The progress that is being made with the introduction of the new social security powers in Scotland has been commendable, and I consider the inclusive approach to the design of the social security system to be groundbreaking.
For those who have not experienced what it is like to access support through the social security system, the film “I, Daniel Blake” is surely an eye-opener. It is a clear demonstration of why the people who use the system need to be at the heart of designing a new system, and to be able to feed back on how that system is working in practice. Developing the social security charter is the next step in that groundbreaking process; it is therefore important that the approach of inclusiveness and engagement continues.
By taking the welcome principles that sit behind the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 and the social security system in Scotland and setting them out in the social security charter, we will empower the users of the system, the staff who deliver it on a daily basis and the organisations that support people who need support.
The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 gives the following formal functions to the charter. It requires ministers to ensure that independent advice is available on the charter’s content as part of advice on social security issues. The act enables the charter to be taken into account by the courts and tribunals on relevant matters, and requires ministers to report annually on what they have done to meet the expectations that the charter sets out. The act also requires the Scottish commission on social security to report on how the charter is being fulfilled and to make recommendations for improvements.
Citizens Advice Scotland states:
“It is of utmost importance that the Charter is ensuring that it is “not just words”. The Charter must strengthen the guiding principles by embedding them into the system in a practical sense. The Charter should be used for training all staff who will come into contact with those needing support from the system” and in doing so, will support staff to deliver on the agreed principles. It goes on:
“To empower people the Charter must be clear, accessible, and well-advertised. People who do not receive the service they are entitled to should be able to use the Charter to challenge substandard service and seek redress.”
Citizens Advice Scotland is also right when it says:
“Empowering people who require support is in the best interests of the whole system. When service falls short of the necessary standard, people who know their rights can challenge this, which in turn helps to ensure that a high quality level of service delivery is maintained.”
Why is that important? It is because it is important that we always make it clear that social security is an investment in the people, the communities and the wider economy of Scotland.
The principle that the social security system is to contribute to reducing poverty in Scotland is one that I am sure all of Scotland supports. However, that will depend on the ability and willingness of the Government of the day to raise the finances and commit the resources.
One of the most alarming developments of modern-day Scotland is the rise in the level of child poverty. Almost two in five children in Scotland will face the prospect of being in poverty by the end of the next decade. That represents an almost 50 per cent rise from today in the number of child poor, and the figure will have almost doubled since 2010. By the end of the 2020s, 400,000 children will be in poverty. That figure is far higher than it was even during the Thatcher and Major years, when child poverty rocketed.
As the Institute of Public Policy Research recently said,
“the scale of the financial challenge of reducing child poverty will likely need concerted action, for many years” requiring
“a combination of increased earnings for the poorest households (through inclusive growth), and increases in social security payments”.
The figures are shocking and alarming, but they were confirmed in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on Scotland that was published today, which highlights a scale of poverty that should make us sad and angry. Today, more than half the children—56 per cent—in out-of-work families are in poverty, and that figure will exceed 90 per cent by the late 2020s. As the report says, the escalating poverty crisis is driven by the substantial cuts to social security benefits and tax credits and the introduction of universal credit, which will be rolled out by 2023.
Although I accept that we cannot mitigate all the ills of the Tory welfare policies and failed Tory austerity, I suggest that tackling the growing levels of child poverty will be essential to achieving the principles that sit behind the Scottish social security system.