As colleagues have done, I welcome this debate, which comes on the back of a lot of work on the part of all the members of the Social Security Committee. I particularly liked the fact that Pauline McNeill talked about all of us on the committee being co-producers of the social security system. Of course, my natural humility would prevent me from making that comment, but Pauline McNeill is 100 per cent right: the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 was the creation of all of us in this place and of those outside this place who contributed through the experience panels.
The social security charter goes beyond warm words, beyond listening to people for the sake of it and beyond the usual Government practice of implementing top-down ideas. This is a social security system that was created in conjunction with those who use it. The social security charter creates a binding contract between the system and the people of Scotland. This is not a framed document that will gather dust on the wall of the office of Social Security Scotland; it is a working, living document that builds the very foundations of our social security system. It sets out what people in Scotland can expect and are entitled to from our new system.
The 2018 act requires the development of a charter that reflects the eight social security principles that are set out in section 1 of the act. During the progression of the bill, ministers committed to producing the charter, working with people with experience of the social security system. The charter is intended to turn the principles into more focused aims, so that they are open to monitoring, reporting and scrutiny. More importantly, the Scottish Government has not only listened to but acted on the wishes of those with lived experience. The very naming of the charter was taken forward through the discussions of the core group, whose clear preference was for it to be called the Scottish social security charter.
The format of the charter had to be accessible, and it had to do what it set out to do. If there is one thing that I have learned during my time in local government and the Scottish Parliament, it is that, whether we are talking about the civil service or council officers, they all like to write long reports and papers. However, the charter is much more important than those documents. It has to be long, but it has to be short enough for people to understand. It has to be able to be grasped by individuals so that they know exactly what their rights are. All those things were brought up by the core group and show us, once again, how valuable the group’s input was.
The principles of the charter are important. As politicians, we love principles. Some of us have them and value them; we can only hope that others will catch up with us some day. The report’s overall finding was that while, for the core group, the separate principles had important aspects and meanings, there was also a significant overlap. The group came up with a list of 45 statements that explain what the principles mean in practice. The statements can be grouped into five themes, which are an important part of the debate. Number one was about clients. For the people who are involved, dignity should not be expressed just by words; first and foremost, clients should be the most important in the whole process. Number two is about staff behaviour and ensuring that those who deliver such services do so in a way that is helpful to those who claim. Number three is about ensuring that processes are open, transparent and not a hindrance during people’s time of need. Number four is about the social security system itself, and number five states that the wider culture of social security in Scotland should be positive.
For me, the most important aspect is the process of consultation and co-design that will help to build trust in the Scottish social security system. Recently, there has not been a lot of trust in the benefits system, given the UK Government’s so-called reforms. Building the system has been an important part of the exercise, and it is only right that people should feel trust between the system and themselves when they go through the process. The Equality and Human Rights Commission noted that the co-production model could help to develop positive working relationships between claimants and front-line staff. That is an important part of the debate, too.
The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 sets out eight principles for Scottish social security. Although they are all valid, one of my particular favourites is that Scottish social security is
“an investment in the people of Scotland”
—which is to say that, during their times of difficulty and need, we are there to support them. The others are that
“social security is itself a human right and essential to the realisation of other human rights” and that
“respect for the dignity of individuals is to be at the heart of the Scottish social security system”.
For too long, such principles have been just words and have not actually been used in other processes with the DWP. The Scottish social security system is to contribute to reducing poverty in Scotland, but it is also an important part of how we build a better future.
The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 is one of the largest pieces of legislation that the Scottish Parliament has produced. It affects many people in our country, and can be used as a tool to bring people and families out of poverty. However, before we can do all that, we need to state the rules and regulations. People need to understand what their rights are, but that needs to be done in a way that they can appreciate. It is my belief that the Scottish social security charter does all those things. It gives hope to our fellow Scots that our Scottish Government listens to what they say and appreciates their contributions. As I have often said in this chamber, politics is about people. If we put them first, we can and will deliver the type of Scotland in which we all want to live.