I am pleased to move amendment 118 and to speak to our amendment 119 and new clauses 40, 44, 45 and 46, all of which relate to universal credit and further powers over social security.
Throughout the debate on the Scotland Bill, its failure to enact properly the recommendations of the Smith commission has been the key point of contention, and I am conscious that theses shortcomings are nowhere more acutely evident than in this part of the Bill. The Smith agreement was crystal clear in paragraphs 43 to 48 that, although universal credit was to remain a reserved benefit, the Scotland Parliament should have specific powers and responsibilities, most notably the
“power to change the frequency of UC payments, vary the existing plans for single household payments, and pay landlords direct for housing costs in Scotland.”
It also states:
“The Scottish Parliament will have the power to vary the housing cost elements of UC, including varying the under-occupancy charge and local housing allowance rates, eligible rent, and deductions for non-dependants.”
The dispute over whether the Bill delivers on the Smith agreement was well aired on Second Reading. Amendment 118, which I intend to push to a vote, and amendment 119 would put the issue to bed. They would remove from the Bill the requirement for the Scottish Government to obtain consent from a UK Secretary of State in relation to universal credit before exercising the new powers. New clause 44 would devolve all working-age benefits to the Scottish Parliament. New clause 45 would broaden the Scottish Parliament’s administrative flexibilities over universal credit. New clause 46 would devolve child benefit and responsibility for the conditionality and sanctions regime.
It is important that the House understands how the dispute is perceived in Scotland by elected parliamentarians and wider civil society. The Scottish Parliament’s cross-party Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, which considered the Bill, did not mince its words. In paragraph 318 of its interim report, it expressed concerns about a number of the welfare provisions. It states that
“the relevant clauses do not yet meet the spirit and substance of the Smith Commission‘s recommendations and potentially pose challenges in any attempt to implement them.”
I hope Conservative Members realise that this was the view shared by their Conservative colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, who were properly represented on that committee.
The committee suggested that this issue and the form of words should be resolved between the two Governments before the Bill’s introduction, but that has not happened. The Scottish Government made proposals to the UK Government for alternative approaches to ensure effective intergovernmental working, but there has been no progress, and consequently this aspect of the Bill has not changed. It is therefore very important that we address the matter today, and that is what our amendments seek to do.
A number of key stakeholder organisations in Scotland have been outspoken in setting out their concerns about the current wording of the Bill and have helped to highlight exactly why we need those powers in Scotland and what we could do with them. The Wise Group, for example, has argued:
“The power to split Universal Credit payments within households, to increase the frequency of payments and to make housing element payments direct to landlords will allow the flexibility in benefit payments to fit with the needs of some of the most vulnerable groups in society.”
The Poverty Alliance has expressed disappointment over what it says is
“ultimately a veto given to the Secretary of State over any future changes to the devolved elements of Universal Credit by the Scottish Government.”
Inclusion Scotland has pointed out that the Bill, as it stands, could result in delays to the implementation of mitigation policies agreed by the Scottish Parliament. It also says that that
“may not be consistent with the spirit of the Smith Commission which implies that the devolved welfare powers can be exercised without the need to obtain prior permission from the DWP.”
Citizens Advice Scotland has also concluded
“that the clauses do require the Scottish Government to consult the UK Government and to gain their agreement to the timing of any variance”.
It argues that
“enabling the UK Secretary of State to make regulations in an area which is devolved to the Scottish Parliament without its consent does not appear to be consistent with the Smith Commission agreement that the Sewel Convention should be put on a statutory footing.”
It also says:
“whilst the intention appears that the timing of any changes needs to be subject to negotiation on what it is practically possible to do, there is scope for wide interpretation of the circumstances it might be considered ‘reasonable’ for the Secretary of State to withhold their agreement to the Scottish Government utilising their devolved power to make regulations in this area.”
When I spoke earlier, I highlighted the letter in this morning’s Herald from 12 of Scotland’s leading third sector organisations timed to coincide with today’s debate and ahead of the emergency Budget a week on Wednesday. It expresses grave concerns about the severe detrimental impact that the Government’s austerity measures are having on low and middle-income households and highlights the threat to tax credits and other support that would fall within universal credit.
In Scotland, two thirds of the people in receipt of tax credits are in work, while most of the children living in poverty in Scotland have in-work parents, so our biggest challenge is tackling low pay. The powers in the Bill, without the veto, would enable us to tackle these long-term problems that hold back our economic growth and the development of our economy.