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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 Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I welcome the debate and the journey that the Government and the Parliament have been on over the past two years with regard to social security.

The fundamental question is: why have a charter? For me, the reason for having a charter is to improve the experience of those who use the social security system. We want everybody who comes in contact with the new Scottish agency to have a positive experience, even if they do not ultimately get what they want out of it. That is what we as a Parliament and, I suggest, the Scottish Government need to strive for.

What is the role of the charter? The danger—which the Social Security Committee recognised early on—was that the charter would simply be a bunch of words on a notice board that everybody would ignore. Part of the reason for the journey that the committee and the Scottish Government have been on is to show that the charter has to be far more than that. It cannot simply be words—even simple words—on a board; it has to be something that people understand and can respect and act on.

The charter is there so that staff can understand what their responsibility is to claimants; it is there so that claimants can understand what they should expect of the new agency; and it is there so that third parties, including this Parliament, can hold the new agency to account. However, it is important to stress that the charter does not give individual rights to claimants. It is there so that the agency can be held accountable by the Scottish Government and by the Parliament. We have to make sure that a balance is struck between individual rights and community rights, which are sometimes held in tension.

It is important that stakeholders, individuals, third parties and the Parliament get an early view of the charter. It would be interesting to know whether the Government has a date yet for when the charter will be available for open scrutiny. Steps have been taken towards that, but we need a full account.

We need to know how the charter is being drawn up and who is involved in the process. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement on the expansion of the membership of the important core group because some groups and people contacted me with concerns that perhaps the core group did not represent the whole of Scottish society. It would also be interesting to know how the experience panels are working in practice. Is the core group co-designing the system and the document, or does the Scottish Government go in with a piece of paper and say, “Like it or leave it”? How open is the Government to changes to the social security charter and to comments on it?

We have to make sure that there is gender balance and ethnic minority representation—I welcome the cabinet secretary’s remarks on that. Perhaps most important, disabled people need to be represented on the core group. That may seem very obvious—no doubt, the cabinet secretary wants to jump up and say that we already have that representation. However, our amendment seeks to expand the groups that the Government is consulting—perhaps to include groups that are seldom heard from, not the obvious suspects we all go to regularly; perhaps to include those who have disabilities that fall into a minority group within disability, who again are not often heard from; and perhaps—I say gently to the Government—to include people who have had a positive experience with the Department for Work and Pensions. The danger is that people only come to MSPs if they have a negative experience. However, there are people who have had a positive experience of interaction—I include myself among them—and we do not want to lose that voice in our engagement. We have to ensure that those with seen and unseen disabilities are included in the core group and in the drawing-up of the social security charter.

Ultimately, we must keep the goal of having the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 fully implemented and up and running before this session of Parliament comes to an end in 2021. As one ancient philosopher said, every journey has an end. There is a slight danger that we keep going over and over things and do not get to the goal of delivering the social security system that we all want. I therefore ask the cabinet secretary to confirm again in her summing up that every benefit that has been devolved will be delivered and up and running by 2021; will she confirm that the benefits will be delivered by the new agency and that people will know how it all works?

I hope that the Parliament will have time to consider fully the regulations as they come forward. I welcome the Government’s openness so far in that regard, and I look forward to the cabinet secretary being with the committee on Thursday morning. Undoubtedly, the most complicated and difficult regulations will be those that introduce the replacements for personal independence payments, disability living allowance and attendance allowance. Can the cabinet secretary tell the Parliament when the draft regulations on those benefits will be released?

The Conservative Party welcomes the debate and the social security charter, but we will hold the Government to account to ensure that it delivers not simply words but actions.

I move amendment S5M-14160.1, to insert after “public service”:

“, but should also consider how it might enable any other individual or organisation with an interest to be consulted as part of any scrutiny of the draft charter”.