At the top of her remarks, the cabinet secretary referred to principles; principles really matter. I am gratified that, in the same breath, she referenced William Beveridge, whom I often quote when we discuss social security in the Parliament. Patrick Harvie was right: provision of “social security” is a far better aspiration than the provision of “welfare” by the welfare state. Beveridge said that, in establishing a national minimum, the state
“should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than the minimum for himself and his family.”
I absolutely agree with that. That quotation, which is about social mobility and dignity, is one of the many reasons why I am a Liberal.
However, it is fair to say that we have, at UK level, come significantly adrift from establishment of that national minimum. Therefore, I very much welcome the opportunity that Parliament has to create a Scottish social security system, and I am gratified that it is to be underpinned by the social security charter. Who better to define the terms and parameters of the system than the people who have lived under the failures of previous systems? In its nomenclature, the charter defines itself as being rights based. The development of the charter is about giving people ownership and understanding of what to expect, what rights they can rely on and what action they can take if their rights are infringed.
As we heard in last week’s statement, that lived experience is already shaping the new system, in respect of the conduct of disability assessments. I am sure that every member will know a constituent who has suffered the indignity of the assessments of the past. I welcome the flexibility that has been created and the comfort that can be extended to claimants through the recording of assessments, which they will be able to lean on should they have grounds for appeal. Rightly, some people will be removed altogether from the need for a face-to-face assessment.
As Lib Dems, we whole-heartedly support—as we did last week—the fundamental workings of the new structures that are being built and the fact that their development will be underpinned by the experience panels. It is important that in the conduct of their business, the experience panels work with stakeholders to identify unintended consequences.
The flexibility conundrum is important: it is vital that we do all the things that the cabinet secretary outlined in last week’s statement to make the assessments less intrusive and easier, and to ensure that they are built around the needs of the individuals whom they seek to serve. That brings with it the probability of time delays unless we significantly increase the head count of people who are commissioned to conduct assessments. I am not saying that we should not be flexible, but we should be alive to that concern, so I would be grateful if the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People could address the matter when she closes the debate.
We must ensure that we do not overpromise but then underdeliver, because there are many examples of public policies that have been established on the basis of principles that are similar to those that we seek to foster in the charter, but which—sadly—have let down the people whom they sought to serve.
I think that we can all agree on the tenets that we hope will come forward as the charter is developed. I hope that the cabinet secretary and her Government are reflecting on the views of the stakeholder organisations that would like to influence the process. There is a great deal of expertise there, not least among people who have lived experience of going through previous systems, who tend to rely on organisations that provide advocacy and which gather information and research. That experience should be used for betterment of the project that lies ahead.
For me and for the Lib Dems, we can distil that down into three basic principles. We should foster the cradle-to-grave safety net that Beveridge first envisioned, which will allow people to be socially mobile but protected at times of crisis and need.
The charter should not be driven by monetary considerations alone. In times of austerity, it is often all too easy for Governments of all hues to look at the bottom line first and foremost and to design a welfare state or a social security system around that.
Most important is that the charter needs to manage expectations. People should have faith and confidence in a system that does not put in their way artificial barriers to the assistance that they need and deserve. The system should be seen to be fair, and people should have swift access to reliable information. Should a decision go against someone, they should know the route to take in order to overturn it, and they should have the confidence that they will receive a fair hearing.
If we can work with stakeholders to foster a charter that captures those three fundamental principles, the Parliament and the Scottish Government will have gone some way towards answering the challenge that Beveridge set in his earliest vision. Liberal Democrat members will support the Government’s motion and the amendments from the Opposition parties. I welcome the continued consensus with which we are moving forward together.