By 2021, Scotland will be responsible for making more social security payments in a week than we currently do in a year. That is a massive undertaking, which the former Minister for Social Security called
“the biggest shift of powers” to Scotland
“in over a decade”.
That will be no small feat and will require a great deal of preparation.
The devolution of social security powers is undoubtedly complex, given the intertwining of UK-wide benefits with any devolved deviations. As the charter enters its early stages of preparation, there is a lot to welcome, but the briefing papers that MSPs have been sent in advance of the debate suggest that there are still areas to consider, which I hope that the cabinet secretary is open to hearing about.
The debate is entitled “Building a Social Security System Together”. Much has been said about the 300-page Beveridge report of 1942. Only 70,000 copies were to be printed, but it was such an interesting piece of work that no one had done before, and such was the interest in welfare, that 600,000 copies ended up being printed.
I will quote an interesting recommendation from the report. It said that social security policies
“must be achieved by co-operation between the state and the individual”.
The state should secure the service and contributions, but it
“should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility ... it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.”
It talks about co-operation between the state and the individual, which was true then and is still true today.
Building the system together could not be a more apt way to describe how to approach the task in Scotland. The state and those whom it seeks to help must work together, if the contract between the two is to work.
When our welfare system was created, the world was different. Society is much changed since the days of Beveridge. Academia has consistently been there in the background to remind us of the statistics that show that women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities are represented differently when it comes to employment and welfare outcomes. Across BME groups, employment levels are much lower than the national average. Currently, 77 per cent of Caucasians are employed, whereas only 55 per cent of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are. Scotland’s social security charter needs to ensure that it serves all ethnicities in Scotland.
The core group that was set up by the Scottish Government includes a diverse range of stakeholders, which I welcome. People with mental and physical disabilities are represented, as well as the LGBT community. However, there are more than 200,000 people in Scotland who are from a BME background, and I hope that adequate space was given to them.
I welcome the creation of the social security experience panels, which were set up to gain the insight of more than 2,400 people who have had experience of the social security system. Anecdotal experience from the ground can and should help to shape welfare policy. Any member who deals with welfare-related casework in their day-to-day role will have had first-hand experience of some of the system’s problems and, by default, we often deal with problems, difficulties and failings in the system, as Jeremy Balfour said. However, experiences of the system are not always negative. I have met some excellent members of staff, who have been very helpful and sympathetic to my constituents.
It seems practical to get honest and realistic feedback from those who use the service. That is the most direct way to learn whether the decisions that we or ministers make are working on the ground. We should be open to evolution.
It is also important that, at a basic level, the system is accessible to all, so I welcome the decisions that have been made for the charter to be straightforward and to use common-sense language, rather than hiding behind bureaucracy and using jargon, buzzwords or the niceties that are often in such charters.
We should listen to stakeholders such as Age Scotland, which highlighted that not everyone in Scotland is digitally literate and that we should make sure that copies of the charter are available in communities through local authorities.
The Government’s position paper outlines that the charter should provide for strong scrutiny and accountability, which I welcome. A report by the disability and carers benefits expert advisory group that was published at the end of 2017 gave some suggestions for what that scrutiny might look like. It highlighted the importance of having an external body to ensure the independence of scrutiny. Given that position and the wealth of evidence in favour of it, I support the prospect of an independent body. The Scottish commission on social security should be afforded the independence that it needs.
I reiterate the comments that Jeremy Balfour made at the beginning of the debate. Many organisations have customer charters that sit proudly on the walls of their offices and are given out to people in nice leaflets. However, the charter should be more than that; it should be an ethos.
The cabinet secretary opened today’s debate by praising the consensual way in which Scotland’s social security system was introduced and agreed to. Although there will be political differences that set distance between us as parties, I hope that there is an earnest and genuine will to make a success of the new agency and the people for whom it seeks to provide.