Good afternoon. The first item of business is a debate on motion S5M-00374, in the name of Angela Constance, on dignity, fairness and respect in disability benefits. It gives me great pleasure to call Jeane Tomkins to give her first opening speech in the Parliament. I am sorry—I meant Jeane Freeman. I am marrying her off to the Conservative Opposition spokesperson.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer—if not for the marriage that you just entered me into.
I am delighted to be here to open a debate for the first time as Scotland’s first Minister for Social Security. I know that members have already debated and discussed the new powers, and I look forward to working with parliamentarians in the chamber and in the new committee. Our shared task is to lay the foundations of a social security system that we can all be proud of.
Given that this is also my first speech in the chamber, I hope that members will permit me to make two brief points. First, of course, I thank the voters of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, where I was born and raised, for the trust that they have placed in me. Secondly, I pay rightful and due tribute to Adam Ingram, who served the constituency, the South of Scotland and the Parliament so well in the past 17 years, and to Margaret Burgess, in particular for her role in setting up the Parliament’s first social security powers. [
.] I very much hope to emulate their examples of putting people first, of hard work, and of total commitment to doing the best possible job.
I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate during carers week. This morning, I visited Voice of Carers Across Lothian and heard at first hand about the important work that that organisation does. It is important that I heard direct from carers themselves about the challenges that they face. I was able to let them know of the Government’s absolute commitment to make the best use that we can of the new powers to recognise the contributions that carers make to the quality of life of all of us. Those new powers present us with an enormous opportunity to take a different path from that of the United Kingdom Government and to harness the powers to our values so that we support people, tackle inequalities and build a fairer society.
“is loathed by those who depend upon it and criticised by those who understand it” and that there is
“a public media discourse that demonises poor people and equates poverty with wickedness or hopelessness.”
Like many in the chamber, I have heard from disabled people who have been worried and distressed by the cuts that are being imposed and by the way that they are treated by the Tory welfare system. I have heard that the system, which is supposed to help and support those people, is actually doing them harm. There are delays and backlogs, lengthy, disjointed and complicated forms and processes, and inconsistencies in assessment decisions. Driving all of that are calculated and planned UK Government cuts to a lifeline support that is needed by many of our most vulnerable citizens. There are cuts in the name of austerity to provide a so-called fix for an economic crisis that those people did not create, but for which they are now paying a terrible price.
UK Government welfare spend is forecast to fall by 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product between 2015-16 and 2020-21 to reach its lowest percentage level in 30 years. There are systematic spending cuts at a UK level to housing benefit, incapacity benefit, state pensions and employment and support allowance, and the introduction of a benefit cap.
As 85 per cent of benefits remain at Westminster, we do not have the powers to redress all that unfairness, but we can and will do better with the new powers that we will have. With a fairer and more transparent approach to social security, we intend to rebuild the trust that has been eroded and build in equality, fairness and respect. Social security is an investment to support people; it is an investment in people and communities. It there for any one of us when we need it, and without blame or stigma.
The Government has already achieved a great deal with the powers that we currently have. We have protected and invested in the independent living fund. Through the self-directed support strategy and the legislation that underpins it, we have shown our commitment to enabling individuals, carers and their families to have flexibility, choice and control over the support services that they receive. We have fully mitigated the effects of the bedroom tax, providing over £35 million in discretionary housing payments and protecting 72,000 households—80 per cent of which have a disabled adult—from the terrible anxiety that comes when someone is told that they need to pay more for their home simply because they have one bedroom too many.
However, with more than half a million people in Scotland receiving carer and disability benefits, our new powers give us the opportunity to do more. I will outline to the Parliament the steps that we are taking to build a fairer and more transparent approach to disability benefits, making real the principles of dignity and respect. We have already committed to maintaining the level of disability benefits and making sure that they will not be means tested.
We have heard many times that the assessment process is not working. Just last year, through the work of the Welfare Reform Committee, the Parliament was told of some harrowing experiences of disabled people. I pay tribute to the committee and its work, which provided invaluable evidence and insight. We were told of a process that is unable or unwilling to understand and take account of fluctuating conditions, when a person can have good days and bad days. One woman, who some days cannot walk or brush her teeth, said that the process makes her feel like “a nuisance” and “a fraud”. How utterly appalling to live with a Tory system that makes someone feel like that.
We will reform the assessment procedures to ensure that they work for the people who claim disability benefits. The process of applying for and receiving benefits should be easy for everyone to understand, and people should be supported through it. We will set clear timeframes for assessments, decisions and appeals and we will ensure that information is accessible for those who need it. If someone has an existing long-term condition that is unlikely to change, they should not be repeatedly reassessed. Therefore, we will stop the revolving door of assessments for those with long-term illnesses, disabilities or conditions and introduce longer-term awards that are based on individual circumstances and needs. To provide more certainty and reduce stress to thousands of families while the transfer of benefits takes place, any child in receipt of disability living allowance will continue to receive that award to the age of 18 if they so wish.
We will do more. We will build into our system a consistent approach that treats every person with compassion, dignity, fairness and respect—nothing less will be tolerated.
Research by Contact a Family has shown that higher heating and utility bills are the top extra costs for families with disabled children. In 2014, an estimated 34 per cent of families with disabled children were going without heating. It is simply unacceptable that a parent should be forced into making a choice about whether to heat their home. That is why we will extend eligibility for the winter fuel payment to families with children in receipt of the highest care component of the disability living allowance.
Earlier I mentioned the immense contribution that is made by Scotland’s 745,000 unpaid adult carers and 44,000 young carers. Carers are motivated by love and compassion and, for many, caring is a rewarding and positive experience. That does not mean that it cannot have a negative impact on a carer’s physical and mental wellbeing and financial security. Some carers are forced into making difficult choices between work and caring, or between studying and caring. Others take lower-paid or less-skilled jobs to fit in with their caring duties. There are fewer opportunities for carers to do the simple things that we take for granted such as meeting friends, going to the cinema or taking exercise—time just for themselves.
That is why it is crucial that we support carers to have a life alongside caring. It is unfair that support in the form of the carers allowance is the lowest of all working-age benefits. That is why we have committed to increasing it to the level of the jobseekers allowance, which is an additional £600 a year or an approximate 18 per cent increase. We have also won the argument with the UK Government to make sure that any carer who is in receipt of another low-income benefit such as income support will remain entitled to that benefit.
On 25 May, the First Minister announced in her speech outlining the priorities for the Government that we will ask our carer advisory groups for their views on how we might make progress on
“a young carers allowance to provide extra support for young people with significant caring responsibilities.”—[
, 25 May 2016; c 7.]
The suggestion came from the Green Party and I am delighted that we can show in practice our commitment as a Government to listen and act on good ideas wherever they come from. I know that the Greens wanted to amend our motion calling on us to consider that, and I would have welcomed that amendment, as I welcome the idea.
The devolution of social security powers and how we use them is one of the most complex tasks that has been undertaken since the Scottish Parliament was re-established. It is a huge challenge and one that should not be underestimated. It involves delivering a range of sometimes complex benefits that are worth around £2.7 billion. Our first priority, therefore, is to ensure a smooth transition for people who receive benefits, particularly disabled people and their carers. I am confident that, with shared effort, we can meet the challenge of delivering those benefits safely and securely.
An undertaking on such a scale will take time to get right in its technicalities and in the approach that we take to translating our founding principles into attitudes and behaviours that exemplify fairness, dignity and respect. As we progress over the next few years, we will engage in extensive consultation with the Parliament, our partners and, importantly, with our communities and the people who have direct experience of the benefits to be devolved, to ensure that we make the most of the opportunity to create a fair social security system.
We have a huge opportunity to do things differently and better in Scotland. With that opportunity comes the responsibility to make sure that what we deliver plays its part in tackling inequality and making life fairer for the people who claim disability benefits, their carers and their families. Together we can build a stronger Scotland, where every person has the opportunity to achieve their potential, now and in future generations. I am pleased to move the motion in the cabinet secretary’s name.
That the Parliament welcomes Carers Week 2016 and thanks carers for their invaluable contribution to society and recognises the vital role that they play caring for family, friends and neighbours; supports the Scottish Government’s plan to increase carers allowance, extend winter fuel allowance to children on higher rate disability living allowance and ensure that disability benefits are not means tested and that assessments are fair and transparent; believes that carer and disability benefits, once devolved, will help achieve the Scottish Government’s wider goal of supporting disabled people and their carers to participate in society, fulfilling their potential in life; believes that the UK Government’s cuts to disability benefits are unfair and have caused unnecessary stress and financial hardship; urges the UK Government to make no further cuts to disability benefits; agrees that disability benefits are an investment in the people of Scotland and that they should support disabled people and those with long-term conditions and illnesses in a fair way; believes that, when the powers over disability and ill-health benefits are devolved, smooth transfer and transition is a priority, and considers that disabled people, carers and their representative groups should be fully involved in the development of the Scottish benefits, which should have dignity and respect at their heart.
We join the Scottish Government and other parties across the chamber in welcoming carers week. Carers make an invaluable contribution to our society and play a vital role in caring for family, friends, and neighbours. As my amendment makes plain, we welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to implement our proposal to align the carers allowance with jobseekers allowance, because that will support more than 60,000 carers in Scotland.
Could I point out as a matter of accuracy that our commitment to increase the carers allowance was in our 2015 manifesto, whereas the Tories’ commitment came six months later?
The cabinet secretary makes an unfortunate intervention. There has been a lot of discussion of consensus in this parliamentary session. This is a subject on which we agree with the Scottish Government and I would have thought that that agreement would be welcomed rather than criticised.
I thank the Scottish campaign for welfare reform for the event that it held in the Parliament yesterday evening, which I attended with a number of other MSPs, including Oliver Mundell, Ivan McKee, Sandra White and Alison Johnstone. I thank Patrick Harvie for hosting the event. The Scottish campaign for welfare reform, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Poverty Alliance, Inclusion Scotland and many such organisations play an essential role in not only Scottish public life but Scottish parliamentary life. For example, they bring the stories of those who rely on our social security system directly to our attention as MSPs. I express my personal thanks to all those who spoke to us yesterday evening.
In last week’s debate on a fairer Scotland, I said that we want a social security system that supports the most vulnerable, is focused on giving those who can work the opportunities and support to do so, and is flexible and personalised. I explained that we have two core aims—
Whether the Scottish Government likes it or not, the fact is that in the UK 152,000 disabled people are in employment now who were not in employment a year ago.
I explained last week that we have two core aims for the benefits system: we want to be supportive of those who cannot work, and we want to be effective at getting those who are able to work into employment. Those aims apply to both social security generally and the support that we give to people with disabilities.
Like every other member in this chamber, we believe that the whole of our social security system should be operated so as to accord to everyone respect and dignity. There is no difference between Conservatives and anyone else in this Parliament on that essential starting point. Some members, however, speak about respect and dignity as if they are new ideas, unique to them, which they are bringing to the table for the first time.
The ideas of respect and dignity are not new. Indeed, they are already written into Scots social security law, as they have been written into administrative law in the UK since the 1960s. When the Scottish ministers proclaim that they want a social security system based on dignity and respect, they are saying something that we all agree with, they are saying nothing new, and they are saying nothing that is not already reflected and enshrined in our law.
I will choose my own words. I am not using those words, and the minister and everybody else in this Parliament can draw their own conclusions from the words that I use, rather than the words that anyone else uses in a different Parliament. I am more interested in focusing on the social security powers that this Parliament has than in shouting from the rooftops about what happens 400 miles from here.
Working-age benefits perform two different functions in the British welfare state: they support people with very low incomes, and they support people with additional needs. Most of the former will be rolled up into the new single benefit: universal credit. For people with disabilities, the most important source of income support comes from employment and support allowance. The main sources of support for the extra costs associated with disability are disability living allowance, personal independence payments and attendance allowance. All three of those are to be devolved in full.
As I said in my speech last week, our approach to welfare and indeed to disability is to say that the dignity of the pay packet is to be preferred to the indignity of a social security system that assumes people are somehow not fit for work. That approach is working, as more and more people are moving off benefits and into work. However, at the same time, our financial support for people with disabilities has increased. It grew by £3 billion in the last session of the UK Parliament and, in this session of the UK Parliament, more than £50 billion will be spent on support for people with disabilities.
However, there is still more to do. The disability employment gap remains too big. That is why we are committed to halving it. We have had some success—the disability employment rate has increased from 39 to 44 per cent. Welcome as that is, that rate is still some 43 percentage points below the employment rate for those who do not have a work-limiting health condition. That is the gap that we want to close.
There is a lot of understandable concern about sanctions. First, it is important to understand that those who cannot work are not sanctioned. Claimants for ESA who are assessed as being unable to work are not required to undertake any activities in order to continue to receive the benefit. Only those who are able to undertake work-related activities are expected to do so. Even there, any requirement must be reasonable, taking into account the person’s circumstances, and claimants cannot be required to apply for a job, to undertake work or to submit to medical treatment. The requirements that may be imposed include activities such as skills training, job search support, drawing up a CV and work experience.
The former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions accepted in August last year that improvements could be made to the practical operation of the scheme. He said that it should be reformed to focus
“on what a claimant can do and the support they’ll need, and not just on what they can’t.”
That is precisely the sort of change that can be effected by the move to universal credit, which is based throughout on a more personalised approach.
Just a few weeks ago Stephen Crabb, the new work and pensions secretary, echoed those remarks when he said:
“I want to start a new conversation with disabled people, their representatives, healthcare professionals and employers. I want the welfare system to work better with the health and social care systems. Together we can do so much better for disabled people.”—[
Official Report, House of Commons
, 21 March 2016; Vol 607, c 1269.]
Those comments were welcomed by Liz Sayce, the chief executive of Disability Rights UK—
I am grateful to the member for giving way. It seems that it is convenient to the member to be proud of his colleagues at Westminster in certain parts of his speech but not proud of his colleagues at Westminster in the rest of his speech. Can he clarify?
I am not quoting colleagues at Westminster, Mr Cole-Hamilton; I am quoting the
“we need practical, sensible and effective policies which help disabled people to be able to work if they can, enjoy family life and be part of the communities they live in—the same kinds of things that most people aspire to, disabled or not”.
I turn now to DLA and PIP. The personal independence payment, which was introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, is a non-means-tested, non-taxable benefit, payable whether the claimant is in or out of work, to help with the extra costs arising from ill health or disability. It consists of two components—a mobility component and a daily living component. Entitlement is determined by a fair, objective assessment of individual need to ensure that support is targeted at those individuals whose health condition or impairment has the greatest impact on their day-to-day lives.
In comparison with DLA, PIP targets support more closely on those who are most in need; is more responsive as claimants’ circumstances change; is based on a fairer, more transparent and consistent assessment of need; and is designed to be easier for claimants and their representatives to understand.
After some widely acknowledged implementation difficulties in its first years, which resulted in unacceptable delays in some cases, the Government has worked hard to reduce the backlog. By the beginning of this year, the average clearance time for new PIP claims had fallen to 13 weeks—and to six working days under the special rules for people with a terminal illness.
What should the Scottish Government do when PIP is devolved? PIP is based on the right principle—it is a significant improvement over the old DLA. It is designed to provide more personalised support to claimants and to target that support where it is needed most.
It ensures that the support that we give is suited to the needs of the individual, which is a pretty good working definition of dignity and respect. It is highly unlikely to be in the public interest for Scotland to go through yet another complex redesign of a system that is now starting to work well.
I close with four questions for the Scottish ministers that perhaps the minister winding up for the Government could address. First, do they support our ambition to halve the disability employment gap? Secondly, when will they tell the Parliament what their proposed timetable is for the transfer of devolved welfare powers to Scotland? I wrote to the cabinet secretary a week ago about the matter and my letter has not yet received an acknowledgment, never mind a response. Thirdly, when powers over DLA and PIP are transferred, will the Scottish Government commit to maintaining the more targeted, responsive and consistent scheme we see in PIP, or will disabled people in Scotland face yet another costly social security reorganisation? Finally, what roles do ministers see local authorities and health boards playing in the administration of devolved social security for disabled people in Scotland?
I move amendment S5M-00374.2, to leave out from “supports” to end and insert:
“further welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to implement the Scottish Conservatives’ proposal to align carers allowance with jobseeker’s allowance, which will support over 60,000 carers in Scotland; recognises the positive impact that the delivery of short breaks for carers, secured by the Scottish Conservatives in the last parliamentary session, will have in providing crucial respite from their caring roles; acknowledges that disability benefits are not means tested under the current UK government and that benefits related to the additional costs of disability have been uprated every year; understands that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has confirmed that there are no plans for further welfare savings over and above those already announced; agrees that the devolution of most disability benefits to the Scottish Parliament will allow Scotland to take a different path if it chooses to, rather than laying blame on the UK Government, and urges the Scottish Government to ensure the smooth transfer of powers for disability benefits and to work collaboratively with other parties and stakeholders to develop a disability benefits system that puts opportunity at its heart, working to reduce the disability employment gap and exploring a new, personalised and integrated approach that supports the most vulnerable in society.”
The Government motion that is before us today has—with a small but significant change—the enthusiastic support of members on the Labour side of the chamber.
The Parliament will break new ground simply by setting the level of support for our carers. It will be unprecedented when we begin to take charge of the help that is provided to our disabled, and it will be historic when a social security bill is debated and—I hope—passed by members who are present here today. Ground breaking, unprecedented and historic—those words will be at the forefront of the message to the public on the changes in the coming months and years.
Three words—dignity, fairness and respect—have opened the door of the heroic possibilities that lie before us, but politicians must tread carefully with our language. At this time, we should and must be humbled by the challenge that lies ahead of us. It will be outcomes that matter, and it will be substance on which we are judged. In seeking to amend the Government motion today, we seek to add substance.
The content of our amendment was a SNP manifesto commitment in 2015, and it is a position that the Scottish Labour Party supports. It is a simple amendment, which seeks to ensure that the financial assistance that we provide keeps pace with the cost of living. It starts a debate on the provision that we will make for those who need a little extra help.
We begin that debate by asking ourselves what kind of society we wish to see for our children and grandchildren and what support is required to help to create it. In this place, a majority of members have campaigned and worked against cuts in mobility support. We have here politicians of all stripes who have fought to build the work chances of our disabled. We have the drive that keeps us awake at night wondering how we can better help those who devote their lives to caring for our loved ones.
As a young man I am grateful to those who have got us to where we are today: for the battles for recognition waged and won; for the prejudices challenged and beaten back; for the perceptions changed in our communities and workplaces; and for the expectations raised, met and exceeded.
Rightly, expectation is building in our communities once again, in the light of the challenges that disabled people still face today and which campaigners are fighting against every day. Those campaigners will be watching closely to see how we approach the new powers.
It is an expectation not just for those who are directly affected by the powers that we will hold but for the country as a whole. It is an expectation of a system that does not tie up disabled people and carers in red tape, but a system that preserves people’s independence and provides not just a safety net to allow them to survive but a springboard towards enabling them to play a full part in society.
It is an expectation of a system that moves beyond the idea of social protection into a new dawn of social enhancement. It is an expectation of full social engagement that includes people participating in education and employment as well as being able to volunteer and to care for their kids, and simply being able to enjoy and live their lives.
The sentiment expressed in the Government motion suggests that there is a consensus to be found with those of us in the labour movement. That leaves options for the minister who spoke so passionately this afternoon. I ask her to look back at the history of the labour movement and social security—a movement that she knows well.
So secure were the intellectual underpinnings of the welfare revolution, so self-evident are the cultural values of the movement that delivered it, and so enduring has the settlement been for half a century that I am proud to stand here as a Labour member today.
I thank the minister. I am grateful for that support, and I know that disabled people throughout the country will be even more grateful.
That support will be needed to create the changes that we need, and the choice for the minister is clear. She can look to those who have overseen the precipitous decline of Government help, or to those who seek to raise the bar still further. She can look to those who have marginalised our most vulnerable people, or to those who seek to uplift them. She can look to those who restrict the support for those facing challenges, or to those who seek to enhance it.
That is because we in the labour movement have a long-standing belief that, when barriers block the path of one, that path is blocked for all of us—that when one person is left behind we cannot advance together.
If this Government decides to bring about meaningful change to build a system that will enhance the lives of our disabled citizens, a system that ensures that our carers are provided the support they deserve, and a system that reflects the language in today’s motion of dignity, fairness and respect, the minister will have our support and that of the labour movement.
I say to colleagues across the chamber that the future of social security in this country requires us to work together, not with our eyes clouded by political grievance but with our focus firmly fixed on the expectation of a nation: an expectation that reflects a society that we want to see, based on dignity, fairness and respect.
There are times in this country when we as individuals go about our own business, enjoying the opportunities that we have been blessed with. There are times when, as political parties and activists, we campaign tirelessly on the issues we hold close to our hearts. Then there are times when we must come together, inspired by the dignity of the individual and united by a collective impulse to build and shape a shared future. We in the labour movement believe that this is one of those times.
I move amendment S5M-00374.3, after first “disability benefits” to insert:
“are increased at least in line with inflation to ensure that they cover the cost of living,”.
With the welfare powers that are coming to Scotland, we have the opportunity not just to do things differently but to learn from the mistakes of the UK Government in the treatment of people in Scotland with disabilities.
I am conscious of the fact that I have a life that has not had the type of challenges that people who have disabilities face. I spent the past week canvassing opinion in my constituency of Aberdeenshire East from people who have disabilities and those who care for them on the issues that they face living in a rural setting. With a very low number of members in the chamber who are disabled, it is incumbent on us all to do that every time we debate how to improve the lives of those who are disabled. Even better, each of the parties should look at what we can all do to give more people with disabilities access to the public positions that we are in. We could then have first-hand experience as we debate the issues.
Last week, the Tory spokesperson on social security lectured us on what he saw as the overuse of the word “dignity” when welfare and disability are discussed. One thing is for sure: to the people whom I spoke to last week in preparation for the debate, “dignity” is not a word to be used with disdain. It is something that every one of them wanted and rightly deserves, and something that has been sadly missing from their treatment by the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions. In the emails that I received from disabled constituents, the word “dignity” had top billing, alongside the word “independence”. That was more keenly felt by people in areas that did not have the public amenities that urban environments have.
In the past, many of my constituents have had to travel for work capability assessments. Given where some may live, doing that independently is not an option, particularly if public transport is not as frequent or as suitable as it is in urban areas. Many rely on their carers to get them to where they need to go.
As has been mentioned, this is carers week. On Monday, I made a point of visiting the young carers facility at Quarriers in Inverurie. During that visit, I spoke to some young carers and was struck by their stories, which added another dimension to the issues that people with disabilities face—the impact on children when a system is not sympathetic to a person’s situation.
A substantial number of adults with illness and disabilities are cared for by their children. When a disabled parent faces an appointment at a time or in a location that does not take into account the rural location in which they live, that impacts not just on them but on their children. As we have all seen, under the UK system, if a person misses an appointment, or is even slightly late for one, sanctions are swift and often impossible to overturn.
In addition, when a young carer is involved, every assessment that must be attended could mean time off school. Young people who are not of driving age must rely on public transport or assistance from a voluntary support group or a family friend.
As we manage the welfare powers that are coming to the Scottish Government, we have the opportunity to use 21st century technology to make life easier for people with disabilities. A cessation of the unnecessary and often time-consuming visits to an urban location for assessments would make a great deal of difference to people with disabilities in rural areas and to their carers.
As we tackle the connectivity issues in rural areas—doing so is in the programme for government—we should also consider how we serve the disabled in rural locations for whom travel is an issue. We should consider how we use technology to help young carers manage their responsibilities.
My final point reaches across to the education portfolio and to reducing the attainment gap, which is a key priority of the Government. What we do to support young carers at a welfare level can also support their achievements at school and their progression into post-school education.
Getting welfare right can make the difference that allows young carers in rural areas to access their right to further and higher education and make the onward journey to contributing to Scotland’s economy. To that end, it is right that young carers should not lose their allowances if they access further and higher education—allowances that they have lost under the UK system, even if they are undertaking full-time distance learning, as with the Open University.
We have the opportunity to enable our disabled citizens and the families who care for them not only to reach their potential but to live a life that is supported and not made more difficult by a system along the lines of the UK system that they have been subjected to. I hope that, before long, all welfare powers will be devolved to this place, so that we can take full responsibility and have fairness across the board.
It is a great honour to be elected to the Parliament and an even greater honour to represent the area that I was born in and have spent most of my life in. Lothian is a great place in which to live, work, play and study, but the region faces challenges. I will seek to represent and lobby on behalf of all my constituents, who have put me here for a five-year term.
Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives appealed to a wide audience during the election campaign. In the constituency that I fought—Midlothian North and Musselburgh—the Conservative vote went up by 9 per cent. As I went from door to door, many people told me that they were voting Conservative for the first time because they were disillusioned with Labour and they wanted to hold the Government to account, which is what I and my colleagues will do over the next five years.
I thank previous members Gavin Brown and Cameron Buchanan and I record my gratitude to David McLetchie, who sadly passed away during the previous parliamentary session. I have been in politics since my university days and I saw David McLetchie as a role model for how people should conduct themselves.
I thank my family for their support. I also thank NHS Lothian. During the election campaign, I sadly had a heart problem, which meant that I ended up spending six days in Edinburgh royal infirmary, where I had superb care. I thank the staff there and all who helped me through that period.
I also thank the staff in the Parliament for the way in which they have made all the new members feel welcome.
When I entered this place, I was told that I would have to make difficult decisions and would sometimes have to compromise. I did not realise that that would happen so early in my time as an MSP. Only 16 days after I was elected, Hibs won the Scottish cup. On the Monday after that, somebody lodged a motion that asked us to congratulate Hibs on their win. As a lifelong Hearts supporter, I had to make both a difficult decision and a compromise as I signed that motion.
I turn to this afternoon’s debate. I fully support the amendment lodged by my colleague. I should declare two interests at this stage. For 22 years, up until 5 May, I worked as a disabled member on tribunals that heard DLA and PIP cases. Secondly, I am personally in receipt of PIP, and previously received DLA.
I am pleased that the powers have been devolved to this Parliament, and I hope that the Scottish Government will take those powers on as soon as possible, so that we can hold it accountable and can move on from where we are. The danger is that we keep looking back and blaming others. The powers are there. Let us take them and move forward, but as we move forward let us not just change for change’s sake. PIP was a change for many people, with reassessment, tribunals and form filling, and to unsettle them with yet more change for the sake of it would be unhelpful for them and their families. Where alterations and changes need to take place, let us make them, but let us ensure that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water.
I think that PIP has bedded down and is working well. The majority of people are better off than they were under DLA. The beauty of PIP is that it focuses not on a diagnosis and not on a disability, but on how the individual’s needs can be met. I will concentrate on two areas of PIP that we need to look at as we go forward.
Certain people, because of the nature of their disabilities, seem to be struggling to get renewed PIP. The first example is people who have epilepsy that is uncontrolled, which can have a devastating effect on their lives. The 50 per cent rule means that sometimes they miss out, and it would be worth the Government and the Parliament looking at that afresh.
The second area is how we define appliances. I do not know how many members put their socks or tights on by sitting on the bed this morning, but the interpretation of the upper tribunals is that that would be seen as using an aid and an appliance. That seems to me to be far too broad and not what people expected, so we need to look at such terms.
We all agree that we need disability benefits, but they should be focused on the individual and should always be there to help that person and their family be all that they can be and to flourish and experience life as much as possible. Disability benefits should not—as they are sometimes seen as doing—hold people back and prevent them from being who they are meant to be.
In this debate on dignity and respect for those on disability benefits, I want to refer to a constituent of mine who came along to the Possilpark library, where I hold a parliamentary advice surgery, just last Saturday. I thank her for her permission to use her story to illustrate why it is vital not only that as many welfare and social security powers as possible sit in our Scottish Parliament, but that we do far better than a United Kingdom Tory Government that has demonised and victimised some of its most vulnerable citizens.
My constituent received contaminated blood in 1977 during a surgical procedure, although that did not come to light until 2000, when she was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. It has a significant impact on her health and she will not recover, but Atos Healthcare and the Department for Work and Pensions continue to insist that she repeatedly be reassessed. My constituent was a victim when she received contaminated blood, she felt stigmatised when her diagnosis was confirmed, and now she feels targeted and victimised again each and every time she is reassessed for DLA.
As I said, my constituent will not recover or get better. Understandably, she has campaigned for many years to get answers to and justice on a variety of issues. Why does the UK Government continue to require repeated reassessments? There is no way to turn the clock back to before 1977, which was when she became a victim of contaminated blood.
Thank heavens, then, that our Scottish Government has signalled a different way of treating some of our most vulnerable citizens, and I look forward to the use of longer-term and, in certain circumstances, lifetime DLA and PIP awards for them and for the constituent I met in Possilpark library on Saturday. I ask that specific consideration be given to not just the physical wellbeing but the emotional wellbeing of people who find themselves in the same circumstances as my constituent, given that they feel victimised and traumatised every time a reassessment is required.
Because of time constraints, I will not mention my constituent’s recent experience with Atos, which was why she had come to my surgery, although I found out the whole story. Needless to say, I believe that the organisation has never been fit for purpose and that significant problems continue.
The North Kelvin Sports Development Group is a wonderful local organisation in my Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn constituency. It provides an amazing social benefit by running nine young people’s football teams across the constituency as well as a variety of courses to tackle sectarianism and other social issues in north Glasgow and beyond. With its off the bench course, which was funded by awards for all, it hoped to give encouragement to inactive individuals, particularly those released from prison, those recovering from addiction and the long-term unemployed. We might say that it was targeting ESA claimants in a positive way, and Jobcentre Plus locally was very enthusiastic and tried to develop a real partnership approach. However, the initiative was not successful; the main barrier was poor uptake by volunteers, as many were terrified that participation on the course would be used as a Trojan horse to withdraw their benefits. That is an example of good, honest and decent people in Jobcentre Plus trying to work at a local level in partnership with a community organisation but the system just not allowing it.
I mention that example because, when the limited powers that we are getting come to this Parliament, we will still not have powers to deal with such issues. This place will have power over only 15 per cent of all social security welfare payments. That is not the limit of my ambition; we have to get this Parliament the powers to transform the lives not just of the lady at Possilpark library—whom we will get the powers to help—but of the people who could have benefited in a productive way from the off the bench course. The UK system did not allow that to happen, because it is just not flexible enough.
On a more personal level, some members in the chamber will know that my father passed away on election day. He claimed disability benefits for a significant part of his life, and when I was younger, one of my main concerns was that he was sometimes worried about being well, because the system does not support people who think that they might be able to do a little bit more. As soon as the UK Government or the DWP gets a whiff that a person might be able to do a little bit more, they sanction them and withdraw their benefits, despite the fact that those with fluctuating health conditions can find themselves in bed the whole of the next day when they try to do that little bit more. The system dehumanises people, and it is not fit for purpose.
I am glad that the Parliament is getting some limited powers, and I have no doubt that the Scottish Government will do the right thing with them.
It is fitting that it is in carers week that we are continuing the debate about how we ensure that there is dignity and respect in our welfare system.
Carers, in particular, have punched well above their weight in this Parliament since it was created. Now, we must make a commitment to give them more than warm words in return and say that, rather than simply sharing their pain, we will make decisions that will make a difference to their lives. I know that respect for carers is felt across the Parliament, but I think that that is a particular challenge that we should rise to over the next period.
We should thank disability groups for their energy, as a consequence of which they deserve to shape political debate, policy and, critically, the spending choices that are made in this Parliament. I thank Inclusion Scotland, the Glasgow Disability Alliance, Disability Agenda Scotland and others that were active in ensuring that the issues of people with disabilities were highlighted during the election campaign. Of course, listening to campaigning groups is not just something that we should do on the election trail; it should be at the centre of, and be the focus of, what we do now with the powers that we have.
Much of the debate on social security and the impact of welfare changes has been profoundly damaged by the facile and cruel division of our population into workers and shirkers by people whose education and income should have meant that they were capable of much better analysis. That is a corrosive characterisation of our society that damages and stigmatises people and denies the reality of the inequality and injustice that is faced by too many disabled people, not only in Scotland, but across the United Kingdom.
It is right to ensure that people who cannot work are treated with dignity and respect and are supported to live as fulfilled a life as possible. That is part of being a decent society. My party and I want to play our full part in developing and funding those supports so that people do not have to fight for them throughout their lives. That struggle is an on-going feature of the lives of disabled people and their carers. Not only are their entitlements minimal but, in order to get them, they must fight against a system that seems to want to deny them.
Given that more than 50 per cent of the welfare reforms have fallen on the shoulders of disabled people, it is understandable that much of the debate that we are having is about the benefits system. However, there is a danger that, by focusing on benefits, we unintentionally reinforce a model of disabled people’s helplessness and hopelessness and—as Bob Doris said—deny people the opportunity to do a little better, because they will suffer if they try to do so.
My party has always sought to be the party of full employment. I am old enough to remember my mother’s generation fighting for the right to work because of the independence that it brought. It is right that people with disabilities should have the right to work, too. We have to challenge the massive injustice of people with disabilities being denied the right to work when they are able to work, and being denied the opportunity to achieve their potential and fulfil their ambitions.
The statistics are stark. Young disabled people are up to three times more likely than their non-disabled peers not to be in education, employment or training. Disabled people are more than twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications. Less than half of working-age disabled people are in employment—the figure for non-disabled people is 80 per cent. Those statistics show the greater scandal at our hand. We build barriers against the employment of disabled people and then denounce and punish them for not working. That is shameful. The issue is one of equality and fairness, but it is also an economic issue. I therefore contend that the debate around social security must address not only investment in benefits—which it must do—but investment in action to overcome the barriers that are faced by people with disabilities.
The challenge for the Government is to ensure that it mainstreams its thinking on benefits and the needs of disabled people into its employment strategies. It cannot be right that, according to Inclusion Scotland, just 63 out of 25,691 modern apprenticeships in 2013 went to disabled people.
When we talk about the question of fairness and dignity, we must also talk about employment opportunities. What will the Government do in its business pledge to introduce an expectation that employers will provide opportunities to people with disabilities? In public procurement, are we asking those who seek the benefit of the public purse to provide more opportunities for people with disabilities? We know that the Scottish Government’s policy is that every public body should have at least one contract with a supported business—I would welcome an update on that—but can we do more to ensure that the reservation of contracts creates further opportunities for people with disabilities?
In the area of employment and skills, what is our thinking on recognising the barriers for people with disabilities? What are we doing about stigma? What are we saying on the question of social care? I underline to the Government the importance of local government funding and the small bits of money that make it possible for people to secure and maintain work. That is not a Government choice that has a minimal impact; it can be the difference between a fulfilled life and an unfulfilled life for too many in our communities.
The fundamental question that we have to address is how we use and focus the powers that we have—and we do not have all the powers. Can we increase resources through a fairer taxation system? If not, can we have a fairer redistribution of the existing resources? I am sure that many across the chamber will agree with me. This is not special pleading for us to do a favour to people with disabilities, but we must provide them with a level playing field, as the field is currently tipped very much against them. I look forward to working with the Government to ensure that that thinking, not just on benefits but on the rights of disabled people in employment, will be at the centre of its work.
With a range of new powers being devolved by the Scotland Act 2016, this session of Parliament has the potential to be the most transformative since the first, back in 1999. In particular, the transfer of power over some aspects of social security can enable us to give everyone in Scotland the basic security that we all deserve—and that could not come a moment too soon. Those of us at last night’s meeting of the Scottish campaign on welfare reform heard from Ryan, who told us that disabled people were three times more likely to be sanctioned than they were to be found a job. That is at a time when a recent DWP-backed project found that every £1 cut from benefits reduces the likelihood of participants returning to work by 2 per cent.
In recent years, there has been an unprecedented attack on the support relied on by the people who need help most. The Centre for Welfare Reform estimates that almost 30 per cent of the benefit cuts between 2010 and 2015 targeted disabled people. The figures for the most severely disabled people are even worse. A wealth of research into cuts to disability benefits has shown that the recent changes have made it less, not more, likely that claimants will be able to get into work.
The current benefits system not only lacks the financial support that people need, but people feel lost and powerless in a system that sometimes seems determined to defeat them. It is not a supportive system; sometimes it feels like an ordeal. Too many people face appeals that drag on for months, have their files lost, or are not able to speak to anyone with the power to help them. We know that that causes claimants a huge amount of stress and yet can leave them without the basics of life. The Trussell Trust estimates that benefit changes and delays—many of them avoidable errors in benefits delivery—accounted for 44 per cent of all referrals to food banks.
We must do better, and with the new powers of the Parliament, we can do better. Scottish Greens believe that now is the time to radically refound the benefits system in Scotland to begin the necessary culture change. The new powers offer us a chance to chart a different course from that pursued by Westminster. We can have a social security system that does just that—provides security; and not just security of income, but a set of clear, defined rights that people in need can rely on and that enables them not to feel that they are subject to the whims of the benefit authorities. That is why my amendment, which was not selected today, asked Parliament to recognise that rights, as well as respect and dignity, should be at the core of social security.
We can use the new powers to help Scotland’s young carers in particular. We all agree that unpaid care work makes a hugely valuable contribution to our society. Three out of five of us will become carers at some stage in our lives, and one in 10 of us is already fulfilling some sort of caring role. As we have heard, there are around 745,000 carers in Scotland, 44,000 of whom are young carers under the age of 16—some studies put the figure as high as 100,000, which is one in 10 of the school-age population. Gillian Martin was right to point out that supporting those young people is an important part of closing the attainment gap.
Unpaid care in Scotland has an estimated total value of £10.3 billion. That means that, even at a conservative estimate, young carers provide free care that is worth over £600 million a year. Yet, carers of all ages face huge challenges. A third are struggling to pay utility bills, 47 per cent have been in debt and half are struggling to make ends meet and are cutting back on food and heating as a result.
Young carers face additional challenges: most care for someone with a physical health problem, but they also often give emotional as well as practical and personal care; one in 10 cares for more than one person; and about 50 per cent care for more than 10 hours—all of that when the average age of a young carer is 12.
Clearly, carers of all ages, and young carers in particular, need and deserve better support. We now have the opportunity to give that. The new Scotland Act 2016 devolves power over carers allowance, so we can now use the benefits system to show that we value unpaid care.
I was proud to stand on a manifesto that put recognising and valuing care work front and centre. We called for a significant increase in the carers allowance to £93.15 a week and, echoing a call made three years ago by members of the Scottish Youth Parliament in a petition to Parliament, for a young carer’s grant to recognise the care work that so many young people do every day.
Lauren King MYSP spoke about the difficulty that young carers have in accessing financial support, due in part to the fact that carers under the age of 16 cannot access carers allowance. The Scottish Greens welcome the progress made in the Scottish Government’s “Getting it Right for Young Carers” strategy, but let us act now to make sure that young carers are protected from poverty.
I was pleased to hear that the Government has picked up on our Green manifesto commitment to a young carers allowance. I welcome the minister’s positive and supportive words this afternoon and I warmly welcome the opportunity to work with her and the Government on developing that policy.
This Parliament is now presented with the chance and the imperative to create a new, fairer, empowering and rights-based social security system and to reject the increasingly unfair and dysfunctional system that has resulted from Westminster welfare reform. The Scottish Greens welcome the Scottish Government moves so far towards that, and we look forward to working across the chamber to achieve that vision.
Young Ryan, who spoke so eloquently at last night’s meeting, said that the Scottish Parliament has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design disability benefits that work. I agree whole-heartedly with him, so let us not waste that opportunity.
I welcome the minister to her new role. I am sure that she will very much enjoy the post. As a member of the newly formed Social Security Committee, I look forward to working with the minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities.
“The current social security system is failing people with mental health problems”.
It then cites figures from its own research, saying:
“98% of respondents’ mental health had suffered due to welfare reform; 79 per cent of service users had reduced income; 48% of service users were less able to pursue leisure and social activities”.
Most horrific of all, I was startled to read that
“6 suicide interventions were undertaken during the period of research” by SAMH that were linked to welfare cuts. That is astounding. We should all be ashamed that that should happen on anyone’s watch, whether ours or anyone else’s.
I turn to the Scottish Government’s motion, particularly its commitment to involve
“disabled people, carers and their representative groups ... in the development” of the Scottish benefit system. That is tremendously important.
Alison Johnstone mentioned last night’s meeting, where the view was expressed that people were not being involved, matters were not transparent enough and people did not know what the next step would be. The involvement mentioned in the motion is an important aspect of the new system, and those people and groups should be at the heart of any decisions, because we know that those decisions will have an impact on the daily lives of people who access benefits.
As the motion states, “dignity and respect” go to the heart of what we are doing here in this Parliament in the commitment that we are making to the people of Scotland on the new social security system. If my recollection is correct, I believe that they were also in one of the Christie commission recommendations, which we have also adopted. That is important.
Cuts in benefits and PIP are being raised with me more and more in constituency cases and I am sure that it is the same for all members. I was at Flourish House last Monday and PIP was raised on numerous occasions. People had presented themselves for assessment to be told that they no longer met the criteria for any payments.
The work that agencies do to help people with mental health problems to recover is being set back because people who may appear to be leading a normal life are told at assessment panels that they do not meet the criteria, as if everything is fine. That has a devastating effect on such people—I met a number of them at Flourish House. All the good work that the agencies that work with them have done is set back and, as my quotation from SAMH says, other problems come with that. Basically, the valuable work that agencies carry out with people with disabilities and mental health problems stops when people go to panels. That is why it is important that we consider the assessment procedures and reform them to stop the revolving door of assessments and appeals, which contributes directly to increased stress and anxiety among people who are left in limbo and do not know where else to go.
I welcome the introduction of a long-term award for existing long-term conditions, which Bob Doris mentioned. I hope that, regardless of the politics in the chamber, all parties will support those proposals.
I note that the Scottish Conservatives have put in their amendment something about working “collaboratively with other parties”. I appreciate that, but I say to Mr Tomkins that it would be more helpful if the truth was told that the cuts come from the Conservative party at Westminster.
I urge the Scottish Conservatives in the Parliament to speak to the Tory Government at Westminster to ensure that no more cuts are forthcoming for anyone, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK. People have had enough. The SAMH statistics that I mentioned about people attempting to commit suicide are shameful. I hope that the Conservatives will take up my genuine suggestion that they speak to their counterparts at Westminster.
I will finish with some quotations from Enable, which show that we really need to do something—and we will in the Scottish Parliament. The first is:
“Claiming DLA is difficult—the forms are horrendous and it is so upsetting having to justify every bit of support your child needs and having to write in minute detail” exactly what is wrong with your child. Another is:
“Someone from the local authority came to fill out the DLA claim form—she was very insensitive and handed me a leaflet” and said “Just tick these boxes”.
We have to ensure that those things do not happen in the Scottish social security system. We owe that to people and I am sure that, if we all work together, we can ensure that that is the case.
I will make three points in support of our amendment to the motion.
The first is a caution. This is an important debate. Powers will be devolved to this legislature that give unprecedented ability to provide disability benefits in particular. To echo Sandra White’s point, in receiving those powers, we have an opportunity to look forward and work collaboratively using all parties’ best abilities to ensure fairness to all stakeholders. However, that can be achieved only if we ensure that none of us falls into making the basic error of demonising—to use Mr Doris’s word—any of the contributors to the debate or the wider continuing discussions. In a debate such as this, it would be easy constantly to hark back to Westminster policies in particular and evil Tories, but to do so would be as unconstructive as it would be unproductive.
My understanding is that the funding has gone up and we have devolved the matter. If Sandra White will allow me to develop my argument, she will hear more on that.
I was encouraged to hear Jeane Freeman talk about listening and acting on good ideas, wherever they come from. Let us not alienate anyone without reason. If Scotland chooses to take a different path from the one that is being taken by the rest of the UK, that will be its prerogative, so let us look forward and decide what is the best path without making unedifying attacks that do not do anything to move the debate forward.
I recognise the Scottish Parliament’s responsibility to do the best that it can with the existing powers and to build consensus, but does Liam Kerr agree that it was profoundly unhelpful to define this debate—as some of his colleagues did—as being between shirkers and workers, and that such language should be left elsewhere?
I am afraid that I just cannot; I have taken two and I have only six minutes.
Let us look at what underpins the Conservative amendment. The implementation of a disability benefits system for the vulnerable, the distressed and the disabled that is empowering, that facilitates participation and that recognises everyone’s contribution and value to society is one that we can all support. We can all agree that any social security system should provide a safety net, with the ultimate ethos—to use Citizen’s Advice Scotland’s wording—of creating
“a more equal and socially just society”.
In practice, I would suggest that that means enabling those who require disability benefits to achieve an appropriate standard of living, while promoting independence, participation and equality.
It is clear that Scotland cannot simply offer benefits to anyone who demands them. If we accept that as a premise, it must also be accepted that there is a line to be drawn, beyond which people do not have an entitlement: on one side of the line, a person is in the category of being disabled and will receive benefits; on the other, they are not in that category and will not. Drawing that line will be one of the great challenges. It must be done very carefully and only after much objective, reasoned scrutiny and investigation.
If members agree that there has to be a line, they must also agree that it is vital that appropriate experts make the assessment about the side of that line on which individuals fall, and that they use objective, clear and unambiguous criteria that are applied in a manner that fully respects the individuals involved and ensures that all stakeholders, including those who are being assessed, have confidence in the system. We should not be restricted in deciding which people from which professions are best placed to make the assessment or be involved in the process.
Some members have made it clear that they feel that the UK Government’s system is too harsh or makes inappropriate judgments. I do not challenge the strength of their feeling, but we have an opportunity to design a bespoke system for Scotland, and simply pointing at the UK Government and saying, “You’ve got it wrong,” will do nothing to advance this opportunity.
Quite the contrary is the case. Whatever members’ view of the UK Government’s system is, there are lessons to be learned. As Adam Tomkins and Jeremy Balfour said, and as the Child Poverty Action Group accepts, the personal independence payment is based on the right principles, it has improved on the DLA system and it provides support that is more geared to the needs of the individual. It is unlikely to be in the public interest for Scotland to go through a comprehensive redesign of the system for political expediency. Therefore, the task for this Parliament will be to draw the line appropriately, following objective debate and the selection of appropriate experts.
That leads me on to my final point. There is a fundamental risk of category error in any such debate, in so far as it is very easy to categorise a group as “the disabled” and to leave it at that. Our amendment makes it clear that the category of “person in receipt of disability benefits” is not fixed, nor is membership of that category an end in itself, with the person remaining in that group or being ascribed other characteristics automatically.
Having a disability and/or being in receipt of a disability benefit is not and should not be a barrier to work. Many people in receipt of disability benefits cannot work and must not be stigmatised or suffer any prejudice for that reality, but many disabled people can and want to work and need our support to get into work.
I take on board much of what all the members in the chamber have said and the point that the Tories want to talk about how we can deal with the powers that we now have, but they cannot get away from the heartache that has been caused in communities throughout Scotland by their so-called welfare reforms, no matter how they try to dress that up. They cannot just say, “This is day 1. This is the new beginning.” They have to take responsibility for some of the things that they have done.
What I will accept is that the Tories have put families through disability tests, with people having to prove how disabled they are—their condition is not assessed—and that of the people who failed to get their PIP, some 80 per cent end up getting it on appeal anyway. The Tories have made the situation an absolute farce, and they cannot dress it up or kid on that they are the good guys in the whole scenario.
Having respect for individuals at the very heart of everything that the Scottish Government intends to do on disability benefits will be a welcome change to many people and families who live with disabilities. The Westminster Tory Government has treated disabled people with no respect, offered them no dignity and made them feel that their disability is their fault through its attacks on their benefits, which provide the very money that gives them and their families the opportunity to get by.
Many members will be aware that I work with the Renfrewshire access panel and that I am a patron of the Scottish Disability Equality Forum. Through that work, I have seen the heartache and devastation that the Tory Administration in Westminster has caused. It is only right that the Scottish Government challenges itself to treat disabled people with dignity and respect.
As this is carers week, I should declare an interest as a carer. Many members will know my wife Stacey. I am her primary carer—although she has done not a bad job in the past 20 years of keeping me on the straight and narrow. Today is our 20th wedding anniversary, and I would like to use our experience of dealing with multiple sclerosis as an example of the challenges.
I have seen how a disability can affect someone in their life. I have seen the young woman who walked down the aisle 20 years ago—I say to Mr Tomkins that, if she did that now, she would probably fail her PIP assessment—become a woman who now has to adapt how she lives her life to deal with her disability.
Scotland is full of such stories, of families who are struggling to deal with life’s many challenges with the added disadvantage of dealing with a lifelong condition. When we work with those families in their time of need, we need to ensure that the state does not become one of their extra problems, which is exactly what is currently happening with the Tories’ so-called welfare reforms—Conservative double-talk for making the poor and disabled poorer and less able.
I want to discuss two elements of the debate that are extremely important to me: the role of carers and people who live with long-term conditions. As I stated, I am Stacey’s primary carer. However, I am lucky enough to have the support of a family who can ensure that I can go out and try to achieve everything for our family. Others do not have that opportunity and support. The Government needs to ensure that that type of support can be offered to carers so that they get the opportunity to do that. Many carers cannot work—they would be the sole earners, but they cannot work because they have so much to do with their caring work.
Obviously, MS is a condition that I have to live with. When I say that I have to live with MS, I mean that I have to live with Stacey dealing with it. She supports me and her family supports us to ensure that we can deal with it.
The MS Society Scotland recently asked us all to “Make welfare make sense”. That is not a strange request, because the current system does not help with long-term conditions such as multiple sclerosis. We need to find a way to ensure that we can make that easier. The society said:
“The welfare system in Scotland must not threaten the financial security of people affected by MS through unmanageable assessment processes and short-term awards, but instead show a greater understanding of the complexity of the condition.”
We must take into account the conditions that individuals have and what people have to deal with. One of the key findings of a recent MS Society survey was that most people who are diagnosed with MS are between 20 and 30 years old. Those are the key years in people’s working and educational lives, but 80 per cent of people who are diagnosed with MS end up not working within 15 years of being diagnosed. That shows the challenges, which exist with many other long-term conditions, too.
It is good that the Scottish Government continues to talk about respect and dignity in the debate but, as someone once said, “Let’s not count the days; let’s make the days count.” Let us make sure that we get this right and support families throughout Scotland who have to deal with long-term conditions and disabilities.
During my first speech in the chamber, which was in a debate on Europe, I talked about my delight with the consensus that had been forged across the benches and the parties on that issue. Today, I rise to deliver a speech in the same vein. Throughout the election campaign, the Liberal Democrats fought on common ground with the Government, the Labour Party and the Greens on the need to improve the lives of and the quality of support that is available to families who are affected by disability. I am therefore delighted that the Government has brought the motion before the Parliament, and we will support it and the Labour amendment.
We meet at the height of carers week, to which many members have referred. It is right that they should do so, because the army of carers that our society relies on are the unsung heroes of the care sector. Without their support and without the love that we as a country arguably exploit, the cost to the care sector would be doubled many times over. In many cases, people are just one late-night hospital dash away from surrender but, because they love their families, they keep going and going.
As other members have done, I make special reference to the needs of young carers, because we often forget that they are more than just young carers—they are children and young people as well. They care for siblings or parents who have profound disabilities, but they still have to sit exams and have a meaningful childhood. Given the powers that we now have at our disposal, it is incumbent on us to ensure that they have as normal and as happy a childhood as possible.
Public policy is a vehicle through which we can extend help and comfort not just to those who are affected by disability but to the people around them, and my remarks will focus on both those groups. I will speak about three particular issues: first, getting help at the point of need; secondly, ensuring that our society is geared up and that we remove any systemic or bureaucratic barriers whenever we find them; and finally, ensuring that political rhetoric is matched by reality.
As we know, in many cases, disability first becomes manifest and is detected in childhood or infancy. It is often a terrible and life-changing moment for families when they realise that they will be forever affected by a particular disability. However, detection is not always immediate and disability is not always visible. In the fairer Scotland debate, I spoke of the case of my constituent who has been fighting for the best part of a year for her daughter to be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, and I mentioned the waiting lists that she has had to contend with for child and adolescent mental health services. That is an immediate barrier to getting people to the starting line for state support. Although we can all agree on what a dignified and wholly humane Scottish system of social security should look like, we need to look at the peripheral barriers that prevent people from getting to the starting line.
Diagnosis is not the only barrier to people getting state support; awareness is a big problem as well. When I was working for a children’s charity that specialises in delivering services for families who are affected by disability, I met a family whose daughter was diagnosed at birth with a lifelong condition that she would have to contend with. She is a profoundly disabled child, but it was only at her two-year check-up, when the family met another family whose child had a similar condition, that they were made aware that they were entitled to any form of state support or assistance. We have to do better at making families aware of the support that is available to them.
As we have heard, there are many barriers and traps for people once they get support. Throughout their lives in modern Scotland, they have to face tests and sanctions from an unfair and undignified testing regime. We must form a progressive alliance across the chamber to unpick and dismantle those, and I congratulate the Government on the work that it did immediately prior to the Scottish elections on ending the manifestly unfair removal of the disability living allowance for children who went into hospital for a protracted hospital stay. There was the assumption that because someone’s child is in hospital, they no longer have caring responsibility for them, but ask any carer and they will tell you how manifestly untrue that is.
We need to talk about how we marry up political rhetoric with the actions that we, as the political class, take. Talk is often cheap in this area and, for those who are affected, action matters most. We can look right across the history of devolution at the fact that there are still people today who are fighting for justice after the contaminated blood disaster and recognise the challenges that they still face. We are finally reaching a marriage between political rhetoric and reality there, but there is still a long way to go.
In 2008, the UK Government came up with the aiming high for children with disabilities strategy, and that was met with £36 million of Barnett consequentials that came north, but we are still waiting for a strategy for children who have disabilities. Indeed, we need to make sure that our local authorities are delivering on their political commitments under the single outcome agreements that they set but which so seldom reference the needs of people with disabilities.
I am grateful to colleagues from across the chamber for the respect that they have shown one another. We do everyone a disservice who is affected by disability—
For the past 20 years, I have worked as a clinical pharmacist specialising in psychiatry. Mental ill health is the leading cause of chronic illness and it represents up to 23 per cent of all ill health in the UK. It is the largest single cause of disability.
Mental health problems often affect people of working age; they are very common. We have heard that one in every four of us will suffer a diagnosable condition.
One of the reasons why I came into politics was that I witnessed every day the unfair effect of the welfare system on the patients with whom I was working. Medication can really help people with such illnesses, but no medication can overcome the effects of poverty or isolation.
I have seen at first hand the effect of the Westminster attitude to welfare. I have seen a patient with treatment-resistant schizophrenia wrongly declared fit to work and consequently losing her benefits. I watched her try to cope with the threat of homelessness and the stress of the appeal process, and I watched her illness deteriorate to the point at which she needed to be admitted to hospital for several months. It is a barbaric way to treat our most vulnerable citizens. It is also expensive. In-patient care in a psychiatric hospital costs almost £3,000 per week. That is truly a false economy.
I have also worked with people who have attempted suicide because they lost all hope after losing their benefits. Any one of us in the chamber would struggle to remain healthy if we felt that we were the victim of blind economic forces over which we had no control, or if we felt that we had no say in shaping or determining our destinies.
Many people who have mental health problems can work and want to work. We need to support them to work where they are able. However, the current welfare system does not do that. It is mistrusted, it causes anxiety, and it lacks sufficient flexibility to measure the impact of mental health conditions on a person’s ability to sustain employment. That is not just my opinion; there is now a substantial body of evidence that demonstrates that the welfare reforms that were introduced by the coalition Government in Westminster were not fit for purpose for people who are experiencing mental health problems. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Samaritans and the Scottish Association for Mental Health, along with many others, all raised concerns.
The devolution of parts of the social security system provides an excellent opportunity for us to redefine the narrative around what we want the system to achieve. We have to be clear that it should be about empowering citizens, facilitating participation and recognising everyone’s contribution and value to society.
So what needs to change? The people undertaking assessments of an individual’s ability to work must have an adequate knowledge and understanding of mental health. We must acknowledge that stress and anxiety are having an adverse effect on the mental health of those being assessed, reassessed and then reassessed again. Many people are being refused payments or are having their benefits cut or withdrawn, only to have them reinstated on appeal. We have to make the system work more effectively and we must remove the fear factor.
The patients with whom I worked suffered a double stigma: first, from having a mental health problem, and secondly, from being on benefits. We need a social security system that does not stigmatise or punish people who receive benefits.
The assessment of an individual’s ability to work must be based on the person’s day-to-day abilities and not on an isolated instance. One of the main criticisms of the current system is the lack of sensitivity to illnesses that vary in severity from day to day or week to week. We must recognise that, for some individuals with chronic illnesses, where there is less chance of a significant, sustained improvement or even of an ability to live independently, repeat assessments are unnecessary.
Let us look at the evidence, and let us work with the service users and with the professionals who work with them to design more effective polices and services. By working together, we can make sure that we design a system that is better equipped to meet people’s needs.
The Scottish Government has a proven record of taking action to protect the vulnerable, through our commitment to universal services—
—our establishment of the Scottish welfare fund, and our ensuring that no one in Scotland is impacted by the bedroom tax. With dignity, fairness and respect at the centre—
I welcome the minister to her role.
In November 1942, the Beveridge report was presented by its author, Sir William Beveridge, to the British Parliament. It provided a summary of principles necessary to banish poverty and want from Britain and it proposed a system of social security that would be operated by the state. In 1945, Clement Attlee’s Labour Government announced the introduction of the welfare state, as contained in the Beveridge Report. It included the establishment in 1948 of a national health service with free medical treatment for all at the point of need. A national system of benefits was also introduced to provide social security, so that the population would be protected from the cradle to the grave. It was the foundation of the modern welfare state and those of us in the Labour Party are very proud of that.
Like the minister, I hope that we can have a Scottish social security system that we are proud of. I cannot imagine that Clem Attlee or Nye Bevan, who was the founder of the NHS, would have considered that, some 70 years after the introduction of their system to make people socially secure, we would have to debate dignity, fairness and respect in relation to disability benefits. However, it is obvious that we do.
Cuts to disability benefits are unfair, as the Government’s motion points out, and they cause stress and financial hardship, which have a major impact on health and wellbeing. When researching her book, Kayleigh Garthwaite worked in a food bank. She found that the impact of welfare reform was a major reason for people to use food banks, along with issues such as ill health, caring responsibilities and redundancy. She gives an example of a food bank user, Martin, who shows how undignified people can feel when they are on benefits and have to rely on food banks. He had no electricity, as he could not afford to feed the meter, so he was given a box of cold foods. When asked if he wanted tinned fish, he said:
“Salmon on benefits? Don’t let the government hear you’re giving out luxuries like that”.
Kayleigh points out how that shows the ingrained stigmatisation of people who use food banks.
Another example is a woman called Sally, who has ME, fibromyalgia and bipolar disorder. She was forced to use her local food bank because of benefit changes. She said:
“Although the staff at the food bank are very respectful, being forced to use the food bank and having to rely on such little money has made me feel less of a human being. I wish the government would stop and realise we are human beings not second class citizens.”
With the devolution of some benefits, specifically disability benefits, to this Parliament, the Scottish Government has an opportunity to treat people like human beings.
Although much of what has been said today could apply to the whole of social security, there is an emphasis in the motion on disability benefits, which definitely require a more sympathetic approach. As the helpful Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland briefing tells us, benefits must be underpinned by a human rights approach. That means a shift in perspective in relation to people who are entitled to benefits and a change in the language that is used when referring to them. The Alliance also recommends advocacy support during the assessment process and I am pleased that the Scottish Government intends to make assessments fair and transparent.
Many people, particularly elderly people, do not get the benefits that they are due. Sometimes, they do not know where to start applying, they are too proud or they take no for an answer in the first place and they just do not appeal. They need help to access what is rightfully theirs and it is good that the Government has recognised that.
The Parliament now has the powers to do things differently and to treat people with kindness, compassion and respect. The transfer of welfare powers and tax powers gives the Parliament the most power and responsibility that it has had in its history. Over the years, those were the powers that were most often mentioned as the ones that people wanted to be devolved. However, to paraphrase my friend the late Jimmy Reid, powers without principles or purpose are hardly worth having. The people demanding those powers undoubtedly believed that if welfare and further tax powers were devolved, Scotland would make different, more compassionate choices than those of the Tories at Westminster. To do that, the Government and the Parliament need to be ambitious and invest more in this sector. Just changing priorities will not be enough.
“Those choices that have already been taken, on prescriptions, tuition fees and on free personal care, have simply been taken at the expense of other areas of social and welfare policy—the cake has been divided differently perhaps, but has not been made bigger.”
As members who know me will be aware, I supported all those policies when it was not politically fashionable to do so. However, I do not think that we have to choose between good policies.
It was the norm in previous decades for any politician calling themselves left of centre to make the argument for progressive taxation on the understanding that to get decent public services and a fair society, we all need to pay fair tax. If the Parliament is really to come of age and if its make-up is really a majority left of centre, I believe that we must use the new tax powers to make the cake bigger so that we can provide dignity, fairness and respect in disability benefits and provide better public services.
I will finish by quoting Nye Bevan, who said in his book “In Place of Fear” when talking about the NHS and welfare:
“To call it something for nothing is absurd because everything has to be paid for in some way or another”.
Unless it is taken from somewhere else in the public purse that cannot afford to lose it, a better, more just system of benefits and public services must be paid for. I suggest that it should be paid for through fair and progressive taxation.
I welcome the minister in her new role. I wish to speak about the armed forces servicemen and women and their need for dignity, fairness and respect with reference to the welfare benefits system.
Since world war two, we have seen our armed forces deployed overseas in several campaigns, from Korea and Suez in the 1950s and onwards to the present day. Our men and women of the armed forces take up the call of duty as ordered and they go to those theatres of operation in the knowledge that they could make the ultimate sacrifice. Those who very sadly are killed on operations leave behind them loved ones and dependants whose lives have been turned upside down. If servicemen and women receive life-changing injuries, it can have a similar impact on loved ones and families in their lives ahead and on the serviceperson who is living with a disability.
As members will recall, in my first speech in the chamber, I spoke about the armed forces community covenant and its purpose when it was implemented in May 2011. It is precisely the purpose of the covenant to help and support our sailors, soldiers, airmen and women, reservists and veterans who find themselves in the situations that I have already described.
The covenant brings together our national Government, our local authorities and our communities, those serving in the armed forces and our veterans. In looking further at ensuring that our serving armed forces personnel are fairly treated by the welfare system, I think that there are varying levels of experience when they and our veterans are dealing with social welfare benefits.
I responded to Mr Corry’s initial speech in this place by saying that the Ministry of Defence could do more to help folks with mental health problems when they leave the armed forces. It is all fair and well that we have a social security system that deals with all cases, but I think that the MOD has a role to play. Does the member agree with that?
I fully agree with that—in fact, I have been dealing with that issue in my role as shadow spokesperson for veterans’ affairs.
Various organisations that provide support to veterans in Scotland have experience of some of the issues that I have highlighted. Veterans generally lack knowledge of the welfare benefits system, while some of their civilian counterparts have a greater awareness of the system through family members who receive benefits. There are, sadly, areas of Scotland in which generations of families have never had employment—unfortunately—and as such those families are able to understand the welfare system and how it can help them. Meanwhile, veterans are likely to have little specific awareness of the recent changes to the benefits system, such as PIP. Veterans are, in the main, reluctant to seek assistance from the benefits system, citing a feeling of personal failure, and it is felt that welfare benefits staff generally lack awareness of the needs of the veteran client group. Myths and misconceptions abound with regard to what a veteran is, following on from similar myths about what it is to be a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces.
Communicating with welfare benefits staff can be difficult and frustrating for the veteran. There is evidence that, despite having the veteran’s consent, the staff will not discuss a client without that client being present. Veterans frequently comment that they feel that the welfare benefits system does not take cognisance of their service of their country or the military covenant.
Many of those points have been evidenced by organisations such as Glasgow’s helping heroes; Veterans Scotland; SSAFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association; Shelter Scotland; Scottish Veterans Residences; Erskine Hospital; and the Royal British Legion Scotland, to name but a few.
My research and experience have shown over the past few years since the implementation of the military covenant in 2011 that several key elements of welfare benefits are now firmly in place for our armed forces, both for serving personnel and for veterans. Those include child benefits, statutory sick pay, the armed forces independence payment, PIP, the sure start maternity grant, job allowances, tax credits, childcare costs, council tax relief when on military operations and social housing.
With regard to social housing allocation, it took some considerable time to bring about fair treatment for our armed forces personnel when they leave the services and their Ministry of Defence house. For many years, there was no recognition by local authorities and housing associations of the many years that our armed forces personnel had spent living in MOD housing, and therefore they went to the bottom of the pile as they did not have enough points on the housing scale. Realising that unfairness—I take on board Kevin Stewart’s point in that respect—the UK Government encouraged change among local authorities. Councils now recognise the time that personnel have spent living in MOD housing and give them parity with those in civilian housing.
Since the implementation of the 2011 military covenant in the UK, which was signed by a Conservative Prime Minister, things have come a long way for the members of our armed forces—both men and women—and for the 260,000 veterans who are now resident in Scotland. Nevertheless, there is still some way to go before we reach the levels of recognition and support for veterans that we see in the USA and Canada and in some western European countries.
I am sure that we can achieve that in Scotland. To get there, we must build on the successes that have been achieved so far by listening to the needs of our armed forces services—both men and women—and our veterans throughout Scotland for dignity, fairness and respect in our welfare benefits system.
Under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights, disabled people have a fundamental right to be treated with dignity and respect. The UK Government and the Scottish Government also have a duty progressively to realise the rights that are contained in the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which includes the right to an adequate income and the right to be fully included in social and community life. That means the right to safety and security, and the right to live life—or, in some cases, what is left of that life—free from the worry of being unable to afford to heat or eat.
I thank Inclusion Scotland for its briefing, which tells us that disabled people are being robbed of their dignity and respect, of an adequate income and sometimes even of their lives by the current benefits system. It tells us that sanctions are being imposed unfairly and disproportionately on disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities and mental health issues. It notes that the combination of welfare reforms, the work capability assessment, mandatory reconsideration and sanctions are pushing an increasing number of disabled people into poverty and destitution, and that one in five—one in five!—JSA sanctions is applied against disabled people.
Let us look at one aspect of the current regime: PIP. Adam Tomkins attempted to convince us that PIP was working well, so I will highlight the reality for a current claimant. A person with motor neurone disease has been asked to undertake his PIP reassessment by questionnaire, more than a year in advance of the date on which his current claim ends. Let us not forget that the prognosis for someone with motor neurone disease is 14 very short months. He received a questionnaire in February this year, when the award runs until May 2017—a whole 15 months away. Fifteen months: when someone may have only 14 months left of their life, much of that with decreasing quality and independence. Renewal forms usually go out between three and six months before the renewal date—so what is that all about?
He has been asked on the questionnaire to state how his disability affects him now. Anybody who knows about motor neurone disease will know that, with its rapid progression, it can change from day to day but progressively always gets worse. That assessment would give a snapshot of the illness as it is now and would have little bearing on how the illness progresses or how it might affect him next May—should he actually make it until then.
That has caused stress and anxiety for the gentleman, who may be given a lower PIP award than he might require next year—so he may need to be reassessed again. That stress and anxiety could rob him of his confidence and, more important, the precious little time he has left. He has also been made aware that he could be called up to face reassessment—not only the stress of all of that, but a reassessment.
The gentleman contacted the MND Scotland welfare and benefits officer; after much to-ing and fro-ing and stress and anxiety, they recently managed to resolve the situation. Should he have needed to go through that whole process? I say, no, he should not. The stress that he has been through in trying to deal with the DWP and get a commonsense approach to his renewal process has had an adverse impact on his life and is neither a fair nor dignified way to deal with people who have a terminal progressive illness.
The committee that dealt with the devolution of powers did that very well on its own. What we need are the budgets transferred with the powers—so Mr Tomkins can take his part in the process and I will take my part.
I agree with MND Scotland, which believes that people with the illness should be exempt from assessment, as used to happen under the incapacity benefit that pre-dated the employment support allowance.
I also agree with MND Scotland that, for as long as a PIP is in place, people with MND should receive a lifetime award of higher-level PIP so that they do not need to contend with a renewal process in the first place.
Next week, I will host an MND exhibition; I suggest that Mr Tomkins and his colleagues go to speak to the people who will be there and perhaps they will get a better picture.
If we truly want to ensure that we put dignity and respect at the heart of the new system, we need to ensure as quickly as possible that we protect people with MND and other life-limiting disabilities from the culture of a system that does not treat them with dignity and respect.
I believe that this Government has the will to do that. Early talks with people who are affected will ensure that the Government will live up to that promise.
I had the pleasure on Monday this week of attending the North Lanarkshire Carers Together annual general meeting. It was a fantastic event with more than 250 attendees, many of whom were carers from across the North Lanarkshire area. It is a fantastic organisation under Elizabeth Seaton, the chair, who has been a formidable, tireless and passionate campaigner for carers for many years, born out of her own caring responsibilities. The organisation has been going since 2001, when it was formally constituted, and has contributed hugely to the lives of carers in my area. It is a force for change: it has raised the profile of carers issues; it influences policy decisions at a local and national level; and it really makes a difference every day for carers in my area.
We have a massive effort ahead to make the new powers work. Increasing carers allowance by £600 a year—18 per cent—will make a huge difference to the lives of carers, and I hugely welcome the initiative about young carers allowances and look forward to seeing progress with that. We have done so much in the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016; the right to a carers assessment is instituted in law and we also looked at such things as the 84-day rule, which will be abolished by this Government.
We have a huge task ahead, however, that will rely on working in conjunction with the UK Government. It remains to be seen how some issues that were discussed when we considered the bill, such as local eligibility criteria not leading to a postcode lottery, will work in the future.
I have been fascinated by some of this afternoon’s speeches. The contribution of Maree Todd as a mental health professional was wonderful and informed the whole chamber about the issues.
Enable Scotland said in its briefing that
“a specific medical assessment is rarely the best way to assess any claimant’s disability and that it is in fact particularly unsuited to assessing those with a learning disability who can be particularly vulnerable to negative decisions in any process which involves communicating their difficulties. Benefit specific medical assessments tend to produce snap shots of a claimant’s life rather than a long term picture”.
How many conditions could those comments apply to? They could apply to MS, which George Adam mentioned, to MND, to chronic pain and to mental health conditions. We must get the system right and not continue down the line where a snapshot defines a person’s future and their economic situation.
I very much understand why the Tories want to draw a line under their history. If I were a Tory, I would want to do that and forget about it, too. Unfortunately, life is not like that. The language of shirkers and strivers that Johann Lamont and others have mentioned, is not new.
I am old enough to remember Peter Lilley’s appalling address to the 1992 Conservative Party conference, in which he absolutely attacked the benefits system. I would therefore like to say that I have a little list. It is a list of Tory austerity practices that the SNP Government will be rooting out—and they will not be missed. Repeat assessments of terminally ill patients should go—as the minister said, they create a revolving door of reassessment. Remote assessment centres, which my colleague Gillian Martin mentioned, make life much more difficult for people. Meaningless assessment criteria for fluctuating conditions, which have been mentioned, should go. Assessments that leave people humiliated and threatened should go. Mandatory reconsideration before appeals can happen just delays the process and puts people in economic and emotional turmoil. Expert medical opinion has been ignored, but why on earth would we not listen to our general practitioners and other people who know patients and clients better than anyone else? Oh yes—I have a little list, and I trust that the SNP Government will not miss a single one of those practices.
During the previous five-year parliamentary session, welfare-related issues rose quickly up the agenda. By the end of the session, they were near the top. Much of the debate that happened in those five years was characterised by what can best be described as an unedifying scramble for the moral high ground. Welfare was an easy target with which to hit the Conservative Government.
In today’s opening speeches, we heard again that—apparently—Conservative welfare reform drove the issue. However, if we look back, we see that the reality is that the welfare reform programme started before the Conservatives were in government and was necessary a generation back.
The first great attempt to reform welfare happened back in 1997, when Frank Field was the welfare minister. Perhaps members will notice from graphs that that was the last time that sanctions reached a peak.
The reality is that the Conservatives in this Parliament have taken and continue to take a constructive and engaged approach. A number of speakers—Kevin Stewart, Johann Lamont and Clare Adamson—have chosen to introduce what I can best describe as pejorative language in an attempt to denigrate the Conservatives and their position, but I assure members that those speakers did not and will not hear such language from Conservatives in this chamber.
I will not.
It is a tribute to the work that Conservative members have done that we will not go down such a road. Other members have to introduce such language to support their arguments.
The truth is that we have a different attitude, but we are the party that in Government—and yes, I will claim credit for what happened at Westminster—devolved the powers over welfare for the disabled to this Parliament in the Scotland Act 2016. We have a tremendous opportunity, but there are dangers of which we must be aware.
No, thank you.
Over the past five years, we have seen the gradual transfer of some welfare powers, such as the welfare funds. When the schemes were wound up and replaced by alternative schemes, there was a widespread view that those schemes had been abolished and that the money was no longer available, when in fact the schemes existed in a different form and the money was still available, although people were unaware of that.
As we make changes, we must be careful not to change too quickly. There are good signs that PIP is working, and we have heard today from my colleague Jeremy Balfour about his experience of that scheme. We have also heard that additional resource is moving into a number of other areas, and although some members seek to portray those changes as cuts, the truth is that the money is actually increasing in many areas.
We need to work together constructively, and I am delighted that so many people in this debate have sought to engage constructively. I hope that that is a change of direction and one that we can take forward, because I agree with the statement that was made by Jeane Freeman at the very start of the debate, that we need a social security system that we can all be proud of and that, thanks to the decision to devolve powers over disability benefits, we can take a different path from the rest of the UK. That is an opportunity that we should grasp and during the next five-year period of government we must have the courage to work together on that.
There are also those in this debate who have asked for further devolution of welfare responsibilities. Those who would like to see the devolution of pensions, for example, must start telling us how they might go about paying for their promises should they ever come to that conclusion. We must be courageous. We on this side of the chamber have new faces, new ideas and new energy to take us forward in this task. I hope that the Government will show maturity greater than that shown by some others and by some of its back benchers, by realising that there is an opportunity to put the past behind us and make things better for the people who require our support.
This debate is key to how we see ourselves as a society. It is a cliché to say that we judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable people, but just because it is a cliché does not mean that there is no truth in it. The current UK Government most certainly is not caring compassionately for our disabled neighbours, friends and relatives, because low-income families, the elderly, the vulnerable or the needy, and 100,000 Scottish disabled people have lost out as a result of ideologically driven cuts to disability benefits. Hundreds of thousands of low-income families across the UK, many of them working families who are poor as a result of low pay and wage restraint, have been affected by cuts to housing benefit and tax credits.
There is a big list of social security cuts that have been introduced by Cameron and Osborne since 2010. Child trust funds have been abolished in England, education maintenance allowance has been abolished, working and child tax credits have been reduced, the health in pregnancy grant is gone, housing benefit has been cut, and child benefit has been frozen and ended for some claimants. There have been council tax benefit cuts, and replacing DLA with PIP has saved £1 billion a year, and of course there is the grotesque bedroom tax. The list goes on and on and on, with more than 40 benefits cut, including all benefits for lone parents, the disabled and families, affecting the poorest and most needy people in our communities.
What I find offensive about all that is the relish and glee with which it is done. Time after time, as Osborne has announced his latest budgetary assault on the welfare state, we have witnessed Tory MPs cheering and braying as they condemn another family to the food bank and another young person to a future devoid of hope and opportunity or strip another disabled person of the mobility car that is their link to the outside world.
I find it truly sickening when I see a Prime Minister and a chancellor in a cabinet of millionaires with an estimated combined wealth in excess of £100 million cut their own taxes and those of their friends in the corporate world while at the same time they remove the safety net from those most in need of our help.
This Parliament was not established to be a conveyer belt for bad policy, no matter from where or from whom it emanates. In the last parliamentary session, a Labour member’s bill on the bedroom tax forced the Government to act. That shows what we can do when there is the political will to act. As a result, with the new powers that are coming over a number of areas of social security, we have an opportunity to do things in a very different way.
Having sat on the Welfare Reform Committee in the last session, I think that a large majority in the Parliament supports the creation of a more humane, fairer and supportive social security system that is designed to help people into employment, gives those who, for whatever reason, are unable to work support in their lives and gets us away from a system based on suspicion, on the language of strivers and skivers that Johann Lamont referred to and on a set of political beliefs that sees the state as some tyrannical enemy of freedom. Indeed, that is how the Tories see it. According to that philosophy, the welfare state is a barrier to the operation of the free market. It intervenes in the economy and the labour market, it attempts to universalise life chances and—heaven forbid—it redistributes wealth.
That ethos underpins the Tory attack on the social security system and, like the Tory motion, the Tory speakers today have not acknowledged the untold misery that they have inflicted upon people. Two and a half thousand people have died after being declared fit for work, but there has been not a word of remorse from Mr Tomkins. Indeed, how would we ever expect a word of remorse from Mr Johnstone?
Let us build a different system, one that, for example, supports the army of carers who look after their family and friends. In that respect, we should not celebrate the fact that carers allowance will be increased to the level of JSA; that will hardly lead to a life of luxury for people. It should be the minimum that we provide, and we should be looking to move much further on as the system develops. We need a system that allows disabled people to live fulfilling independent lives and which helps rather than hinders them. Finally, we need a system that provides a safety net to ensure that any of us who require help can be helped.
We have the chance to do that, and the test for any of us who claim to be progressives is whether we want to take that chance.
In carers week, I want to take this opportunity to express my thanks to and deep admiration for carers across Scotland and those in my constituency in particular—I think of the work of the north west carers centre in the north of the city and Cornerstone Community Care’s in your corner initiative, which supports young adult carers in north-east Edinburgh. I also pay tribute to the remarkable third sector organisations across Scotland that work in day in, day out to help mitigate the negative impacts of UK Government welfare reform, such as the citizens advice bureau in Leith, which I visited on Monday, and the Granton information centre in my constituency.
Behind the wording of the Government motion sits a fundamental question about how we can better support our society’s weakest members through different, wiser and more compassionate choices than those of the current UK Government wherever and whenever this Parliament has the power to do so. On the issue of assisting those who need our assistance most, Adam Tomkins last week made the valid point that although Westminster sets the floor we in this Parliament will, with new powers, soon have some opportunity to—in his words—raise the ceiling.
However, the challenge for us in Scotland, which Mr Tomkins did not mention, is not just how we improve our social security system but how we do so with only 15 per cent of social security powers, and how we can make progress from a financial and policy position in which the floor that Westminster sets, to use Adam Tomkins analogy, is steadily falling, cut by cut and year by year.
The circumstances that face the most vulnerable people in our society are, of course, difficult and challenging. Therefore, the role of Government should be to assist them, not to judge; and to support, not to distress. For those reasons, I believe in the Scottish Government’s commitment, which the minister outlined, to create a social security system with dignity and respect at its heart, and to use our new powers to make a meaningful difference. I particularly support the Scottish Government’s proposals to ensure that disability benefits are not means tested and that, instead, assessments are fair and transparent.
The UK Government’s cuts to disability benefits are often unfair, and they have caused unnecessary and unacceptable stress and financial hardship. For example, as Sandra White mentioned, a survey by SAMH revealed that the mental health of 98 per cent of the relevant respondents had suffered due to welfare reform. Another example is revealed by Inclusion Scotland’s research, which shows that 45 per cent of disabled people with mobility vehicles have lost their cars following the transfer to PIP.
My points are based not just on reporting and analysis but on the experience of many of my constituents who have contacted me in states of unnecessary distress, discomfort and genuine suffering, due in particular to the PIP assessment process. One constituent recently wrote to me about being transferred from DLA to PIP, with a significant reduction in the award for mobility. They wrote:
“This has turned my life upside down ... I’m now at the point where I have to go to appeal and quite honestly I’m not sure how much fight I have left. This has just floored me. It’s like having my legs taken away. Help.”
That is an upsetting account, as are others that I have received that use similar words. What is more upsetting is that they are just some of many similar stories from those affected throughout Scotland.
The UK Government’s approach to social security has too often caused instances of injustice. It has lacked generosity and it has been mean-spirited. That is why this Parliament must and will make different and better choices with the social security powers that are coming to this institution, as the minister outlined.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to dignity, fairness and respect in disability benefits, and I look forward to the positive change that lies ahead.
In carers week, we recognise the selfless and necessary role that carers play in society; more important, we can show the action that we can take in this Parliament. As the minister, Jeane Freeman, said, the goal is to ensure that
“carers have a life alongside caring.”
It is testament to the hard work of carers groups that carers have a high priority in the Parliament’s agenda. Carers week also reminds us that, without carers, our society simply could not function, and that any of us may be called on to be a carer at any point in our lives.
The main purpose of the motion for debate is to ensure dignity and respect in our social security system, which should be the heart of a fairer Scotland. Adam Tomkins says that no party should have a monopoly on bringing that issue to the table. I agree. That is the ground on which the new Scottish social security system should be founded. As Ben Macpherson and others have said, we need to take the social security system in a new direction.
There is anger out there and in here about the fact that aspects of our welfare system, to date, have not given people—and disabled people in particular—a dignified life. As a citizen, I have never felt so angry and powerless as when I saw the reforms and cuts to benefits that were made on the back of the austerity measures in 2012. It was not just that there was an attack on living standards by a reduction in benefits and allowances; as others have alluded to, the very system has left many vulnerable people in despair. Maree Todd made an excellent speech in which she said that the system gave people no say in determining their own destiny. In some ways, the feeling that someone can do nothing is worse than a financial cut.
In some societies around the world, such conditions have led to revolution and the overthrow of Governments. We have the opportunity, perhaps, to have our own quiet revolution to change what has been, to some extent, an inhumane system. Christina McKelvie rightly quoted an excellent briefing by Inclusion Scotland, which says that disabled people have been “robbed of their dignity”. There are many stark figures in the briefing: the figure that one in five jobseekers allowance sanctions is applied against disabled people is really shocking.
There is nothing dignified about some aspects of our current system, as Neil Findlay said. On work capability assessments and the so-called appeal system, has it not occurred to the person who designed that system that someone might have to wait for the benefit that they have applied for? How are they meant to live during the weeks in between? Sixty per cent of employment and support allowance sanctions are against claimants with mental and behavioural disorders.
The criteria changed. Mr Tomkins and Mr Johnstone are on the side of the chamber that wants to have consensus in this debate. There is much for the Conservatives to defend here, as there are huge financial losses, and I did not hear one word from members on the Tory benches about the thousands of people who will lose out in the transfer to PIP. Inclusion Scotland says that 47 per cent of DLA claimants who were awarded the higher mobility rate will lose their entitlement to the enhanced rate when they are reassessed. What do the Conservatives have to say about the 45 per cent of disabled people with mobility vehicles who are losing their cars?
We need to have a discussion with ministers and the new Social Security Committee about the transitional arrangements as, by the time we have the powers, a lot of the transfers will have taken place.
Johann Lamont made the crucial point that not enough action is being taken to overcome the barriers to disabled people going into employment. That is perhaps the greater scandal. The figures that she quoted on modern apprenticeships are a scandal, and the Parliament needs to address them. Making progress in that area would mean making real progress in giving people dignity and respect. The phrase “achieving your full potential” should mean something to everyone.
Alison Johnstone talked about the new powers that are coming to the Parliament. We are getting those powers at a crucial time, and we have a chance to design a new system that will put dignity back. I think that we can work across the parties to achieve that and that the Parliament will show that it can do something with those powers.
I am glad to have the opportunity to close the debate as the new welfare reform and equality spokesperson for the Scottish Conservative Party. I, too, add my thanks in support of carers week, which is taking place up and down the country. I also offer my personal thanks to the many carers who provide an invaluable service to families and communities in Scotland.
I am very proud of the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to bring carers allowance into line with jobseekers allowance, a move that will support more than 60,000 carers, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to implement the proposal.
With spending worth £1.5 billion being devolved to the Scottish Parliament—that is the entirety of the disability living allowance or the personal independence payment—it is now in the Scottish Government’s hands and its responsibility to ensure that it delivers the new system of disability benefits. As I said in last week’s debate, it is clear that, now that we have those new powers, blaming the UK Government is no longer appropriate or acceptable. The devolution of the powers allows us all to have a rigorous discussion about how we support some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Again, the issue is so important in part because, if we do not design Scotland’s social security system properly, we will be letting down the most vulnerable people in our society.
As Adam Tomkins said, we want our social security system to have some basic principles at its heart: it should primarily support the most vulnerable in our society, it should be flexible and personalised, and it should give those who can and want to work the opportunities and support to do just that.
We should start the process with a positive outlook. We should not imply things that are untrue about the current system such as, for example, that disability benefits are means tested under the UK Government. Creating that confusion is not helpful for anyone and serves only to score political points. As Jeremy Balfour said, although there are problems, PIP is in essence a constructive system and a marked improvement on the DLA; and, as Adam Tomkins said, benefits relating to the additional costs of disability have been increased every year. We are asking for constructive innovation, not a complete upheaval.
Any social security system worth its salt should serve to support the most vulnerable in society. If an individual is unable to work, it is fundamental that our social security system is able to support them in a fair, dignified and respectful manner at all times.
I believe that it is necessary to take measures to ensure that our social security system is personalised, responsive and flexible. It is, of course, important that the individual’s needs should always be borne in mind, and an effective and efficient social security system should be able to respond to differing and often complex personal circumstances. We should do our best to ensure that the administration of our social security system is not overly burdensome. Similarly, we should be mindful that Scotland’s social security system does not simply involve a revolving door of assessments and too much paperwork. We should also make better use of medical evidence and information sharing. We, too, want innovation and, as Liam Kerr pointed out, the Scottish Conservatives have our own vision. We must all look to the future.
Will the member accept that, in the context where 15 per cent of the benefit powers are devolved to us and 85 per cent of the powers remain at Westminster, the reality is not that we are looking to the past but that we are looking to the present? If she really wants assistance for those who want to go into employment, she and her colleagues will turn to the UK Government of which they are so proud and remind it not to cut benefits and support to the long-term unemployed and to people with disabilities who want to be employed. The Conservatives need to stop believing and trying to make others believe that, somehow, we are backward looking while her party is forward looking, because that is far from the truth.
The Scottish Government will have control over some top-up benefits. I am trying to say that we need to work together in this chamber to deliver the best for the people of Scotland.
With the integration of health and social care, we should explore whether attendance allowance and DLA and PIP should be a part of a similarly integrated system, by devolving control further to local authorities and health boards or to the new health and social care partnerships. Indeed, on that subject, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has said:
“Full devolution of the disability and carers benefits to Scottish local authorities could be used to develop more rounded personal budgets to enhance health and well-being outcomes and improve personal independence.”
That option could allow a more localised, personalised and flexible disability benefits system. I instinctively believe that decisions are best taken as close to those who are affected by them as possible. Such innovations could result not only in a more effective social security system but in a fairer and more engaged one that focuses on people as individuals rather than on physical disabilities. In short, we should work to ensure that people are supported to achieve personal independence holistically.
That brings me to an important point: in striving for dignity and personal independence for disabled people, we should always strive to help into employment those who can and want to work. For an individual to be supported to find work and for that individual to work and contribute to society is surely also a dignified and fair outcome. I welcome Johann Lamont’s comments in her speech about supporting people to get into work and keeping them in work.
Thinking about fairness for people who have a disability, do we think that it is fair that employment rates for disabled people are currently 43 per cent lower than for those who are not classed as disabled? Of course it is not fair. We need to do more to help those who are looking for work. Whether that means developing skills and boosting confidence or more practical support and advice, it is vital that the support is ready and available for people who are looking for work.
Many disabled people can work, want to work, and need some support to get into work. I am whole-heartedly committed to ensuring that all disabled people who want to work have the opportunities and support that they need to get and keep a job. The words “dignity” and “respect” imply empowerment and opportunity as much as protection and security.
In short, we have two core aims when it comes to the disability benefits system: we want to be supportive of people who cannot work and we want to be effective at helping those who want to work.
I welcome the proposed plan to increase the carers allowance, which is in line with our policy.
I congratulate Jeremy Balfour on his maiden speech. I listened to it with interest—particularly the parts about his experience of serving as a tribunal member. I hope that the Tories have had the good sense to place him on the Social Security Committee.
I will talk about mental health and mental illness, which have been a feature of the debate. Sandra White spoke about mental health and Maree Todd spoke powerfully about the impact of hopelessness on people’s mental health. Mental health issues have also been a thread throughout many of the debates that we have had over the past two weeks as we have begun the new parliamentary session, not least thanks to Alex Cole-Hamilton.
As a consequence of that, I have recalled the words of my old social work boss when he tried to support and comfort me as a newly qualified mental health officer when a young woman with whom I had been working went on to commit suicide. He said: “Angela, you have to remember that mental illness is sometimes terminal.” He meant that mental illness, like physical illness, can be life limiting and, at times, fatal; and it can be invisible. There are people going about their lives and their business in our communities day by day and week by week who, as a result of a wide range of mental health issues, go through invisible turmoil and torment, which we neither see nor understand.
I mention that because it is important for anyone who works with or for people with vulnerabilities or difficulties of any description and for those of us who are charged with the responsibility of designing, building and providing a new service such as the Scottish social security agency, which is the largest-scale project in the Parliament’s history.
Here I agree with Mark Griffin. We will have to have the insight, understanding and humility to know how hard we will all have to work to get this right, and to get it right from the start. Dignity, fairness and respect will be built in with the bricks of the new agency.
Johann Lamont was right. We need more than warm words. We will proceed in a spirit of co-production and will work with those who have lived experience of the benefits system. At all times, we will think about how it feels to someone when the person who is doing the assessment wants to examine their stomach, although the problem is that they cannot get out of their bed in the morning because they have been crying constantly as a result of depression; or how it feels when someone reads a report that has been written about them in which they are described as “it”. We should not underestimate the need to ensure that the correct culture and values are at the heart of the new agency.
Mr Tomkins spoke about timescales. Make no mistake: we want to get the new powers as soon as is practical—indeed, we wanted more powers—and we want to make different choices. However, our number 1 priority and responsibility must be the powers’ safe and secure transfer. That means that we must work as part of the joint ministerial working group on welfare to ensure that the powers and resources are transferred appropriately. I hope that Mr Tomkins is relieved that I did receive his letter—an acknowledgement was sent to him yesterday. The joint ministerial working group on welfare will meet for the first time after the election next week, and I have had constructive discussions with David Mundell and Stephen Crabb, but I must emphasise the practicalities. Folk rely on their benefits, and we will not be bullied into unrealistic timescales. Despite our eagerness, we have to get this right.
As Mr Tomkins acknowledged in his letter to me,
“the implementation dates for welfare will be agreed by the Joint Ministerial Working Group on Welfare”.
As he also knows, over the summer months the Scottish Government will undertake a pre-legislative consultation on the new Scottish social security agency. We are proceeding with a wealth of detailed work. We will proceed as fast as we can, but we will take great care and be very cautious in doing so. We will not compromise on getting the new system right, because people depend on us, and they depend on receiving the right amount of the right benefit at the right time.
I turn my attention to the Conservative amendment. Many members have picked up on the fact that the Conservatives have conflated some of the disability issues with employment issues, which, covertly, feeds into a nasty narrative about the deserving and the undeserving poor. We must remember that we do not have all the powers to support people into work. I regret that deeply, but we will ensure that we use the powers that we have to maximum impact. It would be remiss of me not to reiterate that, before they were devolved and the associated resources were transferred, employment services received a whopping 87 per cent cut.
We must question the Conservatives on some of their practices, because 100 per cent of the welfare state remains with them. When we get the new powers, we will have 15 per cent of it. We must question how people losing their Motability vehicle helps them to get to work. That makes a sham of the Conservatives’ claim to be ambitious about reducing the disability employment gap. How does making people fight for what should be theirs by right help them? How does that increase their confidence and assist them into the workplace?
We will continue to oppose all attacks from the UK Government on social security for disabled people. It is imperative that expenditure is protected not just for the benefits that are to be devolved to Scotland, but for benefits that will remain reserved, and that includes the ESA.
Today, we have heard Tories appeal against unwarranted attacks on Westminster. As Pauline McNeill said, what about the unwarranted attacks on the poor? I have not heard any Tory member today stand up for the poorest in our society. We have to remember that £6 billion has been taken from welfare expenditure in Scotland and that £1 billion of that is from our children.
We have heard an appeal for consensus. If Mr Tomkins thinks that he can come to the chamber and appeal for consensus when the Tories are cutting £30 a week from the employment and support allowance or to defend a sanctions system that is not fit for purpose, he can get “on his bike”, to quote an infamous Tory.
If the Tories were really serious about consensus, they would vote with the far more progressive voices in a range of parties. They would vote against the £12 billion of cuts that have still to come on top of the £21 billion that has already been taken out of welfare throughout the UK.
Finally, I know that the Tories like to vote no. So why do they not vote with us, stand up to Westminster, and vote no to welfare cuts along with the rest of the members in the chamber?