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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 Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

As members know, many constituents facing sometimes dire situations come to their MSPs for help with benefits issues.

They do so, and will continue to do so, regardless of whether the benefit in question is devolved or not.

With devolution of a number of benefits to the Scottish Parliament, however, it can be said that in at least in one limited respect the actual powers of Holyrood have caught up with the expectations that our constituents rightly have of Parliament.

I want to say something about how the benefits that are now devolved to us should operate, on which I hope that there might be greater than usual consensus, at least on some things. We should consider—as is being considered—what principles we are starting from and what lessons we can learn from the social security system as it has operated until now.

The principles are a good point to start from. They are born not merely of consultation of service users but, as others have mentioned, of genuine co-design. The principles are endorsed unanimously by Parliament and are set out in the 2018 act. Now we have a rare opportunity to try to get it right, at least for the 15 per cent or so of the social security system that is being devolved to Scotland’s control. That means translating the principles into a social security charter.

It is important to say that the charter is more than merely a general statement of good will. Not only will the Scottish Government and its agencies be measured against the charter, but organisations that believe that the system is failing will be able to use the charter to make that point.

The idea of social security as a rights-based system, founded in ideas of human dignity, is radical. Indeed, it is arguably a radical departure from the ideas of social security that have gone before, which come from a system that is historically derived ultimately from ideas such as “the deserving poor” and “the undeserving poor”. Writing a charter provides an opportunity for something better—something that is more clearly founded on ideas of human dignity and equality.

I want to mention one group that is of particular importance in my part of Scotland—namely, people who benefit from cold-weather payments. At least five or six of our starting principles could be invoked as reasons for raising the issue. I have raised the issue of cold-weather payments with the UK Government on numerous occasions in the past. Like other members from the west of Scotland, I recognise that the current threshold for cold-weather payments is very high—or, if we think of it strictly in temperature terms, it is very low. The temperature in an area has to fall below freezing for seven nights in a row before the payments are triggered. On the west coast of Scotland, that is something of a rarity, but areas like mine have some of the worst levels of fuel poverty in Europe.

There are many explanations for that to do with housing types and so on, and much work is being done by the Scottish Government to address the problems. However, another factor is wind chill. The weather that hits the west coast in the winter might not be literally freezing, but it certainly feels like it. I again make the argument that wind chill be taken into account when payments are calculated, and suggest that we all consider that argument seriously as we think about the principles for our new system. As many members have pointed out, we have to build a new social security system that is based on people’s lived experience of the existing one.

By 2021, there will have been an estimated £3.7 billion fall in payments in Scotland in the benefits that are administered at UK level. That is a huge slice out of the incomes of hundreds of thousands of Scots that no amount of mitigation by the Scottish Parliament can possibly make up for. As members will have seen from evidence that has been provided by Engender and other organisations, between 2010 and 2020, 86 per cent of those savings will come from women’s incomes. Those are huge issues for us to think about in considering how the devolved benefits relate to the benefits that still operate across the UK.

That may all be a debate for another day but, as MSPs, we will continue to get inquiries about both devolved and reserved benefits. I hope that our charter will ensure that the system in Scotland is at least accountable and listening, and that it is founded on meaningful guiding principles that, I hope, are shared across the chamber.