I am convener of the Social Security Committee in the Scottish Parliament. I succeeded Clare Adamson MSP in that role, and I pay tribute to her work as convener and to the work of the committee. I know that there have been a number of changes in recent weeks.
Yesterday, our committee visited Dundee. We visited, and had important meetings with, the DWP’s Jobcentre Plus and Scotland’s new social security agency. However, our most important visits were our meetings with those who have lived experience of the benefits system and with volunteers who offer support to them. Some of the stories that we heard, which set out the way in which the UK benefits system handles claims, were quite disturbing. Unfortunately, they served only to cement many of the experiences that I have heard about through my constituency casework with those who need to interact with the UK social security system and with universal credit, in particular.
I want to highlight a few of the issues with the UK system and contrast those with what we are seeking to do here in Scotland. At the heart of the debate is how we can get the Scottish system right at the first time of asking. We can get it right by listening to those who have lived experience of the social security system and by having them, where possible, co-producing that system.
I do not believe that anyone with lived experience of the UK system and the roll-out of universal credit would support a system that forces claimants to wait at least five weeks—as is the case under universal credit—to get recourse to public funds and instead to be reliant on DWP loans. That is causing real hardship, pain and indebtedness.
No one with lived experience would require a family to have to reapply for the housing element of universal credit to go directly to their landlord, simply because they moved house. That has caused my constituents’ rent arrears to accrue, and it has threatened tenancies.
No one with lived experience would put at risk the child tax credits to working families under universal credit by putting conditionality on workers—that being code for possible sanctions—if a member of that family cannot secure a wage rise, a different job or an increase in their hours of work. That is what might happen when Jobcentre Plus moves away from what is currently being called a light-touch system.
I do not believe that those things—and many others—would have happened had the lived experience of those who interact with the UK system been truly listened to when the new UK system was being designed. We are now trying to retrofit and fix some of those weaknesses. I hope to do that constructively with our partners in the UK Government and with everybody else, because we need to fix those weaknesses.
By developing Scotland’s social security system with that lived experience, we are doing all that we can to build in the key principles of fairness, dignity and respect. Crucially, by looking to co-design the Scottish system in partnership with those with lived experience of the social security system, we hope to avoid the issues that have beset the UK system. It is in that context that I warmly welcome the progress that has been made so far in developing the social security charter in conjunction with experience panels.
The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 rightly requires that the first group of people to be consulted on preparing the charter are those with a physical or mental condition who have experience of the benefits that are being devolved. I very much welcome the format of the consultation, which is taking a layered approach that includes a core group of volunteers for in-depth work; individual sessions with people or groups who do not wish to, or are unable to, be part of the core group; and a survey of the 2,400 people who are registered with the social security experience panels and who have a wealth of experience. Such a layered and nuanced approach is the right way to progress the charter.
I also welcome the firm commitment in the social security charter, and in the system itself, to entrench a human rights-based approach to treating claimants and clients, in which people have a right to financial support in times of need rather than being seen as receiving a handout. I believe that if we get the charter right, terminology such as “handout” will be consigned to the dustbin of history for good, because that is the right thing to do.
The social security charter is vital as it will draw together what we as a society wish our social security system to deliver for clients, staff and society. Due to time constraints, I will not say as much about that as I would like to, but I will highlight a section of the recent update document from the Scottish Government; it refers to the context of culture in preparing the charter, which is incredibly important in designing the system.
When our committee visited the new social security agency, I heard some strong reassurances. We met the chief executive, David Wallace, and a number of other staff, who are all trying to embed that positive attitude in their organisation, including through recruitment. They currently have about 90 staff, which will go up to 750 staff. In the sifting process for interviews, anyone who did not make the initial cut was given detailed feedback on why that was the case, and offered support if they wished to reapply when other jobs came on stream. Those who tried to apply for a job online but did not complete the form were identified and written to. The agency said, “We notice that you showed an interest in applying for these jobs but you did not complete the form—was there a barrier there that we can work with you to address?” Culture is everything.
I will highlight a final part of the culture that the new social security agency is trying to put in place. We saw a series of post-it notes on the wall that related to the new carer supplement that the agency is now delivering. They were really positive—I will read out two of them. One person told an adviser, “Ya dancer!” when they found out that they had a supplement; a second person said, “Whoopee-do!” We will not always get it right, but we are getting it right at the start of the process by listening to the people who have lived experience of the social security system.