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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 Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I welcome the debate and the contributions that we have heard from members. It befits the charter’s importance that we have tried to achieve, and have succeeded in achieving, a great deal of consensus today. I thank the members who contributed, including those who spoke very supportively of not only the Scottish Government’s work but, more importantly, the work of our experience panels and stakeholders in bringing the charter to life. I repeat that that work is fundamental to the wider necessity, as we develop our social security system, of building trust with the people of Scotland. We need to demonstrate through our actions that we will honour that trust by delivering on our commitment to do things better.

In my opening remarks, I spoke about my genuine desire to carry on the collaborative approach that my predecessor established throughout the bill’s progress, and I am pleased that that approach has continued today. Of course we will not agree on everything, but today’s debate has made it clear that we agree on the nature of the new public service and the role of the charter in it.

With that in mind, I am pleased to support Mark Griffin’s amendment to the motion. I very much agree that the process “should be an exemplar” of co-production and that we should continue to work to expand the diversity of those who participate in co-design. Mark Griffin rightly talked a great deal about the importance of co-design. As he said, it is a system for people, rather than something that is being done to them. That is why I take very seriously the comments from Mark Griffin, Jamie Greene and other members on, for example, the point that no members of black and minority ethnic communities were part of the original core group. We have to ask ourselves why people from certain communities did not come forward to be part of that process. I am very much open to learning lessons from the innovative co-design process, because I want to do it better in the future. Interestingly, there is a great deal of interest from other Administrations and Governments in how we are carrying out our co-design work on the charter. That speaks to the innovative nature of what we are trying to do. We are very much open to learning lessons, and doing so quickly.

Ruth Maguire and Jeremy Balfour raised issues about the representative nature of the core group. As Ruth Maguire pointed out, there are difficulties in talking about the protected characteristics of a group of 30 people, but I hope that I can reassure her that we have included people who have a disability, including those with a mental, physical or learning disability; men and women; a range of ages; people of different sexual orientations; people who are married or in civil partnerships; people of different religious beliefs; people who have experience of each relevant benefit; people who have fluctuating conditions; people with hearing impairments; people with visual impairments; carers of both adults and disabled children; rural and urban dwellers; and people who have more than one of those characteristics. We are working closely with stakeholders to ensure that the views of people from seldom-heard or underrepresented groups are included in our work on the charter.

I am very pleased to say that we will also support Jeremy Balfour’s amendment tonight. We will consider how we might include the views of organisations and individuals in the work that we do. From the beginning, the charter and its principles have been the product of wide consultation and engagement, and I am committed to doing my part through the co-design process to hold focused discussions with stakeholders. We already have a stakeholder group of 27 organisations, and many organisations are also meeting with officials. My door, and that of my officials, will always be open to those who have an interest in our system and wish to contribute to the discussion.

Jeremy Balfour and other members spoke about why we should have a charter, and the fact that it must be more than just a bunch of words. I absolutely agree on that. George Adam talked about the charter as a working and living document, and I completely concur with that too.

A great deal of work went into the interim report that was published at the end of last week. The process is iterative, and it is in its early stages, but I assure Jeremy Balfour and other members that it is very open. A lot of capacity building has gone on with the core group to ensure that the process is absolutely not about officials saying, “What do you think about our ideas?” but is very much led by the core group.

We expect to be able to lay the charter before Parliament before the end of the year. Obviously, it is not for me to judge how Parliament settles its timetable, but I am open to the committee and Opposition parties making suggestions about how we can take that process forward.

Jeremy Balfour asked about the delivery of other benefits. We will take responsibility for all benefits by the end of the parliamentary session. We will move forward with policy on PIP, for example. Work on that is on-going through our experience panels and the expert advisory group. Regulations will be introduced in due course.

We should reflect on the very important point that Patrick Harvie raised. We have a system that is absolutely mistrusted by the people who use it and by anyone who hears anything about it. As Patrick Harvie correctly pointed out, that is exactly why our new system must be developed on the basis of people’s lived experience. That will be at the heart of everything that we do—it will be what we consider first, last and always as we develop the social security system.

Alex Cole-Hamilton asked the Government to look very carefully at the experience and expertise of stakeholders. I absolutely agree with him on that. As I have already mentioned, we have a stakeholder group that is working to advise the core group, and discussions with officials are happening.

Bob Doris, Shona Robison and other members spoke eloquently about the consequences of the current system. My constituency mailbag and surgeries also bring those consequences home—as I am sure those of all members do. However, I am particularly mindful of my visit to Inclusion Scotland immediately before I made my statement last week. I spoke directly to people about the impact that our policy decisions will have on their everyday lives. It is always humbling for us to remember that the decisions that we take in the chamber will make a real difference to people. I am determined to ensure that that will be a positive difference for people who have been exceptionally scarred by their experience of the current system.

That is why it is important that we recognise what we are doing—we are designing a new system; we are not tinkering around the edges of the current system—and why the culture of the new agency is so important. I am delighted to have heard from a number of members about their experiences when they visited the agency headquarters in Dundee yesterday. I greatly enjoyed that experience as well. We can tell that, from the chief executive and the senior management to all the client advisers, the people there genuinely get that they are doing something different and momentous in Scotland and that they are part of something historic, and they are very proud of that. I hope and expect that that will be reflected in everything that they do as they deal with people on a one-to-one basis.

Clare Adamson talked about the need for vision and the type of society that we want. I know that that will be embedded in the culture that we will have.

Pauline McNeill mentioned her unfinished business. She probably mentioned too many issues for me to be able to go through them all in the time that I have, but I would be more than happy to meet her and discuss some or all of them with her. I reassure her that I will look very carefully at what she said about the appeals process, offences and investigations, for example. She made suggestions about what should go into the charter. It is too early for me to say what should go into it; I will allow the core group to comment on that before I do.

I am heartened by the fact that many members have endorsed the findings from the core group so far. As I have said, our intention is to submit the first charter for parliamentary approval by the end of the year. However, in many ways, that will be the beginning rather than the end of the process. If approval is granted, we will move on to implementation and ensuring that the charter is meaningfully delivered.

As Mark Griffin, Patrick Harvie, Clare Adamson and many others have said, what is important about what we are doing through the charter and the social security system is that we are ensuring that the people’s voices will now be heard. This Government and Parliament will act on their voices, to ensure that we have a social security system that we can be truly proud of.