I remind members that Covid-related measures are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.
The next item of business is a debate without motion on accessing Scottish social security benefits. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now, and I call Shona Robison to open the debate.
I am pleased to open the debate on accessing Scottish social security benefits. Access to social security is a basic human right. It is a principle that is enshrined in our Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, as is the view that social security is an investment in people. Within the act is the important duty on the Government of promoting the take-up of Scottish benefits. The Scottish Government is clear that we will ensure that anyone who is eligible for our range of benefits can access them simply and easily, and we will actively work to promote the financial support that is available to people.
This debate comes after the publication of our second benefits take-up strategy at the end of October and as the nation focuses on recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Households are also facing increased living costs and an imminent rise in national insurance, so it is more important than ever that people who are entitled to our benefits know about them, apply for them and get the financial support that they are eligible for.
I thank the cabinet secretary for publishing the new strategy, which she helpfully sent to us this morning. Can she tell us what she has learned since 2016 about how long it takes to implement new social security benefits? We expected implementation to happen much earlier, because she promised that it would happen almost instantly, so why has it taken five years just to get to this stage?
A lot has been achieved in the three years since the Parliament agreed the powers to establish Social Security Scotland and the benefits. There are 11 benefits, seven of which are brand new to Scotland—that is a very good record for Social Security Scotland in the three years since it has been able to build its capacity and deliver those benefits. I hope that Willie Rennie will take that on board. If he has not already done so, I encourage him to visit Social Security Scotland to find out for himself the complexity that is involved in setting up some of the benefits, particularly the new ones.
With the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, I had the benefit of meeting Social Security Scotland earlier in the week, and I found that really helpful. It was clear—it was said a few times in the presentation—that the agency’s role is to deliver the benefits that it has, so, as the cabinet secretary knows, it is focusing on the Scottish child payment and other benefits. However, it was also made clear that the Government’s role is on policy and direction around that. Given the separation of those responsibilities in that sense—they are as separate as they can be—could the Government not move quickly on policies around eligibility criteria and adequacy of payment, in tandem with Social Security Scotland, which is clear that it has a separate duty in relation to delivery?
Both roles are important and both have to work in tandem. On her visit to the agency’s headquarters in Dundee, the First Minister announced the massive expansion of Social Security Scotland because of the disability benefits that will be coming over the next year to 18 months. That expansion is happening because of the build-up of the organisation’s capacity, so the two roles are in tandem.
We will always look at what more we can do. We are already looking at the doubling of the Scottish child payment, as the member knows, and we will set out more plans for that as part of the budget process.
I want to make a progress on my speech now, if that is okay.
Increasing social security and maximising income are important components of our work to tackle poverty. Our tackling child poverty delivery plan sets out that increasing incomes through social security and benefits in kind is one of the key drivers of reducing child poverty. Taken together with actions to increase incomes from work and earnings and to reduce household costs, the plan will help to lift families out of poverty and provide the financial security that they need to thrive.
We have seen the reduction in United Kingdom Government reserved benefits over the past decade take its toll on people and reduce their income, and that is not the approach that the Scottish Government is taking. In the three years since we have had the powers to do so, we have introduced a raft of benefits to support the people of Scotland.
As I said, our agency, Social Security Scotland, is now delivering 11 benefits, seven of which are brand new and unique in the UK. We will also continue to deliver through our local authority partners the Scottish welfare fund, discretionary housing payments—which mitigate in full the bedroom tax—and council tax reduction. Despite the challenges over the past 18 months due to the pandemic and its obvious impact on our timetable for delivery of Scottish benefits, over the past year we have introduced four new benefits, and I think that that is a pretty good record.
In addition to that range of continuing support, we have introduced specific one-off payments to support people during these very difficult times. That includes paying around 90,000 unpaid carers an additional £230 in their carers allowance supplement last year and this year. We introduced bridging payments for families in receipt of free school meals, so that they receive the equivalent of the Scottish child payment. This year and next, £520 is being paid in support to around 150,000 children and young people in advance of the roll-out of the Scottish child payment to under-16s.
The Minister for Social Security and Local Government promoted that grant last week as part of its two-year anniversary. There are always opportunities to promote, and we are having this debate to get the message across that people should apply and that they are entitled to those supports.
We also delivered a low-income pandemic payment of £130 to everyone who received a council tax reduction in April, and around 500,000 households had benefited from that payment by the end of last month. That demonstrates that we are using the powers that are available to us to put cash directly in the pockets of those who need it most. I want to thank our local authorities for the role that they play in supporting us to do that.
Delivery is vital in accessing benefits, and I am very proud of the central role that Scotland’s newest public service agency, Social Security Scotland, also plays in that. The agency is fundamental to ensuring that every person who requires access to that assistance is empowered and fully supported to access it.
In the last financial year, Social Security Scotland invested around £430,000 in marketing the 10 benefits that were available at that time. We know that that is making a difference. For example, Facebook advertising alone helped to drive more than 50,000 applications last year. Inclusive communications are at the heart of Social Security Scotland’s approach, and we ensure that information is also available offline for all campaigns, so that it is accessible to everyone in the way that suits them best.
We know that, in the past, access to social security was not always straightforward. We know that there are complexities and hurdles related to some UK benefits even now that make the benefit system challenging to navigate for many. Indeed, we know from previous committee sessions on the subject that the UK system is not backed by any plan or strategy to promote the take-up of social security, such as we have in Scotland. In October last year, the then Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People joined Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts in writing to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to urge a more strategic approach to maximising the take-up of reserved benefits. To date, unfortunately, no response has been received.
Our 2021 benefit take-up strategy sets out the Scottish Government’s approach to maximising the take-up of Scottish benefits, as well as providing our best estimates of the take-up of the benefits that are currently being delivered.
Acknowledging that social security must be part of a more holistic approach to income maximisation in order to support recovery from Covid, the strategy is built around five key principles that were developed through extensive stakeholder engagement and experience panel research.
First, we will prioritise person-centred approaches. We recognise that one size does not fit all and that we need to adapt and deliver tailored approaches. Secondly, we will communicate and engage effectively and send out the right messages at the right time and in the right place for the target audience. Thirdly, we will bring services to people: we will simplify processes and ensure that we bring advice and support services to people where they need it, rather than always expecting them to come to us. Fourthly, we will encourage cross-system collaboration and ensure that other public sector and third sector organisations help to deliver. Finally, we will continuously learn and improve, building on the evidence that we know and taking it on board to do things differently if required.
Each of those five principles is important when taken alone. Bringing them together in the 2021 strategy means that they will work in combination and yield far greater impact.
Inclusivity is at the centre of the social security system that we are building and is fundamental to our approach to promoting the take-up of benefits. We know that many barriers exist that prevent take-up and that vary across different segments of the population. Our commitment to engaging with seldom-heard groups and those that represent protected characteristics is driving new and bespoke approaches to supporting people to access assistance.
In January, we will launch our social security advocacy service. The Scottish Government has invested up to £20.4 million in the service, which will be delivered independently of the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland. That service will mean that anyone who identifies as having a disability and requiring help to communicate will have free access to the support that they need to participate fully in social security processes and decisions that affect them.
We are also investing £10 million over the current session of Parliament to increase access to advice in accessible settings, to maximise incomes and tackle poverty. That work includes the expansion of welfare advice and health partnerships through funding of £2.9 million over three years and the placement of welfare rights advisers in up to 150 general practitioner surgeries in Scotland’s most-deprived areas. We will also consider opportunities to extend that model in education settings. Good evidence exists that placing advice in those trusted settings is a powerful tool for getting information to the people who need it, in the right place and at the right time.
We know that, for many, a fear of being stigmatised can overshadow the need to access benefits. We want to change that by challenging that discourse and empowering people to recognise their rights and access the benefits to which they are entitled. To do that, we are working alongside stakeholders and engaging with those with lived experience.
Later this month, we will launch a marketing campaign that will focus on financial wellbeing, beginning with a focus on removing the stigma around benefits. Our primary audience will be those people whom the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted and who are struggling financially as a result.
The Scottish Government is committed to building a robust and accessible Scottish social security system. We are investing in supporting access to social security and committing substantial resources to develop and implement our strategy. I look forward to hearing what members have to say in the debate.
I apologise, Presiding Officer—I have just pressed the button.
I welcome today’s debate on accessing Scottish social security benefits and the on-going discussions across Parliament about the priorities around the reforms that are needed. I was pleased to visit Social Security Scotland this Monday alongside fellow members of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee. I thank those who work in the organisation for that helpful visit, which Pam Duncan-Glancy has already mentioned, and for the work that they have undertaken to date to help establish the organisation.
As the cabinet secretary has said, it is clear that, despite the pandemic, Social Security Scotland and the Department for Work and Pensions are working in close partnership to build the systems in Scotland that can help to develop a new institutional knowledge as well as deliver the successful benefits system that Scotland requires. I thank the organisations that have provided useful briefings ahead of the debate.
The Scotland Act 2016 introduced sweeping devolution of welfare powers. Scottish ministers now have full control over 11 benefits that were previously administered by the UK Government. The Scottish Government is also now able to top up UK-wide reserved benefits as well as create its own suite of new benefits.
Building a sustainable and responsive social security and benefits system is in all our interests. We, in the Conservative Party, want to make sure that the system that the next Scottish Government will inherit is fit for purpose and will deliver for the people of Scotland.
It is extremely important that Parliament scrutinises the costs of setting up Social Security Scotland. It is estimated that the costs now stand at approximately £651 million. Four years ago, the SNP said that it would cost approximately £307 million to create the new agency under the devolved powers that were being delivered. Social Security Scotland is clearly costing more than that, and Parliament has the important responsibility for scrutinising that.
I appreciate the importance and significance of the points that Mr Briggs has raised, and I believe he does so in good faith. However, I ask him to consider that Social Security Scotland is delivering more benefits than were envisaged in 2018, because of the seven new benefits that have been created, and that we are at a key point in the conception of Social Security Scotland in that we need to build its strength not just for the years to come, but for the decades thereafter. We need to make sure that it is a strong institution for the people of Scotland, as Mr Briggs rightly said he wants it to be.
I accept the minister’s point, but it is important that Parliament and the committee, especially, scrutinise the costs of establishing the operation. In fact, we were told on Monday that operating costs, including agency agreements with the DWP, are sitting at around 10 per cent of all current benefit expenditure that is being made in Scotland under the suite of benefits that the minister has outlined. I welcome the assurances that we have been given that that is a prediction and that that figure will come in line with the DWP figure, which currently stands at around 6.3 per cent of benefit expenditure. All of us in this chamber will want to make sure that every taxpayer pound is being put into payments for claimants, not administration costs.
The use of technology and new working can reduce those costs, and that is an important argument that we have not had about how we modernise our welfare system. As I have said, I am sure that every member wants to see the money that we are putting into welfare in Scotland through this Parliament or Westminster going to claimants.
An important part of today’s debate is about looking to the future and the proposed reform of the ways in which people will be able to access social security benefits under the new system and new models that are being outlined. The Scottish Government has already signalled that it intends to replace their personal independence payment with ADP. At the moment, however, the new criteria and assessment protocols in accessing the benefit are not clear.
In its useful briefing, SAMH states that approximately 39 per cent of people who are in receipt of PIP in Scotland have a mental health problem. We all know that that group of clients faced some of the greatest challenges during the pandemic, and SAMH research has found that such applicants often find that accessing processes and frequent reassessments cause additional stress. I know that all members of the committee want to know what the reforms will actually look like and what processes will be put in place for those individuals to have awards made. Organisations such as SAMH and the MS Society Scotland are looking for those details ahead of any potential reforms, and it is important that Parliament also has the opportunity to properly scrutinise them.
Mr Briggs will be aware that the Scottish Commission on Social Security has given its feedback and recommendations on the draft regulations for the adult disability payment; the Government will respond to that soon. The committee will also have the opportunity to scrutinise the regulations when they are laid in Parliament.
I thank Miles Briggs for giving way.
I am very much looking forward to there being divergence on policy and eligibility in relation to the adult disability payment and the child disability payment, compared with the previous position on PIP. According to evidence that the Social Justice and Social Security Committee has received, the Scottish Fiscal Commission predicts that, by making it easier for people to apply for ADP, the additional cost to the Scottish Government will be £500 million, which will need to be found from elsewhere in the Scottish budget. That highlights how much easier ADP will be to access, compared with PIP. Would Miles Briggs care to reflect on the fact that that means that PIP is a big barrier to disabled people accessing support?
I agree with Neil Gray, but it is still early days. We do not necessarily know what uptake will look like or whether payments will be easier to access.
I also agree with Neil Gray in relation to the new assessments that might be needed. At the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, we have discussed who will undertake those assessments and whether that could put people off applying, as is the case under the current system.
It was interesting to hear on Monday about the work that has been undertaken on supportive documentation, because I think that there is a need to consider reform in that area. We already know about the challenges that exist in building an integrated system that involves general practitioners, health boards and local authorities. It is not clear from the conversations that we have had whether that will be any easier under the new system. It is clear that the public organisations that I have mentioned need to consider how they can become an integral part of the process of designing and developing any new system.
In the time that I have left, I want to touch on the Social Security Scotland charter. As the cabinet secretary mentioned, section 3 of the 2018 act places a duty on ministers to promote the take-up of benefits. The act specifies that ministers must publish a strategy for promoting the take-up of benefits, on which they should consult individuals and organisations. The review has recently completed its work on that, and the thinking in that regard is being considered by the Government. It is important that the many organisations that work in this area and the many people with lived experience are an integral part of what comes out of the review.
The Social Security Scotland charter sets out what people can expect from the Scottish social security system and how Social Security Scotland will uphold those principles. However, it is important that, as part of that, a commitment is made that people’s wellbeing will be assessed. It would be interesting to hear from the minister or the cabinet secretary—I do not know which of them will close the debate—what evaluation there has been to date of the new system and the efforts that have been made to embed the charter and the values that it embodies, on which we all agree.
Today’s debate provides us with a welcome opportunity to discuss the new Social Security Scotland systems that are being put in place, and I hope that it will give all members an opportunity to contribute to what should be a cross-party effort to establish those systems.
One of the things that I say most in the chamber is that I welcome the Government’s policy intentions but I do not feel that its actions go far enough to make them a reality, so members will be unsurprised to hear that my speech today will be no different in that respect.
I give the Government a lot of credit for recognising the importance of addressing access to social security. The rhetoric is good, but, in my view, the solutions that have been set out with regard to addressing access to social security will not go far enough in doing what the Government wants to deliver. As many members will know, I do not think that the pace or scale of what the Government is doing on social security will quite deliver the policy intentions or the charter or reduce poverty in Scotland at the pace or on the scale that we need it to.
Low take-up of benefits is an age-old issue and one that requires new and revolutionary solutions.
All of us are impatient to move away from the broken Westminster social security system that let down so many people who sought support. Does Pam Duncan-Glancy agree that the feeling that we got from senior members of Social Security Scotland on Monday, including those who have previously worked for the Department for Work and Pensions, was that the move towards the delivery of new benefits was happening at “an incredible pace”, to use their words?
I am not surprised that they described it in that way, because the organisation is new, we are in the middle of the pandemic and, as was highlighted earlier, four benefits have been delivered in an unexpected way.
I do not deny that, as an organisation, it has been quick to deliver those benefits, but I am frustrated and impatient for a change in policy direction. As Neil Gray knows, the change from DLA to PIP has already excluded a number of disabled people. As he also knows, and as the committee heard, there are tens of thousands of unpaid carers who are unable to access the support that they need. We need to move faster on that.
To be honest, I was expecting more from both Governments, but I definitely expected the new PIP to be far more radical than what I have seen. We need to move quickly on that, because the poverty that unpaid carers and disabled people are facing is urgent—we need to take action.
The Scottish Government has recognised that people who are in poverty, disabled people, people who are shielding, children and young people, older people, minority ethnic communities and women have been the hardest hit by the pandemic, but it is unable yet to give a clear picture of who those people are, what they are currently claiming and how effective the social security system is at supporting them. The strategy says that it is very difficult to identify some people, including carers.
Finding a way to identify people is vital, because we have already seen the real-life impact of not having the data that we need. For example, 125,000 children who are entitled to the Scottish child payment are still missing out on that £10 a week, because we do not have the data and correct information to find them. We have suggested a solution to the Government for getting around that, which I suggest that it considers. Members know that I and Labour colleagues do not believe that £10 a week is anywhere near enough, but we can guarantee that having something is significantly better than having nothing.
On page 55 of the benefit take-up strategy, the Government states:
“Identifying the size of the eligible population for carer benefits is challenging, due to the complexity of eligibility”.
The document goes on to say that the situation is the same for young carers and disabled people. That does not need to be the case. I have met carers and disabled people on a number of occasions, as has the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, and we know that organisations can identify groups of people such as carers, and identify where they are and what they are eligible for. I suggest that the Government can, too.
The document makes a lot of the Government’s engagement with carers, but my experience in recent months has been that carers have not felt engaged with. In fact, they have said that they do not feel listened to. Carers need us to do more than listen; they need the Parliament and the Government to act. I urge the Government to do so and to meet carers regularly, not just in order to learn from them about how to identify who carers are but in order to talk about the way in which carers assistance can be reformed in Scotland.
To use our social security system to its full potential, we have to prioritise good data on who is and is not eligible for support. If we cannot do that, we do not know who needs it and who the system is prioritising. Not having that data limits our ability to see where change is needed. I urge the Government to do more than it is doing at the minute to improve the quality of its data.
More substantively, the debate’s title is “Accessing Scottish Social Security Benefits”, but, unfortunately, in addition to issues with data and the fact that the data that we have shows that as many as a quarter of children who are entitled to the Scottish child payment do not get it, large numbers of people are not accessing benefits at all or at the level that they need, and unfair eligibility criteria, which we have already hinted at, could remain until at least 2025.
Figures for the welfare fund, for example, which were published last week, showed that repeat crisis applications are at their highest point since the fund began, with more than three in four applications coming from people who have already applied in the past. That suggests that people do not have access to the money that they need on a long-term and sustainable basis; instead, they are living in a state of crisis, relying on piecemeal grants.
We urgently need to provide access to social security for more people at a rate that means that they have enough money to live on. That is why I continue to push the Government to go faster and harder on all this. That would be consistent with the first principle that is set out in the benefits uptake strategy, which is about
“taking account of individual circumstances and tailoring support in ways which reach and resonate with the intended audience.”
Organisations such as the MS Society have made it really clear that the current eligibility for disabled people’s benefits do not do that. The MS Society notes specifically that the 20m rule and the 50 per cent rule for disabled people do not take account of individual circumstances. Since the 20m rule was put in place, one in three people with multiple sclerosis who have moved to PIP have had their support downgraded. The MS Society says that, if it is included in the adult disability payment legislation and there is no prospect of its removal until 2025—after the Government’s 2023 review and the time that is required to implement changes—thousands of people with MS and other conditions will be unable to get the support that they need.
The rule that we currently have fails to take account of variable conditions and is a barrier to social security. Leaving decisions on eligibility and new criteria until after full, safe and secure roll-out is far from being person centred.
My colleagues on the Labour benches have urged the Government to move more quickly.
We believe that we need a system that is automated at every point that it can be, that understands and holds the knowledge of who is eligible for social security in Scotland, and that tells those people where and when they can access it. Let us pick up the pace, do what we can to make progress on a minimum income guarantee so that no one falls below that, and get on with the job of delivering with the powers that we have here in Scotland.
The pandemic has further exposed the need for social security to provide a firm anchor for those who are in work and those who are out of work. It has also shown the need for increased support for those who are disabled and carers. It is vital that we ensure that everyone who should be in receipt of the new payments gets them. The minister’s communication and the new strategy seem about right, with information, partnership, access and a person-centred approach all being included. We can support all that. The paper set out the principles, but my fear, as always, is about the delivery, which often proves to be a little more difficult.
We first proposed the expansion of welfare powers, or social security powers, for Scotland back in the Smith commission talks in advance of the 2015 elections. We wanted a £2.5 billion social security fund; more powers, with the ability to create new benefits and top up others; and a system that fitted in with Scottish principles and approaches and how we would prefer the system to be. We have approached the subject in a very responsible way and worked with the Government. We believe in the fairness, dignity and respect approach, and we have worked constructively throughout the period. However, I want to raise a number of issues with the minister today.
In the aspirations that Willie Rennie and the Liberal Democrats had for a social security system in Scotland, would he have preferred a system in which all powers over social security were devolved or the more difficult situation that we face with the hybrid system, in which we have to plug in and out of the Department for Work and Pensions and barriers are often put in place by UK ministers?
There was an active debate in the work of the Smith commission as to whether to transfer the non-universal credit items, because the universal credit items were considered to be the automatic economic stabilisers, and it was considered more appropriate for them to be at the single market level—the UK level. That is why the benefits that were transferred were the non-universal credit items, apart from the ability to flex on and change some of the universal credit items at a Scottish level. The subject was considered actively at the time, which is why we ended up with the model that we have. I thought that it was the appropriate way to proceed, and it has taken the Government some time to get the limited number of benefits set up, so it probably was the right decision to take at that time.
The first issue that I would like the minister to address is reassessment. We have already heard that 39 per cent of people who are in receipt of PIP have a mental health issue. It is often quite a stressful process to go through an assessment, and SAMH has highlighted that it often adds to the problems that individuals have and makes their mental health problems even worse. I recognise the change that has been proposed, which is for the new system to have a lighter touch and a five-yearly process, but I still cannot understand why, if someone has been judged to have a long-term condition that is unlikely to improve, they will have to go through any reassessment process at all. Perhaps the minister could explain that in summing up.
I am also really disappointed that the Scottish Government has decided to adopt broadly the same rules and eligibility criteria that apply to PIP for the new adult disability payment. That means that it has failed to change the 20m rule. If someone can walk one step over 20m, they will not receive the higher rate of the mobility component. Under PIP, the 20m rule has failed people living with MS. As a result, many people have lost out on vital financial support and their independence. It has failed to take into account fluctuating conditions such as MS and the impact that invisible symptoms such as fatigue can have on a person’s mobility.
I have a question for Willie Rennie about risk. At the moment, there is no agreement with the DWP that, if we change those rules, which would be difficult to do in the timeframe, people would not lose all their passporting benefits. Does he think that we should take that risk, or does he agree that we have to reach an agreement first before we change those rules?
There certainly should be an agreement and an attempt to make sure that we have the easy transfer of benefits. After hearing what ministers have said—and, in fact, what SNP MPs have said for years—my impression is that the SNP is not trying hard enough to get that agreement and make that change. It is important that we get that change, because many people are losing out. I want to hear from the minister what detailed attempt there has been to make that change.
Five years ago, SNP MPs led a debate in Westminster during which they condemned the 20m rule, describing it as “Tory ideology” and an “assault on the disadvantaged.” As we stand, the SNP is going to implement the very same rule in Scotland. The excuses, I am afraid, are just not good enough. We have a Scottish Government that railed against the UK Government but is adopting exactly the same rules for the Scottish system. It is content to carry on with the “Tory ideology” and the “assault on the disadvantaged.”
People with MS and other debilitating conditions will have to wait for another two years before the 20m rule is looked at again, and the reality is that, if it is agreed that it will be changed, it will be 2025 before the solution will be delivered. That is another four years away. People will be left hanging on for years. I do not think that that is fairness, dignity or respect. I would expect ministers to be busting a gut to have that rule changed, and to have it changed effectively. In the interim, at least the 50m rule should be reimposed before the change is implemented.
On carers benefits, the underlying entitlement issues are significant. They need to be addressed, because there is a massive gap between the number of unpaid carers in Scotland and the tiny number who are entitled to receive carers allowance.
It is currently one in 10. Those of pensionable age are losing out, as are many other groups. I would expect the Government to do so much more to get the reality to match up with the rhetoric.
I welcome the debate on the benefit take-up strategy, as it represents more progress in Scotland in cementing a societal shift in the way we think about social security, returning to its founding principles as a safety net for those in need and an investment in our constituents.
I was lucky enough to be the convener of the Social Security Committee during its consideration of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill and the development of the new system. The bill, of course, set out the legal framework for a new social security system in Scotland. The focus at that time was to listen to the views of people with lived experience of navigating the UK Government’s system in the DWP. It marked a much-needed departure from the governance, policy and rhetoric on social security that we had become accustomed to in the UK framework.
The new system began the process of unpicking the hostility and suspicion that people who are entitled to social security had come to expect under the Conservative Government. For the first time, we had a system designed at the outset to protect and promote human rights, with the Scottish social security principles of dignity, fairness and respect placed on the face of the bill. The Scottish social security charter—our charter—sets out what people can expect. It goes further than that by including a commitment to support people’s wellbeing when they engage with the Scottish social security system. I reflect that that is in marked contrast to the othering of people on benefits that emanated from Westminster—and that it was needed, because the UK benefits system is punitive and degrading, as can be seen from the rape clause.
I am lucky enough to take part in the Presiding Officer’s Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights internship programme. One year, my CRER intern had to leave early and miss her time in the Parliament, because she had been told that she would be sanctioned if she did not get back to Glasgow for an appointment, despite the fact that she was taking part in a programme that was designed to build confidence and engage our new Scots in our political life. It was simply unacceptable.
However, in contrast to Tory MPs who break the rules with impunity, there was no option for my intern. Last night, we saw the very worst of Conservative contempt for our citizens, when they thought that they could get away with throwing out the rulebook to the benefit of their own. What an insult to my constituents—and to theirs—who have been sanctioned for attending family funerals, for attending to caring responsibilities, or simply for being ill.
“justice should always be tempered by mercy”. —[
3 November 2021; Vol 702, c 961.]
Where is the mercy in the operation of the UK social security system? It is not for bereaved constituents, who have lost loved ones because of the loss of disability benefit status; for women who have had to declare rape to access the benefits that they are entitled to; or for those who are constrained by draconian rules that dominate their lives. If the Conservatives can U-turn with the shameless partisanship that was displayed this week, they can U-turn on the rape clause and on the cut to the uplift of universal credit.
However, today’s debate is about the benefit take-up strategy, and we have work to do in Scotland, albeit without all the levers that should be at our disposal. The new benefit take-up strategy sets out five principles around which to organise activity to promote take-up: prioritise person-centred approaches; communicate and engage effectively; bring services to people; encourage cross-system collaboration; and continuously learn and improve on the service that is delivered to our constituents.
I also note that the Scottish Government will explore the introduction of automated payments for certain devolved benefits. I encourage keen consideration of that measure and of any proposal that seeks to remove barriers to access to benefits.
Streamlining applications and assessment procedures are important measures for reducing the burden that is associated with benefits access. We know the stress and strain that benefits applications—and, in particular, continuous reassessments—can have, through engagement with our constituents. Making applications less onerous may go some way towards overcoming the stigma that still exists around social security.
The establishment of the social security system stands as one of the great achievements of the Parliament. As policy makers, we must resolve to build on that work. I am confident that, one day soon, we will have powers for a system-wide reform of social security. When that day comes, we must embed in our reforms those same principles of dignity, fairness, respect and compassion. Our common humanity and our collective interests can be drivers for that change, and I am confident that the new strategy is another step on the road to a fairer, better Scotland.
For any social security system to succeed, it is an essential requirement that it delivers—in literally delivering benefits, in delivering service and in delivering value for money. Determining whether Social Security Scotland meets those tests is an interesting exercise, so I ask members to bear with me.
From looking at the delivery of benefits by Social Security Scotland, it is clear that things are not going to plan. Yes, some benefits have been delivered, and the Social Security Scotland staff on the ground who have made that happen deserve praise. However, in reality, what we are seeing is a far cry from what we were promised. There has been a painfully slow roll-out of the Scottish child payment; one benefit has been entirely handed back to the UK Government; and there has been a four-year delay in the transfer of existing cases from the DWP.
“I want to make ending child poverty a driving mission for the next Parliament ... It is a downpayment on what will be possible when we have the full powers over tax and social security”.
However, in March 2021, only 1 per cent of applications for the Scottish child payment were processed within 10 days.
Most applicants waited 55 days for a decision. That is not quite the down payment that the First Minister promised and certainly not the one that working families across Scotland were hoping for.
My second test is: does Social Security Scotland deliver on service? Looking at the figures for client satisfaction, it is clear that the agency has work to do. Although the Scottish Government’s benefit take-up strategy claims that Social Security Scotland will be more effective in marketing its services than the DWP, 81 per cent of suggestions from clients this year concerned improvements to the information that is available from the new agency.
Even more telling is the fact that complaints far outweighed compliments, accounting for 77 per cent of the feedback that was received compared to a mere 18 per cent for compliments. For the best start foods payment, there were 270 complaints about the quality of service and a further 50 that related to accessing the benefit. Those are far and away the highest such figures for any benefit delivered in Scotland.
It is clear that there are communication issues on child disability payments, too. During the pilot programme in Dundee, nearly half the applications were denied. That suggests that work needs to be done to explain the application process and make it understandable to applicants.
The service needs improving, and not only at a national level. Social Security Scotland boasts that it has a presence in every local authority but that is news to most.
No means no.
Neither is there any web page suggest that such a team exists other than a single LinkedIn profile that I found.
If the local benefits team cannot signpost an MSP to the devolved benefits office, how do claimants stand a chance? By comparison, the DWP has two offices in Ayr and regularly hosts job fairs at prominent locations around the town. The local visibility of Social Security Scotland simply has to be improved. It cannot continue to be a backroom operation known only to the people who are in the know.
My third test is: does the social security system deliver a cost-effective service? That idea is enshrined in Social Security Scotland’s charter as its final principle:
“the Scottish social security system is to be efficient and deliver value for money.”
Where do we begin? The cost of the new system has doubled, staff requirements have doubled and there is a huge increase in temporary contracts. The cabinet secretary has admitted that Social Security Scotland will be no more cost efficient than the DWP. That is all before the Scottish Government has even agreed to double the Scottish child payment.
Lurking on the horizon is the universal basic income. Should the Scottish Government be looking to introduce such a payment, particularly when it will cost £58 billion a year? Social Security Scotland was unable to handle £347 million of benefits without doubling its workforce or its budget, so how on earth does the cabinet secretary think that it will be able to process £58 billion with ease? That is even before she sources the funding, which amounts to more than three times the current health spending. Surely it is in the interest of ordinary Scots, as well as of public finance, to focus on improving the services that we have—or perhaps even the ones that were handed back to the DWP—rather than launching into a reckless vanity project that fails to target the most vulnerable and hands money to families regardless of their financial status.
We have the opportunity to build a new system, one that is tailored to Scotland and that meets the needs of Scotland’s people, so let us do that and build the system that Scotland really needs.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on the benefit take-up strategy as set out by the cabinet secretary. No one knows when they are just one life experience away from needing support and assistance that will help to see them through or to ease the burden of financial hardship. A compassionate Scotland has at its heart a social security system that is there for people when they need it and that puts dignity, fairness and respect at its centre. That almost goes without saying—that principle has wide support in the Scottish Parliament and has been implemented by the Scottish Government.
That approach recognises that ensuring that people have access to social security entitlements is incredibly important. Those benefits are there for a purpose and because we believe that they are the backbone of a just and fair society and a vital investment in the lives of our constituents.
If anyone was in two minds about the importance of having a social security system, the worst of the pandemic and lockdowns must surely have ended those doubts. The take-up strategy is a significant contribution to meeting the rights-based approach that forms the platform for our social security system. It is a comprehensive approach to ensuring that people have access to the support that they are due. The strategy has been shaped and formed by the experience of those who, through no fault of their own, have struggled to navigate the system. There is a strong emphasis on continued consultation to seek out barriers to take-up.
We know that there are three key barriers to take-up. The first barrier is the lack of information, including information about the available benefits in the application process. It is important that we address any knowledge defects relating to new benefits. That is recognised in the approach that has been set out. The second barrier is costly and complex access. It is important that we support people to navigate the system and that we fund advice and support. The third barrier is the social one, including perceived stigma. We must go all out, not just as a social security system but as politicians, to tackle stigma and bring about an end to misconceptions.
We must also invest in services to support people and ensure that those are accessible in places and ways that are best suited to people’s needs. I welcome the £10 million allocated during the current session to help to fund that approach. Many councils provide excellent welfare rights services that are in the heart of our communities. I want to take the opportunity to praise all the welfare rights advice services in Clydebank and Milngavie. Local government must be adequately funded to maintain those services and must have equality of access to any additional funding.
Our dignity, fairness and respect approach is important in increasing take-up, too. We should not underestimate how much getting decisions right first time and treating people with compassion will help to increase confidence in our social security system. The shameful UK war on welfare for the purposes of some cheap headlines is cruel and has created stigma that has been hard to bear. We are right to kick out the private sector assessments that lined the pockets of the rich while inflicting misery on many disabled people who have been denied the support that they are due. We are right to take a more compassionate approach to terminal illness claims and we are right to condemn the sanctions regime, which does not promote take-up or provide social security for people when they need it.
Policy is important. When I questioned members of the Scottish Fiscal Commission at our Social Justice and Social Security Committee, they accepted that our changes in policy mean an anticipated higher take-up of adult disability payment compared to the previous UK benefit. It is no wonder that Scope UK, the disability equality charity for England and Wales, has launched a campaign called “disability benefits without the fight”. Scope is calling for a fairer disability assessment process and for people to be assessed by those health professionals that know about their condition. That does not sound like rocket science, does it?
Why has the benefit system treated people so badly for so long? As Scope says, it should not be a fight, and
“Disabled people should get the right benefits, the first time round.”
Scope also points out that, between 2017 and 2019, the UK Government spent £120 million on fighting appeals to benefit decisions. In Scotland, we must promote the right to appeal and adapt our approach if barriers to taking up the right to challenge a decision are identified.
Setting a policy to meet our agenda of fairness, dignity and respect will help to increase take-up. That approach, coupled with a take-up strategy that is resourced and person centred and that rejects stigma and gets the message out effectively will make all the difference. Let us unite behind that approach to create a compassionate, fair and supportive system of social security that improves take-up by those who need it and invests in the people of Scotland.
The debate is welcome. It allows me to expand on the evidence that I gave this morning to the Social Justice and Social Security Committee on my proposed Scottish employment injuries advisory council bill.
I am thankful that the committee accepted the statement of reasons, but I am even more grateful that it listened to the workers and trade unionists—to members of Unite the union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, the GMB, the Community trade union, Unison, the Communication Workers Union, the Fire Brigades Union and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. They wrote to demand a voice on, and a role in, the new employment injuries assistance benefit. They did so because their colleagues who have caught Covid-19 in the workplace are now no longer fit for work or because women are apparently the wrong gender for that entitlement, although it is clear that they still get ill or injured through their work. Those women do not have access to the industrial injuries disablement benefit, or their entitlement is extremely limited, because that benefit is stuck very much in the previous century.
Any proposed bill will not, in itself, give women and those with long Covid access to the new employment injuries assistance directly. The Government and the Parliament need experts who have space, tenure and independence to research the illnesses and diseases and to make recommendations based on that. However, it is inconceivable that those issues would not be considered by a body with the authority and power to consider them and to make the first steps on the road to making the entitlement fit for the 21st century.
Trade unionists and workers who get ill at work must have a mandated seat at the table of a permanent, statutory and independent employment advisory council. Their expertise and lived experience of 21st-century workplaces are vital in making proposals that will form the benefit from the very start.
This morning, I asked the committee whether, when the Parliament considers regulations for a new devolved benefit, it would accept an equalities impact assessment that said that just 6 per cent of applications would come from women. It is clear that the answer to that question is no, we absolutely would not. However, that would be the case if a lift-and-shift approach was taken. Doing so would risk embedding a system that promotes inequalities and fails to reflect modern Scotland.
I thank the GMB women’s campaign unit, Engender, Close the Gap and Professor Andrew Watterson for their substantial insights on the issue of women’s health and safety at work. Currently, women have little access to the Westminster benefit because they have barely any entitlement to it. It is a benefit for the injuries and diseases that men got in workplaces that they predominantly worked in during the previous century. Cleaners with respiratory and skin diseases are not recognised by the current scheme, and breast cancer that is caused by shift work—that is the top occupational cancer in women—is not recognised. Even asbestos-related ovarian cancer, which is the most common gynaecological cancer in the UK, is not recognised. Women are missing from that scheme.
Care workers wrote to the committee to say that they risk injury at work daily. They have musculoskeletal disorders in the neck and upper limbs and injuries that are ignored by employers and the outdated UK benefit system.
Changes will not happen overnight, of course, but we need a system to do the work and consider that change. We do not currently have that in Scotland. New data and analysis and broad expertise and testimony will be needed to make the case for change.
I am grateful to the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, Thompsons Solicitors, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the British Occupational Hygiene Society, which offered their support and insights.
The committee also heard from people who have long Covid or who have colleagues with long Covid, who likely caught that through the course of their work. The impetus for my bill proposal was in response to their experience. Should people who contracted Covid at work not have access to a newly devolved benefit? Workers in health, social care, retail and public transport talk about how they became so severely ill that long Covid was impacting their ability to continue to do their work in the jobs that they loved and about how something should be done to support them.
However, in March this year, the UK Industrial Injuries Advisory Council refused to recognise Covid in that context. That exposes the risk to our social security system in deferring to, and requesting advice from, a UK council over which the Scottish ministers have no power. There has, therefore, been less progress on Scottish benefits, and those key workers whom we depended on and rightly applauded throughout the pandemic have been offered no access to the industrial injuries benefit.
A Scottish council with powers to commission research and make recommendations on how to support people who have caught Covid at work could offer hope that the new benefit will give people the access to social security that they are so desperately lacking under the UK entitlement. In the coming weeks, I will lodge my final proposal for a statutory Scottish employment injuries advisory council that can research, shape and scrutinise the new benefit. We need to ensure that workers and trade unionists who are injured in the course of their employment, especially women and those with long Covid, are at the heart of that council.
When it comes to accessing Scottish social security benefits, I hope to work closely with the cabinet secretary, the minister, the Social Justice and Social Security Committee and members on all sides of the chamber to ensure that there is full and equal access to a new form of employment injuries assistance that is fit for the 21st century.
I am acutely aware of the need to address issues with social security access and take-up. As a member of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, I hear a lot about the difficulty that people, in particular those with mental illness, face in applying for and then dealing with the gatekeepers of social security provision such as PIP. However, I am very hopeful that Social Security Scotland, given the principles on which it was created, will not follow the same route.
It is telling that SAMH is already pointing out the advantages in Social Security Scotland’s approach, despite the criteria for ADP being the same as those for PIP. How we treat those who ask for help is such a massive part of building a system that respects and ensures the dignity of those whom it supports.
I share the member’s wish to congratulate the Government on making changes to some of the processes. However, would she agree that the 50 per cent rule, regarding the amount of time for which a condition has to be present, is particularly difficult for people with mental ill health? Does she agree that that part of the eligibility criteria for the personal independence payment really needs to be addressed, and that we need to do that soon, rather than waiting until 2025?
I thank the member for her intervention—I know that she has a lot of great ideas and that we probably have quite a lot of shared experience of going through the social security process. I look forward to debating these issues when we discuss the criteria for ADP.
Is it not a real shame that a mental health charity telling us that PIP actually drags people into mental health crises is not surprising in this country? Is it not devastating to think that simply speaking to the recipient as a person before changing the amount that they are paid or their eligibility for a benefit is seen as a massive change?
I have been through the gruelling process of applying for, and then trying to hold on to, universal credit twice in my life, so I am no stranger to the often dehumanising process of trying to interact with the DWP as a disabled person. My committee colleague Miles Briggs was right to point out that mentally ill people who access PIP often experience stress, but it is important to recognise that those people experience not just stress, but trauma and severe harm.
In my first PIP assessment, which was many years ago, I was grilled about my mental illness. My doctor had written a letter in support of my application and noted, among other things, that I had suffered from suicidal ideation. The assessor asked me what, if that were true, had prevented me from acting on the suicidal thoughts—they were basically asking, “Why are you alive, then?” It was clear that they believed that I was either a failure or a liar.
Like most members in the chamber, I have helped constituents to apply for benefits and have provided them with emotional support as they went for assessment; I have also done that with friends. Getting the help that you need in order to survive should not be such a traumatic experience. The first principle of the new benefit take-up strategy is to “prioritise person-centred approaches”. That is a very Government phrase, but is also reassuring because it demonstrates the Scottish Government’s intention to put the recipients of social security first. I am proud to be a member of the party that is seeking to take Scotland in a different direction.
The agency in charge of administering benefits is not the only factor affecting take-up. I know from speaking to constituents that stigma still plays a part in damaging the willingness of people who need help and are eligible to receive it to apply. No one will learn anything today from my saying that people often look down on those who rely on social security, but decent social security is not something to avoid, judge, or disparage: it is a sign of a fair and caring society.
During the October recess, I visited a number of organisations in Inverness that focus on food poverty, including a community cupboard and a community fridge. Those are not a new concept in the Highlands and Islands, but their numbers increased drastically during the pandemic as people became more aware of those who were struggling to feed themselves and their families and as others, who would otherwise never have experienced poverty, were suddenly plunged into it through loss of work, illness, or other pandemic-driven life events.
It is right to recognise the role that Highland Third Sector Interface played in supporting those who had big ideas about how to help their communities to put those into action. HTSI hosts a food provision map on its website to signpost people to their nearest provider, whether that is a food bank in Inverness, an oyster delivery service in Kinlochbervie, or one of dozens of community fridges, cupboards and gardens across the Highlands.
What I love about community fridges is that they are not there only for people who are on low incomes. The stigma that I mentioned earlier does not apply. They exist not only to give food to people who do not have any but to stop food waste from supermarkets making it to landfill. That means that walking into those places and leaving with dinner does not mean that someone is poor; it means that they are saving the planet.
I would much rather get to the point where living in poverty is not something people hide but is just something that happens to them and that they are helped out of. I am not ashamed to have relied on social security and food parcels. That experience is part of who I am, and I consider it incredibly valuable when I am speaking here and undertaking scrutiny work in committee.
Food parcels even broadened my culinary horizons. I expected to find beans, pasta and other familiar items in my parcel, but I was also introduced to tinned crab for the first time in my life through one particularly memorable package. I tell that story because I believe in two things: that input from those with lived experience is critical to making good policy decisions and that an MSP talking about being on social security will normalise it and perhaps help to reduce the stigma.
I trust that those beliefs are shared by the Scottish Government. That is evidenced by its history of consulting with often unheard groups and its commitment to continuing that work. I am grateful for the Government’s determination to change for the better the experience of disabled people and others who need social security in Scotland.
I thank those who work to support the distribution of social security to many people across Scotland. I also thank those who support recipients in voluntary sector organisations, local authorities and elsewhere. We see you and we value you. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the personal testimony that we have heard here today. It makes a difference, as Emma Roddick has just said, that people see us standing here with lived experience.
Scotland is re-investing in our vital social security system after more than a decade of cuts. The child payment, which the Greens will fight to at least double as soon as possible, could invest more than £320 million in our children by the end of this parliamentary session. The young carer grant, which we have championed in the Parliament, is providing thousands of young carers with yearly grants to help them enjoy some time away from their caring roles.
Those and other extra supports will be of no use to people who are not aware of their entitlements, to those who need a bit of help to apply or to people who are too embarrassed to apply because of years of shameful attacks on them by Governments and others.
The child payment could not come soon enough, but the Scottish Fiscal Commission estimates that 25 per cent of children—86,000 children—will not receive the support that they are entitled to. That figure does not include the children who will miss out because their families do not claim the qualifying UK payments.
Those are just the payments that we know about. Scotland will soon deliver disability and carer payments to hundreds of thousands of Scots, with no official estimates of how many people might be eligible. I urge the cabinet secretary to explore how such estimates could be produced. Fighting poverty with social security payments that do not get to everyone they target is like fighting it with one hand tied behind our backs. It does not have to be that way, though. Child benefit take-up is regularly above 90 per cent, reaching 97 per cent in some years recently, and around 96 per cent of new families apply for their baby box.
What can we do? First, we must tackle head-on the stigma created by 40 years of lies about benefit claimants by successive Westminster Governments and the media.
Secondly, we need to expand high-quality income maximisation advice. Some evaluations show as much as a £20 return for every £1 invested. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s healthier, wealthier children project, championed by the Greens in the Parliament, has over 10 years got an estimated £36 million into the pockets of new parents by supporting midwives and health visitors to signpost to money advice services. That is why I am so pleased that the shared Scottish Government-Scottish Greens policy programme commits an additional £10 million for such services. I really look forward to seeing how that will be spent as soon as possible.
Thirdly, we need to be proactive in getting money to people. When people approach Social Security Scotland or local government for support, we should be actively checking what other payments may be on offer that they can claim. With the right information and the right information technology, we can make automatic payments to people without them even having to apply in the first place. Glasgow City Council has proved that that is possible, with school clothing grants, and I am very pleased that the shared policy programme commits to expanding that approach.
We must also make progress in making disability payments more accessible. Regular face-to-face assessments, which were not necessary in 20 years of disability living allowance, were introduced by the UK Government to make disability payments harder to access, demonising and stigmatising the people who tried. Applicants have been forced to travel many miles, sometimes to inaccessible buildings, to attend assessments conducted by assessors who have been entirely ignorant of their condition. In some cases, applicants’ health conditions have been significantly worsened—entirely the opposite to the intention of the disability benefits system.
Our new Scottish adult disability payment could be transformative. Some decisions may be reached using the application form and accompanying information without the need for further assessment—a Green win from 2018 and something of which I am very proud. When a conversation with the applicant is needed, the new client consultation system promises to be less intrusive and more respectful. We need to ensure that people who have those conversations have the information that they need about the people to whom they are talking. I also urge the minister and the cabinet secretary to address the concerns about the 20m rule. When the new payment launches next year, disabled people, their organisations and the Greens will be watching developments carefully to ensure that the promises are upheld.
For too long, Governments have been deliberately putting up barriers to people accessing social security. It does not have to be that way. All of us, but particularly the Scottish Government, should be tearing those barriers down, and I am pleased to see the Greens playing a vital role in that.
I am pleased to speak in the debate. I would have preferred to be in the chamber today, but, as you can tell from my voice,
Presiding Officer, I am still struggling a wee bit with an illness. I point that out to highlight the fact that the continuation of the virtual sessions has allowed me and other members to continue to work and contribute from home instead of being unable to participate.
Today’s debate is important. I welcome the 2019 benefit take-up strategy and the 2021 strategy. As the cabinet secretary said, the new strategy is based on five key principles: prioritising person-centred approaches; communicating and engaging effectively; bringing services to people; encouraging cross-system collaboration; and continuously learning and improving. I do not think that any MSP could disagree with any of those principles.
The process is crucial and should be scrutinised, but the most important things are the outcomes for our fellow citizens who need to engage with Social Security Scotland to obtain the benefits to which they are entitled. Every one of us will have heard claims of people “milking the system” and being “benefit scroungers”. If people obtain resources because the UK welfare system is overly complicated, I do not blame the people; I blame the system and how it was established. In the same vein, over the years, that same complicated UK welfare system has allowed many people who have desperately needed benefits to miss out on them.
I highlight those two examples for a specific reason. I accept that establishing any new system will not be without challenges and that unforeseen issues will be found along the way. There clearly will be questions about the formulation of any system, but the challenge for any Government is how to fix them. We have seen the desperate state that many of our constituents have been in because of universal credit and the failed amendments to it, so I hope that the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament never make those two mistakes.
I found the new strategy refreshing, with its principles of prioritising a person-centred approach, continual learning and improvement, and encouraging cross-system collaboration, which will, of course, be the toughest challenge. Through stakeholder engagement, the Scottish Government has identified the main barriers to take-up of benefits. First, there is a lack of information, which leads to a lack of awareness of or misperception about entitlement to benefits and application procedures. Secondly, costly or complex access inhibits the application procedure. That can be because of the need to travel to a welfare or employment office, a lack of resources, including time, or people’s limited competence to find their way through the system. We have already heard about a couple of those things from other members. Thirdly, there are the social barriers of perceived stigma, pride, a subjective lack of need for benefits and a lack of trust in institutions.
Sadly, the stigma around claiming benefits is real for many people. I have known constituents who did not want to apply for benefits because of their pride. They did not feel that they needed the benefits and wanted the money to go to others, even though some of those people’s lives would have benefited greatly from the additional resource. We have heard from colleagues—including from Emma Roddick, in an excellent speech—about the issue of stigma, and I agree with them about that. We have to do something better about the issue. In the Scotland that I want to see, the stigma of obtaining benefits would be removed.
Some MSPs have never needed to access benefits, while others, including Emma Roddick and me, have. For those of us who have, it was a sobering experience that has stayed with us. That is why I absolutely endorse the three key principles of the benefits that are controlled by this Parliament: dignity, fairness and respect.
The new strategy will deliver a few aspects that I believe will help many of my Greenock and Inverclyde constituents as well as people across the nation. First, actions from the strategy, which build on learning from the 2019 strategy, include working with partners to improve targeting of information and advice, challenging the myths and stigma around claiming benefits, and continuing to remove barriers to accessing social security in Scotland.
Secondly, the roll-out of Social Security Scotland’s local delivery network—with 400 staff in 32 local authorities by the time the service is fully operational—will be crucial. That will also enhance the many public and third sector organisations, including Financial Fitness and Christians Against Poverty, that operate in my constituency. I believe that the establishment of a stakeholder take-up forum to proactively identify examples of best practice and settings in which they might be replicated will be hugely beneficial, as will working with stakeholders to co-design interactive and helpful resources to support the mainstreaming of existing good practices around benefit take-up.
Thirdly, the multichannel financial wellbeing marketing campaign, which will begin with a focus on benefit take-up and will cover free debt advice and affordable credit, is vital. In particular, the important work that credit unions undertake in our constituencies can play an even greater part in that activity. Recently, I was delighted to meet with the Tail O’The Bank Credit Union in my constituency. I know how important credit unions are to their clients, but I also know the opportunities that they can deliver for many more people.
Finally, it is vital to work with a range of seldom-heard groups to better understand and address a lack of take-up among particular populations. Scotland is a country with a rich tapestry of backgrounds, which I warmly welcome. Therefore, understanding some of the cultural challenges is vital to ensure that all new Scots are equal partners in our nation.
We all know that, as part of the national mission to tackle poverty, the Scottish Government is determined that everybody should be able to access the payments that they are due. I believe that the new strategy and, more important, the outcomes from it, will help to achieve that mission.
Ensuring that help is given to those who most need it is the most important function of every social security system. The members on the Scottish Conservative benches believe in implementing a distinctly Scottish approach to social security—one that is targeted at the needs of the people of Scotland and backed by the broad financial shoulders of the United Kingdom. Key to achieving that is ensuring that everyone who is entitled to receive help not only can access it, but is encouraged to do so.
However, the Scottish Government’s record thus far on delivering social security benefits needs to be questioned, because much more attention to detail is required. For example, it is often reported that the SNP will not finish taking on all of the devolved benefit powers until 2025, which will be nearly a decade after it received the powers. We also know that Social Security Scotland’s staffing costs have nearly doubled, and we must be aware of those spiralling costs. Nevertheless, the Scottish Government still has the opportunity to put things right and ensure that Social Security Scotland begins to deliver more benefits.
When it comes to the forthcoming adult disability payment, it seems that the Scottish Government still has work to do to ensure that all claimants receive the appropriate level of award. Earlier this year, the previous Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People stated that DWP-style assessments would play no part in the application process for the benefit. The recently published benefit take-up strategy confirms that face-to-face assessments will take place only when absolutely necessary, and are now to be renamed “client consultations”.
However, the dependence on clients dealing with an application form and supplying medical evidence raises concerns, because they might not be able to provide sufficient evidence without undergoing the type of assessment that is used to award PIP. Although some potential claimants will be able to retrieve the required medical records from their general practitioners, many will not have visited their GPs often enough to be able to do that, which could put them at a disadvantage.
As such, the DWP has raised the concern that scrapping face-to-face assessments will mean that many clients will be unable to provide enough evidence to receive the level of award that they might be entitled to. That has to be looked at.
It is important to recognise that, when it comes to the adult disability payment in the system that we are building, only one piece of information from a formal source will be required to support the general care and mobility needs in a client’s application. That will be a marked departure from the current system, which requires formal supporting information to evidence each and every difficulty that the client reports experiencing. That is one of several examples of how the way that we deliver disability benefits will lead to a significantly different experience for the client when applying.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
We acknowledge that there will be differences and changes. We want a tailored approach, which is important. However, we have to recognise that there will be some difficulties, and that people might slip through the net and will not access all the benefits to which they are entitled. We need to have the time, the funds and the process in place to ensure that people can access benefits.
It is important to ensure that anyone who applies for any type of benefit is given the necessary support and that mechanisms are in place. The risks around the idea of improving potential for payments from the Scottish Government have to be considered. Similar pressures exist for claimants who receive the highest rate of PIP. Those potential pitfalls will need to be considered.
Turning to other aspects of the social security system, I welcome the recent benefit take-up strategy, which members have talked about, and I acknowledge the importance of tailoring support to certain demographics. Many older people face barriers to accessing their benefits, and do not take them up because of those access issues. Citizens Advice Scotland has demonstrated one such barrier, when one of its assessments found that one in 10 people between 65 and 79 are not able to use a computer to access benefit applications, which makes the process much more difficult.
I should stress that changes to benefits can be confusing and stressful for older people who depend on them. We should therefore consider the vital importance of communication. I know that the Scottish Government has considered some of those aspects, but it still needs to address some points, because the system needs to work well and timeously. It is important that the Government continues to engage with older people, stakeholders and charities such as Age Scotland, which have talked about the work that is required.
Another group that members have talked about is those who care for others. I welcome the fact that the take-up strategy acknowledges the simplicity of the carers allowance application process. We need to consider that point, because the benefit will be replaced with Scottish carers assistance. Given the increasing importance of carers over the past 18 months, it is vital that we consider that group now and ensure that we give those people the support that they require.
As I stated at the outset, it is clear that the devolved benefit powers that Scotland has received can, if used properly, be an effective tool to ensure that people receive the support that they need. It is therefore disappointing that we have not gone as far down the road to deliver those benefits as we had hoped.
I am sure that the Scottish Government will take on board some of the concerns that we have heard from many members. If the Government is able to listen, I hope that we can arrive at a social security system to which other countries can aspire. However, at the moment, I am disappointed that we have a strategy that still looks like a missed opportunity.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in today’s debate. The devolution of welfare powers gives us the chance to shape the kind of society that we want to be, and to restore dignity and respect to the heart of the social security system.
However, we now know that the delay on the SNP’s part has only halted progress and has potentially affected benefit take-up in Scotland. Covid-19 has hit low-income families and the most vulnerable people disproportionately hard, and it has deepened poverty and dragged more families into financial insecurity. Today, half of families who are in poverty have a member who is a disabled person. Even before the pandemic, child poverty rates were high and were projected to rise further.
Over the next decade, Scotland must be bold and willing to use the full levers of power in order to transform, if we are to meet our target on child poverty and live up to our ambitions of being a nation that respects, protects and fulfils human rights, and one in which we can all achieve our potential.
We can start with the Scottish child payment, which has continued to be on the minds of members thanks to the efforts of my friend and colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy. Just over a quarter of children in Scotland live in poverty—260,000 children right now, in 2021. That should shame us all. We talk a lot, but Parliament needs to get seriously ambitious for Scotland’s children. Let us raise the Scottish child payment to £40 a week. Let us ensure that every kid in Scotland has a good quality of life without the people who love them having to worry about where the money is coming from.
Even with full roll-out, the Scottish Government is likely to miss its interim child poverty target by 6 per cent, thereby leaving an extra 50,000 children in poverty. From the end of furlough to the cruel cut to universal credit, thanks to the Tories and the Scottish Government’s delays in rolling out and increasing the Scottish child payment, Scottish families’ incomes have been squeezed when they are already having to deal with the economic shock of the pandemic. We can and must do better.
People who have lifelong conditions look at Parliament and ask how we are going to defend them. For example, people who have multiple sclerosis are looking for hope. The MS Society, Labour and many other organisations are all calling for removal of the 20m rule from the proposed adult disability payment assessment. The Scottish Government is replacing the personal independence payment with the ADP and has, for the new benefit, retained the PIP eligibility criteria, including the 20m rule, in its assessment criteria. In 2021, a Citizens Advice Scotland survey found that a majority of advisors working to help people with disabilities to navigate the social security system agreed that the distance should be extended to 50m.
Fatigue, both physical and mental, is one of the most debilitating symptoms of MS and other neurological conditions, and the rule does not consider the severity of the fatigue that many people experience after walking 20m. I would therefore be grateful if the Government could respond to the concerns that have been raised by people who have MS. Is the Government prepared to change the eligibility criteria? Those who claim the disability payment deserve dignity and respect.
The social security system that is shaped in Parliament must ensure that no one is held back by poverty and inequality. Scottish Labour would use the powers that we have in Scotland to make sure that people have the support that they need in order to participate fully in society. The social security system that Labour would build would secure the wellbeing and human rights of everyone, and it would seek to guarantee a minimum income standard that no one would fall below. Having a strong and adequate automated SSS would lead to a higher level of uptake. Scottish Labour would build a social security system based on the principles of adequacy, respect and simplicity.
Those are the principles that will guide me as we come together to shape our social security system for Scotland and ensure that it works for all.
The creation of Social Security Scotland is testament to the power of devolution, and we want to use those powers and make sure that they have a real impact on people’s lives. I think that we have heard a degree of consensus on that in the chamber today.
The cabinet secretary began by talking about the human rights approach that we want, and we have heard from all around the chamber that a cross-party effort is required if we are to get it right. I hope that we will have further opportunities to discuss the matter in the chamber. Today, we will end our debate without having votes on a motion and amendments, but I think that it is important that we come back to the subject in order to allow Opposition parties to continue our scrutiny of the process in an effort to get the best possible outcomes from enabling people to access new benefits.
Today’s publication of the Scottish Government’s strategy has shown that there are gaps in knowledge about who is using our social security system and how we can encourage people to take up the benefits to which they are entitled. I will start by reflecting on the Scottish child payment, which my colleague Foysol Choudhury has just covered and which Pam Duncan-Glancy also spoke about.
The data that has been published shows that only 77 per cent of eligible households are accessing the Scottish child payment. That means that, even with further investment, we are not reaching almost a quarter of the families who are entitled to it. We know from organisations including the Child Poverty Action Group what we can and must do in order to reach that extra 23 per cent of eligible households. We must ensure that we invest in analysis of applications in order to identify better the families who are eligible. Data is key. With data in hand, the Scottish Government should be able to reach out to more families and put that money in their pockets. We know how crucial that is in respect of lifting more of Scotland’s young people out of poverty, as colleagues have said.
I think that we all agree that there is a need to invest more in the system. There is some consensus on the need to ensure that we have a system that works, that knows where people are and that seeks to meet them. With that in mind, although the strategy that has been published has some detail on what has come before, I am concerned that there is a lack of detail on the strategic approach to increasing benefit uptake under the new system.
The point that Alexander Stewart made about targeting priority groups is key in that regard. The point was echoed by Miles Briggs, who spoke about the support that is needed for various groups of people, including people who suffer from poor mental health who have been supported by the Scottish Association for Mental Health. More needs to be done to reach those groups, to find out what the barriers are and to work with them to ensure that they get access to their benefits.
A number of members spoke powerfully about stigma, which continues to be a significant barrier for people. I hope that the minister will say something about that in his summing-up speech.
Maggie Chapman and others mentioned the importance of automation in the benefits system. Automation has been a central priority for the Scottish Labour Party. We believe that automation would effectively overcome many of the significant barriers to take-up, which include lack of knowledge about entitlements. If an individual could make one claim that would automatically trigger their entitlement to other supports, that would have a hugely positive upward impact on take-up rates. Most important, it would also help to reduce and prevent poverty and to support people’s wellbeing.
Another key area that has been raised by the MS Society Scotland is issues surrounding the adult disability payment and ending of the 20m rule, which members from across the chamber, including Willie Rennie, Foysol Choudhury and Pam Duncan-Glancy, spoke about. The 20m rule is incompatible with a system that is based on dignity, respect and fairness. It is an archaic rule that stipulates that if a person can walk that distance, that justifies their not having access to the enhanced rate of mobility support. The rule harms people with disabilities—it takes money out of their pockets, which means that they lose their independence. Throughout the debate, we have heard that limiting a person’s independence and their ability to socialise, to go to work and to lead a more normal life has huge ramifications and impacts.
We have a lot more work to do when it comes to righting the wrongs of past systems and ensuring better uptake of benefits. Colleagues have spoken about the importance of availability of advocacy and advice; Marie McNair spoke about the importance of the role of local government in funding welfare rights and advice. I am sure that we all want advocacy and advice to be at the heart of the new system.
My colleague Mark Griffin spoke passionately about his member’s bill. I hope that the cabinet secretary will accept Mark’s offer of working in a spirit of partnership on that agenda. There must be further dialogue on that.
There is often a temptation to make this about the UK Government versus the Scottish Government—Westminster versus Holyrood. Some members strayed a little into that area this afternoon. However, what I have seen, and what Emma Roddick powerfully spelled out for us, is that it is about the importance of people’s lived experience and ensuring that we work together collectively to drive co-operation between the Governments to support those of our constituents who most need the support of social security.
I remind members that I am in receipt of PIP at the higher rate.
The best way for the vulnerable in our society to be aided is from a devolved level. It is pretty self-evident that those who are closer to the communities that they seek to help can more effectively identify needs and provide tailored solutions. For that reason, I find the principle of Social Security Scotland exciting and see it as having great potential. Like other members, I visited the organisation on Monday.
We have an opportunity to build a uniquely Scottish system that is tailor-made to deal with people and circumstances here, while having the robust and reliable underwriting of the DWP. That underwriting is one of the benefits of Scotland being served by two Governments. We can have different localised policies with the same financial backing. For example, we could rethink and consider treating people with MS, epilepsy and other such disabilities extremely differently, which other members have picked up on during the debate. Having a tapered system that made the support of such people directly proportionate to the regularity of their episodes could be a great way to ensure that the vulnerable in Scotland are served efficiently and effectively.
I am slightly confused. The cabinet secretary said this afternoon that we cannot make that change because there is no agreement with the DWP, but, at the committee last week, the minister said that he wants everybody to be safely transferred across before looking at it. Even if an agreement was in place, the minister insinuated last week that we would not make the change. Perhaps he would clarify that in his concluding remarks.
There are two key points. One is that, if we opened up a different system, we would be running two systems concurrently, which would be complex and difficult, because people would want to go on to the better system. That is the first risk, which SCOSS has identified as a serious risk.
The other point is that, without an agreement with the DWP, that would risk passporting benefits and, although a lot of dialogue has taken place, the agreement is not there. I am sure that Jeremy Balfour will appreciate and understand those two fundamental risks.
That is one of many ways in which the Scottish welfare system could be implemented.
The devolution of benefits presents an amazing opportunity to shape welfare in ways that Scotland wants. That is what the SNP wants, of course: an opportunity to radically change the system from Westminster’s system—to get rid of the unfair and heartless system that SNP members keep going on about. However, what has happened? The draft regulations that have been laid and the conversations that we are having today all point to the fact that the Scottish Government will keep the same regulations that we already have. There is no change to the 50 per cent rule, no change for people with MS and no change on mobility. It is simply the old system copied and pasted into Scottish legislation, which is a missed opportunity.
My colleague Miles Briggs pointed out that, only four years ago, the Scottish Government estimated that setting up Social Security Scotland would cost £307 million, but the cost has risen to an eye-watering £650 million. I do not know about you, Presiding Officer, but I struggle to think of many private sector organisations that would categorise a project that came in more than 100 per cent over budget as anything other than an unmitigated disaster. We were led to believe that running the agency would require 1,900 staff but, again, that was an SNP illusion and we have seen that number almost double to 3,500.
My colleague Sharon Dowey pointed out how desperately slow the Government’s roll-out of the Scottish child payment has been. As she said, only 1 per cent of applications were processed within 10 days in March 2021, with most applicants waiting 55 days for a decision, and it is an easy benefit to implement. The delays mean that families spend more time worrying about their finances and stability. [
.] I will not take an intervention at the moment.
While I am on the subject of the Scottish child payment, I note that the SNP-Green Government is yet to commit to doubling it for the next financial year, delaying vital funds from reaching those who need them the most. Every party in this Parliament agrees that the payment should be doubled, yet the SNP refuses, for reasons that are frankly beyond me.
All of that points to an SNP-Green Government that is failing Scotland on social security. It has taken an initiative that had so much potential, injected it with its patented nationalism and failed to deliver for the average person in Scotland. As has been pointed out time and time again, including in the chamber this afternoon by my colleague Alexander Stewart, the same Scottish Government claims that it could set up a fully independent Scotland in 18 months. On the basis of the 10 years that this country will have to wait for it to take control of devolved social security, why should we believe its pipe dream or any of its other promises to deliver? The scary thing is that, if it comes to independence, the SNP will not be able to go back to the UK Government for help when it comes up against the harsh realities of governance.
I would like the minister, when he winds up, to thank the DWP again for all the amazing work that it has done in Scotland. It has supported the Scottish Government and bailed it out time and time again. If it had not been for the DWP, the most vulnerable in our society would have been let down by this Government. It has failed to deliver and has failed on its promises, and we will scrutinise it again and again until it gets things right.
The strategy that we are considering today, with the associated issues around it, is about how we, in the Scottish Government, and we, as a society, can work together to improve the way in which we ensure that all those across our society who are entitled to social security get what they are due. It is about working with partners to improve the targeting of information and advice, challenging myths and stigma around claiming benefits and continuing to remove barriers to accessing social security in Scotland and more widely. It is about encouragement, engagement and empowerment; information and support; and, yes, changing social attitudes about how we, as a society, approach the concepts of social security and welfare.
As the cabinet secretary rightly emphasised in her opening remarks, social security is a collective investment in ourselves and one another, and it is a human right. For too long in the United Kingdom, the critics of social security have been too loud and have set too much of the tone. As Stuart McMillan pointed out, phrases such as “benefit scroungers” have echoed far too much throughout our media and commentary. As Maggie Chapman rightly emphasised, the responsibility for that is shared between politicians and those in the media who have amplified those negative and unhelpful positions. It is almost baffling how much criticism there has been of the concept of social security throughout recent decades. It is a system that is about helping people, yet in many quarters it has been a target of negative criticism.
I recognise your description of the toxicity in the debate around social security in recent years and, as you rightly pointed out, the past few decades. Given that, I ask again whether you will commit to taking the 20m rule out of adult disability payment. We can discuss when you do that, but all the conversation and chat that we are hearing about the human rights approach to social security will not fundamentally change how much money people get in their pockets or who gets it unless we do that, so I ask you again to commit to doing that.
I thank Pam Duncan-Glancy and others who have raised that important point, which I will come on to in due course in my closing remarks.
I return to the conceptual points that I was making. When I was thinking about the debate, I looked at the history around the time this Parliament was conceived and I found the following quote from Tony Blair in 1999, which of course was the year in which the Parliament was created. This is not a criticism of Blairism or the Labour Party; it is just an interesting quote for context. He said:
“In future, welfare will be a hand-up, not a hand-out.”
That appeasement of critics of social security, which lasted for several years into the early part of this century, was a mistake as well as a criticism. Collectively, as a society, we are all responsible for that. Many of us challenged that view, but we obviously did not challenge it enough. We need to be open and move forward to the position that there is nothing wrong with either a hand-out or a hand-up. We want to do what we need to do to help people to contribute and realise their potential as much as possible.
It is about busting the myth, because not everyone can work and, as we know, not all work pays enough to live well. That is where we need social security, and where we need to value it. Emma Roddick made several important points, but one that stuck out to me was that this is about how we create a fairer and more caring society. That is where the emphasis and focus need to be.
I remember when the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed, and Jeane Freeman was sitting on the seat to the right of where I am today and I was sitting in the row behind. It was not only a defining moment and a shift for the Parliament but the start of how together we could begin to shift consciousness across the wider country. That is what the benefit take-up strategy is about for us as a Government. It is about what the 2018 act stipulates that we must do, but it also gives us focus to work with partners and create a sense of collaboration more widely in society in order to make the difference in helping people that we all want.
I turn to some of the points that were made in that spirit of collective engagement. I note Miles Briggs’s point about the young carer grant, on which I would like to engage with him. On recent activity, he talked about the evaluation of the social security charter. The Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland take the monitoring of our commitments in the charter extremely seriously and we have already published two editions of the charter measurement framework, which reports on the progress that we are making. Indeed, the 2020-21 report was released yesterday. I look forward to engaging with Mr Briggs on that.
Alexander Stewart made some very constructive points, which I welcome. I look forward to continuing to work with him.
I wanted to be consensual at the end of this debate but, unfortunately, I found the comments of Sharon Dowey and Jeremy Balfour unnecessarily negative. I think that their Prime Minister would call them doomsters and gloomsters, because they really did not get into the spirit of what the debate is about and what the benefit take-up strategy is focused on. There were some significant inaccuracies or mischaracterisations in what they said. For example, the annual report that Social Security Scotland issued this week reported a 90-plus per cent satisfaction rate on engagement with the agency. The local development teams have been operating in pilot areas, so they are not fully stood up in all local authorities. Both Sharon Dowey and Jeremy Balfour made critical points about the Scottish child payment. Of course that is an innovative creation of the Scottish Government, but it has helped 108,000 children. That is a positive to celebrate and engage with, and we should have come to this debate in the spirit of recognition and determination to do more together.
To move back to the benefit take-up policy, on which we are focusing, it is important to re-emphasise some of what the cabinet secretary said. We will launch a £20.4 million independent advocacy service and we are investing £10 million over the current parliamentary session to offer advice in accessible settings in order to maximise incomes and tackle poverty. I think of the people I have met in different parts of the country who have talked about how they heard about Social Security Scotland benefits in a school setting or via an organisation such as a carer support network. Those are important investments that will increase take-up.
The full roll-out of Social Security Scotland’s local delivery network will be significant and will involve 400 staff in 32 local authorities by the time the service is fully operational. We will, of course, continue to work with third sector organisations and charities proactively and in an engaged way, and we recognise all the contributions that such organisations have submitted ahead of the debate.
Also important is the work of engaging with seldom-heard groups to better understand and address non-take-up among particular populations. Paul O’Kane rightly emphasised that point. We are, and will be, very focused on that in the strategy and as we go forward. We have rightly made our engagement as inclusive as we can, with materials that have been proactively produced in an easy-read format and in different languages such as British Sign Language; information is available on request in more than 100 languages, including Braille. Our agenda is focused on inclusivity and engagement.
That leads me to address broader points that have been raised about delivery. I appreciate that the focus has been on the benefit take-up strategy, but I want to touch on some of the delivery questions that have been raised.
First, the point about build is so important. We are building a new institution in Scotland. We want it to be strong in the here and now, to deliver in the period ahead and to be robust, agile and effective for decades to come. That is why what has been done in the years that we have lived through since 2018 and what will be done in the period ahead are so important. We want to create that strength and agility, including, for example, an IT infrastructure that will do things in a more automated way, as Paul O’Kane and Maggie Chapman rightly emphasised.
There is still concern about who is going to be delivering some of that potential work, especially when it comes to assessments. We know of the delays that currently exist in GPs’ provision of those. Where is the Government on the work programme that deals with the workforce that is expected to undertake assessments or to provide evidential documentation on people’s conditions?
Miles Briggs has raised an important point. We have had engagement with the medical profession and with health boards on that aspect of the delivery programme. I had an engagement and update on that this week. We are encouraged by how positively it is progressing, and I would be happy to keep in touch with Miles Briggs and the Parliament more widely on the importance of those points.
I come to some of the points that Willie Rennie raised. First, he talked about the position on lifetime awards. I want to make it very clear to him that that is also very important to us in the Government, and that work is under way to establish the parameters for the provision of indefinite awards to clients whose needs are very unlikely to change. We are committed to building a person-centred social security system that is based on the principles of fairness, dignity and respect, and to reducing the number of unnecessary reviews, which are, of course, a source of stress and anxiety for some clients in the current system. We are committed to that, and I am happy to keep him updated.
I welcome that comment from the minister, but my reading of the regulations—perhaps he could clarify this—is that even someone with my condition, if I can be personal, would still have to go back every 10 years to be assessed. Why are we still asking people who have lifelong conditions to keep going back? We are not getting rid of that requirement; we are just making it a slightly longer period.
I refer Mr Balfour to my last comment: we are currently working on the parameters for the provision of indefinite awards, and I am happy to keep the Parliament updated on that.
Considerations were raised on the 20m rule. It is important to emphasise that we are making changes to the delivery of disability assistance that will significantly improve the experience that disabled people have when they access payments. We are confident that those changes, such as replacing assessments with person-centred consultations, will address concerns about how the criteria are applied and how decisions on mobility are made. I refer members to my answer to a parliamentary question from Pam Duncan-Glancy on the matter, S6W-02508. I would be happy to take correspondence from any members on that. The cabinet secretary has also stated SCOSS’s position.
All of this is oriented around the fact that we are simultaneously building the new agency, creating the new and replacement benefits and transferring cases. That transfer was initiated last month. It is one of the biggest transfers in the history of the UK state. It is important to remember the sheer size of what we are doing. We have made changes. We have made changes to the support in relation to terminal illness and to the support for carers, and there are the seven new benefits that I mentioned.
I am happy to record our thanks to the DWP for the engagement that we have had with its officials and the collaboration that they have shown. I am glad that our officials are working well together. The cabinet secretary and I had a meeting with UK ministers this week on eligibility criteria and passporting and we seek to engage with the UK Government as constructively as possible.
It is important to refer back to the benefit take-up strategy and the wider question of how we collectively do as much as possible to ensure that Social Security Scotland makes as big a difference as possible throughout our society. It is about looking forward, not back. It is about not blaming others but working as team Scotland. Despite some of the negative comments that have been made, I appeal to members that we all commit and recommit to getting behind the project of Social Security Scotland and being positive about what it is doing, realistic about what it can achieve and ambitious about where we want it to go.
We are committed to that. The benefit take-up strategy sets out how we can engage citizens in that work, and all MSPs can play a part. Let us ensure that, although we are not voting today, we commit ourselves to doing all that we can to help people in communities throughout Scotland to access the support that they are entitled to, that they deserve and that we want them to have.