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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 Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

I hope that, at decision time, we will have consensus on today’s motion and amendments, and I echo the cabinet secretary’s statement that all of us in Parliament must and will continue to work together to deliver a social security system that works for the people.

None of us doubts the importance of getting the approach to, and the content of, the social security charter right. The proposal came from the people, and we have a duty to deliver a meaningful response to the requirement in the act.

Inevitably, much of the conversation on the development of the charter will be about the language. Therefore—unusually—I will start with a quote from the Unison briefing. Unison has made it clear that it does not like the term “customer” and has said:

“More fundamentally whether those using the system are ‘claimants’ ‘users’ or ‘customers’ and whether they are receiving ‘benefits’, ‘entitlements’, or ‘Citizens Supplements’ or whether they receive information via email text or in person; the crucial factor is how much money people are receiving ... no level of semantic sensitivity or personalised user friendly service will allow for the system to meet principles of dignity and respect.”

In creating a social security charter, we must be sensitive to the expectations that we are raising and to our ability to deliver. That concern was also noted by Alex Cole-Hamilton.

Jamie Greene and Alex Cole-Hamilton highlighted the principles on which social security was established. They reminded us that Beveridge was clear that in delivering security we should not stifle incentive, opportunity and responsibility, and that we must leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more for their family.

My colleague Jeremy Balfour talked eloquently about the role of the charter, the importance of it being more than words and its role in clarifying expectations and holding agencies to account. He reminded us of the legal importance in that the charter is not about individual rights but the principles on which the Scottish social security system will operate.

I am also grateful to Jamie Halcro Johnston for touching on the importance of tangible outcomes with regards to the charter, and for raising the comments on the PIP and ESA independent reviews at UK level. I hope that the cabinet secretary will address some of the questions that Jamie Halcro Johnston raised.

As Jamie Greene highlighted, it is vital that current levels of scrutiny continue to be applied to benefits once they are devolved. The charter can provide the mechanism for that by ensuring geographical equality or through the opportunity to provide on-going improvement to the system.

Many members have acknowledged and welcomed the co-design approach that is being taken. As Bob Doris, Shona Robison and other members of the Social Security Committee mentioned, our visit to Dundee was about listening and gaining an understanding of the experiences of those who use the system.

Communication in design and in delivery is vital. As Pauline McNeill and others mentioned, it is important that the Scottish social security system is not digital by default. Age Scotland’s briefing reminds us that the Scottish household survey found that 67 per cent of people aged 75 and over do not use the internet.

We all welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement that the membership of the experience panels has been expanded to be more representative, because it is important that a broad range of voices is captured. Alexander Stewart spoke insightfully on the need for broader representation on the core group. Hearing from people who have had positive experiences is important, not least to try to understand why it worked for them and not for others.

If the charter is really to provide a guiding influence on our system, we need to get it in place. Ideally, it would have been in place already, prior to the delivery of benefits, to ensure consistency across the board, given that, in the Scottish Government’s words,

“the agency’s complaints and appeals procedures will also be strongly reflective of the values and standards set out in the charter”.

The charter will form a key tool for those seeking redress, so it is important that we get it in place as soon as possible.

When reading through Friday’s report, I was struck by one comment in particular from a member of the core group. It was a suggestion that the charter be placed conspicuously,

“right in the eye line”,

of Social Security Scotland staff who are dealing directly with the public. If we truly wish the charter to succeed, we must be proud of it. As Alexander Stewart said, that is key. The respect that we build through being proud of the charter is what will take it forward. It is a symbol of collaboration between service users and staff and Government, a common touch point to which they can all refer and a guideline on what to expect once they cross the agency’s threshold. The suggestion of an eye-line charter is a good start and a contribution that should be borne in mind as the charter takes shape.