Scotland Bill - Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Davidson of Glen Clova Lord Davidson of Glen Clova Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Advocate-General for Scotland 8:15 pm, 22nd February 2016

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 77 and 79 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McAvoy. The focus of Amendment 77 is the current definition of “disability benefit” used in the Bill. The concern is that this may place unnecessary limits on the kind of replacement benefit that the Scottish Government have the power to introduce. The fear is that it may not 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.

We moved this amendment in relation to carer’s allowances at Committee stage in the other place following concerns raised by third-sector organisations. The concern from both Inclusion Scotland and Citizens Advice Scotland has been that the definition of disability might,

“restrict the autonomy”,

of the Scottish Parliament,

“to construct a new system based on empowering disabled people to lead active and productive lives and promoting the human rights of disabled people and independent living”.

Amendment 77 would offer an alternative, broader, 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.

The Government brought forward an amendment on Report in the other place regarding the “carer’s allowance” definition. However, they do not appear to have done the same in relation to the “disability benefit” definition. True it is that the Ministers, the noble Lords, Lord Dunlop and Lord Freud, have both written to this side of the House trying to clarify the Government’s position. The letter we received from the Minister includes the following,

“by including the phrase ‘normally payable’ at the head of the definition, the provision gives the Scottish Parliament the necessary flexibility to create exclusions or create special categories, for example to enable provision for people who are terminally ill or those with lower needs”.

I do not, of course, doubt in any way the accuracy of the Minister’s statement, but on this side we are still keen to get assurances from the Minister on the Floor of the House and confirmation that the Scottish Government could introduce a benefit to assist people with very low-level disabilities or those for whom the effect of the disability is largely financial. That, in a nutshell, is the position that we adopt in relation to Amendment 77.

Amendment 79 provides for the devolution of the Access to Work scheme. This was an amendment that we moved at Committee stage in the other place. As my honourable friend the Member for Edinburgh South observed in the other place:

“Access to Work provides practical advice and support to disabled people, and their employers, to help them to overcome work-related obstacles resulting from disability”.—[Official Report, Commons, 30/6/15; cols. 1429-30.]

The devolution of the programme to local authorities would certainly allow there to be better tailoring to local needs.

Access to Work is closely aligned with employment support. Several charities, including Inclusion Scotland and the Wise Group, are in favour of Access to Work being devolved to Scotland. ENABLE Scotland observes that the Access to Work scheme is one of the most important elements of the employment support system for disabled people. It gives various examples, such as the British Sign Language interpreters working for deaf employees.

ENABLE Scotland states its position as believing that,

“the devolution of Access to Work is necessary to deliver integrated and accessible Employment Support in Scotland”.

Its position, which we share, is that Access to Work,

“does not currently integrate well with employability programmes”,

that are sometimes not fully delivered by the Department for Work and Pensions. It continues:

“For example, if you are a person on Work Choice you can use Access to Work to get pre-employment support in interviews or agree support whilst transitioning into work. Persons supported by the Employability Fund … do not have access to that support and face increased negotiation and bureaucracy to get the support … Given that post-devolution the employability programmes will not be delivered by the DWP, failure to devolve Access to Work in parallel will limit access for Scottish jobseekers and increase bureaucracy for specialist support organisations and employers”.

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations also supports the devolution of Access to Work. It takes the view that that is necessary to create the integrated accessible form of employment support that it considers, as do we, should be created in Scotland. A women’s charity in Scotland, Engender, has also identified support for devolution of the Access to Work scheme, which it says is necessary for improving overall support for disabled people.

There are four questions that the Minister could assist us by answering. I do not expect immediate direct answers to them all; an answer in writing, in the usual terms, would be fine. These questions are as follows. An integrated package of employment support measures is essential to ensure the best outcomes for disabled people—I assume that there is no disagreement about that. So what effect will absence of Access to Work in the devolution package have on outcomes for disabled people?

Secondly, will the Minister address the points raised by ENABLE, supported by the SCVO? It says that failure to devolve Access to Work in parallel with the Work Programme and Work Choice will,

“limit access for disabled jobseekers in Scotland and increase bureaucracy for specialist support organisations and employers”.

Thirdly, does he believe that Access to Work complements the employment support programme already being devolved to Scotland? Finally, if the Government are committed to keeping this programme as a reserved matter, does that not make an even stronger case for a Joint Committee on welfare devolution to be set up? That idea is covered in a further amendment, tabled by my noble friend Lord McAvoy.

A number of amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, seem to have a broadly similar intent—to prevent the UK Government from clawing back top-up benefits paid by the Scottish Government through means-testing reserved benefits. We on the Labour side have similar concerns. The Scottish Government should be able to make top-up payments to individuals who have had their payments unfairly reduced, suspended or withdrawn under the UK Government’s sanctions regime.

We accept that Her Majesty’s Government have tabled a significant number of amendments for Report stage that mean that the Scottish Parliament appears to have complete power to create new benefits in devolved areas and top up existing benefits—which, of course, we fully support. However, Labour outlined in the other place our wish for the Scottish Government to be able to make payments to those who have been sanctioned. The Minister may well have already covered that position. Certainly in meetings with him, which were extremely helpful, it has been suggested that the question in relation to sanction is already covered by the legislation. None the less, as with the previous amendment, it would be extremely useful for us if the Government were to confirm that for the record.

We would support Amendment 77J, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, on definitions of “short-term”. We tabled an amendment in another place, but did not pursue it as we had assurances that the position would be covered by the legislation. Nevertheless, our argument in Committee has been that the inclusion of phrases such as “short-term” would appear to limit the scope of the Scottish Parliament to take action in these areas. In the instance of discretionary housing payment and other discretionary payments, the Government have told us that, in their interpretation, a discretionary payment is a short-term payment. Our argument was that a discretionary payment is just that—a payment made at the discretion of and according to parameters set by the relevant Government. We respectfully suggest that further clarification would be useful from the Minister in area.

We support the amendments in this group proposed by Her Majesty’s Government, as these are primarily of a technical nature. I beg to move Amendment 77.