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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 Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

I am delighted to take part in this debate on Scotland’s social security charter. With 30 per cent of working-age benefits being devolved to Holyrood, along with powers to top up existing benefits and to create new ones, we have an exciting opportunity, which many members have talked about. We also have the important responsibility of considering how we deal with a distinctive welfare system in Scotland and the options for securing the best approach for the people of Scotland.

The inclusion of the social security charter in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 is welcome. As well as setting out what is expected of the Scottish ministers in forming their social security policy, the charter will be developed in consultation with the people who rely on social security daily. The key people who actually receive the service must be part of the process. The approach of engaging with a broad range of people in designing the new welfare system is the right one.

Although the core group is drawn from the wider experience panels and includes individuals who are in receipt of a range of benefits, as well as people of different genders and from different locations, I was a bit surprised before the debate to find that there was a lack of young people or those from ethnic minorities. I am therefore delighted that the cabinet secretary has taken that into account, because it is right that we widen the net to include as many people as we can in the process.

It is important to find out about the social security support mechanism. Notwithstanding some of the concerns, the recommendations of the core group seem to be sensible, reasonable and appropriate. People who will deal with the system daily want it to treat clients fairly and with respect and they want staff to be appropriate, kind and understanding. They want a system that is clear, simple and easy to navigate. Those must be the priorities, and I am glad that many of them are being followed. I am sure that we will get support from not just across the chamber but outside it if we are prepared to take that seriously and tackle it head on, and I think that the process of producing the social security charter is doing exactly that.

However, we need to bear in mind that, no matter how strong Scotland’s social security charter may be, its success will depend on how well it is implemented and what it does to ensure that people get that respect. Individuals’ views must be taken into account to ensure that the system is proper and that appropriate management systems are in place.

There are real issues with implementation. Earlier this year, Audit Scotland reported that the Scottish Government may have underestimated some of the impact of the implementation of the Scottish welfare system. That problem has been identified, and it needs to be solved. I am sure that the Scottish Government will take that on board. Moreover, the new body will require many staff. The Scottish Government has already transferred a number of individuals to the project to ensure that staff are in place, but Audit Scotland has highlighted concerns about whether the necessary staff numbers can be recruited in time to ensure that everything is devolved. That needs to be looked at to ensure that we achieve the goals that we have set ourselves. We want this to work effectively for everybody. Audit Scotland has a role to play in advising us and coming up with some possibilities about issues that could cause us concern in the future.

Of course, we have heard mention of a new information technology system perhaps being required. We already know that the Scottish Government has a difficult track record on IT systems—we need only consider those relating to Police Scotland, farm payments and the national health service. I will simply leave that comment there. We need to ensure that things are fit for purpose. I am sure that that will be addressed as we go forward, because that is vital.

Some positive progress is being made. I commend and congratulate everyone on what has been done. The work of those who have sat on the panels and taken part in the core group will ensure that the charter will be a success. I have no doubt that it will be a success, but the culture of that success must work for all. We must keep in mind the difficulties of setting up a new system, and we must also keep in mind that that system must work for all.

The Scottish Conservatives are supportive of what is taking place, but we will hold the Government to account if things do not work.