I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments but, primarily, I want to thank everyone who has been involved in the experience panels so far. Each of them, along with their 2,500 or so colleagues, has a big task to ensure that dignity, fairness and respect come to life in our new social security system.
We will support the Government’s motion and we are pleased that the charter is becoming a reality. Just like last week’s restating of the commitment to ban the private sector from carrying out assessments, the involvement of Scotland’s people in the design of the charter is a critical step in delivering the law that the Parliament agreed to in the spring. Co-design will be hugely valuable to the social security system. Put simply, it is about working with people on social security and not simply dictating a system to them.
We have seen the horrors that the Tory overhaul of disability benefits has led to. Disabled Scots will lose £190 million through the PIP, and hundreds of thousands are gaining entitlement only through court rulings instead of a fair process. Since the most recent Holyrood elections, 50,000 people have already had to suffer a second PIP assessment as a result of the revolving door of reviews. We all know that that needs to change, but it is for those who use social security to say what they want to change. When the charter is approved this November, which will be almost 18 months since the experience panels were first launched, members will be able to point to the tangible difference that underlines our new human rights-based system.
As well as celebrating the role that the people of Scotland will have in the new system, the debate serves as a reminder of the improvements to the 2018 act that the third sector and its members and service users secured. Through their campaigning, they secured rights to advocacy, to accessible information and to get hold of assessment reports. Those hard-won improvements make the system more theirs—one that has been built with them and not for them.
As the cabinet secretary said, the Parliament will give final approval to the charter. That provision is the result of an amendment that was pursued by the third sector and lodged by my colleague Pauline McNeill.
For me, two changes stand out. First, because of the give me five campaign, child benefit recipients must be consulted on the charter. The second change concerns work that I did with Engender, the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights and Scottish Women’s Aid to ensure that the Government consults organisations that work with those at risk of poverty because of their protected characteristic.
The scale of ambition behind the experience panels is commendable, and we will support the Government’s motion today. As our amendment says,
“meaningful co-production should be an exemplar” that informs how public services are reformed in future.
However, Friday’s report identifies quite clearly an issue that I became aware of over the summer, which is that not one black or minority ethnic person was directly recruited to work on the core group. Today, the cabinet secretary mentioned that a focus group of BME individuals is being set up, but it is a concern that that has taken place only now. We know that BME individuals are less likely to access their entitlements and that they face barriers during the assessment process. When hard-to-reach groups are asked for their participation and involvement only at the last minute, we all lose out. They miss their initial chance to have a say, while local organisations are stretched to get someone into place quickly; and Government lacks the group’s views from the very start, which undermines its commitment to equality and the work that it has done so far. As a result, sometimes things get missed.
Page 14 of the report says:
“The stakeholder organisations also added some meanings to the list described above that the core group hadn’t mentioned, for example around the importance of equality and non-discrimination.”
It is good that those meanings have been added, but that highlights what we can miss if we are not all-encompassing in our approach and do not ensure that we cover everyone who has been disadvantaged by the current system.
As our amendment states, the panels are part of
“an open, ongoing process, in which people who are entitled to social security are encouraged to enrol and participate”.
The cabinet secretary spoke about the 300 people who had responded to the recruitment exercise, but none of those was BME. We have to ask ourselves why that is and determine how underrepresented BME groups are in the experience panels. The cabinet secretary told me that the report on protected characteristics will be published in November; I encourage her to publish the details before recess.
With all members of the core group being surveyed on the charter this autumn, I hope that the cabinet secretary will agree that more members should be recruited before that survey goes out so that we can get their views. Welcoming new recruits to the panels, along with more open and publicly available means of consultation, would be of great value to the process and might help to overcome some of the representation issues that I have spoken about today.
When the time comes to consider the replacement of PIP and carers allowance, and the rules and criteria for and rates of benefits, the people of Scotland will once again have the chance to deliver a social security system that is founded on dignity, fairness and respect.
I move amendment S5M-14160.2, to leave out from “agrees that the process” to “public service” and insert:
“considers that this consultation is an open, ongoing process, in which people who are entitled to social security are encouraged to enrol and participate; agrees that the process of consultation and co-design will help build trust in this new public service; believes that meaningful co-production should be an exemplar that informs future Scottish public service design”.