Universal Credit (Roll-out)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 5th October 2017.

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Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

2. Earlier this week, this Parliament voted in favour of calling for a halt to the roll-out of universal credit across the United Kingdom. So far, the roll-out has been badly flawed, and the six-week delay will cause untold misery to tens of thousands of families up and down the country. This Parliament now stands with most of civic Scotland in calling for a halt to the roll-out until the structural issues built into the system have been resolved. Will the First Minister and her Government now make the strongest possible representations on behalf of Parliament and the people of Scotland to stop the roll-out of universal credit?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Yes, we will. Indeed, we have already done so; we have been making an argument to the UK Government that universal credit should not be rolled out further until it has confidence—and can demonstrate to the public its confidence—that the system works properly.

During the recent election campaign, I visited Inverness and talked not only to people who were operating a food bank but to recipients of universal credit, who told me about delays and the impacts and consequences of those delays: people getting into debt; people running up significant rent arrears; and huge misery, stress and anxiety being caused to some people in our country who are already in a very vulnerable situation. That is completely unacceptable, and I do not think that any Government should in good conscience continue with the roll-out of universal credit while those concerns continue. We will continue to make that case strongly to the UK Government.

Of course, we have seen this week not only the vote in the chamber but the coming into force of some of the flexibilities around universal credit that this Government has insisted on using. There are new powers to allow, for example, for more frequent payments to be made and for the housing components to go direct to landlords. That is perhaps a small but significant way in which we can help ensure that the most vulnerable are being properly cared for. However, I have significant and very serious concerns about universal credit and the misery that it will cause, and I hope that we can join together to call on the UK Government to do the right thing.

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

Where this Parliament can work together, it should do so in the interests of the people of Scotland.

This morning, we have learned from Macmillan Cancer Support that cuts to employment and support allowance are affecting nearly 300 people in Scotland who are living with cancer. Let me be clear: these are cruel Tory cuts that make a mockery of the claim made by Theresa May and, indeed, Ruth Davidson that the Tories want to build a country that works for everyone. Labour will fight these cuts at Westminster, but can we protect people now? Reversing cuts for those who are living with cancer will cost £400,000, while reversing them for everyone affected will cost £14 million next year. Will the First Minister use the powers of this Parliament to reverse those cuts and support those people in their time of need?

The First Minister:

As I think we have demonstrated by our actions, this Government will act where it can to mitigate the worst impacts of UK welfare cuts. Since 2013, we have invested more than £350 million in supporting low-income families who have been affected by the changes that we have already seen. Of course, we know that the benefit cuts that have been imposed by the UK Government since 2010 are expected to reduce welfare spending in Scotland by almost £4 billion a year by the end of the decade.

We will look carefully at the case that Macmillan Cancer Support has made today; indeed, as we heard just before First Minister’s questions started, the draft budget of the Scottish Government will be published in December, and we will consider the matter in line with the other decisions that we have to consider.

However, it is important to point out that, as I am sure Alex Rowley is aware, employment and support allowance is not one of the benefits that are being devolved to this Parliament. It will remain reserved and, of course, it is one of the benefits that will be rolled into universal credit.

Let me say finally that we will mitigate where we can, but everyone across this Parliament must appreciate what I have said previously: when the UK Government makes wrongheaded and in many respects deeply immoral cuts—this one included—it saves money from doing so, but it does not pass on a portion of those savings to the Scottish Government, so any mitigation that we put in place involves us taking money from other parts of the Scottish budget. We will do that where we can, but I think that everyone who looks at the scale of the cuts that I have just spoken about—£4 billion a year by the end of this decade—will see that the Scottish Government cannot mitigate every welfare cut that the UK Government makes.

Of course, if we had power over all benefits and all the money that supports them, we could take very different decisions. I hope that one day Labour will join us in calling for the complete devolution of all welfare powers, responsibilities and budgets to this Parliament.

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

In her programme for government, the First Minister announced that she would bring forward a number of papers to set out the case for this Parliament having more powers. The Labour Party looks forward to those papers. Where we can work together and where it makes sense to have powers in this place, that is where the powers should be.

I understand the First Minister’s point about continually mitigating the Tories’ welfare cuts. Labour’s answer is that we want a general election as soon as possible. The Government in Westminster is bankrupt of ideas and has no place to go. We will work for that general election and work to put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street.

Some £400,000 from a Government budget of £30 billion would not be a lot to stop the Tory attack on cancer patients, but it would certainly mean a lot for those people and their families. I hope that the First Minister will look at that. If she will not take action, Labour will lodge amendments to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill to deliver that. Saying, “We want a different type of social security system—one based on dignity and respect,” is all well and good, but people want action. Will the First Minister move beyond those warm words and work with Labour to reverse these cuts and address the appalling welfare reforms that are affecting so many people so badly up and down Scotland?

The First Minister:

There were a few points in Alex Rowley’s question—I think that there was a question in there somewhere.

I absolutely agree with

Alex Rowley’s characterisation of the shambolic Tory Government at Westminster. Watching the letters literally fall off the stage set yesterday was like watching an episode of “Fawlty Towers”—it was awful. But there is a serious point here: the shambolic and chaotic Tory Westminster Government is doing real damage day in, day out to people right across Scotland and the UK. That is why I am so disappointed when I hear both the candidates for the Labour leadership say that they would not work with the Scottish National Party in any circumstances, ever. In other words, Labour seems still to be in a position where it would actually prefer to see the continuation of a Tory Government than ever to work with the SNP. That beggars belief and leaves people across this country utterly astonished.

On the specific issue of mitigating cuts, yes, we will look at all the ways in which we can mitigate Tory welfare cuts. Alex Rowley said that Labour would lodge amendments to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill. May I make another suggestion? I suggest that Labour brings forward proposals in the budget process, because that process sets out how we will pay for all these policies. Labour should agree to do that today.

Finally, Alex Rowley seemed to suggest at the outset of his question that Labour’s position on the devolution of welfare is changing. If that is the case, I warmly welcome that. As he said, we will publish a paper setting out again the case for 100 per cent devolution of welfare to this Parliament. I hope that, when that happens, Labour will take a position unlike the one that it took on the Smith commission and stand with the SNP Scottish Government in favour of welfare powers lying with this Parliament rather than in the hands of a Tory Government at Westminster.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

We have a number of constituency questions. The first is from Oliver Mundell.