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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 Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

There have been some positive contributions from members on all sides of the chamber and some good discussions about the feedback from the first steps of the co-design process. However, I would like to reflect not simply on the intentions of the charter, but on what can be done to make it useful.

The Scottish Government noted last year that a charter was a popular idea; the same was true of the citizen’s charter initiative that John Major introduced back in the early 1990s. However, the risk with such documents is that they can potentially slip simply into the aspirational and that they bear little relation to the services that are actually being delivered. In its September 2017 position paper, the Government noted that one of the main proposed areas in which a charter could have value is in translating

“the core principles from high level statements into commitments to deliver specific, measurable outcomes, establishing a strong link between the principles and the way that the system actually performs.”

Ministers will not find a great deal of dispute there, but we are left with a considerable number of commitments and expectations that ministers have crafted. It would be very useful to know both the detail of how they will be measured and the Scottish Government’s approach.

I will give an example. The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, in her statement and in answer to questions last week, pledged action on geographical inequalities; the outcome of assessments; reducing assessment waiting periods; reducing the appeals case load; and reducing staff turnover among assessors. She also pledged a presumably significant reduction in face-to-face assessments.

However, as the Parliament will expect those promises to be matched with action, the action must equally be met with measurable, quantitative data. I refer to the policy paper that the Scottish Government published last year. It said:

“The Scottish Government has noted the concern that it may be difficult to demonstrate progress against relatively subjective concepts such as ‘dignity’ and ‘respect’. The Scottish Government is therefore thinking carefully about how it might employ techniques of a more qualitative nature such as survey data, feedback from individuals, focus groups or an on-going role for Experience Panels.”

The Scottish Government’s approach to that will be all-important—I have previously touched on that. I hope that, with high political expectations, ministers will avoid the temptation to fudge the measures of their performance. If they intend to carry the Scottish Parliament with their proposals, that must be matched with a candid assessment of the execution of their new powers and where they have fallen short of expectations.

In the cabinet secretary’s statement last week, she mentioned the regular independent reviews that have taken place at the UK level of PIP assessment programmes. Although she characterised that as simply “tinkering around the edges” by the DWP, both the PIP and the employment and support allowance independent assessments have been a valuable tool for improvement. With that in mind, I would be interested to know what analysis ministers have done of those independent assessments and how the lessons from that process could be reflected in measuring objectives against the standards that are to be included in the charter. Will they subject themselves to the same level of scrutiny that the DWP has in the past?

As my party’s spokesman on jobs and employability, I want to reflect on a particular element that should be central to a number of the principles that are set out in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018: the ability to transition people who are out of work into meaningful employment and to overcome the barriers that they face. A key power to influence that is the devolution of the employability services. Again, measurable data will be important, as will lessons from different providers in different parts of the country, in creating a transparent process by which they can share best practice.

Perhaps there is a contradiction between the cabinet secretary’s language last week against outsourced providers for having assessments that are driven by profit alone and the use of such providers to support people into work. I gently suggest that those organisations are either valued partners or they are not, and that the message that is sent by the words that we use in the chamber should be considered.

The objectives of dignity and fairness in the social security system certainly extend to providing a service to individual claimants and value to the taxpayer. Both points are enshrined in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. One element of fairness is the consistency of approach. The cabinet secretary has criticised the “rigid inflexibility” in assessment procedures. However, basing entitlement on consistent and objective criteria is critical to ensuring that any system is fair. Personalised assessment and objective assessment are not contradictory.

I refer to the issue of geographical inequality. I am a representative of the Highlands and Islands region, which contains many of Scotland’s remote, rural and island communities. There are a number of challenges for a social security system in operating as effectively in those areas as it does elsewhere, and in ensuring that it takes into account the needs of individuals in those areas.

The cabinet secretary said:

“No matter where people live, Scotland’s social security system must deliver and must give people access to the same quality of service.—[

Official Report

, 26 September 2018; c 42.]

I would like that to be included in the social security charter and the Scottish Government to consider how the charter will be impacted by the principles of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. It will also be important that information is available at a suitably localised level for us to see where inequity of access or outcomes exists and for action to be taken to address that.

There is still a considerable body of work to be taken forward in those areas. However, I welcome the work on the co-design of the charter as well as the wider work that is being taken forward by ministers and the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee.

I cannot overstate the importance of getting it right in this transitional period and laying the foundations for a system of support that works for everyone.