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This is a really important debate and I very much welcome the opportunity to lead it on behalf of the Government. Parliament debated this issue back in October and, since then, there has been a great deal of activity on the UK Welfare Reform Bill, not least in this Parliament. At the outset, I want to say how grateful I am to the Health and Sport Committee, the Local Government and Regeneration Committee and the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee for their detailed examination of the proposals and for their thorough report. I am also grateful to the range of organisations and individuals who gave of their time and expertise in giving evidence during the scrutiny process. It is no surprise at all to me that the outcome of that scrutiny process chimes closely with the views expressed in our October debate and with the views expressed by significant sections of wider Scottish society.
In outlining our position on legislative consent today, I want to touch on the following issues: first, the Scottish Government’s position in principle on welfare reform; secondly, why we are so concerned about the impact of the proposals as they stand; thirdly, notwithstanding the fact that welfare is reserved, why it is vital that this Parliament take the stand that I am asking it to take today; and last, what the implications are of our withholding legislative consent in relation to the provisions on universal credit and personal independence payments, and how we intend to deal with those implications.
I will begin by outlining the Scottish Government’s position on welfare reform in principle. We agree with the simplification of an overcomplicated welfare system and support the principle that those who can work should be supported to do so. However, we also believe that those who cannot work should be entitled to live a life of dignity. In short, we recognise that the welfare system is broken and needs to be fixed, but we will not endorse proposals that seek to fix it at the expense of some of our most vulnerable people. We have real concerns that these welfare reforms will hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest.
To a large extent, that concern stems from the fact that—whatever the motivations of the Department for Work and Pensions—the clear motivation of the Treasury is cost cutting. We have seen that already in the form of arbitrary reductions in benefit levels—such as the move to link the uprating of benefits to the consumer prices index instead of the retail prices index. The DWP official who gave evidence to the Health and Sport Committee confirmed that benefit receipts in Scotland would be reduced by £2.5 billion by 2015. Inclusion Scotland has estimated that perhaps £1 billion of that could come from disabled people and their families. Indeed, much of the evidence that members will have heard on this bill relates to the real concerns expressed by disabled people and their representative organisations. The proposed replacement of the disability living allowance with personal independence payments—against a backdrop of 20 per cent cuts—has left many disabled people genuinely frightened. We will all have heard in our constituency surgeries, and read in our constituency mailbags, powerful personal stories about what the changes in the definition of disability will mean, in human terms, for disabled people, their income and their ability to secure the services that they need to lead a full and active life—the kind of life that so many of the rest of us take for granted.
We all know already about the problems associated with the migration of incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance; and we know about the waiting times, the level of appeals and the often intrusive and impersonal medical assessments. There is real concern that the proposed changes will exacerbate those problems and run counter to this Government’s commitment to personalisation and self-directed support.
There is also huge concern about the impact of housing benefit changes both before and as part of the introduction of universal credit. For example, the proposed cuts to local housing allowance rates could affect more than 60,000 tenants and see their households lose an average of £40 per month. The knock-on effects of those and other changes on rent arrears and on the Scottish Government’s efforts to tackle homelessness could be immense.
It is against the background of genuine concern about those and other issues that the Scottish Government has reached its position on legislative consent.
I certainly accept the Harrington report recommendations and acknowledge that some changes have been made, but I have to say that from my constituency experience, I retain significant concerns about that process and the real impact on vulnerable people who need the support that they seek. The process has not gone far enough.
I move on to the issue of reserved and devolved responsibility. Some will say—I suspect that we will hear this from certain quarters in the debate—that welfare reform is a reserved matter and that the Scottish Government and Parliament have no business in getting involved to this extent. I accept that, as things stand, the matter is reserved. Of course, I do not agree that it should be reserved. I believe that this Parliament should be the decision maker on vital matters, such as welfare, that have such a huge impact on the living standards, health, wellbeing and employability of so many of our people.
It is entirely within the Government’s gift to put that question to the test with the people of Scotland and to resolve it. It should get on with doing that rather than meddling in Westminster’s affairs.
I want to come on to the point about meddling. In the spirit of being charitable, I accept that welfare reform is a reserved matter, but—this is the key point—it is a reserved matter that has enormous implications for devolved services and responsibilities. If an already struggling family finds that its income is reduced as a result of UK action, whom will it turn to? It will turn to information and advice services and local authority social work services, all of which are devolved. If a lone parent with children suddenly finds themselves in a benefit conditionality regime whereby they are forced to prepare for and enter work, whom will they turn to? They will turn to childcare services that are funded by Scottish local authorities and the Scottish Government, to local employability services and to colleges, all of which are devolved.
If someone who is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction needs help in making the transition to work, where do they turn? They turn to the range of services that are provided by local authorities and the third sector to help them to get out of the cycle of addiction and back on their feet. All those services are devolved.
Members will be aware of the strong, compelling evidence from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and individual local authorities on what the welfare reforms might mean for the planning and delivery of their services. It is beyond doubt that, in times of crisis, people expect their local services to be able to help them, and they are right to do so.
We have also heard about the impact on the demand for services provided by the third sector. People on benefits are often some of the most vulnerable and isolated members of our community, and small, local community projects provide a vital, safe and effective space for people to address their problems. The reforms will inevitably place additional demand on all those devolved services, and at a time when money is tight and keeping within our budgets is a challenge even without those extra demands.
The Scottish Government takes its responsibilities to support the vulnerable very seriously. The fact is that, although the reforms are not of our making, we and the people of Scotland will be paying the price of them for a long time to come.
I will come on to the Scottish Government’s preparations, but Jackie Baillie knows about some of the work that we have been doing. For example, we have been consulting on the successor arrangements to the social fund. The Government is preparing to the best of our ability and we will continue to do so. It is vital that we do so and that the Scottish Parliament take a central role in considering the reforms.
The Scottish Government has sought to work constructively with the UK Government and will continue to do so. The constructive approach is reflected in the fact that we are recommending that the Parliament give legislative consent in three areas: data sharing, industrial injuries disablement benefit and the social mobility and child poverty commission.
We have also made positive suggestions during the course of the bill’s consideration. For example, we have repeatedly raised the issue of kinship carers. Many organisations agree that the bill offers a perfect opportunity to right a wrong and rid the child support landscape of the anomaly that affects kinship carers, which has been allowed to continue for too long. Unfortunately, the UK Government has failed to respond with positive proposals.
Perhaps the central point is that we also tried hard but without success to get UK Government agreement to an amendment to the bill that would have required Scottish Government consent to the content of future regulations in so far as they affect Scotland. There is precedent for such an approach. If we had reached agreement on that, I might well have felt able to recommend legislative consent today. Without that agreement I cannot do so, because I would be asking members to endorse something about which we do not know the crucial details.
For example, we do not yet know the levels at which universal credit will be paid or the rate at which it will be withdrawn in certain circumstances. We do not know how it will interact with child benefit or carers allowance. We do not know the eligibility for personal independence payments or the rates of benefit to be paid. It is not just the Scottish Government that has raised the lack of detail; the issue has been raised by almost every stakeholder. It has hindered our assessment of impact and our ability to furnish the Parliament with sound advice on the implications.
Of course, that has not stopped us preparing where we can do so. I am grateful for the work of the welfare reform scrutiny group, which we chair with COSLA, and I appreciate the group’s efforts to work with my officials to navigate a better understanding of the proposals and what they might mean. That work will continue. We have also consulted on successor arrangements for the social fund, as I said. We will shortly consult on our approach to devolution of council tax benefit, which is a move that we welcome in principle, although we oppose the 10 per cent cut that will accompany it.
However, the fact is that we are without adequate detail on a package of reforms that could affect hundreds of thousands of Scots. That is why an amendment in the terms that I described would have been appropriate, and it is why, without such an amendment, I do not believe that the Parliament can give consent.
On the implications of our position, I accept—and I have always been open about this—that by withholding legislative consent on the issues, we cannot stop the UK Government implementing its proposals. Welfare is, unfortunately, a reserved matter, as I have said. Our approach will mean that the Scottish Government will be required to take powers by way of primary Scottish legislation rather than through Westminster legislation, to enable us to make the necessary consequential amendments to secondary legislation that will ensure access to passported benefits. Let me be clear: we will take whatever steps are necessary, in the timescale required, to ensure that we protect access to passported benefits when universal credit is introduced.
Our doing that through primary legislation, and indeed with the establishment of a new parliamentary committee, will give the Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise more fully the implications of the changes and, within the obvious and severe financial constraints that we have, consider what mitigation measures are possible.
For all those reasons, it is right that this Parliament take a stand today. This will be the first refusal of legislative consent in the lifetime of the Parliament. The fact that it is not a blanket refusal shows that we do not take the matter lightly. However, it is right that we in this Parliament stand up for the most vulnerable in our society. That is what I ask the Parliament to do, by agreeing to the motion in my name.
That the Parliament supports the principle of a welfare system that is simpler, makes work pay and lifts people out of poverty but regrets that this principle, insofar as it is reflected by the introduction of universal credit and personal independence payments, is being undermined by the UK Government’s deep and damaging cuts to benefits and services that will impact on some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland; on the matter of legislative consent, agrees that the relevant provisions of the Welfare Reform Bill, introduced in the House of Commons on 16 February 2011, in respect of data sharing, Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, so far as these matters fall within the legislative competence of the Parliament, or alter the executive competence of the Scottish Ministers, should be considered by the UK Parliament; further agrees that the provisions in the Bill that give the Scottish Ministers the power to make consequential, supplementary, incidental or transitional provisions, by regulations, in relation to the introduction of universal credit and personal independence payments, so far as these matters fall within the legislative competence of the Parliament, or alter the executive competence of the Scottish Ministers, should not be considered by the UK Parliament but that the necessary provision should be made instead by an Act of the Scottish Parliament; also agrees that an ad-hoc welfare committee should be convened and that this committee should continue to meet for the duration of the current parliamentary session; while agreeing the above position, urges the UK Government to reconsider the Welfare Reform Bill and, more broadly, its welfare reform agenda, which the Parliament considers will adversely affect vulnerable people across Scotland.
As members will know, I am not often given to quoting David Cameron, but he was right when he said:
“It’s fair that those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load.”
Too true. He was of course talking in the context of the recession and the UK Government’s plan for recovery. What a shame it is that he did not really believe his own rhetoric. It took him less than a month to forget his promise of fairness when he embarked on swingeing public sector cuts of £81 billion, including £18 billion cuts to benefits. While the most affluent avoid paying taxes to the tune of £120 billion and bankers continue to award themselves huge bonuses, disabled people face the biggest attack on their rights in my lifetime.
So, the reality of David Cameron’s new Tory Britain is that those with the broadest shoulders are the poor, the disabled, the sick and the elderly; it is certainly not the millionaires that he has around him in his Cabinet. The new Tories will tell you that we are of course all in it together, but clearly some of us are more in it than others.
This is the single most significant attack on the welfare state in my lifetime. Let me be clear: I am not opposed to reform—the benefits system is overly complex and simplification is long overdue. However, the starting point for this reform is not fairness or supporting people back into work; it is purely about saving money, often from the most vulnerable in our communities. In Scotland, the cut amounts to £2 billion, which will have a direct impact on household spend and economic growth.
I thank the member for that intervention. Perhaps it was his Christmas party last night, too, and he is not firing on all cylinders, because if he had listened carefully he would know that we are not opposed to reform. Simplification of the benefits system is desirable. Helping people into work to make it much easier is desirable. However, what is being done is an attack on the poorest members of our society. There is no escape from that.
The welfare reform proposals will result in increased levels of poverty in Scotland—make no mistake about that. I do not believe that the scale of that impact is fully understood yet, which is why I am so pleased that the Scottish Government accepted Labour’s amendment in the previous debate on welfare reform, because we explicitly rejected the legislative consent motion unless substantial changes were made to the UK legislation. Despite valiant efforts, even in the House of Lords, the shape of the bill, regrettably, remains largely unchanged.
However, it would be churlish not to recognise some of the amendments that have been brought forward—for example, restoring mobility allowance to those in residential care and redefining underoccupancy in relation to housing benefit, although there is a suggestion that that will not survive the final reading in the House of Commons. Those amendments are indeed welcome, but they are but small drops of water in a vast desert.
Therefore, we remain of the view that the legislative consent motion should not be supported. We accept the Health and Sport Committee’s view that in areas that are uncontentious, such as data sharing and industrial injuries benefit, it would be appropriate to consider an LCM. However, for those areas in which there is devolved responsibility, we want to see primary legislation in the Scottish Parliament.
Can I at this stage fire a very gentle and friendly warning shot across the bows of the Scottish National Party? Just as the SNP was right to complain about the UK Government leaving everything to secondary legislation and not providing any detail, so would a similar approach be unacceptable to this chamber. Some voluntary organisations have questioned whether there is sufficient time for this chamber to legislate. They are worried about unintended consequences, and I acknowledge their concerns. Given what I know about the legislative process and the cabinet secretary’s determination, I believe that it is perfectly possible to legislate. However, the cabinet secretary may wish to provide reassurance about that when she sums up.
I confess to not being entirely convinced about the idea of an ad hoc welfare committee, but a debate about form rather than substance is a distraction. Suffice it to say I believe that, as the cabinet secretary acknowledged, the Parliament excelled itself in its scrutiny of the welfare reform proposals. No less than three parliamentary committees and 23 individual members pored over the details over a number of months, which is considerably more than a single committee with perhaps as few as seven members could have achieved. I also genuinely worry about breaking the link between tackling poverty and promoting wellbeing that rests in the remit of the Health and Sport Committee. Ultimately, as the Presiding Officer knows, it is for the Parliamentary Bureau to consider the establishment of ad hoc committees, and with a Scottish National Party majority in the chamber and on the bureau, the proposal is likely to happen. However, ever the pragmatist, I hope that the SNP agrees that it is important for the Parliament as a whole to determine the remit of the new committee, hence Labour’s very reasonable amendment.
We believe that the committee should consider the implementation of the Welfare Reform Bill and how we mitigate the impact where possible, what happens to passported benefits, and how those benefits that are now being devolved should be developed in principle and in practice. The implications that the ad hoc committee will need to consider are huge. The impact on social care is just one example. We know that local authority budgets are being squeezed. Many of them are, for the first time, cutting social care services and introducing charges. Many of the charges are determined by receipt of benefits such as disability living allowance. That very benefit will be cut by an arbitrary 20 per cent across the board. That will result in many vulnerable people, particularly those on the lower rate of DLA, no longer receiving benefit support and therefore being unable to pay for their services. The consequences will be felt by local government and by the voluntary sector, as they will be the ones to pick up the burden. Where is the money for that going to come from?
Capability Scotland also highlighted another impact of the changes to DLA on the national health service. As the minister will know, many disabled people use their benefits to purchase and maintain their own wheelchair. If their benefits are cut in the future, their needs will have to be met by the Scottish wheelchair service, which struggles as it is to meet demand. What about those with a learning disability, the majority of whom are on the lower rate of DLA, who are entitled to passported benefits such as concessionary travel? We all know the benefits of travel for quality of life and in encouraging participation in community and society, but will that benefit continue? It is entirely in the gift of the Scottish Government for it to do so, but there is no confirmation of intent. There will be an impact on a wide range of devolved benefits: the blue badge scheme; free school meals; clothing grants; the energy assistance package; and lots more besides.
The Welfare Reform Bill also proposes the devolution of some benefits to Scotland for the first time. Council tax benefit is being abolished, as we have heard, and responsibility is being transferred to Scotland, accompanied by a 10 per cent cut in the budget. I suspect that George Osborne and Danny Alexander might not be at the top of John Swinney’s Christmas card list, but Mr Swinney cannot simply blame the Tories and wash his hands of the matter; he needs to set out what he will do. Will he simply pass on the cut and leave local authorities to manage a diminishing budget, or will he meet the needs that exist in our communities? Will he find the money? Will the budget be ring fenced? Will it be available for local government to spend on other things if it chooses to do so? I have asked a number of parliamentary questions and I have yet to receive a straight answer—indeed, I have probably yet to receive any answer at all.
The SNP has control over those resources, and it has decisions to make on the essential character of how it intends to protect the most vulnerable in Scotland.
We come to community care grants and crisis loans, now devolved to Scotland too. Who will be responsible for running that scheme? Will it be local government? Will it be the voluntary sector? Will there be national eligibility criteria? Will the scheme even have statutory underpinning? A million questions are raised but not a single answer is coming from the SNP and, of course, there are questions about childcare too.
Let me touch briefly on housing benefit. We have witnessed reductions in allowances that have forced tenants, who are no longer able to afford the rent, out of their homes in the private care sector, with increasing homelessness as a result. Now substantial changes are proposed in the social rented sector, with the underoccupancy rule causing huge difficulty to housing and homelessness policies in Scotland. Many of the challenges that I have described are challenges for the Scottish Government. The decisions are its to make. It cannot blame anybody else; it is incumbent on the Government to live up to its responsibilities. When will the SNP bring forward proposals for the Parliament to consider? We have known about the Welfare Reform Bill for almost a year now, yet even the most basic questions have not been answered. What about the cost to the Scottish budget? Despite the protestations of the cabinet secretary, there is not one paragraph, not one sentence, not one word nor even a figure in the SNP Government’s 500-page budget document on that.
The chamber well knows the SNP’s fondness for talking about its aspirations of independence as some magical cure for all ills; yet, for the party of independence, which wants control over the welfare state, not to have a view on the key aspects that are devolved to Scotland is, frankly, astonishing. Those who are more cynical than I am might suggest that it has more to do with the SNP playing its usual blame game. Because it is Christmas, and in the spirit of generosity, I will refuse to believe that and will set aside the desire to blame somebody else. However, I am left wondering about the Government’s snail-like response and the SNP’s competence.
I move amendment S4M-01638.3, after “should be convened” to insert:
“with a remit to consider the implementation of the Welfare Reform Bill insofar as it affects people in Scotland, in particular the impact on passported benefits and, where benefits are devolved, the principles and operation of these, complementing the work of other relevant committees in the Scottish Parliament, UK Parliament and devolved assemblies across the UK”.
So, now we know it: today is Nicola Sturgeon’s Santa stand. By happy circumstance, the amendment in my name reduces this extended whinge and stylistically incontinent motion to its conventional state.
Welfare reform remains the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament: that is part of the settlement that the people of Scotland voted for in the referendum that established the Scottish Parliament. The nationalist Government failed in the previous session of Parliament—and prevaricates in the current session of Parliament—to put any clearly defined alternative to the test. Instead of footering around with LCMs, it should have the courage of its convictions and give the people of Scotland the opportunity that they want to put the SNP separation dog out of its misery. Whether the SNP—or, for that matter, Labour, for reasons that are depressing if familiar—wishes it otherwise, we are not here today to debate any competence to legislate on welfare reform. Nothing that we do today will alter the course of the UK Welfare Reform Bill, and to suggest otherwise is to deceive those who are affected and to give false expectations to those whose circumstances will change.
All parties accept the need for welfare reform. I say to Jackie Baillie that Labour was elected in 1997 on a platform to deliver reform but failed to do so. Subsequently, the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair, then James Purnell and Frank Field, who has appreciated the issues and has campaigned for reform for a generation, all lamented their failure to act, characterising that failure as the great missed opportunity of a decade and more in government. So, to argue, as some do now, that the coalition is moving precipitously is, in the context of a recognised need being unfulfilled for so long, quite ridiculous.
The reform has its own logic and motivation. I will come to the economic circumstance in which we must implement it, which is wholly attributable to the complete incompetence of the previous Labour Government, which failed to act.
In consequence and in real terms, there has been a £3.243 billion increase in the cost of welfare since Labour came to office in 1997. Then, there were 3.7 million households in which no one over the age of 16 had ever worked; yet, by June 2010, that had increased to some 3.9 million households. Astonishingly, some 1.4 million people have been on out-of-work benefit for nine or more of the past 10 years. As Lord Hutton, Labour’s former pensions minister, pointed out:
“Nine out of 10 people who come on to incapacity benefit expect to get back into work, but if people have been on incapacity benefit for more than two years, they are more likely to retire or to die than ever to get another job.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 24 January 2006; Vol 441, c 1305.]
Reform is needed. The fact that that reform is taking place in the financial circumstances of the day was not planned by the coalition Government; it is an unenviable inheritance from the previous Labour Administration. I am proud of both the courage and the breadth of vision of Iain Duncan Smith who, far from paying lip service to the objective of welfare reform, is bringing about a simplification of the system, through universal credit and personal independence payments, that I believe will transform the lives of millions of people for the better. On the evidence of the pilot, some 660,000 people who currently receive the disability living allowance will return to work and to all the dignity and human reward that that brings. The alternative to that is the hollow, blank canvas of lurid rhetoric that we hear from the SNP and Labour, which they offer, moreover, in the face of a public who well understand that benefit reform is essential and believe that it is wrong that households on out-of-work benefits receive a greater income from the state than the average household receives in wages. That is the cause that the parties opposite champion. The lurid picture, conjectured by some, of severely disabled individuals being force marched to a tribunal is the definition of recklessly indulgent political scaremongering, given that the minister has made it clear that there will be many circumstances in which face-to-face consultations will not be necessary.
The LCM is—as LCMs always are—a device to assist the Scottish Government in the implementation of legislation. To be clever with it, as the motion seeks to be, is opportunistic, frankly pointless and potentially reckless if in consequence any unforeseen delay transpires in the parallel drafting of primary legislation in this Parliament, which will occasion delays in the payment of benefits to those who need them. As UK Opposition parties beat their chests and posture, individuals will pay the cost.
Scottish Conservatives point to the detailed and sustained contact between the DWP and the Scottish Government, which the cabinet secretary characterised as co-operative on both sides and—within the terms of reference at least—productive. UK ministers have listened with care to and been impressed by the arguments on kinship carers, supported by us all in this Parliament.
The responsible course is for this Parliament to acknowledge the concerns. The reality is that real progress can be made only through the extended consultation process in which the UK Government has made clear it is prepared to participate with Scottish ministers, as details are clarified through subordinate legislation. We should agree to the LCM.
Added to this situation, the heady determination of some ostentatiously to strut their majority is a further nonsense. The call is for an unprecedented standing committee of this Parliament to be established not to scrutinise the work and responsibility of any minister here but to maintain a running narrative on legislation for which it is not responsible. That call suggests that the tried and tested committee system of the Parliament is inherently flawed and that the MSPs serving on committees charged with responsibility for the scrutiny and investigation of the issues are somehow incapable.
With unashamed conviction, we reject the Government’s motion and call for a clear and conventional passing of the LCM of which we are being invited by Westminster to dispose.
I move amendment S4M-01638.1, to leave out from “but regrets” to end and insert:
“and agrees that the relevant provisions of the Welfare Reform Bill, introduced in the House of Commons on 16 February 2011 to make provision within the legislative competence of the Parliament and to alter the executive competence of the Scottish Ministers, should be considered by the UK Parliament.”
This is the second occasion since the autumn on which I have had the opportunity to move an amendment on welfare reform. As that is an uncharacteristically high strike rate, I will start by moving the amendment in case its being selected is part of a pre-Christmas administrative glitch in the Presiding Officer’s office.
As others have done, I thank the Health and Sport Committee and others who contributed to the report. It makes for interesting reading, although I note that it stops short of making any firm recommendation on the key issue of whether consent should be withheld from the LCM. I firmly believe that to refuse such consent, even partially, would be self-defeating and will harm the interests of many people whom those who advocate such a course profess to be defending. At best it seems to be a gesture, but it is one with potentially serious consequences. As Citizens Advice Scotland makes clear,
“Rejection of the LCM may delay universal credit and passported benefits for people in Scotland” with the potential that
“Some vulnerable people could be plunged into further poverty”.—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 15 November 2011; c 548.]
The issue of passported benefits is crucial. It seems fair to assume that moving to a new regime will, in any event, take a number of years, but in the meantime the immediate concern is to ensure that a range of benefits, from legal aid and blue badges to energy assistance and healthy start vouchers, continue to be available to Scots who need them. That is certainly the view of CAS, Children 1st and others.
Interestingly, the committee felt that, by going our separate ways, a review of passported benefits could be undertaken so as to “target support appropriately”. The cabinet secretary has also suggested that she is keen to look “innovatively” at those benefits. Is that perhaps code for cuts, or does innovative and appropriate targeting mean something different in this context? Either way, the need for primary and secondary legislation will be unavoidable, which will add further delay and uncertainty.
I presume that there would also be consequences for the timing of the proposed victims rights bill—which is a conspicuous absentee from the current legislative programme—and delays to the new bill to integrate health and social care, which is a reform that Ms Sturgeon has described as “badly needed” to improve care for older people.
As I observed during the debate in October, the emotive nature of exchanges on the Welfare Reform Bill is understandable—irrespective of what Jackson Carlaw said—because of the potential impact on the most vulnerable people in our society. As, perhaps, all members do, I have concerns—for example, in relation to proposals to remove disability benefits from people who live in residential care. Like Jackie Baillie, I welcome the rethink on that and commend those who did so much to achieve it.
Similarly, Macmillan Cancer Support makes a compelling case when it highlights serious concerns about the impact that parts of the bill might have on people who are facing cancer treatment. Again, I understand that UK ministers have agreed to review the proposals, so I hope that a more sensible and proportionate solution can be found.
Other members will have other issues, I have no doubt. In a bill with the reach and significance of the one to which the LCM applies, and which seeks to introduce the most radical reform and overhaul of benefits in a generation, that is inevitable. However, if we start from the premise that radical reform is needed, it is incumbent on all of us not only to highlight where we have concerns, but to set out clearly the shape and extent of the reform that we want. In that respect, neither the Government motion nor the Labour amendment takes us forward from where we were in October.
The need for simplicity and fairness is self-evident, and the welfare system is one of bewildering complexity, which is precisely why proposals have been introduced to simplify and streamline the main welfare benefits under a universal credit—a measure that now commands widespread support. However, the notion that we can simplify without creating winners and losers is ridiculous. Anyone who believes that reform must ensure that work always pays, by removing barriers to getting people off benefits and into employment, must accept that that effect will simply become more pronounced.
I will turn to that point in a minute. As has been said, we have come through a period of pretty much uninterrupted economic growth, during which time our welfare benefits budget has ballooned. The reality is that the current system too often provides the wrong incentives. For too many people, it acts as a real obstacle to work. That is unfair to claimants, but—to answer Mike MacKenzie’s point—it is also unfair to working families on low incomes who have to pay for a system that is patently not working. Over the period during which our economy enjoyed almost uninterrupted growth, the welfare budget increased by 40 per cent in real terms. That makes no sense and shows that, although a strategy for job creation is certainly essential, it is not the whole answer.
In the UK, 5 million people are trapped on out-of-work benefits. We have one of the highest rates of workless households in Europe, and almost 2 million children live in homes in which no one has a job. The picture in Scotland is equally grim. In those circumstances, we simply cannot keep tinkering at the edges.
What are the alternative proposals that are being put forward? This week, Labour’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, promised to get tough on spending, including taking a tough approach to welfare reform. He said:
“We will be taking a tougher approach to conditionality. If people can work, they should work.”
He boldly concluded:
“we will show people how we will sort this out.”
However, sadly, he will not do that until next year—just in time, I presume, for the Welfare Reform Bill to have made its way through Parliament.
Meanwhile, the cabinet secretary denounces the proposals as “a cash grab” that will be opposed tooth and nail by the Scottish Government—hence the threats of withholding legislative consent, which has been prompted, it seems, by the SNP’s initially having been outflanked on the left by Labour. However, if reducing the welfare budget in Scotland by an estimated £2.5 billion is anathema to the SNP, can we assume that that is, in due course, to be added to the cost of independence? That seems to be the logical conclusion—although it is not one that is woven into Mr Swinney’s stump speech for the rubber-chicken circuit of business board rooms.
It is right that we continue to press for appropriate changes and safeguards beyond those that have already been given. However, as I said in October, claiming to be in favour of reform but holding the view that any cuts to any benefits or any tightening of any of the demands that are placed on recipients is automatically unfair is no longer credible. Less credible still is the threat to withhold legislative consent, which puts at risk much-needed passported benefits. I urge members, more in hope than in expectation, to support the amendment in my name.
I move amendment S4M-01638.2, to leave out from “but regrets” to end and insert:
“and believes that radical reform of the current welfare system is required; on the matter of legislative consent, agrees that the relevant provisions of the Welfare Reform Bill, introduced in the House of Commons on 16 February 2011, in respect of data sharing, Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, so far as these matters fall within the legislative competence of the Parliament or alter the executive competence of the Scottish Ministers, should be considered by the UK Parliament; further agrees that the provisions in the Bill that give the Scottish Ministers the power to make consequential, supplementary, incidental or transitional provisions, by regulations, in relation to the introduction of universal credit and personal independence payments, so far as these matters fall within the legislative competence of the Parliament or alter the executive competence of the Scottish Ministers, should be considered by the UK Parliament; considers that this consent is necessary in order to give security to those individuals in receipt of passported benefits in Scotland, and urges the Scottish Government to work constructively with the UK Government on planning ahead for the implementation of the proposed changes.”
Before I deal with the committee’s response, I should do the political broadcast and say that I appreciate the opportunity to record our thanks to the people who participated in the work of the committee.
I am delighted that Labour, in the Westminster Parliament and the House of Lords, is taking the Government to task by highlighting the unfairness of the proposals and questioning their impact, which is still unclear, on many families across the country.
In my constituency, as in the cabinet secretary’s constituency, we are dealing with increasing unemployment at a time when we are threatening to use the big stick on people, including the poor. My experience is that the work ethic is strong in my constituency. In welfare reform, we are not talking about simply forcing people back into work and people chasing jobs that no longer exist. I accept that work is the best route out of poverty and that it has a higher value than does simple provision of an income, but I meet people who are in work in my constituency who are struggling with the system. Some of them have more than one job. They have part-time or temporary work and are not clear of poverty. Their children will suffer and the proposals will, of course, make their plight even more difficult.
We cannot answer questions against that backdrop of fear and apprehension. As a constituency MSP, I am unable to answer questions from kinship carers and from people who receive council tax benefit about how they will end up, and I am unable to confirm whether free school meals will continue. That is the case for all members in our constituencies.
The Health and Sport Committee began its work informally over the summer. Many of us engaged with campaigning groups outwith the Parliament and listened to their concerns, and that work progressed to the committee inquiry later in the year, the report on which we have completed. I thank everyone who participated in the process, including our clerks. We gave ourselves increased time to ensure appropriate scrutiny by the committee. Members of the committee did not always appreciate the all-day sessions, but they stuck with it and were determined to give views a hearing.
We heard evidence from the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, the Poverty Alliance, Citizens Advice Scotland, Action for Children Scotland, Children 1st, One Parent Families Scotland, Inclusion Scotland, Capability Scotland and SAMH, all of which brought us stories of fear and apprehension. It was clear that they did not know how things would work out.
Unfortunately, we were not able to get a minister from the Department for Work and Pensions, and we expressed regret about that. We believed that it was important to have a UK Government minister at the committee, but it was decided that one would not be sent, and officials were sent instead. I thought that it would have been important to the UK ministers to come to the Scottish Parliament to defend the policy and the implications that it might have for many of our most vulnerable people. It would also have been interesting to get some insight into the discussions and negotiations that were taking place between the Scottish Government and the UK Government, but we were unable to get that.
Much of what we concluded has been put on the record today. We concluded that
“the legislative consent memorandum did not contain a draft motion, but rather set out in detail the five areas of the Bill, as it stands now, which would require consent from the Scottish Parliament.”
We said that the committee was clear—as, I am sure, Parliament is—
“that voting against a motion which seeks legislative consent for the provisions of the Bill which fall within the competence of the Scottish Parliament would not prevent the Welfare Reform Bill from completing its passage at Westminster and receiving Royal Assent.”
The committee considered that
“in respect of the provisions regarding data sharing and industrial injuries disablement benefit there is little controversy and consent should be given.
However, the Committee has heard from witnesses many strong criticisms”— how could we ignore them?—
“about the changes … proposed in the Welfare Reform Bill. These legitimate concerns centre on the proposals for Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments. The Committee acknowledges that many of these concerns arise from a lack of detailed information but, nevertheless, believes that they cannot simply be ignored. It is appropriate for the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise these changes, particularly where they will impact directly on areas of devolved policy.
The Committee notes that an alternative to giving consent in relation to Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments would be for the Scottish Government to introduce a Bill to the Scottish Parliament. The Committee considers that this approach may be preferable as it would allow the Scottish Parliament time to consider more fully the implications of the forthcoming welfare reforms and the appropriate Scottish policy response to them. However, the Committee is uncertain whether”— and, obviously, it looks for reassurance that—
“such a Scottish Bill could be drafted, scrutinised and passed by the Parliament in sufficient time to ensure that the Scottish statute book reflects the changes introduced by the Welfare Reform Bill prior to their implementation. The Committee therefore invites the Scottish Government to consider whether this is a practical alternative to allowing the UK Parliament to legislate on behalf of Scotland in these areas and to report its view to the Parliament.”
We accept that that is unprecedented. It is the first time that a committee has recommended that course of action and we did not take that decision lightly. We reached that conclusion after a lot of consideration and really serious and impressive evidence.
I commend the report to Parliament.
I will follow on from the comments of the committee convener, Duncan McNeil. As the deputy convener of the Health and Sport Committee, I was privileged to take evidence from the voluntary sector organisations that represent many vulnerable citizens who will be affected by the UK welfare reforms. Whether they were representatives of single parents, of disabled people or of people who rely on social housing, they spoke passionately about the people whom they represent, and knowledgeably about the damaging impact of the proposed reforms to Scotland.
I want to find ways of supporting individuals back into employment and I want to identify anyone who unreasonably refuses an employment opportunity that is open to them and which would be affordable and of benefit to them. I want to ensure that the complicated web of welfare and benefits support that is given to individuals, whether they are in or out of work, is simplified. The same is true for the organisations that represent disabled people and other vulnerable groups. On that basis, the concepts of a universal credit and personal independence payments could have been welcomed. However, the reality of the proposed reforms bears no relation to those aims and objectives, which is why Parliament must reject them.
The UK Government seeks to use welfare reform as a crude attempt to reduce the UK budget deficit at the expense of some of the most vulnerable groups in Scottish society. To mask savage cuts to the benefits of our most vulnerable citizens as an attempt to support people back into employment is fundamentally wrong. Both the UK coalition partners—the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats—should be ashamed of themselves.
It is equally unacceptable that we, Scotland’s Parliament, do not have the powers over welfare and benefits that would allow us to prevent such damaging Westminster reforms from sweeping across Scotland. However, I will move away from the constitutional element of the debate. I have spoken to many of those who will be affected and know that they want the parties in Scotland to work together to do all that they can to prevent such harmful UK reforms, so I am pleased that SNP and Labour members are in agreement that the UK welfare reforms are not fit for purpose. That is the message that Scotland’s national Parliament sends this morning. The overwhelming majority of Scotland’s democratically elected politicians will reject these damaging welfare and benefit cuts. Either the UK Government must listen to that voice or Scotland must be able to decide on welfare and benefits for itself.
I will look at the details of how the proposal to move from disability living allowance to personal independence payments, which will begin in 2013, will impact on Scotland. When a change in the payments system is proposed, it is reasonable to ask what its purpose is. Is it a change in name only, from DLA to PIP, or does it have substance? If we scratch beneath the surface, we find out that everybody of working age who receives DLA must be reassessed from 2013 onwards.
The UK Government has set a target of reducing the benefits bill by 20 per cent. The UK Government expects the bill to reduce by that amount as people who receive DLA are reassessed and moved on to personal independence payments. If assessments are conducted sensitively and appropriately, they can be fine. However, the UK Government is, in effect, saying that at least one in five disabled people of working age in Scotland will be impacted negatively by the reforms. That means that 230,000 of the most vulnerable people in Scotland are in the UK Tory firing line and might experience a damaging impact from the cuts.
The Tories and the Lib Dems have shown their hand, and the result will be a 20 per cent cut. They have predetermined the results of reassessment of people who receive DLA, and have undermined any credibility in the process at any point.
I would like to give way, but I cannot because of time constraints.
The UK Government has form; we see alarming trends in appeals against detrimental decisions after employment and support allowance assessments for those who received incapacity benefit. The UK Government accepts as being accurate a 9 per cent initial assessment overturn rate—that means that money is returned to 9 per cent of those who have lost it. If we scratch below the surface of that, we find out that 40 per cent of people who appeal and turn up in person for their appeal win their appeal. If someone turns up at an appeal with a person from a citizens advice bureau, that figure rises to 70 per cent. Seven in 10 people are wrongly assessed, have decisions overturned on appeal and get their money back.
The UK Government should work on improving the deeply flawed assessment process for employment and support allowance rather than terrify an additional 230,000 disabled Scots in our nation. That is unacceptable.
The Welfare Reform Bill is not fit for purpose. I wish that when Parliament votes down the elements that relate to universal credit and benefits reform, it would kill the bill stone dead, but we in this place do not have the powers for that—although we should have.
I believe that the welfare system should be based on four pillars: respect for human rights, dignity, compassion and trust. I have studied the details of the Welfare Reform Bill and read the policy memorandums and briefings from the charitable and voluntary sectors. I am sure that my fellow members have done likewise.
The more I read about the bill and the more I consider its implications, the more convinced I become that it represents a huge backwards step for British society. I am alarmed and dismayed at the impact that it will have on the ill, the disabled and those who receive social housing benefit.
Back when he was peddling his detoxification agenda, David Cameron claimed that the Tories were committed to creating a compassionate society. When the financial crisis struck, he said:
“We are all in this together”.
As Jackie Baillie said, we may all be in it, but as the coalition Government has since made clear, some are more in it than others.
David Cameron tells us that 2012 will be the harshest year yet. There will be deep public expenditure cuts, an attack on pensions and a freeze on pay in the public and private sectors. The coalition Government tells us that we are broke and that there is no alternative to cutting benefits for the sick, the disabled and those who are in low-cost social housing. Such individuals will not be given a choice; there will be no leeway for negotiating comfy deals and cosy settlements.
The Tory-led coalition, in outlining its plans to replace the disability living allowance with the personal independence payment, talks of creating a welfare system that is affordable and sustainable. It may be affordable and sustainable for the coalition, but it will not be for the many disabled people who will be plunged into poverty because of the Government’s determination—as Bob Doris has just said—to cut disability living allowance by 20 per cent.
Across the welfare state, those new checks and balances will operate as a process of exclusion. The 20 per cent cut to disability living allowance will not be achieved without a significant cut in claimants. Given that there are already more disabled people in the UK than are currently claiming benefits, that is very worrying indeed.
The Government hopes to save £1.45 billion of annual disability living allowance expenditure by 2014-15. To put that figure in context, the Scottish campaign on welfare reform states:
“annual expenditure on all those currently in receipt of lowest rate care ... is approximately £900m.”
In order to reach the target figure, all those people would have to lose their care, along with a significant number of those on higher rates.
Tellingly, the personal independence payment makes no allowance for those who are currently on the lower rate of care. In Scotland, it has been estimated that in order to reduce disability living allowance by 20 per cent, one fifth of the current 340,510 claimants will lose their entitlement in its entirety. That is 68,000 people, which amounts to a combined annual loss of benefits of £260 million.
Moreover, if the new assessment tests are restricted to those of working age, a staggering one in three disabled people aged between 16 and 65 will lose all his or her current entitlement. I listened carefully to what Liam McArthur said about the work assessments, and what went through my head was that there are cancer patients receiving treatment at this very moment who are going through work assessments. How can that be justified? There is no justification for it.
Professor Harrington is currently reviewing cancer patients’ payments; his review is either with the Government now or is due in the next week. That is being looked at, along with many other changes.
I understand that there is a review, but the measure should not have been there in the first place.
It is not a case of simply weeding out the tiny minority who are making fraudulent claims—a figure that is estimated, despite the Government’s pernicious rhetoric, at just 1 per cent. The decision as to who receives the payment will be based on money and not merit.
Last night, I was proud to lead a members’ debate on UK disability history month. I spoke about the theme for this year’s month, which is celebrating our struggle for equality. The struggle for equality continues, but it is shameful that the struggle is now with our own UK Government.
I am pleased to note that the coalition Government has seen sense in at least one area. On 1 December, Maria Miller, the UK Minister for Disabled People, announced that proposals to remove disability benefits from those who are living in residential care have been scrapped. However, although I welcome that concession, which would have led to 80,000 disabled people losing between £20 and £50 per week, it does not go nearly far enough.
Under the bill, the community care grant will be devolved to Scotland. The housing charity Barnardo’s has identified a number of issues with the way in which the grant is currently being administered. In its current form, the grant is a crisis loan that helps vulnerable people with the costs of independent living by providing additional funding for a range of household amenities.
During the housing debate in October, I asked the Government to commit to restructuring the care grant by ensuring that the application process is made fairer and more transparent, and that it is applied consistently throughout Scotland in order to avoid a postcode lottery. I also asked the Government to guarantee that applicants will be given help with the forms in order to ensure that they are not unnecessarily rejected, and that the awards that are allocated will be sufficient to allow recipients to furnish their homes properly. Alex Neil, the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, promised to look seriously at those suggestions to see whether the Government could take them forward. I appreciated the cabinet secretary’s willingness to engage on the issue, and would be extremely grateful if an update could be provided.
On Monday, I visited a school in my area. On the wall in the reception area, the school’s philosophy is displayed for all to see. It says:
“Values are not just words; values are what we live by. They are about the causes we champion and the people we fight for.”
Those are the words of Senator John Kerry. We in Scottish Labour live by the values of fairness and equality; we champion social justice, and fight for the rights of the vulnerable and disenfranchised. The bill constitutes a vicious and unprecedented attack on the welfare state, and we on this side of the chamber cannot and will not accept that.
I support a welfare system that is simpler, makes work pay, and lifts people out of poverty. I do not support a system that undermines the principle of taking care of people by using modernisation of the welfare system to cut their benefits in order to save money and—dare I say it?—to reduce the massive deficit that was caused by successive London Governments. Those damaging cuts to benefits and services will impact on some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland. The changes will take money from the poorest individuals and families, including lone parents, kinship carers, and young people who have left the care system.
Lone parents will be required to enter the workforce when their youngest child starts school. It will be interesting to see where they will find jobs. They will face having their benefits withdrawn if they refuse the childcare arrangements that are offered, even if they are unsatisfactory, inconvenient or costly.
In Scotland, £2.5 billion will be cut from the benefits system: the money will be taken out of the pockets of benefits claimants in Scotland. That figure has been confirmed by the DWP. Apart from the effect that they will have on claimants, the cuts will have a drastic effect on Scottish business. The introduction of the proposed legislation could reduce the Scottish Parliament’s ability to deliver key policies such as the early years framework and the child poverty strategy.
Since the days of Mrs Thatcher, each Tory Government—now aided by their Liberal partners—has attacked people who live on benefits. Do they class them all as scroungers? They are not scroungers. Remember what Norman Tebbit, Tory minister in the 1980s, said about getting on your bike and looking for work? Many people on benefits are looking for work by sending endless CVs to employers who do not respond, or by going along to jobcentres that do not have many jobs on offer. I know of one person who has sent out more than 400 job applications and has received very few replies.
Do people who live on benefits get a fortune? No, they do not. Jobseekers allowance is £53.45 and the single person’s allowance is £67.50 per week. Married couples get £105.95 per week, and a lone parent gets between £53.45 and £67.50 per week. Many of my constituents just survive from one giro to the next and how they do it is beyond me. Any reduction in their income will press them further into poverty. We should be helping people and not oppressing them.
Could Mr Cameron or any of his ministers live on those payments? I do not think so. I remember watching some years ago a television programme that asked members of Parliament to live on benefits for a week. My goodness, but they were very glad to return to their lifestyles at the end of that week. They could not survive on the money that they were getting.
Another reduction that the UK Government is considering is a reduction in housing benefit for people who live in houses that have more bedrooms than they need. The UK Government suggests that people should move to smaller houses. Several agencies have pointed out that that could be practically impossible. Citizens Advice Scotland said
“we are concerned about under-occupation proposals due to its impact on people and services and a lack of suitable one-bedroom properties”.
Most people have brought up their families in bigger houses. Like many other members, I have elderly and disabled constituents who live in three, four or five-apartment houses on their own. Will they now be forced out or penalised because they want to live their lives in their favourite surroundings? Many elderly people have had disability adaptations made to their houses to meet their needs, and many councils have spent millions of pounds on implementing care in the community. Will we now be asking people to move? How crazy is that?
I want a fair society. I want to aid people who are less fortunate than I am. The UK Government says that it needs to improve the benefits system, but it should not reduce the benefits on which people just survive.
I am sure that my Labour colleagues will just bring up the usual ways of deficit reduction, and I will then suggest other ways to reduce the deficit that they caused, but that is for another debate.
I will support the SNP Government’s motion, which seeks to defend the rights of the people of Scotland, and I will support the suggestion to set up an ad hoc welfare committee that should meet for the duration of the current parliamentary session to continue to examine this terrible bill. All benefits claimants need and expect our support during this, their hour of despair, and we cannot let them down.
I am pleased to have been called to speak in this important debate on the legislative consent motion on the UK Welfare Reform Bill. As the cabinet secretary made clear, the SNP Scottish Government welcomes welfare reform that leads to simplification, but only simplification through which work is made to pay and people are lifted out of poverty. The Scottish Government does not—and the Parliament should not—support simplification that is achieved by cutting support for vulnerable people while placing many additional pressures on devolved services, which we have heard about from several members.
Consequently, the Parliament must reflect carefully on the impact of the UK Welfare Reform Bill in Scotland, starting from the premise that a civilised society must have a safety net for its most vulnerable members. It is clear to anybody who has taken time to consider the UK proposals as drafted thus far that there is no safety net. The conclusion must be that we should accept the Scottish Government’s proposal that the detailed provisions that govern the universal credit and the personal independence payment should be made in Scotland by Scottish Parliament primary legislation and not by the Westminster Parliament.
We have heard that an ad hoc welfare committee is to be set up, which is a welcome development. It will exist for the duration of the current parliamentary session so that provisions can be properly examined and developed in our Parliament. By proceeding in that way, the SNP Scottish Government is sending a clear signal that the important thing is to get the legislation right for the people of Scotland, to ensure that the particular circumstances in our country are duly taken into account and, importantly, to provide assurance to the most vulnerable members of society that they will not be marginalised.
As we have heard, this is the first time in the lifetime of the Parliament that it has been proposed to withhold legislative consent to a UK bill. The fact that the move has been proposed by the SNP Government reflects the recognition of the damage that the UK bill would do to Scotland, including damage to the principles of fairness that underpin our society. Support for the SNP Government’s approach has come from various organisations, including Children in Scotland, Inclusion Scotland, Capability Scotland and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations. The fact that the Government has garnered support across the board reflects the significant concerns about the bill throughout civic Scotland.
At the same time, the Scottish Government and Parliament should continue to urge the Tory-Liberal coalition in London to listen to the concerns that have been raised and to reconsider the approach in its welfare reform agenda. I fully support the Scottish Government’s efforts in that respect, because it is clear that, for people with a disability, the proposals are a draconian cuts agenda. The Tory-Liberal coalition seems to make no bones about it and seems proud of its target to cut the current disability living allowance by 20 per cent. The proposals are all about cuts and nothing to do with fairness or improving the operation of the system.
As I said in last evening’s members’ business debate on disability history month, which was secured by Siobhan McMahon,
“in a civilised society, the payment of a benefit to assist with a disability should be seen as an entitlement and not a handout”.—[Official Report, 21 December 2011; c 4928.]
The UK bill, through the introduction of the personal independence payment, will result in spurious assessment tests being imposed. Bob Doris carefully went through the facts of the current situation and provided a devastating critique of the work capability assessment, which I must point out was introduced by the previous Labour Government in Westminster. Spurious assessment tests will be imposed, even where there has been, or could be, no change in the circumstances of the individual concerned.
Furthermore, when it comes to the carrying out of those tests, in many instances, the services of the general practitioner or the specialist of the person concerned will be dispensed with. The fact that the Tory-Liberal coalition in London seems to be deeply suspicious of those professionals sits ill with the remarkable service that they provide for our NHS day in, day out. The Tory-Liberal London Government has a naked and unabashed determination to strip disabled people of the help to which they are entitled. What an indictment of that Government and how shameful it is that we have to be associated with such an uncivilised approach. The London Government most certainly does not speak for our society or our values.
I congratulate the SNP Government on the bold move that it has suggested that we take, which signals to Scotland as a whole that we will not sit by and watch the Tory-Liberal Government in London dismantling the very principles that underpin our society. Of course, it is right to say that, with the powers that would come with independence, we in this country would have the power to set our own welfare agenda without any interference at all from the London Government. It will come as no surprise to members to hear that I very much look forward to that day.
I, too, am pleased to speak in the debate on the legislative consent motion on the Welfare Reform Bill, which covers subordinate legislation, kinship carers, housing support and how the change to the new personal independence payment will work alongside our legislation on self-directed support.
At the last count, there had been more than 70 contacts and meetings between ministers and officials from the Scottish Government and their counterparts in Westminster. One would have thought that that would have helped to ensure the passage of the LCM, thereby assisting the people affected. That level of partnership, along with the representations of the 59 members of Parliament who represent Scottish constituencies, should help to ensure that issues that are raised here and elsewhere are addressed.
Since our previous debate on the bill, it has been amended, and the bill’s third reading, which is due to take place in February, will provide another opportunity to make further amendments and changes. Since that previous debate, the UK coalition Government has amended the bill to retain the mobility component of the new PIP for care home residents, as Jackie Baillie mentioned. In addition, it has announced a review of the circumstances in which the housing element of the universal credit can be paid to landlords. That will be possible in situations in which tenants get into arrears, which I note was recommended by our Local Government and Regeneration Committee.
Alongside those changes, Professor Harrington has recommended that recognition of fluctuating conditions be taken into account, which will affect people with ME, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, mental health problems and many other conditions. That is welcome. Some of the recommendations that have been made on the Atos assessments are being implemented, while others are under review. I welcome last week’s announcement that 50 Atos jobs will be based at RAF Kinloss, and I look forward to an increase in that number.
As Liam McArthur and Siobhan McMahon mentioned, Harrington is also looking at the situation of cancer patients, proposals on which are imminent. The point that I am making is that welfare reform is not a fait accompli. We must work constructively to ensure that the necessary changes are fed into the system. If the Scottish Government was more constructive in engaging in dialogue with Westminster, the need for more changes would be recognised and addressed.
If I have time, I will come back to the member, but my time is short.
I see no need for another committee. In my humble view, this Parliament’s existing committees, the two Parliaments working in partnership and 59 MPs are more than capable of scrutinising welfare reform.
If the cabinet secretary had been listening for the past three minutes and 21 seconds she would know that I have outlined a raft of changes. I am happy to send her a letter with a full list of them.
Given that around 44 per cent of incapacity benefit claimants have a mental health problem, it is appropriate to focus on that issue in relation to the legislation. Some years ago the Scottish Government set a target for a zero per cent increase in antidepressant use. Not only was the target not achieved but it has now been dropped. I imagine that one of the reasons why it was scrapped was that, last year alone, antidepressant use increased by 8 per cent; in the past 10 years, the defined daily dose has increased by more than 60 per cent. It is little wonder that people with mental health problems are worried about being faced with a work capability assessment, given that many of them have been parked on antidepressants and left isolated for years with no review of their condition.
Instead of grandstanding on the need for new committees, constantly criticising the UK Government and carping about the legislation, it would be so much better if the Scottish Government used its energy, time and existing responsibilities to help those in need of better mental health services.
Certainly not. I do not want the member to tell us how much better things would be under independence, which seems to be all that her interventions consist of. If she is a bit more innovative in future I might take an intervention from her.
Surely the SNP would welcome the introduction over a four-year period of one benefit to replace six existing benefits. Surely we would all welcome simplification of the system, making it easier for people to get support and get back to work. Surely the SNP Government would welcome the reduction to £500 a week of the maximum housing benefit, which has reached £2,000 a week.
Following the pilots in Aberdeen and Burnley, not only did 36 per cent of people withdraw their claim when faced with the work capability assessment but 39 per cent were considered fit for work and 17 per cent were placed in a work-related activity group. The support provided is not just a tick-box exercise to get people into work. Under Labour, providers were given 53 per cent of the fee up front; now it is 5 per cent up front and support given over two years. I commend that, and I commend our amendment.
Given the ranting and hysteria that we have heard from the Tories today, I take this opportunity to bring us back to the information that we have heard from many people and organisations throughout Scotland.
We heard of the devastating effects that this UK legislation will have on some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people. The Health and Sport Committee heard that evidence first hand from witnesses who represent a wide variety of groups—our convener, Duncan McNeil, detailed them for us. From all of them, we heard that we, as MSPs in our national Scottish Parliament, have a duty—a responsibility—to all those people to ensure that they will not, in the words of Dr Pauline Nolan of Inclusion Scotland, lose the
“ability to live independently and to participate in community life.”
The logical conclusion of all the evidence that we heard is that we cannot shirk our responsibility. We cannot consent to Westminster riding roughshod over those concerns. This is about community, not the constitution.
On 5 October, this Parliament voted that we were
“otherwise minded, subject to consideration by the appropriate committees, to oppose the forthcoming legislative consent motion”.
We have now had that committee scrutiny. According to paragraphs 216 and 48 of their respective reports, the Health and Sport Committee and the Local Government and Regeneration Committee could not recommend that we give legislative consent to the bill.
The logical conclusion of rejecting the LCM is that if we are to take legislative responsibility, we need to establish an appropriate committee. That is recommended in paragraph 196 of the Health and Sport Committee’s report, paragraph 38 of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s report and paragraph 33 of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee’s report. I remind members that the committees’ recommendations followed the evidence of the witnesses that came before them—and, more than evidence, the witnesses’ pleas.
We are short of time in the debate, and I wanted to concentrate on the constitutional position, so I will conclude at this point to allow more members to talk about the effects of the bill on individuals in our society.
As a postscript, however, if any member is in any doubt about whether to support the Government’s motion, all that they have to do is consider the UK ministers’ refusal to come before the Health and Sport Committee to explain the rationale for their policy, which will lead, as a minimum, to a 20 per cent cut in spending on disability living allowance. They refused on two occasions—the opportunity for a videoconference was also refused—and I refer members to the evidence from the civil servant they sent to do their bidding. The offhand responses that the committee received did not give us faith that the Westminster Government will consider the effects of its legislation on the people of Scotland.
Let us stand up for all the people of Scotland, who are looking to us to do the right thing today.
I support the substantive points in the cabinet secretary’s motion. We should strive to create a simpler welfare system, but UK Government’s proposals would undermine the benefits system with potentially serious consequences for the most vulnerable people in our society.
I will highlight the concerns about the proposed personal independence payments, which would replace disability living allowance; the issues around work capability assessments; and the risks to the human rights of people with disabilities that will result from these scurrilous changes.
Recently, I took part in an interview with Insight Radio, which is the radio station of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and we discussed some of the issues that people with visual impairments are facing. The RNIB estimates that 85 per cent of those who are registered blind or partially sighted—nearly 60,000 people—receive DLA. Under the proposed arrangements, people who have been blind since birth will be forced to undergo upsetting reassessment and transfer to PIPs. The assessments often overlook individuals’ real needs and reduce complex care needs to a series of boxes to be ticked. Rather than understanding people’s needs, they often miss the true nature of individuals’ conditions and needs, underestimate the physical and emotional support that is required and trivialise important tasks such as people being able to dress themselves or make their way to the shops.
ACT NOW, the autism campaign group, has also raised with me serious concerns about the assessments, which are putting adults with autism under huge stress and anxiety. The group raises the very real concern that, although on paper an individual might be able to complete a simple task such as making a cup of tea at home, in reality, they might find that extremely difficult or impossible, and they certainly could not transfer that skill to the workplace. For an individual with autism, being able to understand the process and what is being asked is paramount, but the evidence that we have seen so far suggests that the employment and support allowance assessments do not fulfil that requirement.
Several of my constituents who are service users at Capability Scotland’s Windmill Gardens in Carluke wrote to me last week and outlined in great detail their concerns about the change from DLA to PIPs. Far from increasing the independence of people with additional support needs, the reforms will curtail their freedom and their ability to lead active lives in our society. One of the residents of Windmill Gardens said to me:
“I already have to monitor my finances closely as money is already tight. Further cuts would make my life miserable and I would become a prisoner in my own home.”
Under the reforms, one service user, Anne, who is in the public gallery today, and thousands of others like her, will lose the basic support that they require and the few recreational activities that they enjoy. Capability Scotland said that there is a risk that the reforms will
“turn the home into a prison”.
However, the concerns go much further. There might be a case for saying that the reforms breach human rights. Capability Scotland and Margaret Blackwood Housing Association commissioned research from the University of Strathclyde, which concluded that many care home residents would be unable to carry out certain activities, in violation of their human rights. For example, many residents would not be able to visit family and friends, attend college and educational activities or attend worship and other religious activities. Such activities will be severely restricted if the reforms go ahead.
The pleas from Capability Scotland, the RNIB, Inclusion Scotland and autism campaigners demonstrate loudly and clearly the devastating impact that the reforms will have on the most vulnerable in our communities. Jackson Carlaw has done nothing to reassure my constituents. It seems that the changes are being introduced out of a desire not to make the benefits system better but to cut £2.5 billion from the Scottish benefits bill.
When simplification leads to “winners and losers”, as Liam McArthur put it, there is a moral imperative to protect the vulnerable. The changes will mean that people become prisoners in their own homes and lose the vital support that they need to enable them to function as full members of society. I urge the Parliament to oppose the changes. For those reasons, I support the amendment in Jackie Baillie’s name.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. I am a member of Aberdeen City Council, which will come up in my speech.
“It is critical that before they vote on a legislative consent motion all parties take the time to consider the bill’s impacts very carefully and think about whether we want such impacts in Scotland.”—[Official Report, Scotland Bill Committee, 4 October 2011; c 330.]
Citizens Advice Scotland wrote:
“CAS firmly believes that although this is a Westminster bill covering a reserved area, its impact on the people, services and economy of Scotland as well as the current devolution settlement, means the Scottish Parliament must scrutinise its proposals and assess its probable impact”.
Those comments lead me to talk about the ad hoc committee, about which there has been some debate. It is vital that the committee is put in place. I heard the evidence that was given to the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, of which I am deputy convener, and I read the evidence that was given to the Health and Sport Committee and the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, and it is clear that lots of folk out there do not know what is about to hit. We need to ensure that we scrutinise the awful Welfare Reform Bill every step of the way.
Mary Scanlon said that there had been numerous meetings between the Scottish Government and Westminster about the issues. Numerous meetings do not always lead to answers and conclusions, in any way, shape or form, as the evidence that the Local Government and Regeneration Committee took from COSLA clearly showed. There might have been numerous meetings, but they have provided no answers and a huge amount is still up in the air.
At a very early stage, Aberdeen City Council instructed officers to investigate the impact that the proposed reforms would have in Aberdeen city. No one could even guesstimate the impact on the council and the economy, because the information is sadly lacking.
We could take all day to talk about particular issues and look at the higher levels of the debate, but let me turn to individuals. Mrs Scanlon mentioned the pilot on assessment in Aberdeen. If that is how assessment is going to be carried out throughout the country, I have grave concerns. I will give members an example. A woman attended my surgery recently whose claim had been rejected. What troubled me was that the assessment was of a secondary condition and not the main condition—the condition that would have prevented her from working. If that is the kind of nonsense that will occur throughout the country and pass for assessment, I am sorry but that is not good enough, and nor is putting people through that sort of torture.
Many members have hit the nail on the head: the welfare reforms are about reducing the budget by £2.5 billion. They are not about the proper prior assessment of the impacts of that reduction. They are about Tory, and now Liberal Democrat, dogma.
I do not think that the reforms will lead to deficit reduction; in fact, I think that they will lead to deficit expansion as folk become more and more reliant on services when they reach crisis point. Whether members agree that there will be deficit reduction or, as I believe, deficit expansion, I think that most of us in the chamber agree that if the Government’s proposals are pushed through, they will lead to massive devastation in people’s lives in this country. In my opinion, that is unacceptable.
I apologise for missing a few speeches this morning, although I heard all the opening speeches. I had an important meeting with representatives of Unite and the GMB, together with legal representatives, regarding another devastating impact that disabled people will face as a consequence of the Liberal Democrat-Tory coalition Government; I refer to the destruction of supported businesses such as Remploy, in which 5,400 UK jobs are to be axed, with the closure of 54 factories. That is a consequence of the Sayce report, the author of which claims that she wants to be helpful to disabled people. No one can miss the contradiction in seeking to move disabled people from benefits into jobs and training when the factories that would give them much-needed training and support are those that the Tories plan to close.
The Scottish Government is making some progress, but I regret to say that it is just too slow and too little, and it may be too late. Jim Mather promised a great deal to us before he retired from the Parliament. I hope that all SNP members will plead with their ministers to make an impact in this area, because they can make a difference.
How will the welfare changes impact on my constituents in Cowdenbeath? Professor Steve Fothergill and Christina Beatty produced an excellent report called “Incapacity Benefit Reform”, which gives figures for across Scotland. In Fife, which is where my Cowdenbeath constituency is, 7,700 people will be removed from claiming incapacity benefits and 4,300 will be removed from benefits generally, which is very worrying. I have the figures for all other constituencies, if any member wants them.
I support the amendment in the name of Jackie Baillie. As members may be aware, I chair the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on industrial communities. At a recent meeting, Professor Fothergill likened the welfare changes to a Scottish tsunami in waiting, because of the forces that will be unleashed on claimants.
The impact will be felt most greatly in Wales, the north-east and Scotland. The areas from which coalition politicians are elected will scarcely notice the difference, because so few of their constituents will be affected. The coalition Government is therefore presiding over a national welfare reform that will impact principally on individuals and communities outside its political heartlands.
The benefits system has masked the real unemployment figures for decades. Murdo Fraser and Jackson Carlaw would do well to recognise that, by making these changes, they will move from having one problem to having massive unemployment figures, because the jobs that they think disabled people can move into simply do not exist. Anyone faces a real challenge in this day and age in being able to get a job, let alone disabled people. Disabled people have the principal problem.
The Labour Government led many reforms in that time, as was highlighted by Jackie Baillie. We spearheaded those reforms in a caring and compassionate way, at a speed and a pace that were manageable for the people of this country, not in the callous and utterly disregarding way in which the member’s Government is doing it, with its coalition partners. It is to be lamented that the coalition is so uncaring. It just does not care about disabled people; it would rather see them out on the streets destitute and impoverished than do something that really matters to our people.
I want to focus principally on one submission that we have received. We have had many very helpful submissions, but the one from SAMH on human rights and welfare reform was of particular concern to me. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which published a critical report with various recommendations and key concerns, expressed disappointment at the UK Government’s
The committee was extremely concerned about the lack of regulatory detail provided by the UK Government; that point has already been made by the Scottish Government, MSP colleagues and the voluntary sector in Scotland. Its report stated:
“The degree of risk to human rights standards posed by the operation of changes to the welfare systems will depend to a considerable extent upon the detail of how a particular scheme is administered. The traditional approach to welfare reform—which focuses on a framework in primary legislation accompanied by multiple regulation-making powers—can undermine parliamentary scrutiny ... Human rights scrutiny is made more difficult if the Bill is not accompanied by draft regulations, clear statements on the policy intention of the Government, and high quality impact assessments.”
For many reasons that it sets out in its report, the committee was very concerned that the proposals
“could lead to a risk of incompatibility with Convention rights.”
The committee reiterated its previous recommendation on what should happen when the Government’s view on compatibility relies on safeguards to be provided in secondary legislation.
I hope that the Government, Jackson Carlaw, Murdo Fraser and their colleagues will read carefully the submissions that we have received from civic Scotland. They are very worthy of detailed scrutiny. There is far too much information in them to give to members this morning, but they demand our support and demand that we pay careful attention to what they have said.
I welcome today’s debate. It would have been very wrong, no matter the course that we take at decision time, if the legislative consent motion had gone through on the nod. Given that these matters affect many of the people whom we represent, it is absolutely right that we are having this debate.
As the deputy convener of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, I was very pleased to be able to take evidence as the secondary committee on the matter. I do not feel that we necessarily had enough time to do that, and on that basis it is right that an ad hoc committee is being established—I may turn to that later, if I have time.
I was glad that the committee was able to take evidence, and its position can be summarised as follows. Although we accept that reform of the welfare system is necessary, the reforms that are being proposed—on which little information has been provided—are wrong. It is rather like the debate that we had on public pensions reform a few weeks ago, in that the issue is being driven by the UK Government’s determination for deficit reduction—Kevin Stewart was right to make that point—rather than reform of the welfare system.
This is the first time that the Scottish Parliament has potentially withheld its legislative consent. Surprise has been expressed about that, and I recently heard Jackson Carlaw on television expressing disappointment at that. However, we should probably be more surprised that, in the 12-year history of the Scottish Parliament, this is the first time that we have withheld our consent. All those who have talked about fights being sought by the SNP Government with Westminster should reflect on the fact that this is the first time that this legislature has potentially withheld its legislative consent—and only partially at that.
We have heard Conservative members say that this is a reserved matter. However, given that we are being asked to provide legislative consent, it is not entirely a reserved matter. In that regard, it is entirely correct that we consider whether we want to provide our consent.
This is an important issue, as can be judged by the volume of correspondence that we have received from the campaigning organisations. In my four and a half years as a member of the Parliament, I cannot remember ever having received such a volume of correspondence from such organisations. Broadly, the Scottish Government’s position has been welcomed and backed by a number of organisations. Capability Scotland states in its briefing:
“We firmly support the approach outlined in the Legislative Consent Motion”.
Inclusion Scotland says that it is
“supportive of the Scottish Government’s position of giving only partial consent to this Bill.”
Children in Scotland says that it supports the text of the legislative consent motion. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations states that it welcomes the Health and Sport Committee’s recommendation, which has been backed by the Government,
“that Scotland introduces its own legislation relating to Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments.”
Shelter Scotland states clearly:
“We support the creation of an ad hoc committee of the Scottish Parliament which would continue to scrutinise ongoing welfare reform and review measures in Scotland to mitigate the impact of the cuts.”
That is clear evidence, from organisations at the coalface that are working with the people who will be affected by the legislation, that the direction that is being pursued by Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government is the correct one. It is incumbent on Jackson Carlaw, Mary Scanlon and Liam McArthur to explain why those organisations are wrong. Frankly, they have failed to do so in the debate today.
I do not want to focus on procedural matters, but I turn briefly to the creation of an ad hoc committee. Bob Doris was absolutely correct in saying that the message that we send out from the Parliament today should be about our opposition to the direction of travel that is being pursued by the UK Government. It is important that we talk about the ad hoc committee that we hope will be created when we agree to the motion tonight. Jackie Baillie set out her concerns about the creation of an ad hoc committee, but I think that it is the correct thing to do. The Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee was pleased to take evidence on the Welfare Reform Bill, but, given the volume of work that comes our way, frankly, we did not have the time—
It is probably a good thing that Mr Carlaw is no longer on the committee if that is his attitude to it. I was rather hoping for a better intervention.
It is right that we will have a dedicated committee to look at the bill in greater detail. I look forward to the committee’s work and consideration of the impact of welfare reform. However, I look forward more to the day when this legislature does not have to give its legislative consent to Westminster and we can take such decisions for ourselves—Mr Carlaw included.
We have heard many fine contributions from members and compelling reasons why we must continue to persuade the UK Government to reconsider its Welfare Reform Bill.
We have heard from everyone that the bill is purely about cost cutting. However, although I appreciate the consensual approach from Labour this morning, I must point out that it started the welfare reform cuts. Labour’s manifesto in 2010 talked about extending the
“use of our tough-but-fair work capability test” to save
“£1.5 billion over the next four years”.
We must remember that Labour started it, but I am glad that its members in this chamber appear to have changed their minds.
We have heard about the mountains of evidence presented to the committees of this Parliament from a huge number of Scottish national organisations, which Duncan McNeil referred to. Every last one of those organisations confirmed just how devastating the consequences will be for the most vulnerable people in our communities. Those organisations are at the coalface of Scottish society, and their evidence is based on real experiences of real people on a day-to-day basis. We cannot ignore their evidence. They are telling us that the UK welfare reform proposals will increase personal debt, unemployment, homelessness, discrimination and poverty.
We have heard about the additional pressure on advice services. They are already struggling, but the evidence tells us that their advice will be needed more than ever before if the proposals go ahead. Advice centres will need to be funded to provide those services, which is another burden on the Scottish Government.
Although welfare reform is a reserved matter, the cabinet secretary has outlined just how much it will impact on the matters that are the responsibility of this Scottish Parliament and the resulting effect on our local authorities in meeting their statutory obligations and homelessness targets.
I want to talk about homelessness. A few members have mentioned it, but I do not think that we should underestimate the risk of increased homelessness. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations estimates that more than 60,000 tenants will be affected by the rule on so-called overoccupancy. Many will simply be unable to pay the difference between the actual rent and the benefit that they receive, forcing them into homelessness as rent arrears accrue and local authorities do not have the accommodation to take them in.
Rent arrears in the social rented sector are likely to increase because, it is proposed, the payments will be made directly to the claimant as part of the universal credit and not to the landlord as happens at present. That is trying to fix something that is not broken. It is not necessary: the current system works. Has no one in London asked how people living in social housing want or need their housing benefit to be paid? The change will affect people who already have to juggle a limited income among items of essential expenditure; people who have no extra money and often have to make immediate but impossible decisions; and people who sometimes have to decide between a pair of children’s shoes and a power card—and, now, their rent.
Incidentally, many people living on low income prefer using power cards—even though they cost more—because they can buy the card on the day they collect their benefit or wages and it is one less thing for them to worry about. It is a form of budgeting, as is the payment of rent direct to the landlord. It is a disgrace that fuel suppliers get away with charging more to vulnerable people who are trying their hardest to budget and keep out of debt, but it is also a disgrace that the UK Government, by paying housing benefit as part of the universal credit, will push people into debt and homelessness, putting more pressure on our local authorities and advice services.
Has the UK Government thought about the practicalities that are involved and how many people will have access to a method by which they can pay their rent? How many people have a basic post office account or a basic, cash-only bank account, with no facility for direct debits or standing orders? For many people on benefits and people who have experienced financial problems, that kind of account is a vital budgeting tool. Those people have taken responsibility for keeping themselves out of debt and they should not be forced to take a different route, which could leave them in financial difficulties. As we all know, few people live next door to the rent office and are able simply to walk in and pay their rent.
It is clear, from what we have heard today, that the matter of welfare reform requires continued analysis and scrutiny to assess the impact on our citizens and services. That is why I support the establishment of an ad hoc welfare and benefits committee for the duration of this session. I think that we should listen to the voluntary organisations that have asked for that.
I welcome the Government’s stance on legislative consent.
Paragraph 21 of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee’s submission to the Health and Sport Committee says that the committee is of the view that the current system of direct payment of housing benefit to social landlords should be retained. Does the member disagree with the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee?
I am not disagreeing with that committee; I am saying that there should be choice, but there is no choice under the proposals from Westminster. Social rented housing benefit will be paid under the universal credit, and that will increase rent arrears.
I return to what I was saying.
Westminster needs to know that, if it introduces legislation without proper consideration of how it will affect issues that are the responsibility of this Parliament, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament will take a stand and will not simply rubber stamp UK legislation. I support the motion.
I agree with Jamie Hepburn about the value of this morning’s debate. I probably owe Kevin Stewart a debt of gratitude, as I should have declared an interest at the outset. I am a board member of the Hearts and Balls Charitable Trust, which works with people who have suffered severe injury as a result of sporting accident.
I concur with Nicola Sturgeon’s reference to the powerful personal stories that resonate around this debate. My brother was left quadriplegic as a result of a rugby accident in the mid-1990s. I know from my discussions with him that the proposals raise a great deal of concern because of the uncertainty and so on. Nevertheless, that is not an argument for ducking an issue that, as a number of members have mentioned, has been around for a while and has been promoted by successive UK Administrations and now, unfortunately, has to be addressed in times that are less propitious than they were 10 or so years ago.
The debate has involved passionate speeches from members across the chamber, inspired by personal experience and the evidence that has been received by the various committees that took evidence. I take exception to Helen Eadie’s suggestion that the issue is geographically confined. There is no doubt that the issue is raising concern and debate across the country, including in my constituency.
I do not have time. I might let Mrs Eadie in at the end, if I can.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the concerns that have been expressed—as I say, I share some of them. However, in the absence of practical, credible alternatives to what is being proposed, I cannot escape the feeling that there is a little too much political posturing in all this.
The outcome of this evening’s vote is in no doubt, but the consequence of the votes of the SNP and Labour members will be to throw into uncertainty much-needed passported benefits such as free school meals, legal aid, energy assistance and blue badges for the many thousands of people in Scotland who rely on them.
The need for reform in some shape or form has been acknowledged in every speech without exception. Duncan McNeil set a very good tone at the outset, and I acknowledge the commitment that he has shown over many years to the issues that we have discussed, not least in his current role as the convener of the Health and Sport Committee. However, he recognises that work is the best way out of poverty; it is not just about making the system simpler.
Bob Doris started his speech with a number of demands of any reform programme. I certainly could not take exception to any of those demands. A similar sentiment was expressed by Annabelle Ewing, Richard Lyle and other members, who emphasised the need for greater simplicity. However, there seemed to be an underlying assumption that the process of simplification is pain free, or that making work pay can be brought about through reform that will not result in the removal or reduction of benefits that many people receive. I fully accept that reform needs to happen against the backdrop of proper safety nets, but it is nonsensical to suggest that the option is somehow pain free.
I appreciate that serious and detailed concerns remain in the debate and as a result of the work of the three committees that have been involved in the process, and I would argue that more changes are needed. Mary Scanlon, Siobhan McMahon and the cabinet secretary at the outset have pointed to welcome changes that have already been made, whether in relation to mobility allowances, housing benefits or the Harrington recommendations. To respond to a point that Siobhan McMahon made, perhaps it is unrealistic to think that amendments will not be tabled to a bill of such a size. I cannot think of any such bill in respect of which that has been the case.
Passions will run high on the issue. Jamie Hepburn is absolutely right—I have said that twice in one speech; perhaps that is a record, or it may be something to do with Christmas. The volume of briefings and correspondence on the issue is testimony to the extent to which people feel passionately about it. However, Jamie Hepburn may need to explain why he believes that Citizens Advice Scotland, Children 1st and the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland are all wrong on the approach that they advocate to this evening’s vote.
It is not good enough for someone to say that they are in favour of reform without setting out its details. Murdo Fraser was correct. The issue was largely ducked in the good times while the welfare budget ballooned.
I do not agree with Jackson Carlaw that the Scottish Government has no right to meddle—he used words to that effect. Engagement is needed. That is not to say that every point on every issue will be conceded, but the Government has an unavoidable responsibility to set out the details of the reform that it wishes to see, particularly for those who are demanding more or absolute control over the issues.
We need to create a welfare system that is simple to understand, lifts people out of poverty, makes work pay and always includes a proper and effective safety net for those who need it, but we need to be realistic about all that that entails.
When winding up a debate, it is customary to say how helpful it has been and to praise all the well-informed speeches from all sides. Sadly, I cannot do that today because too many speeches have been ill-informed, superficial and even hysterical in tone. It speaks volumes that I have hardly had to refer to the detailed rebuttals of specific points that I came armed with.
SNP members’ speeches in particular seem to have focused on damning every single reform, misrepresenting their impact and repeating, like a pantomime audience chorus, that it would all be better if only we had independence. As Jackson Carlaw said, if that is the proposition, why wait? Why not put that to the people and let them decide? There is a serious issue to be debated, but the tone that people would expect for a debate on such an important issue has rarely been reached.
The irony is that all the parties that are represented in the chamber appear to agree that welfare reform is a good thing. Despite what we have heard from the Labour members, senior Labour figures such as James Purnell, Frank Field and even Tony Blair—who is sometimes even booed by a Labour audience these days, although I noticed that that did not happen this morning—have admitted that, in government, Labour failed properly to reform the welfare system. As I pointed out to Jackie Baillie earlier, James Purnell, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is on record as saying:
“Iain Duncan Smith’s universal credit, the plan to merge many current benefits into one, is a good reform.”
Jackie Baillie repeats the point that other Labour members made during the debate: “Now is not the time to do it. Reform is right. Lord, make us righteous, but not yet.”
The problem is that Labour ducked the issue for 13 years. The time to deal with reform was when we had good years of economic growth and falling unemployment. However, the Labour Party failed that test and now it lectures us about the reform that it failed to address.
Everybody thinks that welfare reform is good. The current system is inefficient, creates incentives for people not to seek work and is hugely expensive, as Liam McArthur fairly pointed out. That is why the introduction of the universal credit has been so widely welcomed. A range of means-tested benefits is being removed and replaced with the universal credit, which will streamline and simplify the benefits system. The Government has ensured that no one will experience a reduction in the benefit that they receive as a result of that introduction.
We have heard the claim that welfare reforms will cost the Scottish economy £600 million and put 14,000 jobs at risk. That seems to be based on the rather bizarre assumption that the purpose of paying benefits is to provide economic activity. It completely misses the point that benefits can be paid only out of money that comes directly from taxpayers and, therefore, is already being drawn out of the economy. Alternatively, it must be borrowed, and we are all aware of the problems that borrowing has created.
By not reforming benefits, we would add to the borrowing that future generations will have to pay back. The interest payments are themselves a burden on the economy. The Government’s reforms are aimed at helping people to get back into work and become more self-reliant, and getting people back into work must be good for the economy.
The fundamental reform that the universal credit represents is that, in future, work will always pay. No longer will we see the nonsense of people being penalised by having to give up benefits when they take up jobs. The reform will help people to take on work, particularly part-time work initially, which is surely something that all members would like to encourage.
It has also been estimated that a simpler system will mean an increased take-up of entitlements. That, it has been estimated, will lift 900,000 individuals out of poverty, including more than 350,000 children.
Members have talked about the reform of housing benefit. To be frank, those reforms are long overdue. It is astonishing that, under the current system, the maximum housing benefit award was £104,000 per year or £2,000 per week. How could anybody possibly defend that figure? Those who are on benefits should never be put in a better position than those who are working.
My apologies to Duncan McNeil.
In the run-up to the debate, there were calls for the Parliament to oppose the legislative consent motion, as if that would exercise some right of veto on the Welfare Reform Bill. Those who make such calls demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of our constitutional settlement. Welfare is reserved to Westminster, and we have MPs there—including 59 from Scotland—who are well placed to consider the details of the reforms.
The legislative consent motion makes the life of the Scottish Government easier by leaving Westminster to deal with some devolved matters that are, in the main, detailed administrative issues. Opposing the LCM will not block the Welfare Reform Bill or any of its provisions. Nor will it even send a message, as all the matters that have been raised this morning have already been raised ad nauseam at Westminster. It would be a pointless exercise in gesture politics.
We have heard a lot of grandstanding on the issue this morning. We have heard people say that although they support the principle of welfare reform, they do not support a single detailed proposal that has been made. I have no doubt that the Scottish people will quickly see through such double standards. I have pleasure in supporting the amendment in Jackson Carlaw’s name.
The debate has been important for the Scottish Parliament. As Jackie Baillie consistently made clear, not least to Murdo Fraser, Scottish Labour supported many of the aims that the UK Government first set out on welfare reform. Like the Scottish Government, Labour saw merit in simplifying the system of support that is available to those who cannot work. In government, we started to ensure that welfare supported those who could work to begin to do so. It is interesting that Jackson Carlaw and Murdo Fraser accused us of doing nothing, while Margaret Burgess accused us of doing entirely the opposite. The truth must be in there somewhere.
We hoped that the proposed changes would represent an opportunity to improve rather than threaten the welfare state but, in common with the Scottish Government, we have serious concerns about what is likely to happen because of the bill. Unfortunately, the complex package of reform as well as cuts on which the agenda is predicated undermines the objectives that coalition ministers first advocated. Despite the amendments that were made in the House of Lords and which we welcomed—particularly those on underoccupancy—our view remains that the bill will fail to incentivise work for many and will make life harder and not easier for some of the most vulnerable in our society.
When we discussed the bill in the chamber in October, we agreed that we were not minded to support an LCM, because of the bill’s many flaws, which members have again highlighted this morning, and because we wanted to provide time for the Health and Sport Committee as the lead committee to consider the implications for us. I gently remind Annabelle Ewing that that position was taken as a result of Labour’s amendment but, as it is Christmas, perhaps we will let that go.
In today’s debate, members have drawn substantially from the Health and Sport Committee’s report. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to its convener, Duncan McNeil, his clerks and all the members of the various committees involved for the detailed scrutiny that formed the basis of the Health and Sport Committee’s report. I also pay tribute to the voluntary sector organisations with an interest in the bill, which have had a huge job to do to influence us here while keeping an eye on what has happened in the House of Lords. The position that the Scottish Parliament took previously concentrated minds and gave us a useful opportunity to consider the options while the committee undertook the detailed work.
Jackie Baillie made it clear that Labour agrees with the Scottish Government on the broad response to legislative consent, as outlined in the cabinet secretary’s motion. We agree that consent can be given for data sharing and progress on other matters, and we agree that there is a need for a bill in this Parliament on other devolved aspects. Duncan McNeil spoke well and made clear the tests that we would apply in holding the Scottish Government to account and ensuring that any proposals that it came up with were appropriate and, of course, speedy.
I have listened to the argument that some in the sector and some members have made that there is a need for some form of on-going scrutiny of the impact of the changes on devolved services, passported benefits and other devolved competences. I made the point in the previous debate that Scotland has a higher proportion of claimants of every one of the benefits that will become universal credit. A fear is that the cuts element of the changes will have a detrimental impact on the Scottish economy as a whole, despite what Murdo Fraser said.
I want to make a bit of progress, although I am about to mention Jamie Hepburn.
I understand why the Scottish Government has opted for the idea of an ad hoc committee, which Jamie Hepburn and Bob Doris encouraged us to have, to examine the impact of welfare reform in Scotland. That was suggested by a majority but not all of the Health and Sport Committee’s members and was supported by some but not all of the groups that submitted evidence.
Scottish Labour believes that, in agreeing to such an ad hoc committee, the Parliament should be clear about the work that we expect it to carry out on our behalf. We do not need an alternative work and pensions committee that focuses on reserved benefits or constitutional changes and which would move responsibility for benefits around but do little to improve the lives of the people who are likely to be hardest hit by the changes. Fiona McLeod made that point very well when she said that today’s debate is not about the constitution. Our amendment is therefore intended to be constructive and helpful to ensure that the Parliament has clarity about the committee’s role, and to suggest that the model of working should be genuinely collaborative. We should ensure that we do not put the issues that are likely to arise from the Welfare Reform Bill in a silo. Rather, the committee’s work should be drawn from the experience and expertise of our existing committees and it should provide a forum for a regular check on the bill’s impact on areas in which this Parliament can direct some influence and in which the Government has some responsibility.
I say to Bob Doris, who made an excellent speech, that we accept that the Government takes a different view on who should have responsibility for our welfare state. It is the Government’s right to hold and articulate that view, as it is our right to disagree with it.
As we consider the next steps, there is a job to be done in focusing on the devolved aspects. Alternative proposals for a way forward must be introduced quickly and in a manner that gives confidence to those who are at present deeply worried about how the changes will impact on them. Siobhan McMahon described the fear that exists out there.
I have followed the issue closely over the past few months and it has been a source of frustration to me that the Government did not go into detail in the spending review or in the local government settlement. I recently questioned ministers about whether those who are currently entitled to free bus travel as a result of receiving a disability benefit would keep their bus passes, and was reassured to an extent by the Government’s statement that there were no plans to make any changes. I hope that that was not just a carefully worded reply, and that the Government indeed meant that all those who have a bus pass now will continue to have one. Jackie Baillie mentioned that again this morning, and perhaps the minister could confirm it in summing up. It may be a small issue with respect to the overall changes, but it is important for many disabled people and it is an indicator of the Government’s intent.
My colleague Jackie Baillie and others raised concerns about the community care grant, the crisis loans and the devolution of council tax benefit, and again we would be grateful for some clarity from the cabinet secretary when she closes the debate.
I repeat our frustration with the UK Government’s approach on welfare reform. I support the amendment in Jackie Baillie’s name, and I urge members on all sides of the chamber to do likewise to ensure that we have on-going scrutiny in the Parliament that is targeted and useful to all those who have an interest in these vital changes.
If the Parliament should agree to withhold consent for the UK Government to legislate on all aspects, and instead instruct the Scottish Government to introduce a bill of its own, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government will both face a very serious challenge to address some of the concerns that have been expressed and to achieve a fair and equitable solution in respect of the devolved aspects. That is a big challenge, but Scottish Labour will engage constructively with the Scottish ministers to find a way through.
In contrast to Murdo Fraser’s Scrooge-like demeanour, I think that this has been a good debate, as it has given many members on all sides of the chamber the opportunity to do something that I know makes many Tories squirm and instinctively feel very uncomfortable: to stand up for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Time does not allow me to respond to each individual point that has been made today, but I will respond to some of the key themes that have emerged from the debate. First, I will nail firmly the ridiculous notion put forward by the Tories that those who will support our motion this evening are somehow opposed to welfare reform. Most, if not all of us in the chamber support welfare reform that simplifies the system and genuinely helps people who can work into work. What we oppose—Richard Lyle made this point very well—is crude cost-cutting masquerading as a welfare reform agenda.
Jackson Carlaw, like most Tories, tries to characterise the bill as being all about benefit scroungers. I tell him that taking £2.5 billion out of the welfare budget in Scotland will have devastating effects on genuinely vulnerable people, and in particular on those with a disability. It will damage this Government’s efforts to support real personal independence. Changes to local housing allowance rates will—as Margaret Burgess rightly said—force too many families into homelessness or a position of rent arrears. Perhaps Mary Scanlon and Murdo Fraser should pay a bit more attention to the detail of the housing benefit reforms. The cap on housing benefit is not the issue in Scotland. Generally speaking, housing benefit does not get paid at those levels here. The issue is the change to the rates at which local housing allowance will be paid and there are also issues around underoccupation. Those are the damaging changes that stand to put many people into perilous positions.
Duncan McNeil was right when he said that, although we all accept that those who can work should work, to take a punitive approach at a time of economic difficulty risks putting vulnerable people into even more vulnerable positions. I am therefore glad that the Parliament is prepared to take a stand today.
I say to Murdo Fraser, who is so proud of Tory policies that he wanted to abolish the Tory party in Scotland, that this is not hysteria—it is fact. It is the opinion of not just the SNP, but almost every stakeholder organisation that has given evidence during the scrutiny process.
I am also glad that we have Labour’s support for our motion. As some members said, in some respects Labour started down this road of welfare reform and I appreciate the support of Labour members today. In return, because it is Christmas and for many other reasons, we will support the Labour amendment. However, Labour’s position smacks of more than a little bit of dishonesty. In many ways, it sums up perfectly why Labour struggles to connect with anyone in Scotland right now. It wants us to oppose UK welfare reform and it demands that the Scottish Government does something different, but it insists on standing in the way of giving us the power that would allow us to design our own welfare system.
Not just now.
Labour members also want us to use our budget to mitigate the effects of the changes, but they insist on keeping us in a system that gives us a fixed and declining budget that is subject to cuts by the same Tories who are attacking our welfare system. Labour’s position has no intellectual or moral coherence and, as long as that remains its position, Labour is likely to remain unelectable.
I remind the cabinet secretary that it was her support for a Labour amendment in October that places her in the position that she now occupies. She certainly reflected a different view than her own back benches. I invite her to clarify her comments because she seems to suggest that she will pass on the Westminster cuts. What is the point of having her in Holyrood if that is what she will do?
Finally, the cabinet secretary has the power. She should bring it on. Bring the referendum to the chamber.
I thought that Wendy Alexander had left the Parliament. I was pointing out very clearly the illogicality and dishonesty of Labour’s position. It is about time that Labour faced up to that. The real answer is for the Parliament to have the power of decision and not to be subject to the ideology of a Tory Government that Scotland does not support and did not elect. That is the answer.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that another reason for this legislature taking on the power is that we do a better job of scrutiny? Does she share my concern that the committee that I am on was told by the SFHA that when it wrote to ask the Scottish Affairs Select Committee to look at the issue, it did not even get a reply?
I share Jamie Hepburn’s concern about that and that is one of the reasons why I am pleased that the Parliament will support the setting up of an ad hoc committee. It is incumbent on us to do the scrutiny that is not being done elsewhere.
A number of issues have been raised today about the Scottish Government’s response, which is in preparation. We are preparing and will continue to prepare to the best of our ability, but we have been and continue to be hampered in our ability to do so by the chronic lack of detail, which Kevin Stewart rightly talked about in the context of Aberdeen City Council.
Murdo Fraser said in his summing-up speech—although I am probably not quoting him exactly—that the reforms will ensure that all people will be better off as a result of work. With the greatest respect to Murdo Fraser, he does not know that. None of us knows that, because it depends on the rate of withdrawal, or the taper level, of the universal credit, which is one of the bits of detail that we simply do not have. Murdo Fraser simply cannot back up his assertion.
I have a great deal of respect for Iain Duncan Smith as an individual, but Murdo Fraser cannot seriously expect us just to take the word of a Tory Government on whether people will be better or worse off. Let us see the detail, as it has been sadly lacking to date.
We will continue to prepare through the welfare reform scrutiny group and the Scottish Government housing benefit stakeholder group. The consultation on successor arrangements for community care grants and crisis loans is now completed, with the analysis to be published early next year. As I said, we will shortly consult on council tax benefit and we will consult on passported benefits, not for nefarious reasons, as Liam McArthur suggested, but because the universal credit will change the statutory basis on which passported benefits are paid and we therefore need to consider the issue in that context. We will continue to do everything that we can, but nobody should be under any illusion about the difficulties that the Parliament faces when we are trapped in the straitjacket of a fixed and declining budget. That is the reality.
The implication of our position is that there is a need for primary as well as secondary legislation. Regardless of our view on the legislative consent motion, there will be challenges ahead in aligning our changes with those of the UK Government. The reform is complicated because of the phasing of universal credit, which means that we are likely to have double running of systems. However, as I said in my opening speech, we will take all the necessary steps in the required timescales to ensure continued access to passported benefits. I confirm to Duncan McNeil, other members and the Health and Sport Committee that there is sufficient time in the parliamentary process for the necessary legislation to be implemented. Like other members, I understand the importance of securing access to those vital passported benefits.
I want to respond to one theme from the Tories and the Liberals, although I should make that singular because there was only one Liberal here for the duration of the debate. They asked what the point is of the motion that we are about to agree to. Unfortunately, it is correct that our vote tonight will not stop the reforms in their tracks because, as Bob Doris and other members said, independence is the only thing that could do that. However, introducing primary legislation will give us more time and space to consider the implications more fully. The Parliament faces an important issue of principle at decision time this evening. We have a choice: we can give our implicit endorsement to proposals that we believe to be wrong and damaging or we can take a stand against them. I think that we should do the latter and stand up for a welfare system that supports those who can work to do so, but which provides the crucial safety net for those who cannot. That point was well made by Siobhan McMahon.
When I first became involved in politics in Ayrshire at the tender age of 16, I did so partly because of my revulsion at Tory attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society and because of my belief that the best way to ensure that Scottish values govern our politics and society was for Scotland to be independent. Twenty-five years later, as a minister in the Scottish Government, I am not prepared to nod through Tory policies that attack the poor and the vulnerable. I ask the Parliament to agree to the motion in my name and to ensure that we stand up for the people who elected us and for decency in our welfare system and society. I urge members to vote for the motion in my name.