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Social Security Charter

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 2nd October 2018.

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Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Like other members, I am proud to have been part of the process of co-designing Scotland’s new social security system, which is a powerful feature of our devolved settlement and I think will change the lives of many people.

We all played a part—Scottish Government officials; the Social Security Committee, convened by Sandra White and then by Clare Adamson, who played a key role; and many third sector organisations, of which I will mention just a few: Child Poverty Action Group, Scottish Association for Mental Health, Justice Scotland, Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland, Marie Curie and Engender.

We are in a reasonably good place. As Bob Doris, the current Social Security Committee convener, said, our visit to Dundee yesterday was a historic occasion, because we witnessed the beginnings of our new social security agency. It is good for the cities of Dundee and Glasgow and the local authorities around them that the agency will bring hundreds of jobs and a new way of working.

It is a human right to have an approach to social security that is based on dignity and respect. The charter will be meaningful, because it will be subject to regulations that will have parliamentary scrutiny and approval. Most important, it will be publicly available, so that people will be able to see—set out, I hope, in plain English—their rights and how they can enforce them.

Citizens Advice Scotland said that the charter’s purpose is

“to empower those using it to challenge substandard service and seek redress”.

That is certainly a core principle for me.

The charter will set out what people are entitled to expect from Scotland’s social security system. Ministers will be required to ensure that independent advice is given, and the charter may be taken into account for the purpose of court proceedings, as a result of an amendment to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill that was lodged by Adam Tomkins, who was a member of the Social Security Committee at the time. That is an important legal point.

There is unfinished business, as I think that all members agree. For the record, and for the benefit of the new minister, I want to mention a couple of issues that I have been pursuing and on which I think more work needs to be done, in the context of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018.

Section 53, “Duty to inform about possible eligibility”, provides that an individual must be informed about potential eligibility for other benefits

“if, in the course of their making a determination of an individual’s entitlement to assistance, it appears to the Scottish Ministers that the individual may be eligible for other assistance.”

That provision should be made clear in the charter, because it is an important principle. It does not confer automatic entitlement but it places a duty on the Scottish ministers to ensure that they maximise opportunities for people to get the benefits to which they are entitled.

SAMH wants the charter to contain a commitment on the promotion of wellbeing. That is a critical principle of our social security system, and I support SAMH’s call.

Age Scotland wants to ensure that the charter is dementia friendly, through consultation with carers and families. I know that such consultation is under way. Age Scotland also says that the system should not be digital by default. We heard yesterday in Dundee that it will not be. That is an important and progressive point, on which the Government has made a commitment.

It is fair to say that, as a result of the work that has been done by all the people who have been mentioned, Scotland’s social security system looks vastly different from that of the UK. I am very happy about that.

CPAG, among others, has expressed concern about the redetermination process and the appeal system. There is evidence that, in the current system, a high proportion of people drop their claims and do not appeal unfavourable decisions. A series of Government amendments to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, including one that provided that after a determination the paperwork would go directly to the First-tier Tribunal, made important steps in the right direction. The Government rejected amendments that I lodged, but in doing so it agreed to my request that it monitor the drop-out rate from appeals, to ensure that people are not dropping out because of the complexity of the system or a lack of advocacy.

I consistently called for the Government to ensure that there is training for the judiciary in our new social security system. I think that there should be new appointments to the tribunal system, to mark its importance. If we are changing the culture of our social security system and expecting decision making to change accordingly, the judiciary is the missing link; we need a judiciary that has come on the journey with us, because those people will make key decisions.

I remain concerned about the structure of the offences and investigations. My amendments were unsuccessful, but I will lay out my concern, which was that a person would have to know about the requirement to notify about a change in circumstances or pass on vital information in relation to a claim. I was concerned that that was too widely drawn, and the Government amended the bill to provide a defence of having a “reasonable excuse”. I ask the minister to pay particular attention to that. It may be a few years hence, but we need to ensure that that provision in sections 71 to 73 does not catch out people who innocently do not provide information.

We have a statutory framework in place that appears to strike the right balance between a robust and efficient system and one that applies dignity and respect to those who rely on it. I think that it was Jeremy Balfour who made an important point about the regulations. It will be the role of the Parliament and the Social Security Committee to ensure that all of those principles are enshrined in the detail of the regulations. I fully appreciate that a great deal of work has gone into getting us to this stage. It is a big moment for the country and a big moment for the Parliament.