I am delighted to open today’s debate and to set out progress and plans on social security—especially because this is the first genuinely important social security debate that we have had since learning that we will take over the powers for 11 benefits at some time in the near future. We will, for the first time, have the power to act on those social security measures, so this is an historic day for the Parliament and Scotland. I look forward to the whole Parliament working together—I hope—to ensure a smooth and safe transition to delivery of social security in Scotland.
Recent debates in Parliament show the interest that members have in the subject. I pay tribute to the work of the Welfare Reform Committee in particular, in its consultation in support of the work that it did on new powers and the excellent work that it has carried out over several years on welfare benefits. I am pleased to see that the committee’s conclusions closely match my priorities in terms of what we need to do to take forward the social security agenda.
Our first priority is to ensure a smooth and safe transfer of powers from London to Edinburgh. In all the consultations that we carried out last summer on social security, everyone’s number 1 concern was to ensure that people continue right through the transfer period to receive their benefits on time and in the right amount. I pledge today that our number 1 priority will be to ensure that that happens.
Our vision and principles are designed to ensure that people are treated with dignity, fairness and respect—fundamental principles on which we can all agree. Like every other MP and MSP, members will at their constituency offices and surgeries have spoken to members of the public who have expressed frustration about aspects of the social security system—in particular, the medical assessments that are associated with disability living allowance and personal independence payments. Members will have heard everything: from people feeling as though their medical situation was being treated cursorily, to someone winning an appeal and then being immediately called again for another medical assessment, right through to people with lifetime conditions being called in for assessment to see whether they are fit for work when it is very clear that they will never work again. All those things are important to people, as is the money itself. When we treat people with dignity and respect, we can both streamline and make more humane the assessment process. That will be one of our top priorities.
I am also pleased to announce to Parliament the outcome of the first stage of our planning for a delivery vehicle for the new powers. Over the past 18 months we have been engaging with people and organisations across the country in order to understand how best to deliver the new social security powers. The outcomes of that engagement have allowed us to form a consensus that dignity and respect are to be at the heart of all that we do in policy and delivery. We need to do things differently and to take a fairer approach, although there is still a lot of work to do to achieve that. We have already committed to introducing Scotland’s first social security bill before the end of the first year of the next session—assuming that we are re-elected to Government. Our ambitions are that the legislation will reflect a distinctively different and fairer Scottish approach to social security.
Until now, the role of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament on welfare has been primarily in relation to mitigation. In the context of falling budgets from the United Kingdom Government, we have been left to pick up the pieces and to do our best to mitigate the worst impacts of the very big cuts to certain benefits over the past six years. The scale of the cuts could result in costs to Scotland of £6 billion between 2010 and 2016. We are doing everything that we can to help; in the three years to 2016 we have invested just under £300 million to mitigate the worst impacts of the cuts.
The independent poverty adviser reported just a few weeks ago that we have to do everything in our power to try to improve outcomes when we get the new powers. She pointed out that we must proceed with caution in order to ensure safe delivery—to which I have already referred twice—and we fully agree with that. She also set out the fundamental principle that public service delivery of social security policy has to be respectful and person-centred and must preserve the dignity of people who are in poverty. Fundamentally, that is what we intend to do.
Our vision is that social security is important to all of us. None of us knows when we might have to rely on the social security system because we hit a bad patch or become very ill or disabled. Therefore, we must be able to support each other when that kind of support is needed.
Our powers will impact on some of the most vulnerable people in society. Everyone in Scotland has an interest in ensuring that people have a decent standard of life when they hit difficult times. We aim to use the powers in a way that better meets the needs of the people of Scotland, to engage with our stakeholders at every stage, and to ensure that we serve their needs and aspirations as well as live up to their hopes about a more humane social security system.
We believe that five basic principles should underline a Scottish social security system. The first principle is that social security is an investment in the people of Scotland. At the heart of our approach is an understanding that social security plays an important part in tackling poverty and inequality. Where people face additional challenges and costs in their daily lives—very often because of ill health or disability—it is right that all of us help to meet those costs. It is important in supporting people to participate fully in our society.
The second principle is that respect for the dignity of individuals is at the heart of everything that we do. At every step of our engagement with individuals, we will treat them with dignity and respect.
The third principle is that our processes and services will be evidence based and designed with the people of Scotland. The starting point for the design of our policies and processes is that they are based on the best evidence, so the individuals who are affected by them should have their say and be listened to.
The fourth principle is that we will strive for continuous improvement in all our policies, processes and systems, and put the user experience first. In the first instance, our priority will be to ensure a smooth transition, as I have already said, so that people have confidence that they will continue to receive the support to which they are entitled.
The final principle is the need to demonstrate that our services are efficient and that they give value for money. We know from our consultation that the system can be complex for people. We will seek to reduce the bureaucracy in claiming benefits and to ensure that, at all stages, people are provided with the relevant information on how the system will work for them.
On delivery, we intend, after having examined all the available options, to set up a new social security agency for Scotland. We already have a distinct and separate policy agenda, which will be reflected at every stage, from policy making to implementation and delivery. The social security agency will work with stakeholders, practitioners and experts from local government, the third sector and representative organisations across Scotland and will build on the excellent relationships and innovative approaches that are already in place.
No—not at all. That would be inconceivable, particularly with the benefits in question because they relate to severe illness and disability. I do not envisage people deliberately trying to make themselves disabled or ill in order to come to Scotland to claim a benefit. We already have a number of free benefits in Scotland—for example, we have free prescriptions, which has not ended in a stampede from elsewhere in the UK. I do not believe that the powers that we are discussing will end up in a stampede from other parts of the UK, either. Apart from anything else, there is a requirement for residency in Scotland to qualify for certain types of assistance in many schemes that already exist, although they are not part of social security administration. It is clear that that will also be the case with the social security schemes that the Scottish Government will administer.
Our new agency will be directly accountable to the Scottish ministers, who are, in turn, accountable to Parliament, and it will be answerable to the people of Scotland on social security in a way that has not been possible before. By working with local government and all our other partners, and with each performing a meaningful role in the process by which we will take the work forward, we will together help to ensure that the dignity of users is held in its proper regard and reflects our wider commitment to participation in the debates and decisions that matter most to people.
Today is an important step in the journey to the day when the first devolved social security benefit payment is made in Scotland, but much work still needs to be done. Following our initial appraisal of all the available options for delivery, more detailed work will be required to develop configurations for the overall social security system. Our proposals will be fully costed and appraised as a fuller business case, which will be published later this year.
Unfortunately, I have run out of time. Members will already be aware of the commitments that we have made in terms of our early priorities, some of which are, I know, shared by Labour members. I look forward to the rest of the debate, during which I hope we can get on to the prospects of delivering an enhanced system for our people.
That the Parliament notes the devolution of new social security powers; welcomes the extensive consultation process that the Scottish Government has carried out with stakeholders and benefit users into the future delivery and approach of social security policy in Scotland to ensure that it has services that will be accessible, fair and command the confidence of users; agrees the vision and principles that will be at the heart of the Scottish Government’s position, which are underpinned by an emphasis on treating people with dignity and respect; welcomes the policy choices that the Scottish Government has outlined to ensure that there will be a fair approach to new social security powers, and agrees that the smooth transition of these powers will be a priority for the Scottish Government and be to the benefit of all of Scotland.
One of the most depressing features of our politics over the past few decades has been the tone of the debate about social security—or welfare, as it has, sadly, come to be labelled. Over 100 years ago, socialists, liberals, social reformers, progressives in the churches and the trade unions argued for a system of social protection that would end destitution. They argued for sick pay, unemployment benefits, pensions, holidays, a reduction in the working week and the like. Over time, through campaigning, the welfare state as we know it emerged, with the social security system as a key element.
It was the creation of that welfare state, often in the teeth of opposition from the forces of conservatism—some things have never changed—that ended reliance on the poorhouse, ended destitution and provided universal healthcare, housing and protection for all. In short, we moved from being a society in which we abandoned the poor and the needy to being one in which collectively, through our taxes, we took responsibility for our friends and neighbours who were in need of our help. The welfare state civilised our society by allowing everyone, irrespective of their power and wealth, to access education, healthcare and a basic income.
Does Neil Findlay agree that the Conservatives should note the work of George Barnes of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, who was the champion of the pension? He was so successful that he managed to defeat the Conservative cabinet minister Bonar Law. The Conservatives should perhaps note that, when people act on such matters, they suffer.
I am sure that that was the case. He was probably in Mr Stevenson’s class at school. However, Mr Stevenson makes a valid point.
From all that emerged the post-war consensus, in which Governments of whichever persuasion accepted the need for a decent social security system—until the dark cloud of Thatcherism cast its ugly shadow over our society. From then until now, the debate, and the tone of the debate, around social security has become steeped in a negative culture of blame and division, setting worker against worker, the able-bodied against the disabled, the young against the old and the host community against immigrants. It has created a system that treats people with suspicion instead of compassion and which increasingly stigmatises people using language such as “scroungers”, “shirkers” and the “feckless”.
I agree absolutely with the cabinet secretary: any of us at any point in our lives could find our world turned upside down by a debilitating illness or physical disability, by the arrival of a child or a parent who is in need of round-the-clock care or by an extended period of unemployment. We should all say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
With devolution of social security, we have a real opportunity to do things differently. On the Welfare Reform Committee, there has been a great deal of consensus among Labour and SNP members—we will, as always, leave the Tories out of this, although I note that Mr Lamont did, at least, remain silent most of the time.
We agree with the Government that
“social security is an investment in the people of Scotland ... that respect for the dignity of individuals” should be
“at the heart of everything that we do ... that our processes and services” should be
“evidence based and designed with the people ... that Governments of whichever persuasion should strive for continuous improvement in policy, processes and systems, and put the user experience first” and that services should be
“efficient and ... give value for money.”
I hope that there is nothing controversial there.
In creating strong foundations for a new welfare system, we all want them to be robust. However, what we build on top of those foundations and how any new system is funded are more important. We want a system that is publicly run and accountable to Parliament, not one that is hived off to the private sector or an agency elsewhere that can be blamed if things go wrong. We want a system that helps people to participate in our society and to get back into work when and if they are able to do so.
We want child poverty to be at the centre of our system. Tragically, one in four children is affected by poverty—220,000 of our fellow citizens. None of us can wash our hands of that collective shame.
On Monday, the Labour leader Kezia Dugdale set out how our proposals will offer children who are leaving care and going into higher education a full grant, which will give them the best opportunity to complete their studies and move on in life. After months of campaigning, we have won the argument for paying care workers the living wage. Scottish National Party members voted against that half a dozen times, but let us put that in the past and celebrate the fact that, like our bedroom tax member’s bill, our campaigning has again paid dividends.
The next stage is to secure a better deal for carers by raising the level of carers allowance to match the level of jobseekers allowance, which would be worth about an extra £600 a year to carers. Labour has made that a firm commitment. We will also more than double the level of maternity grant that is made available to new mums, and would provide £1,030 to help mums with the cost of a new baby.
We cannot do any of that if we do not have a plan to address austerity, and I still have to find the Government’s plan for addressing austerity. We can do it because we have come up with a range of funded options incorporating income tax changes, initially to the basic rate then to the higher rate, a refusal to implement Osborne’s tax cuts for the top 15 per cent of earners by maintaining the threshold, and rejecting the SNP’s tax giveaway to the wealthiest through abolition of air passenger duty.
Our tax plans, combined with the commitment to tackle child poverty and the gross inequality in our society, are at the heart of our plans for a Scotland in which everyone has opportunity, in which everyone is valued and in which everyone is looked after. I look forward to continuing the debate on the future of our social security system and am sure that we will hear more on that from members during the debate.
I move amendment S4M-15758.2, to insert at end:
“; believes that, given that 220,000 children in Scotland are affected by child poverty, the devolution of social security should see addressing child poverty become the Scottish Government’s number one priority, developing a range of policies across government to address such glaring inequality in society, and further believes that such a strategy can only be delivered by using the new financial powers of the Parliament to increase the revenues available to the Scottish Government”.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s important debate, and I am pleased that the Scottish Government is working with the UK Government on a smooth transition of the new powers to ensure that individuals who are currently in receipt of benefits continue to receive them on time.
Although the work of the Welfare Reform Committee, of which I am a member, has gone some way towards raising key issues around the delivery of social security, I am aware of some concern about the level of concrete preparation for the transition. I therefore urge the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights to do all that he can to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible. It is vital that existing claimants do not experience any delays in payments, but the Government’s recent information technology record does not fill the public with much confidence.
It is important to recognise that, thanks to the Scotland Bill and the work of the Treasury and the Deputy First Minister in reaching agreement on the fiscal framework, the Scottish Government will soon have more control over welfare than it has ever had before. We welcome the wide-ranging powers; they give us the opportunity to discuss important issues in depth.
For too long, debates about social security and welfare have simply been an exercise in criticising the policies of the UK Government; it has become something of a pastime for ministers and cabinet secretaries. The Scottish Government now has an opportunity to offer its alternative plans for dealing with the complex issues that are attached to welfare provision.
The Government has made much of the broad language of “fairness”, “respect” and “dignity” in terms of the overall culture of the social security system that it intends to create, and I am sure that those words would draw support from every member of Parliament and indeed the wider public outside the chamber. However, it is crucial that the cabinet secretary now sets out to the Scottish taxpayer some concrete proposals for the delivery of the powers and says how it intends to pay for any possible divergence from the policies of the UK Government.
Furthermore, in ensuring fairness, the Scottish Government also needs to show how it can improve the delivery of services in Scotland. In that regard, the Scottish Government has some pressing questions that it needs to address. I have no reservations in stating my support for a lower welfare, high-pay society. The UK Government’s efforts in driving employment to a record high go some way towards a sustainable solution—one that gets people back into the workplace and increases financial independence while at the same time building a system that is available to those in need of support.
In the past, the Scottish Government has taken apparent pleasure in condemning UK Government policies such as the work programme, which incidentally has managed to get more than 43,000 long-term unemployed Scots back into work since 2011, but the Scottish Government now needs to state how it will incentivise work and design a system of social security that discourages welfare dependency.
The member has asked the Scottish Government to outline its proposals; when will we hear what the Conservative proposals are? Can he begin to outline them for us today?
I think that the Conservative position is very clear. We have always believed that the role of the Government and of society is to give a helping hand to those in need while at the same time ensuring that the system that we put in place through welfare and benefits incentivises, encourages and helps those who want to get back to work to do so. I strongly believe that it should always pay to be in work, and I hope that the Scottish Government shares that aim.
The SNP and Scottish Government ministers have consistently called for a moratorium on all benefit sanctions imposed on those individuals who do not meet the conditions attached to their benefits. The Scottish Parliament will now have not only the responsibility for designing a social security system that works for those in need but a duty to every hard-working Scot to protect the structure of that system from those who may wish to abuse it. Does the Scottish Government therefore intend to enforce sanctions on those individuals who fail to adhere to the standards set?
But the Scottish Government will have the possibility of creating new benefits and the possibility of having conditions attached to those benefits. Ministers need to be clear about how any conditions attached to future benefits, for example, would be enforced or how they would impact on claimants.
Furthermore, the devolution of those powers to this Parliament gives us an opportunity to deliver some social security benefits in a way that takes better account of local circumstances. There is scope to use the existing expertise of local government in dealing with the administration of existing payments, along with greater knowledge of local labour markets, to tailor the delivery approach to best suit the needs of local people. Perhaps there is even an opportunity to better align some social security with our health and social care system—those are certainly options that this Parliament should explore.
The Scottish Government now has an opportunity to outline its plans for social security to the people of Scotland, and the people of Scotland are undoubtedly listening and waiting to hear what the Scottish Government’s plans are.
I move amendment S4M-15758.1, to leave out from “the vision” to end and insert:
“that the future delivery of social security policy in Scotland should always encourage the benefits of the workplace, with an emphasis on treating people with dignity and respect, and believes that welfare policy choices should also be made with fairness to Scotland’s taxpayers in mind.”
I open with a quotation from one of the architects of the social security system, Barbara Castle:
“There was no welfare state, and people had to rely mainly on the Poor Law—that was all the state provided. It was very degrading, very humiliating. And there was a means test for receiving poor relief.”
I believe that Barbara Castle and her Labour colleagues of that time, as mentioned by Mr Findlay, would be appalled that today, in the 21st century, we are back to situations in which the experience of the unemployed, carers, disabled people and pensioners of our social security system—which was designed by its architects to be their right to protection and a safety net—is regarded by many, to use Barbara Castle’s words again, as “degrading” and “very humiliating”.
Our experience on the Welfare Reform Committee is that time and again—in formal evidence, at your say sessions and at committee visits, including one to Craigmillar last year—we have heard that those who are in need and vulnerable are left feeling degraded, humiliated and stigmatised by their interaction with the social security system.
The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights has praised the work of the Welfare Reform Committee. One of the anonymous submissions to the committee stated:
“As I look back at my time as a claimant I cannot help but see with clarity that my dealing with ATOS and the benefits system in many ways contributed to my becoming profoundly sick. The benefits staff were very polite, but they were part of what I would call a punitive, and abusive system.”
I am therefore delighted that the Scottish Government has announced that a new benefits agency for Scotland will have dignity and respect at its heart. The new agency will be responsible for the delivery of £2.7 billion of social security payments in Scotland. That is just the tip of the iceberg—it is only 15 per cent of the overall budget for social security—but it is nonetheless welcome. The Scottish Government will be able to influence the way that we deliver disability living allowance, personal independence payments, carers allowance, funeral payments and cold weather and winter fuel payments.
Significantly, the Scottish Government will also be able to top up or create new benefits. I welcome the announcements that the cabinet secretary has already made. The Scottish Government will raise carers allowance to the same level as jobseekers allowance; abolish rather than mitigate the bedroom tax; and take cognisance of the concerns regarding the delivery of universal credit, and particularly how it might affect vulnerable adults and those with addictions, as well as women who are seeking to leave the predicament of a domestic violence situation. That was highlighted by the Welfare Reform Committee’s work in the area.
The condition of multiple sclerosis is known in my family. In a briefing from the MS Society Scotland, Audrey from Inverness is quoted as saying:
“My last assessment for DLA caused me to have an anxiety attack: The assessor wasn’t listening to me and his subsequent report was full of inaccuracies.”
I say to Audrey from Inverness that I hope that, in future, her experience will be one of dignity, fairness and respect.
The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights is right that this is a big day. It is one of those historic events, because we are for the first time debating how we will establish a new Scottish welfare system with, as he says, 11 benefits. In those circumstances, it is right that we all come together, just as happened in the days when the first welfare state was established. As Neil Findlay rightly pointed out, there was a cross-party effort, with the Liberals, reformers and socialists coming together to form the new fabric of our society. Although the system is relatively small, this is still a significant moment. We need to get the foundations right, just as Beveridge got them right all those years ago.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s tone—he is adopting the right approach. He involved a large number of stakeholders and held a range of events across the country to engage all the experts in the area to devise a system that is right for Scotland. I do not want to unnerve the cabinet secretary, but I also agree with him on his priorities. It is right to have dignity, respect and fairness and that we have an accessible system that gains the confidence of the people. It is crucial that people in Scotland have confidence that the system will be there when they need it and are in difficulties. The cabinet secretary was right to say on the radio this morning that we all might need the welfare system at some point or another. I have relied on it in the past, as has my wife, and I am sure that many other members have done so, too.
The way that the cabinet secretary has set the foundations for the debate has been absolutely right. I regret some of the comments at the weekend from other members who are in the chamber, which pandered to the worst fears about the emerging welfare state. There is not going to be any “stampede”. We need to tone down the language so that we can build the proper foundations for the new welfare state.
I also happen to agree with the cabinet secretary on abolishing the bedroom tax—he must be getting deeply worried by now because that is three things I have agreed with him on. We need to get rid of the bedroom tax. I worked with Nicola Sturgeon on getting the UK Government to deliver the flexibility that was necessary to implement the mitigation measures. I have agreed with him on that ever since I met the housing association managers in Fife who were able to tell me point blank that people had given up on paying their rent. That showed that the system had ground to a halt. We need a system that gains the confidence of people.
In Scotland, we should bring carers allowance in line with jobseekers allowance over time. We can also do a lot of work on the work programme.
I was struck by my visits to some drugs rehabilitation projects, particularly one in Kirkcaldy. The people there said that there was a compulsion for certain users of the service to go for work capability assessments when they were not ready. The people in that organisation want the drug users to get back into work because it is the best route out of poverty and the best way to deal with their all-round problems—not only their drug abuse but their housing problems and family problems. We need to put faith in the organisations that work with drug users and others so that they can make the judgment about when it is best for them to go for a work capability assessment. In that way, we can personalise the service around individual needs.
I am pleased that the cabinet secretary is planning to work with Skills Development Scotland, the colleges and charities to develop such a system. It will not be easy but that is the kind of approach that we seek to adopt. Therefore, for the fourth time this afternoon, I agree with Alex Neil.
I am glad that, in his speech, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights reflected some of the Welfare Reform Committee’s comments, findings and recommendations because it is important that any system reflects the need for dignity, fairness and respect. I do not underestimate the challenges that lie ahead. Mistakes will no doubt be made and not everyone will be happy with every decision that is made but, if we start out with those basic principles and the other five principles that the cabinet secretary mentioned, we start off in the right way.
I have been reflecting that this might be my last speech—or at least one of my last speeches—in the Parliament. In a sense, that is apposite because, just under 37 years ago, just after Margaret Thatcher’s election, I left teaching to become a welfare rights officer and, for 15 years, I worked in many of the poorest communities in the old Strathclyde region dealing with the consequences of unemployment, deprivation and poverty and trying to help people through a complicated welfare and benefits system. One of the things that frustrated me day in and day out was the way that people were treated. They were not treated with dignity and respect, and there was certainly little fairness.
The way that Strathclyde Regional Council and the other regional councils in Scotland approached the matter shows that, in spite of adversity, difficulties and limited budgets—in those days, there were certainly limited budgets and limited powers—many good things can happen if politicians are determined to make them happen.
Not only did Strathclyde Regional Council invest in welfare rights officers to go out and help the disadvantaged but, in the water referendum, for example, it decided to use its powers to the full effect to stop water privatisation. It had a social strategy for the 1980s that concentrated on putting resources into the poorest communities and giving additional education resources to early years, which was groundbreaking at the time, and schools in the poorest areas. It also concentrated on home helps and homemakers who worked with families and helped to get them out of poverty.
In social work, we also had imaginative use of section 10 and section 12 moneys under the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, which helped families when the Government benefits system let them down. We also had the courageous decision to use limited powers and budgets to help miners’ families in 1984 during the miners’ strike. I could take much longer, Presiding Officer, but I see that I am running out of time.
What I would draw from that experience—and what the cabinet secretary should draw from it—is that, if we are determined to make a difference, we can do so, despite the obstacles in front of us. We can make a difference for the carers, for families in which women and children are living in poverty, and for the disabled. It just depends on whether we are determined to make that a priority.
It frustrates me that, as I leave this Parliament, I know that, like everyone in this chamber, I have done well over the past eight or nine years but that my poorest constituents have not. If we are going to make a difference in benefits, we have to follow through on the words that I agree with, and show that, by our actions, we will make a difference for those who are disadvantaged in our society.
I was pleased when the Parliament accepted an amendment of mine to the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Bill that enshrined dignity and respect in that legislation. I think that that showed the way in which this Parliament is going. I truly believe that dignity, respect and fairness should be at the heart of the new social security system that we shape. I want to see fairness, not fear.
Already today, we have heard from the Conservatives about how they want to incentivise work. Perhaps Mr Lamont can get to his feet and tell us how an 87 per cent cut to the employability fund will help the Scottish Government get people into work. If he wishes, he can stand up and give us his explanation. No? I thought that he would not.
Perhaps Mr Lamont could also tell us what he thinks about the situation that is now faced by many folks who rely on Motability cars to get to their work. The Welfare Reform Committee heard from folks whose cars had been lifelines, getting them to their employment and giving them freedom and independence. However, of late, 13,900 folk in Scotland have lost the higher rate of DLA and their cars. I say to Mr Lamont that that is not helping people get into work.
The stigma that has been caused by the language that the Tory Government has used about people who have had to rely on the social security safety net has led to other major difficulties. The MS Society Scotland has said that, due to public stigma, 33 per cent of folk do not claim the benefits that they are entitled to. That is absolutely shocking, and the Tories have a lot to answer for in that regard. On top of the bureaucracy, the paperwork and the assessments, the climate of fear that has permeated throughout our society is something that the Tories should be completely and utterly ashamed of. I hope that, in shaping a new system, the Scottish Parliament will get rid of that climate of fear and cut down on the bureaucracy and paperwork and on the constant assessment that some people have to undergo.
We should retain and improve on some parts of the current system. In its briefing, Marie Curie talks about the current system of fast tracking benefit claims for those with a terminal condition. I am sure that the Scottish Government will ensure that that continues. Marie Curie also says that it would be useful if carers allowance for the families of those with terminal conditions could be fast tracked, too, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will consider that—I see that he is nodding his head.
Enable Scotland talked about the difficulty that is involved in filling out the horrendous forms in the current system, and the fact that some folk have to justify every bit of support that their children need in minute detail. I hope that we will look carefully at that and deal with it.
I hope, too, that we will build dignity, respect and fairness into the systems that we create over the coming months and years, and that we can eradicate the climate of fear and bring back the social security safety net that we all may need in our lives.
It is an honour to speak on social security in Scotland. The new powers that the Scottish Parliament now has present a huge opportunity for us to build a fairer Scotland. A new list of historic decisions will be made for the people of Scotland.
However, the complexity of benefits and of the whole area will be challenging. We need to ensure that any changes that we make are fair, suitable and do not have a negative impact on other benefits that people receive. Many recipients of social care contribute to their care costs and there is no point increasing someone’s benefits if the increase is all absorbed by increased care costs. The Parliament has not just the chance to change benefits and the ability to create them but the opportunity to make major improvements to the process.
I often have constituents come to my drop-in surgeries who are confused about the social security system and who need support to complete forms. I would like to see major improvements in the claiming and decision-making processes for benefits. I strongly feel that it is important to boost the third sector organisations that provide support and advice to people who are applying for benefits and appealing decisions.
However, the relationship between reserved and devolved benefits will be a challenge. If we get this wrong, we will make things much more confusing for people; it might even lead to hardship. Let us not do that. Let us ensure that no one suffers as a result of the new powers that the Parliament has acquired. We must be user friendly, particularly for those who are less able and those in the minority communities who have historically had difficulties dealing with such issues.
It is all well and good to ask for new powers and to hope to deliver good services, but actually delivering good services is a challenge. I believe that the Scottish Government—whoever is in power—will do its very best for the communities out there. I want those communities to feel secure that the Scottish Government is capable of delivering services of which it can be proud. I just hope that we can live up to the challenge.
My hearty prayers and good wishes go to whoever is in government for the delivery of a sound, secure, safe and appropriate service to the people of Scotland. There is no point asking for more powers if we then fail the people to whom we have made promises. I wish the Government well and hope that we can ensure that no one is less well off after the new powers transfer to us.
Social security is a concept that is enshrined in article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:
“Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his”—
I would say her—
“dignity and the free development of his”— or her—
What worries me is the Conservatives’ aim of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 and the impact that that will have on people’s fundamental rights to social security. The cabinet secretary and many other members have talked about respect and dignity this afternoon. I am a member of the Welfare Reform Committee, and we have been asked about those things over and over again.
I want a system that quite literally takes by the hand a person with a long-term condition such as motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis, with a terminal illness such as cancer, or with a mental health issue, and tells them, “It’s okay—we care, and we will support you. We will make your last days on this earth as easy as possible.” I want a system that tells people who have difficulty getting into work or who are facing redundancy, “Don’t worry—we will help you with training and support to find a job.”
We have talked a lot about fairness today. For years, I have heard that that is all that people want. They want a system that gives them the fairness that they are looking for. The evidence that we have received at committee tells us that over and over again. People want a system that is caring and is easy to navigate during the toughest times in their life. We have heard many ideas, and we have had briefings from many organisations such as Marie Curie, MND Scotland and the Multiple Sclerosis Society Scotland, which has published a manifesto entitled “Get Loud for MS”—it should get loud with its manifesto, because we need to know what people need, want and aspire to.
Others have called for a system that fast tracks people who are facing terminal illness. Presiding Officer, you have no idea of what is happening with some of the families that I know—although you have maybe come across those situations yourself—in which people face continual reassessment and form-filling when they have only months left of their life to live. That life should be spent with their family, not filling in forms or going for reassessment and facing down a system that does not care.
We have heard today some of the Scottish Government’s proposals, which include increasing carers allowance to the same level as jobseekers allowance. The South Lanarkshire Carers Network, with which I have been involved for many years now, will be absolutely delighted to see that proposal, because we do not take cognisance of that issue. Another proposal is to abolish the bedroom tax, which we all want to do—well, perhaps not all members, but we on this side of the chamber certainly do, and we look forward to that happening.
The Scottish Government has also proposed the introduction of flexibilities around universal credit, which was most eloquently highlighted by my friend Clare Adamson, who spoke about the challenges that people face in that respect. The Scottish Government also proposes to scrap the 84-day rule, which removes income from families of disabled children when they are in hospital. It is a disgusting state of affairs when families are put under pressure like that because their child has gone into hospital.
It is not acceptable that a person with MND or any other disease is put through assessments and reassessments when they should be spending their last few days with their family. We have heard today a lot of words such as fairness, dignity and respect. If we can contrive to put together a social security system with those three elements, I believe that we can demonstrate a system that values everyone in our nation.
As other members have said, the Scottish Parliament is to assume important new powers with regard to several aspects of the social security system as a consequence of the Smith agreement. The work that the Government has been undertaking in advance of that change is to be welcomed.
I appreciate that all options must be considered, including the option of having the DWP continue to operate Scotland’s system in order that it can be evaluated, even if there is no appetite for it to do the work. I assume that option 5, which is outsourcing by procurement, was included for the same reason; I note that that option did not perform well against the six criteria. I would be very concerned if Scotland’s social security system became a vehicle for private sector profit.
Last week we discussed “Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights—Year Two Report”. SNAP has argued consistently for the benefits of taking a human rights approach to the commissioning and delivery of services—a point that the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland makes in its briefing for this debate. Much of the work done by SNAP so far has been on changing culture and practice in the delivery of existing services. Setting up a new system is a golden opportunity to embed that human rights approach from the very beginning.
The Health and Social Care Alliance and Enable Scotland both argue that a cultural shift in the delivery of social services can be created. Both organisations stress the need for a person-centred approach to decision making and budgeting that seeks the best outcomes for the individual and their family. Both also consider that this is an opportunity to change the way in which social security is described and discussed—members have mentioned the derogatory terminology that is used around benefits and welfare. I hope that a more positive attitude towards disability, for example, can be encouraged, and that as the process continues it will be inclusive and responsive to the concerns of the people who will be involved in the system.
I turn to the Labour amendment. I think that the majority of members recognise that addressing the inequalities that affect childhood are key to creating not only a fairer society but a more prosperous country, the economy of which will be supported by a highly trained and skilled workforce. Although we may all agree on that, there are shocking statistics on the extent of child poverty and inequality in Scotland today. More than one in five children live in poverty, and at age five, the most disadvantaged children are 13 months behind the average in terms of development. Indeed, there is evidence of inequality of opportunity starting before birth. That is why we argue that addressing child poverty should be top priority, and devolved social security powers are one tool that we will have in the future. However, we need to be honest about revenue. Addressing such deep-rooted inequality will cost money. This Parliament will need to raise the revenue to effect these changes and we should not run away from saying so or from discussing the best ways of doing that.
The Tory amendment is intriguing, in a sense—I am being polite—in that it speaks of the “benefits of the workplace” and of
“treating people with dignity and respect”.
The latter cannot be said for the welfare reforms that the UK Government has brought in, under the direction of lain Duncan Smith. As for the “benefits of the workplace”, the current UK Government has done its utmost to reduce in-work benefits. As someone who supports the UK remaining in the European Union, I can only hope that Mr Duncan Smith brings the same success to the leave campaign that he has brought to the welfare reform programme.
This Parliament will begin to gain substantial new powers from the time that the new parliamentary session is convened, and it will gain them increasingly over the course of the session. I agree with the cabinet secretary that we should work together to ensure a smooth transition, but the exercise of the new powers by the next Government, whoever forms it, must be robustly scrutinised by the Parliament, and its success must be assessed in terms of outcomes, not assertions.
I offer some respect to Hugh Henry. If that was his valedictory address to us, there is no better subject that he could have been speaking about. He is not someone with whom I have agreed on every detail, but I absolutely share his commitment, which I acknowledge, to trying to make the lives of people in Scotland better—even if sometimes we differ on the methods of doing that. By saying that, I think that I have addressed dignity, fairness and respect, on which the cabinet secretary quite properly anchored the debate.
Sir William Beveridge’s report underpinned much of what we are engaging with today. Social security has evolved a lot since the Beveridge report was started in 1941 with a survey, but nonetheless the approach that was taken then is one with which we live today.
Perhaps an important question to think about is: what is the society of which we are a part and what is the society of which we wish to be a part in the future? We would all accept that we can all contribute to society. However, I am not certain that the Conservatives would agree with my assertion that we do not have to be a worker to contribute to society. The Conservative amendment anchors social security and support on being in employment. Lots of people contribute to society without being in employment, or without being able or willing to be in employment. We must separate the needs of people in our society from their ability to be part of our society financially. Many people simply cannot be that, and I fundamentally disagree with Conservative colleagues.
Quite a lot of the debate has been about mechanical issues. Inevitably, the cabinet secretary talked a great deal about how we will do this. In his budget for his proposed system, Beveridge interestingly capped the administration costs at 5 per cent. That is a pretty good starting place that the cabinet secretary could perhaps think about. In the modern, efficient world, with good-quality computer systems, we might do rather better.
It is also worth thinking that smaller uplifts in how much we expend could perhaps have bigger impacts than we think. Beveridge’s system increased expenditure on social services by only 50 per cent. One would have thought for the radical transformation that it effected that it would have been much more than that. More fundamental, the changes refocused what we were doing. The system that had preceded it for the previous 30 years came, of course, from Lloyd George, who introduced the Old Age Pension Act 1908. The House of Lords had vigorously opposed the bill and, in 1911, its sails were trimmed, so that its powers to block legislation were reduced.
I fear that we are back in the position of the House of Lords having undue influence over public policy—the Tories plan to add members to it to that end—but we will see. The bottom line is that we must focus on people.
The original system was the Chelsea pensioner system, which was introduced in 1689 by King William and Queen Mary. My great-great-grandfather was a Chelsea pensioner from 1818 because he was an army pensioner.
Today, we are in a different position. We must ensure that we are able to afford what we do, but we must focus—first, middle and bottom—on the people whom we are trying to support. I am sure that we will do that.
At the beginning of the debate, Alex Neil said that this was an historic day. I agree. These are indeed exciting times as we move forward and take advantage of the powers that will be given to us by the new Scotland Bill.
I must contrast my experience on the bill’s tax provisions and those on welfare. I found the tax provisions simple and easy to understand. As a result, they have not been a particular source of discussion during the process. On the other hand, the welfare provisions were complex and difficult to understand. Although I would give them the benefit of the doubt and say that we did not understand them correctly initially, it has been necessary for substantial amendments to be made to them.
In the spirit of co-operation that we have had—most of the way—throughout the debate, I would like to take credit to some extent for having not accepted the welfare proposals as they originally appeared and contributing, I hope, to the improvement that we have experienced.
However, there are ways in which we will differ from others in the debate. Perhaps that is easiest to point out if I contrast my views with those that were expressed by Stewart Stevenson just a moment ago. I believe that work is an extremely important factor in encouraging people to participate in life and in society.
No, thank you.
As a result, I have no qualms about suggesting that social security should be tied, wherever necessary, to encouraging and supporting people back into work.
I also believe there to be no issue with conditionality being attached to the payments that we make. It is often said in debate here that, somehow, conditionality is inappropriate. Those who pay their hard-earned contributions to the schemes that we are going to develop will expect some form of conditionality in the system.
Turning to the minister’s remarks, I could not agree more with his first point. It is essential that we get a smooth and safe transition; there should be no gaps between one provision and the next, because we cannot allow that to happen to those who are dependent on the support.
The minister perhaps failed to raise another issue that I would put in the same area: the cost of providing services. Those of us who looked closely at the evolution of the Scottish welfare fund realised at its outset that the cost was too high a proportion of the total amount of money that was to be made available. That was perhaps due to it being the first scheme of its kind and the fact that a lot of the administration had to be set up from the bottom up by local authorities. Nevertheless, if the minister goes forward, as he said he would do, with his new social security agency for Scotland, we should all be concerned to ensure that the cost of running it does not take money out of the hands of those who need it.
There has been criticism of the work capability assessment. I understand why people are critical, but I worry that the alternative to such an assessment is some form of self-referral, which would be unacceptable. The challenge for all members of this Parliament is to find an alternative approach that does what is necessary without making the mistake of leaving a gap.
On a number of occasions the minister has given the impression, as members of his party often do, that a huge amount of extra funding will be available for new schemes. The truth is that extra funding is not the subject of any commitment that this Government has yet made.
The minister is right to say that dignity, respect and fairness must be the basis of the system that we create. We must also assure Scotland’s taxpayers that when their money is taken for that purpose it will be used efficiently and effectively, and that we will work as least as hard on the creation of wealth as we do on its distribution.
I am grateful for the opportunity to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party. Social security has been a bit of a focus of mine while I have been in the Parliament, and I want to thank members of the Welfare Reform Committee—past and present—as well as the clerks to the committee, spokespeople and ministers and their predecessors.
An issue in which I was involved early on was the Parliament’s approach to the imposition of the bedroom tax on our communities. I was grateful to the many policy experts and campaigners who came to the committee to discuss the range of options. Willie Rennie was absolutely right to talk about the involvement of such people in the next stage of developing a social security system in Scotland. There is a huge amount of expertise outside the Parliament.
A key point that the cabinet secretary made was that as new powers come to this Parliament we can move on from simply mitigating the effect of the bedroom tax to abolishing it altogether. I very much welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments; he will have our full support on that.
The responsibility on members of the Scottish Parliament in future will be to design and implement a new and distinctive social security system in Scotland, in many areas in which the focus, in the past, has been on complaints about decisions and systems that were made and designed elsewhere.
I was struck by a comment that Bill Scott, of Inclusion Scotland, made last year. He said that the system should stop treating claimants as suspected criminals. Many members will have seen reports at the weekend that some 85 per cent of the fraud allegations that members of the public have made, which have been eagerly solicited by the UK Government, have proven to be entirely unwarranted.
Alex Neil was right to say that social security should be regarded not as a system of handouts but as a basis for addressing need in our society. We should all be clear that we have a stake in a system of social security. We have a responsibility to pay in when we can; we also have a right to receive support when we need it. Christina McKelvie was right to put social security in a rights context. The system must take account of our circumstances and the varying ability that we all have at different times in our lives, given the particular barriers to employment—ill health, old age, disability and so on—that people face.
John Lamont made the fair point that the social security system interacts with many powers that this Parliament has, such as powers to do with housing, education and job creation—the list could go on. Devolution of new powers therefore cannot be seen in isolation from other areas of policy, and the Labour Party argues that it cannot be seen in isolation from the financial powers that are coming to the Scottish Parliament.
Social security is becoming a shared competence. We will share common standards across the UK, and we will gain flexibility to adjust the system in a range of areas, to suit need and reflect the policy choices that are made in this Parliament. The challenge for the next parliamentary session will be to make the new system work in a way that improves the lives of the people on whose behalf this Parliament has been vocal in complaining in the past.
Many of the issues will be tested during the upcoming election campaign. I wish members who are standing as candidates well. I hope that they will give priority to this agenda and be honest about the choices that we face as a society in the context of the benefits system—Dr Murray talked about that. She also talked about the options appraisal for the governance of the new system, which the Government has kindly published, and we endorse the view that social security should be a public function accountable to Scottish ministers and to this Parliament. We cannot outsource our responsibility and ambition for a fairer Scotland to a department or agency that is accountable elsewhere. Neither, given our experience of private sector delivery, would it be appropriate for a new system to be contracted out to those who might seek to make profit from the poor circumstances of many of our citizens.
The focus of the Labour amendment has been on child poverty. In addition, we have agreements with the Scottish Government about raising support for carers and abolishing the bedroom tax, which we have already mentioned, but we want a Scotland where the wealth of their parents is not the defining feature in the life chances of our youngest citizens. That is why we have indicated another area in which we will seek to use the new powers by increasing the sure start maternity grant—a payment introduced by the previous Labour Government and which we remain committed to using to assist low-income parents expecting their first child.
I mentioned my hope that candidates in the election will be honest about the choices available to us. Hanzala Malik was right to say that there is a risk that the devolution of significant social security powers could create an expectation that Scotland’s politicians fail to deliver upon. It is therefore vital that all parties are honest, both about where our priorities lie and about whether we are prepared to pay for our priorities and for a fairer Scotland. Labour is committed to using not just the welfare powers that we have argued for but the financial powers that we support for this Parliament. Since 1999, parties have had the ability to propose raising revenue, but with enhancement to the devolution settlement those powers become more and more flexible.
Hugh Henry made the outstanding contribution of the afternoon. He was right to say that the choice has now become whether or not to make change or only to complain about what we do not like. The Scottish Labour Party chooses change. We choose to make Scotland fairer by action, not just words, and we are proud to do so. I therefore support the amendment in the name of my colleague Neil Findlay, and I encourage other members to do likewise at decision time.
As a fellow member of the 1999 intake, I pay tribute to Hugh Henry, who has served in this Parliament for the past 17 years as a minister, as a back bencher and as the convener of a committee. During that time, he has made a distinguished contribution to the Parliament and we thank him for that. I also wish Drew Smith all the best, given that he is standing down after five years. I am sure that he is young enough—as Hugh Henry is—to come back at some future date.
I begin by underlining the commitment that I have given—with a nod to Kevin Stewart—about fast tracking benefits for people who are terminally ill. In any humane society, we would all want such an undertaking to be given, to ensure that anyone who is suffering from a terminal illness is fast tracked for assessment and payment.
That is a good example of many of the improvements that we can make to the social security system that do not cost a great deal of extra money. For example, I have announced that we will use flexibility to offer people the opportunity to have universal credit payments made fortnightly instead of monthly, because sometimes monthly means five-weekly. For many people, it is difficult to budget on a monthly or five-weekly basis with the meagre income that they have. There is little additional cost to the system in offering those people the choice of being paid twice a month—if they so wish—instead of just once a month.
Similarly, every stakeholder, including tenants organisations, has asked us to revert to the older system of housing benefit, under which the benefit is paid directly to social landlords and not to tenants. Under that system, 96 per cent of people wanted and had their housing benefit paid directly to the landlord, and tenants want to go back to that system. Of course, every tenant reserves the right to change that if they so wish, but every stakeholder believes that that system would be an improvement. That would not cost much money at all to implement and we are committed to that.
I will mention a couple of other areas that we are looking at. For example, if we were able to time winter fuel payments to help people who are off grid, that would materially improve their situation, and only an administration cost would be involved. Similarly, I believe that there should be much more co-location of those who dispense benefits and make decisions about individuals in relation to benefit applications and those who provide welfare rights services. That would mean that people could check almost right away whether they had been allocated the right level of benefit—they could get their award double checked to make sure that that had happened. That would help enormously by taking a lot of frustration out of the system. If that were possible, it would cost very little to do.
I turn to other issues that were raised. John Lamont mentioned IT systems. He might be glad to know that, for benefits that rely on major IT systems, in the initial period we will continue to use the DWP’s IT systems. We have decided to do that out of necessity because, if we were to invent our own IT system, it would delay the acquisition of the powers by some years. That is a worthwhile trade-off, even though we will have to pay the DWP for the pleasure of using its systems. In the interests of ensuring a smooth transition, it makes sense to continue to use those systems—which were undoubtedly designed by a Scotsman anyway—until we are in a position to have our own IT system.
I think that Willie Rennie mentioned the benefits of the work programme. We share his thoughts on the matter. Unfortunately, since the decision was taken to include in the Scotland Bill the devolution of the work programme to the Scottish Parliament, the budget that is allocated to the programme at UK level has been reduced from nearly £1 billion to just under £100 million. That means that although, when it was announced that the work programme would be devolved, we expected to inherit a budget of nearly £100 million, the budget that we will inherit will be more like £13 million.
While Mr Neil is on the subject, would he care to comment on today’s revelations in the online journal The Ferret about the links between his party and the private welfare-to-work lobby, which is involved in developing discussions with the Scottish Government on the way forward for the work programme?
I am totally unaware of any such connection. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the Minister for Housing and Welfare when I say that neither of us has any such links. I have not even heard of such an organisation. I have not read The Ferret, but I have no doubt that the relevant article will be in my box tonight, so that I can find out what The Ferret is saying. Maybe The Ferret has got it wrong—not for the first time, I am sure.
It is a tragedy that the budget for the work programme has been reduced so significantly, for the very reasons that Willie Rennie outlined. The measure can make a major contribution, not just in solving problems of social security and poverty but in getting people with particular addictions, such as addictions to drink and drugs, back into a more mainstream way of life. I hope that, at some stage, the UK Government will reconsider that decision.
I move on to cost. In my opening speech, I said that it was our objective to reduce bureaucracy such as form filling and all the other things that cost money. I mentioned the assessment process as a good example of an area in which we can improve the service for the individual and enhance their dignity and the respect with which they are treated. Streamlining the assessment process for the benefits in question and integrating it with the assessment process that local authorities follow would be financially beneficial. A lot of the assessments that are undertaken for self-directed support are also undertaken for qualification for PIPs. If we had an independent medical assessment service that provided such a service to everyone, individuals would not have to repeatedly go through the same medical assessments for different benefits, whether they were provided by the local authority or the social security agency.
That is just one example of how significant amounts of money that are currently spent on administration could be saved and repetition could be reduced. That would benefit individuals, who would not have to go to so many assessments. The money that was saved could be reinvested in the system to further improve our delivery of benefits, as well as the benefits themselves.
We require such an imaginative and innovative approach. I am keen that the administration of the benefits system is as close as possible to the people who are affected. Although we will have a national agency, local delivery is an essential principle for success, efficiency and effectiveness.
In all those areas, I am delighted that there is fairly broad consensus in the Parliament. We should build on that consensus and build a new social security system of which we can all be proud.