Scotland Bill - Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 29th February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 9:45 pm, 29th February 2016

For example, we have worked to build a strong relationship with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that universal credit is implemented and delivered in a way that best reflects the views of Scottish local authorities. Citizens Advice Scotland is another organisation that we have engaged with. This has been a genuinely joint approach to improve delivery in Scotland and is just one example of many.

As I said in Committee, I am sympathetic to the noble Lord’s intention in what his amendment proposes to achieve but we believe that robust, strong and effective mechanisms are already in place. We will absolutely put the customer at the heart of any change and will work with the Scottish Government to ensure that the transition and implementation of powers is simple, clear and effective. This will protect the delivery of existing benefits and customer interests, and ensure a great future for all the people in the UK, including those in Scotland.

Turning to Amendments 58 and 59, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, Clause 29 gives the Scottish Parliament legislative competence to establish employment programmes to support disabled people and those at risk of long-term unemployment. It devolves power over support for unemployed people through employment programmes currently centrally contracted by the DWP; this is mainly but not exclusively the Work Programme and Work Choice. These two programmes represent virtually all funding across these contracted employment programmes and therefore, in our view, provide the Scottish Government with a significant policy space within which to operate.

The powers are very broad in scope and concurrent with the UK Government’s powers. Any claimant on a reserved benefit at risk of long-term unemployment can be addressed in this way, so the Scottish Government have the ability to create schemes, programmes or grants in this space as the UK Government can. It gives the Scottish Government the ability to better align with the employment support they already provide through the devolved skills system. That is a very substantial package of powers which the Scottish Government can already use. I think the estimated annual spend in this area is some £600 million.

Support for those at risk of long-term unemployment must last for at least a year. The three restrictions seek to define the space which Smith said that the Scottish Government should have in designing new programmes. This creates clear lines of accountability between what the Scottish Government are able to do and what Jobcentre Plus is required to do. It is also important for there to be a clear handover point, so that Jobcentre Plus and Scottish Government programmes do not try to deliver different support to the same claimant at the same time. Jobcentre Plus will continue to deliver smaller-scale support, with the Scottish Government delivering more significant interventions.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, would remove the limitations that assistance should be for persons claiming reserved benefits and be for at least a year. These limitations are necessary safeguards to ensure that those who need support over and above that provided by the enhanced Jobcentre Plus offer receive assistance for an intense period. Smith was clear that Jobcentre Plus and the conditionality regime “will remain reserved”. As I have said, there needs to be a clear handover point so that Jobcentre Plus and the Scottish Government’s programmes are not overlapping in that sense.

It is vital that the Jobcentre Plus work coaches have the right tools to support claimants into work and smaller-scale employment programmes at their disposal, such as mandatory work activity or locally commissioned support via the flexible support fund. If responsibility is split, the result could be people spending longer on benefits and employment support and if we remove these restrictions, it will in the Government’s view create a confused, muddled system of support which claimants and third sector organisations would struggle to understand or navigate. That would be a much worse system and have unintended consequences. We have sought to strike the right balance: enabling the Scottish Government to provide employment support for people who are at risk of long-term unemployment, and giving the Scottish Government the opportunity to take clear responsibility over a substantial portion of the claimant journey.

Finally, I turn to Amendment 60, which concerns “Consolidation of the Scotland Act 1998”. We addressed points in Committee about the scope of the powers in the Bill related to welfare. Once the Bill is passed, it will be available on legislation.gov.uk, alongside the Scotland Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 2012. In the Government’s view, it would not be a good use of Parliament’s time to bring forward another Bill simply to repeat what is included in previous Scotland Acts. The dynamic nature of the devolution settlement means that the two Governments work together on Section 30 orders, which adjust the terms of Schedule 5 from time to time, so any consolidated version would quickly be out of date. That is no bad thing; it is testimony to the devolution settlement working responsively.

However, the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, raise an interesting question about knowledge of the devolution settlement more generally. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Smith, referred to it in his personal recommendations. The Government very much support the objective and have taken steps to improve the knowledge in UK government departments and beyond. For example, in March 2015 the UK Government published a leaflet explaining the changes to devolution in Scotland. The Secretary of State has also undertaken visits to local authorities and is keen to ensure that they know what powers are coming to the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Office communications directorate’s work will also seek to make clear the Scottish Government’s existing powers—powers coming into force from the Scotland Act 2012 and those being delivered by the Scotland Bill. Its work raises awareness not just of the debate on what powers may or may not be devolved in future but on where the existing powers are today. With that, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.