I pay tribute to all those who have got us to this stage in the journey to build a dignified social security system in Scotland, including the work on the charter. I feel a bit late to the party, so it was great to have the Social Security Committee in Dundee yesterday, taking evidence—in particular from those with lived experience of the existing welfare system and its failings.
Like many members, I have met constituents who have been left destitute and in vulnerable situations, with families on the breadline and relying on food banks. For part of our visit yesterday, we went to two of Dundee’s food banks, which shared with us the very difficult circumstances that many people are in; they also told us what a lifeline service they provide to those people.
Just last week, two constituents came to see me because universal credit had left them without a penny and, for the first time in their lives, in rent arrears, with all the implications of that. Despite trying to explain their current situation to the DWP and the potential risk of eviction, they were met by a cold blank wall of refusal.
Those are not isolated incidents by any means. Another constituent’s child was ill, which resulted in my constituent missing their appointment at the jobcentre. They could not phone to cancel as they did not have enough money to put credit on their phone. The following day, they walked to the jobcentre to explain the situation, but there is no discretion, so they were sanctioned. That family of two was left without money for two weeks. Members across the chamber will recognise that type of story.
Yesterday, I met Ewan Gurr, whom many members will know—members have probably had lots of dealings with him. Ewan was a Trussell Trust manager not too long ago and established its Dundee food bank. He has witnessed first hand the reality of the UK Government’s policy decisions on welfare. He gave me some quite staggering statistics. In 2012-13, the Trussell Trust received 14,318 referrals. One year later, the number rose to a shocking 71,421—an increase of 499 per cent. We have to ask ourselves how, in the 21st century, in a developed country with the fifth largest economy, we can think that that is acceptable.
We heard from the food banks yesterday about how vital their service is. Importantly, we also heard that what they want in the new social security agency in Scotland is a very different ethos. I am relieved that the Scottish Government is now taking control of some aspects of our social security system. I wish it was all aspects, but it is a start. The charter, as it develops, will help to enshrine the ethos of dignity and respect.
My constituents and people in the rest of Scotland will have access to a compassionate and person-centred system through the agency. People will be treated as people and not as just another number, and they will be treated fairly, with the dignity and respect that they deserve. We will have a fair system that people can rely on and trust. The Scottish Government—and the Parliament, given that there has been a lot of cross-party co-operation—should be commended for its hard work.
When the then Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman, came to my Dundee City East constituency last year, she visited the Brooksbank Centre & Services, which is a charitable organisation that offers advice on money and debt to people in the city. She met there a group of people who were given the opportunity to share their experiences with her directly.
That event and similar ones across Scotland have allowed the Scottish Government to develop a bottom-up approach to the new system and have set the tone for its creation. People feel involved in the system’s creation; they know that that is not a cosmetic exercise and that they are being listened to. Organisations such as Brooksbank feel that they have influenced the shape of the system and how it will work for our communities.
The manager at Brooksbank, Ginny, met the Social Security Committee last night. She has said that the feeling there and at similar projects throughout Dundee is that the Scottish Government is coming into already established partnership networks and becoming part of the sector, not part of the problem. She has told me that her project has been given concise and well-organised information by our new agency and that her organisation will no longer have to worry about chasing payments that people are entitled to, which will enable her advisers to focus on other issues that are caused by the complexity of the UK benefits system.
Not all parts of the new agency are operational yet—we saw an expansion in the job numbers yesterday—but having a system that is operated locally means that projects such as Brooksbank can build relationships with staff and resolve issues much sooner. That partnership work is key to the ethos and culture of the new social security system and is key to getting it right. If we get things right now, we can lead the way in the future and have a flagship social security system that is looked on as one of the best in the world.
The new agency, with its charter, is off to a good start. Yesterday, we saw feedback from people who have received the carers allowance supplement. A post-it that I saw on a wall called that a “Brucie bonus”, which sums it up.