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Last week, I stood before members in the chamber and outlined the great progress that has been made since the passage of the Scotland Act 2016, including on plans to reform disability assessments, successfully making Social Security Scotland’s first payments and being in a position to deliver best start grants by Christmas, more than six months ahead of schedule.
Today, following the publication of our interim findings, I will set out in more detail our work to develop the social security charter, which is yet another example of how hard we are pushing to create a better system for the people of Scotland.
Any discussion of the charter should begin with the principles that it must reflect. Those principles—human rights, tackling poverty, respect and dignity—are the cornerstones on which our new system will be built.
The spirit of co-operation that led us to the statements of ambition that were set out in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 ranks among the finest achievements of this Parliament. It speaks to our capacity to look past political difference and to work together on our most fundamental shared goal: to make things better for the people we serve.
Members on all sides of the chamber deserve credit for their role in that work: Adam Tomkins and Jeremy Balfour clarified its legal status; Alison Johnstone and George Adam helped to shape the principles; Mark Griffin strengthened the consultation requirements; and, thanks to Pauline McNeill, the charter requires parliamentary approval—a democratic seal that will ensure that our founding ideals for this public service can never be forgotten. They will recognise, as I do, that the work of the Government and Parliament is shaped by our responsibility to carry those ideals from the statute book to the everyday delivery of services in a way that will be meaningful in improving people’s experiences.
That is the purpose of the social security charter. It will reflect the principles of the new social security system, explain in clear, concise terms what people are entitled to expect from the new system and will describe specific actions that the system will take to ensure that those expectations are realised in practice.
During the bill process, the message from stakeholders and committee members was clear: that the people of Scotland should be at the heart of the charter’s design. We have worked to give faithful effect to that remit, and the process that we have developed, with the guidance and broad support of stakeholders, builds on the strength of our existing engagement and substantially exceeds the consultation requirements that are set out in the act.
We have recruited a core group of 30 people from our experience panels to oversee the charter’s development. That includes decisions on everything from the charter’s structure and appearance and the language that it should contain through to the substance of what the principles should mean in practice and the policy commitments that will get us there. That work will be bolstered by individual interviews with people who are unable to travel to a central location and a survey of all experience panel members, ensuring that our engagement goes both deep and wide.
The process is an exemplar of a human rights approach in action. There are few, if any, parallel examples of Governments that have empowered citizens to jointly lead policy work of this prominence. To get it right, we will also need the support and expert advice of civic Scotland. That is why we have established a stakeholder group, which is composed of 27 organisations and chaired by Dr Sally Witcher, to provide feedback and advice to the core group. Its role will grow as this work progresses.
I have explained that the process goes well beyond what the act requires of us, but we have not rested on our laurels. As with anything new and innovative, there are lessons that we must learn. The core group is carefully balanced to reflect a broad range of needs, perspectives and characteristics—we received around 300 applications—but its initial composition did not include people from black and minority ethnic communities, so we have gone further. Working with stakeholders, we have run sessions to take in the perspectives of refugees, asylum seekers, people from black and minority ethnic communities and transgender people. Further plans are in place to run targeted sessions with people who are often especially marginalised: BME women, Gypsy Travellers and women who have experienced particular hardship and barriers. Because we have designed a model in which a core group of citizens is empowered to share decision making, it is imperative that the perspectives of young people and those from black and minority ethnic communities are represented on it, too. I am pleased to announce that, due to this work, we have added representation from BME communities, young people and a wider range of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people to the core group.
I will turn now to the interim findings that we published last week. I had the pleasure of meeting the core group in Dundee on 23 August. They shared with me powerful experiences of adversity, stigmatisation and suffering at the hands of the United Kingdom system—I thank them for their time that day to tell their stories. The stories, sadly, will be all too familiar to many of us who have heard them in our constituency offices the length and breadth of Scotland. As one group member put it:
“For years I have had to fight them every step of the way. It’s like being Harry Potter trying to find the Philosopher’s Stone. But in this story you’re the villain and not the hero.”
However, the group members are not there to dwell on the failings of the past. They are there to build a better future for their fellow citizens, and the group’s thinking speaks to that optimism and creativity. They want staff who are patient and kind, who see them not as numbers on a screen but as individual people. They want staff who understand their circumstances and what they might feel like. That reflects a wider movement in Scottish public services and it is right that the new system should be a standard bearer for such an approach. The group see that being achieved by involving people who have lived experience in staff training. That is a powerful proposal that I intend to progress.
They want a system that is on their side and not against them. They want a system that is filled with people who are knowledgeable about social security and related services and who use that knowledge not to catch people out but to simplify processes, maximise incomes and direct them towards services that can help to tackle poverty and improve their wellbeing.
To achieve that, they have spoken about the necessity of recruiting staff who are well trained, well led and who share the values embodied in the principles. A staff member who cares, who is happy and who is equipped with the necessary skills is always more likely to deliver a better service.
They are clear about their status as people who are accessing a public service. They want to be active partners and to understand decisions, the reasons for them and how to challenge them if they disagree. They emphasise a culture of learning and improvement, in which feedback is valued, mistakes are acknowledged and processes are in place to ensure that things are done better in the future.
They reaffirm what most of us here already know: that the shameful regime of disability assessments requires root and branch reform.
The scope of their ideas extends beyond the operational to the systemic. They speak to the need to end stigma and to the restoration of social security as a public good and a service that is there for us all should we need it and that is a source of national pride because of that. That reflects the principle that social security is an investment in our people.
That, of course, was the original intention of the Beveridge report. Many of us here today will agree that we seem to have lost something precious along the way. The group’s proposed solution is for Government to lead work to publicly challenge stigma and the false, divisive and hurtful political rhetoric that causes it. I can confirm that we are committed to giving careful thought to how all the proposals can be delivered.
The picture that emerges from the findings is of a potential charter that is rich in ambition and that truly fulfils the human rights aspect of social security that was held so dear during the passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. That underscores once again the point that how we administrate social security is not just a matter of policy detail; it is a moral issue that speaks to the character of our country and the type of country that we want to live in. Our principles, and how we give effect to them, matter to people’s lives.
Reflecting on my early weeks in my role and all the people that I have spoken to during that time, I keep on returning to the word “trust”. It is clear that one of our shared successes is that through the act, the principles, the charter, the introduction of new forms of assistance and the commitment to reform assessments, the people of Scotland are beginning to put their faith in us that the new system really will be different. The trust of the people they serve is the single most precious commodity that an elected Government and Parliament can have. It is hard won yet so easily lost. I wish, therefore, to place on the record my personal commitment to honouring that trust with action, and showing through the evidence of what we do that this Government means what it says.
There is, of course, also a role for Parliament in that. It is clear that we all believe in the charter, and it is my sincere hope that we can continue in the spirit of collaboration to support the work of the people who know the system best and to whom it ultimately belongs—the people of Scotland.
I close by thanking everyone, particularly our core group from the experience panels, who have helped so much and gone so far in delivering our interim findings. I look forward to their further work and to delivering a charter that the Parliament and the country can be proud of.
That the Parliament recognises the progress made in working with Experience Panels and others to develop Scotland’s Social Security Charter; agrees with the human rights approach being taken to empower citizens to jointly lead this work; endorses the published findings of those with lived experience supporting work on the charter; agrees that the process of consultation and co-design will help build trust in this new public service, and notes the Scottish Government’s ongoing commitment to work with the Parliament and people of Scotland to deliver a social security system that lives up to the principles, agreed unanimously by the Parliament, in Section 1 of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018.