urge hon. Members to withdraw their amendments.
I appreciate that the Minister has come to the Dispatch Box to respond to the amendments, but I am slightly disappointed that she has used the excuse of restricted time; we have another five hours left and only two more groups of amendments. As I said at the end of my initial contribution, if the Government are to accept any amendments at all it would be useful for them to accept new clause 31, as that would give the Scottish Parliament power to establish any new benefit in a devolved area and top up any benefit in the reserved area. That would give it a wide-ranging power to design a system of welfare in Scotland that fits the needs of the Scottish people, which is incredibly important. I will push new clause 31 to the vote later today, but in the meantime I will push amendments 128 and 48 to the vote.