Social Security Benefits

– in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd November 2022.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-06572, in the name of Ben Macpherson, on progress on the automation and take-up of Scottish social security benefits. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

Today’s debate is—regrettably—timely, because, as we head into winter, the unfair and unnecessary reality of 21st century Britain is that, for far too many people, the cost of living crisis that we are in is deeply worrying and will be damaging in a multitude of ways.

Too many of the constituents whom we serve are facing difficult financial decisions that they should not have to make, and they are facing costs and bills that should not be so high. That should not be happening in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, at a time when there are more billionaires in the United Kingdom than ever before. The situation is wrong.

That is why the Scottish Government is taking action, including investing £1 billion to support families and households with financial help that is not available elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Of course, that includes the Scottish child payment, which will shortly increase to £25 a week and be extended to under-16s. I note also that, yesterday, the Deputy First Minister confirmed that we will double the December bridging payment for families to £260 and increase our fuel insecurity fund to £20 million.

I acknowledge the action that the UK Government has taken so far. It is welcome, but we need that Government to use the vast amount of levers that it has to do more in this emergency and to tackle the scale of the challenge in a way that is required, including by increasing benefits in line with inflation and increasing universal credit by £25, a move that should also be extended to means-tested legacy benefits.

In the context of the cost of living crisis—this unjust context—that has undoubtedly been influenced by Covid and international affairs, but has also undoubtedly been exacerbated by 10 years of ideological austerity, the calamity of Brexit and reckless recent UK Government economic policy decisions, having a reliable and responsive social security safety net has never been more pertinent, and how we use the limited powers and resources of this devolved Parliament where we can, ambitiously but also realistically, to make a meaningful difference, has never been more important.

The Scottish Government is clear that social security is an investment in the people of Scotland—indeed, that is the first of the eight principles in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. It is a shared investment in building a fairer society together. From promoting devolved Scottish benefits to delivering more accessible application processes, and from providing advice and advocacy to taking a more person-centred approach and starting from a position of trust, we are committed to doing what we can to ensure that people are aware of what they are entitled to and feel empowered to seek what they are due. That is why we are working day in, day out to remove barriers, provide support, tackle any stigma around applying for benefits and get more money out to help low-income households than is being made available anywhere else in the UK.

Remarkable teams are doing that work out of Social Security Scotland’s offices in Dundee and Glasgow. We are also working in communities, directly with people who use the social security system, as we have successfully implemented Social Security Scotland’s local delivery network, with more than 400 excellent staff now operational in all 32 local authority areas.

In the four years since the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed, the Scottish Government, with highly motivated and extremely capable civil servants, has delivered 12 benefits, seven of which are completely new forms of financial support that are available only in Scotland, and our 13th—the winter heating payment—will be introduced in February.

We are delivering a simplified, easily accessible and compassionate system that treats everyone with dignity, fairness and respect—one in which 92 per cent of respondents to a client survey rated their overall experience as very good or good.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I welcome the approach to social security in Scotland that the minister has outlined, but how does he explain the high rates of redeterminations that overturn decisions, particularly in relation to child disability payment?

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I am not sure what empirical evidence Pam Duncan-Glancy is citing, but I am happy to engage with her on that point. Of course, there is a determination, with child disability payment and adult disability payment, to get our decisions right first time. I am happy to have further engagement on that point, but I would say that the situation that she has outlined is not reflective of the situation as I see it. However, we can engage further on that point in a constructive way.

I will deal with the amendments. On the Conservative amendment, I have already acknowledged the support of the UK Government, but I have pushed and encouraged it to do more. Unfortunately, I cannot accept the amendment, because it contains a factual inaccuracy. It states that the Scottish welfare fund review has been delayed, but it has not been, and I will update the Social Justice and Social Security Committee on that shortly. I cannot accept the amendment because of that.

Unfortunately, I cannot accept the Labour amendment either, because it would delete huge portions of the motion, and all that I can see in it is wishful thinking. It seems to state that things could be done quicker and things could have been delivered quicker in past years. I say in good faith that, since the 2018 act was passed, the Government has worked with innovation, determination and passion to deliver Scottish devolved social security benefits as quickly as possible and as safely and securely as possible. We will continue to do that.

The motion is not party political in the sense that it does not criticise and does not mention the constitution. Therefore, I hope that, if both amendments are defeated, all parties can support the motion, and we can take a united approach.

The Government is working proactively and with determination to support people who are eligible for assistance and to help them to access and take up the benefits to which they are entitled. For example, information about Scottish social security benefits is featured as part of our new cost of living campaign. The campaign directs people to our new one-stop-shop website, which was launched in September. Moreover, since October 2021, Social Security Scotland has delivered 12 paid-for marketing campaigns covering a range of online and offline channels, including television, radio, print, digital and out-of-home advertising.

We will, of course, continue to work with stakeholders to ensure that information about each of the Scottish benefits is available in places that our target audiences are already accessing, so that it is as accessible as possible. For example, 43,000 leaflets that cover the five family payments and, more recently, the child disability payment are included in the Scottish Government’s baby boxes and in national health service midwife and health visitor packs. We provide materials to Department for Work and Pensions work coaches in jobcentres to encourage young people to apply for the job start payment, and we have partnered with the supermarket retailer Asda and worked with Iceland, Scotmid and the Co-op to ensure that information about our benefits reaches people where they are. Information about our benefits is included in refugee welcome packs, and fact sheets are proactively translated into community languages, such as Ukrainian in particular this year.

In January, we launched our free and independent social security advocacy service to support disabled people to access and apply for Scottish social security benefits. We have also continued to invest in providing advice in accessible settings to maximise incomes and tackle poverty.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

For clarification, I am unsure—maybe it is my ignorance—where those advisers sit in my region. Would it be possible for at least MSPs and maybe local councillors to be given that information? I am certainly not aware of where that happens in Lothian.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

Social Security Scotland has been proactive with MPs and MSPs in reaching out to raise awareness of the available services. Indeed, Pam Duncan-Glancy met her local delivery team just recently. I can certainly take that point away following the debate and write to members again about sources of information so that all of us can play a role in spreading the word. That is being done in general practitioner practices, and it is happening across Scotland, as I have set out.

All of that is helping with take-up rates and is being done to drive the take-up of benefits. Our latest estimates of the take-up of benefits were published on Monday in what is a very helpful publication. They are estimates and analysis is difficult, but they will help to give us a benchmark in order to continue to track where we are.

On the whole, our most recent estimated take-up rates are reassuring. They show really encouraging figures for our Scottish child payment and best start suite of payments in particular. We are not quite where we want to be with the funeral support payment and the job start payment, but we are working proactively to make a difference in that regard.

Automation is one of the key tools available to us in driving up benefit take-up. We are working proactively to remove barriers to access in relation to the automation of processes and payments across the social security system. We have already automated the payment of the carers allowance supplement and child winter heating assistance. If Parliament agrees next week, we will also pay the best start early learning and the best start school-age payments automatically to eligible individuals who are in receipt of the Scottish child payment, from 28 November. There is more to do in that area, and I am sure that we will discuss it today, but we are already making good progress.

It would be inappropriate for me to outline the important ways in which we seek to maximise the take-up of Scottish benefits without referring to resourcing and the financial uncertainty that we are experiencing. Social security expenditure is needs based and demand led; as such, it is determined by the number of people who are in receipt of benefits.

It is important to acknowledge that, after benefit take-up work has been carried out, any shortfall between actual expenditure and the social security block grant adjustment will need to be covered by funding that is provided by the Scottish Government, in line with the principles and policies set out in the mid-term financial strategy. However, we are absolutely committed to that spend and resolute in our conviction that it is important, as it is an investment in the people of Scotland. It is about putting our principles into practice.

We have a finite budget—one that is already worth £1.7 billion less than it was in December last year due to inflationary pressures and UK Government actions—but every decision that we make in social security that needs additional investment must come from that fixed budget, as the constraints of devolution mean that we cannot borrow to meet increased costs. However, we are absolutely committed to promoting and encouraging people to access the benefits and support that they are entitled to, because that is the right thing to do.

The collective challenge that our constituents face underlines the need for us to work together to support and empower people to access the assistance that they are entitled to—both Scottish support and UK Government support, such as universal credit and pension credit. I emphasise that we all need to encourage people to access Social Security Scotland and to assure them that, when they do so, they will always be treated with dignity, fairness and respect.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the positive impact that existing automation of Scottish social security payments is having, including ensuring that most eligible people receive the Child Winter Heating Assistance and Carer’s Allowance Supplement without needing to apply; further welcomes the proposal to automate the Best Start Grant Early Learning Payment and Best Start Grant School Age Payment for eligible families in receipt of Scottish Child Payment by the end of November 2022; notes the Scottish Government’s intention to continue exploring opportunities for further automation; believes that these changes will mean that more people get the benefits that they are entitled to, which is especially important at a time of increasing economic uncertainty; recognises the progress made in promoting Scottish benefit take-up since the publication of the second benefit take-up strategy in 2021, including the launch of an independent advocacy service and funding welfare rights advisors in up to 180 GP practices in Scotland’s most deprived areas, as well as remote and rural areas; acknowledges that there is still work to do regarding both automation and take-up, and agrees, therefore, that all governments should ensure that people are aware of, and enabled to access, the financial support that they are eligible for and entitled to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, minister. Before I call the next speaker, I remind all members who wish to speak in the debate to ensure that their request-to-speak buttons are, in fact, pressed. Thank you.

I call Jeremy Balfour.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I am happy to speak in the debate and hope that the Conservative amendment, in my name, can unite members in the chamber in recognising the work that both the Scottish and the UK Governments are doing to help people during the cost of living crisis, because what this country needs, at this moment in history, is both our Governments working together to alleviate the stress that is being placed on families.

The benefit of devolution is that we can provide, alongside national measures that are enacted UK-wide, targeted local support here in Scotland. Our amendment reflects that and acknowledges that there is a positive working relationship between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Scottish Government, so I give credit to the minister for engaging constructively with the DWP to ensure that claimants in Scotland have been through minimal disruption during the transfer to Social Security Scotland.

However, I am afraid that that is where credit for this Scottish Government runs dry, because the transfer of benefits to the devolved agency has been far from smooth. “Late and over budget” does not even begin to describe the extent to which the Scottish National Party has struggled to take control of benefits in Scotland.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I will, in a second.

The handover will not be complete until at least 2025, which means that a project that was projected to take four years will take almost a decade. The administration cost for Social Security Scotland has quadrupled from £36 million in 2019-20 to a staggering £130 million in 2021-22.

I am happy to take the intervention now.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I thank Jeremy Balfour for taking the intervention. Does he recognise that the increases in costs have been because we are delivering more than was envisaged when we passed the 2018 act, in that we are delivering seven benefits that are not available elsewhere in the UK?

Does the member acknowledge that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Scottish Government made a collective decision to pause delivery of some of our benefits because of the need for reprioritisation during the pandemic?

This is a joint exercise between the UK Government and the Scottish Government, so any criticism about delay should be targeted at both Governments, if it is to have any validity.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

The minister is missing the point. The process would have been delayed even without Covid: the delays were already happening before the pandemic hit, which was all to do with the Scottish Government and nothing to do with the DWP.

Add to that the fact that the Scottish Government’s soft approach to assessment has cost Social Security Scotland over £64 million in fraud and error over the past year alone, and we find ourselves staring at a complete mess. I am thankful that the broad shoulders of the UK Government have been able to pick up the slack that has been left by the Scottish National Party’s mismanagement. Thanks to the DWP’s steady hands, claimants have experienced minimal disruption and money continues to get into the hands of those who need it.

At this point, it is worth noting that if the Scottish Government has its way and breaks up the UK, the people of Scotland will lose that vital support. The Scottish Government would be on its own to muddle through with the difficulties of setting up a social security system for an entire nation, when it has not even been able to manage a few benefits.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I am afraid that my time is running short.

The truth is that, as much as the SNP Government might like to deflect from its own record by complaining about big bad Westminster, the DWP is taking action to ensure that the people of Scotland are supported through this difficult period.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I am afraid that I do not have time.

The DWP is providing the £650 cost of living payment for every household that is on means-tested benefits, which means that more than 8 million of the most vulnerable UK—

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

Will I get the time back, Presiding Officer?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Yes—you can get a wee bit of time back.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I thank Jeremy Balfour for giving way.

He keeps talking about the

“broad shoulders of the UK”.

Does the member believe that the broad shoulders of the UK should uprate all benefits in line with inflation so that people who are living in poverty are not suffering at the hands of those broad shoulders of the UK?

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

Yes, I believe that.

Let me continue. More than 8 million of the most vulnerable UK households will be directly sent a one-off cash payment of £650. The DWP has increased the winter fuel payment to £300, in addition to sending all existing recipients an additional one-off £300 cash payment, which will help families to heat their homes this winter without a delay by the Scottish Government of another year. There will be an extra £150 disability cost of living payment for those who are in receipt of disability benefits, to provide support for the most vulnerable people in our society. For people who are on other disability benefits, such as the disability living allowance and the personal independence payment, the £150 boost will provide much-needed supplementary funds. That is all in addition to the £400 cash grant that will be paid to every household, to help with energy costs over the next six months.

That is in contrast to the SNP Government’s soaring rhetoric; what the Government does never seems to live up to the hype. We get huge promises that are designed to grab headlines and fuel conference speeches, but almost immediately those promises fail.

For that reason, Conservative members are sceptical about the Government’s ability to deliver on its plans. I would, rather than hearing about something that will happen in the future, be interested to hear from the minister how many welfare rights advisers have been placed across Scotland, and how many general practices have someone in place today. I am happy to give way, if the minister would like to tell me the answer.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I thank Jeremy Balfour. I had to cut from my speech a paragraph about that because of time. The investment that we are making takes our total commitment to £3.5 million over three years, and places welfare rights advisers in up to 180 GP practices in Scotland’s most deprived areas.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

Once again, the minister has failed to answer the question. How many welfare rights advisers are in place today—not in the future, but today? Yet again, there has been another delay and there is another failure.

If the Scottish Government’s report into the Scottish welfare fund is not going to be delayed, I would be genuinely interested to hear the minister guarantee that we will see the report on the due date. Perhaps he could cover that in his closing remarks, rather than saying that he will write to the committee.

Conservative members support both of Scotland’s Governments in their efforts to ensure that support makes it, as quickly and seamlessly as possible, to the people who need it. However, promises must be matched by action. People do not need kind words about future plans—they need real action right now.

I move amendment S6M-06572.1, to insert at end:

“; is encouraged by the joint work of the UK and Scottish governments to help all people in Scotland; welcomes the work done by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to ensure that people are getting their benefits; welcomes the extra funds provided by the UK Government in Barnett consequentials to support struggling families, and expresses disappointment in the delay of the Scottish Welfare Fund review, and in the lack of collection of data by Social Security Scotland.”

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

In the midst of the current cost of living crisis, people are struggling more than ever, so we need a social security system that meets that challenge. It is crucial that it be fit for purpose and able to catch people when they need help. Social security exists to provide such a safety net, but safety nets are no use if there are holes in them.

No one in Scotland who is entitled to a benefit should not yet be receiving it. Sadly, however, too many people are in that position. Nearly 30 per cent of young carers do not get the grant that they are entitled to and over 30 per cent of people who are eligible for them do not get funeral support payments. There are other examples that I could highlight. Obviously the easiest way of sorting out that situation is to automate payments, so I welcome moves from the Government to do so.

However, I am again frustrated by the pace of and ambition for change in that respect. We should really be striving for a system that is smart enough to identify incomes, that recognises when people become eligible for benefits and which then pays out. Instead, what we have is piecemeal, standard and disconnected. We really need to address that situation, because automation will not just ensure that people do not miss out on the money to which they are entitled, but will remove the burden of having to hunt down support in times of crisis.

Part of the problem, however, is that right now we do not have a system that is fully administered in Scotland, never mind one that is fully automated. There is still no timetable for the development and delivery of many devolved benefits, including the replacement for attendance allowance, carers additional person payment, severe disablement allowance and employment injury assistance. We still await the Government’s plans for a replacement carers allowance; in the meantime, thousands of carers are falling through the net and are not receiving anything for the care that they give.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

I appreciate the point about pace. Pam Duncan-Glancy will know that I share her desire to get money into people’s hands as soon as possible, but she must appreciate that it would be easier for our system to take incomes into consideration if income-based benefits were devolved. Does the member support full devolution of the social security system in order to ensure that we do not have to keep asking the DWP for data?

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

As Emma Roddick will know, I have said time and again that I think that this is about planning and proper co-operation between the Governments so that we can get the data that we need and can deliver the benefits that we have to deliver.

Disabled people, carers, older people and women have been left in a DWP-administered system that is widely recognised as being unfit for purpose. Now, more than ever, as people are struggling to heat their homes and put food on the table, they need the Government to take responsibility for the powers that it holds, and to stop leaving them in Tory hands. The simple fact is that it is not doing that.

The system is failing to meet people’s needs and I worry that, in its current form, it will never be able to deliver the sort of vision that Scottish Labour has, in which inequality is a thing of the past and everyone has enough money to live on, can enjoy the right to work and has access to a social security system that is adequate, automated, based on human rights and there when it is needed. The reality is that we are nowhere near achieving that vision—in fact, I do not even think that we are on the path to it.

I acknowledge that some work has been impacted by the pandemic, but that does not explain all the delays or excuse the fact that the Government has failed to make any progress at all on so many benefits over which it has power. Instead, it has handed powers back to the DWP and is spending huge swathes of cash doing so. Half the benefits that we should have control over are still administered elsewhere. That is disappointing.

For example, with the adult disability payment, the SNP could have made real changes by removing the 20m and 50 per cent rules, in recognition that those numbers are arbitrary and do not acknowledge fluctuating conditions. The Government has said that it must prioritise safe and secure transfer first of all, but it also promised disabled people radical change seven years ago—and those people are getting tired of waiting.

I am frustrated that it has taken years for all eligible kids to get the Scottish child payment and that uptake is still not what it should be. I am also frustrated that the SNP would not, when it was challenged on that, accept responsibility for not planning for it, but said instead that the UK Government did not give it the data. The then secretary of state confirmed in committee that the Government had not asked for it. I could criticise the DWP in countless ways—if I had more time, I would—but it cannot be blamed for not giving the Scottish Government data that it did not ask for.

In the same vein, I understand that DWP data sharing is also one of the barriers to automating local authority administered benefits. As things stand, local authorities have access to real-time income data from the DWP in order to assess eligibility for council tax reduction. However, that data is shared under the explicit agreement that it must be used only for that purpose, which means that it cannot be used to reach out to people who should be eligible for best start grants, school uniform grants or free school meals. Of course, one way around that would be to level eligibility.

Photo of Kaukab Stewart Kaukab Stewart Scottish National Party

Does Pam Duncan-Glancy welcome the fact that, by the end of this month, eligible families who are in receipt of the Scottish child payment will receive the best start grant and early learning and school age payments, without the need to apply?

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

As I said earlier, about 30 per cent of those young people do not currently get the payments, so I do welcome that change.

We really need both Governments to start working together and delivering for the people of Scotland, instead of pointing fingers or—in the case of the Tories—sitting on their hands. We cannot overstate the opportunity that we had to create a whole new system from the bottom up. It was a key moment, but it feels in some respects increasingly as though the SNP failed to grasp it.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

Can I get my time back, Presiding Officer?

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I wonder whether, despite her—I believe—unfounded criticisms about timelines, Ms Duncan-Glancy will acknowledge that the only reason why we have powers over social security in this Parliament is the SNP, and that her party, along with other colleagues, in years past opposed there being more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

In that statement, the minister is somewhat rewriting history.

Although I recognise areas that have improved, the situation in some places has regressed. There is little that is good about the DWP, but some of the things that it gets right seem to be areas in which the Scottish Government has decided to diverge. For example, Social Security Scotland, unlike the DWP, refused to accept signed mandates via email, which I discovered because it has created barriers for one of my constituents.

Last week, it was confirmed to my committee that there are currently no referral pathways in place at Social Security Scotland to allow direct referrals from agencies such as schools or GPs. That is a huge missed opportunity and a problem that the Government must urgently seek to address.

Low uptake could easily be addressed by automation, but it could also be addressed by proper referral mechanisms. Focusing on fancy comms and social media puts the burden on people to apply, is expensive and is not leading to enough uptake. Instead, the Government should invest in people, intensive referral mechanisms and smart information technology that can automate payments, identify minimum standards and recognise when people fall below them.

If we look at the figures on redetermination requests, it is clear that Social Security Scotland is not getting the decision making right. For some benefits, well over half of the redetermination requests are approved, which means that the system has forced people to get over additional hurdles, when they should have been awarded payments in the first place. That is not the system that we were promised and, with redetermination rates like that, it is not the system that the SNP has told us it is delivering.

There is still time to fix that, and opportunities still lie ahead in the benefits that the SNP has not yet started to work on. However, things need to change, and they need to do so quickly. For that to happen, the Government must be laser focused on delivering the social security system that it promised.

I move amendment S6M-06572.2, to leave out from “welcomes the positive” to end and insert:

“notes the impact that existing automation of Scottish social security payments is having, including ensuring that most eligible people receive the Child Winter Heating Assistance and Carer’s Allowance Supplement without needing to apply; believes that the opportunity to automate other aspects of the social security system should have been taken before now; regrets that the Best Start Grant Early Learning Payment and the Best Start Grant School Age Payment for eligible families in receipt of Scottish Child Payment are not yet automated; notes that uptake for Scottish social security payments is not yet maximised and that the Scottish Government has chosen to allow the Department for Work and Pension (DWP) to continue to administrate several devolved benefits; believes that opportunities for further automation must be expedited so that more people get the benefits that they are entitled to, which is especially important at a time of increasing economic uncertainty; understands that direct referral mechanisms between public agencies and other organisations in Scotland have not been developed, and urges the Scottish Government to prioritise this to ensure that the “no wrong door approach” can be delivered fully, and that those who are entitled to social security payments are enabled to access the financial support that they are eligible for.”

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. At the start of my speech, I should have referred members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. I am in receipt of PIP and I hope to receive adult disability payment at some point.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Balfour. That is now on the record.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am also in receipt of PIP. I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Ms Duncan-Glancy. That is also now on the record.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

Scottish Liberal Democrats have tried to work constructively with the Scottish Government on its welfare responsibilities and we will continue to do so. Where improvement is needed, we will remain constructively critical. In April, my colleague Willie Rennie highlighted the Scottish Government’s decision to continue disability benefits under DWP administration, which left recipients of the adult disability payment enhanced daily living component worse off by £135.20 per year than they would have been. Being too slow off the mark to use the full extent of the powers that the Scottish Government has under devolution is a failure for benefit recipients across Scotland.

Scottish Liberal Democrats support a welfare system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect, and I echo the sentiment that there should not be any stigma around accessing benefits for the people who are entitled to them.

Simplifying and automating benefits payments is welcome, as it helps to break down the stigma that unhelpfully surrounds benefit uptake by those who are entitled. However, extending automation to the best start grant early learning and school age payments could have been done sooner. The motion expressly states that the best start grant early learning and school age payments will be automated

“by the end of November 2022”, which is this month. I am sure that that will be welcomed by families across Scotland, as I welcome it, but they could have benefited sooner.

The cost of living crisis will be getting tougher as we enter the winter and our usual cold weather, along with eye-watering energy bills. The UK Government is warming us up to tighter budgets from tax rises and public spending cuts. Every penny in household budgets really will be stretched and relied on heavily this winter.

I welcome the launch of an independent advocacy service and welfare rights advisers, who will be placed in up to 180 GP surgeries in Scotland’s most deprived areas and in rural areas. There should be an effective publicity campaign to ensure that people are aware of that service. I was going to ask the minister to provide information on the plans to publicise the service, but I note what he said earlier. Leaflets are fine, but will there be a national advertising campaign and what form might it take?

The service and the welfare rights advisers will be valuable resources for communities across the country. Too often, there is simply not enough known about what is available for people who are on restricted budgets. Online information can be interpreted differently, which can convince people that they cannot apply for a benefit when, actually, the opposite is true, and they are eligible.

Our rural areas are often home to some of the most deprived communities, so any innovation to break that should be commended for its intent. However, I put on record my concerns that the resource could be slowly eroded by public service cuts, putting the enormous burden back on to our fantastic and valuable citizens advice bureaux across the country. Citizens advice services make representations on behalf of people across Scotland, helping them with benefits queries, housing issues, energy costs and much more.

Yesterday, the Deputy First Minister outlined adjustments to the Scottish Government’s budget. We will now see slower growth in the mental health budget provision, which will impact some of the most vulnerable in our society.

There will always be more work to do to improve the take-up of entitlements. Work will need to continue to ensure that estimates of the number of people who are eligible are as accurate as possible and that accurate uptake figures are generated. Those figures and the reasons behind them will need to be continually updated and analysed to ensure that all those who are eligible for a benefit are receiving their full entitlement.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

We move to the open debate. I advise members that we have pretty much exhausted any time that we had in hand, so any interventions will need to be accommodated in your speaking time allowance.

Photo of Natalie Don Natalie Don Scottish National Party

The motion that we are debating today is truly a positive one, and I continue to be proud of the social security system that we are building here in Scotland. We have built a system that is kind, fairer and more progressive than anything that we have seen before. It is a system that does not treat social security as a burden on the state but actively encourages people to take exactly what they are entitled to.

I whole-heartedly believe that social security is a significant investment in the people of Scotland. Let us imagine for a minute that the benefit powers that have been devolved were still under the DWP system. There would be no Scottish child payment, for a start, and many families, children and people with disabilities all across Scotland would still be stuck under the degrading, stale and discriminatory DWP system.

I am disappointed with the amendments that we have in front of us today. Although there is always more to do and scrutiny is essential, it would be easy to sit on the Opposition benches and cast negativity and doubt on every positive move that this Government makes to improve people’s lives.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

It is interesting that you start off by saying that you wish people were not in the DWP system, which is so uncompassionate, but you cannot understand why members on this side of the chamber want to push the Government to do as much as it can to get the systems in place as quickly as possible. Will you acknowledge that point?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Please speak through the chair, Ms Mochan.

Photo of Natalie Don Natalie Don Scottish National Party

I never said that I cannot understand why you are pushing us to do more; I said that there is always more to do. I just find that the negativity that comes from the Opposition benches often overlooks the positive steps that the Government is making.

I move on to an important point that is in line with the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s forecast. The Scottish Government is committing £4.2 billion to benefits expenditure this year, and the forecast rises to £6.5 billion in 2026-27. To put that into perspective, it is more than £460 million above the level of funding that is forecast to be received from the United Kingdom Government in 2022-23, and it is anticipated that that difference will increase to £1.3 billion by 2026-27—still a massive shortfall.

Those figures show the divergence between the Scottish and the UK Governments. We are investing in our people; meanwhile, the Tories are doing everything that they can to put people off benefits. Rishi Sunak is burying his head in the sand when it comes to raising benefits in line with inflation—

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

At the Social Security and Social Justice Committee, we have heard again and again that in Scotland the SNP-Green Government is currently looking at there being a £760 million black hole in future welfare policy payments by the end of this session of Parliament. Where will that money come from, and why do you think that the Deputy First Minister did not touch on that in the two statements that he has made to Parliament?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Again, speak through the chair.

Photo of Natalie Don Natalie Don Scottish National Party

The figures that I was relating go up to 2026-27. I believe that we will be a flourishing, independent country by that point, so I think that we will have much more freedom in where we allocate our resources.

Photo of Natalie Don Natalie Don Scottish National Party

No, I am not going to take any more interventions. I would like to make progress—thank you.

They are scraping up every penny they can from those who actually need it. It is shocking that a Conservative would even stand in this Parliament and defend the crooks who are running things down in Westminster.

Automation is an incredibly positive thing. Filling out form after form after form is trying, degrading and demoralising, so a system that works to simplify that is only going to help people. I think that that is one of the key points that sets this Government apart from the catastrophic DWP system. We recognise that there is still work to do to deliver the automation that we want to see, and that is why we are investing more than £20 million over the next four years in the social security independent advocacy service. That will ensure that people who are looking to claim what they are entitled to are given the support that they require in order to do so.

Encouraging take-up and making it easier for people to get what they are entitled to work toward reducing the stigma that exists around benefits. Stigma has been identified as one of the key barriers to the take-up of benefits, and the only way to reduce that in the system is to design it with input from the people who use it. Stigma exists within the system—

Photo of Natalie Don Natalie Don Scottish National Party

No. Sorry, I need to make progress. Stigma exists within the system because it is being bred through it. I remember attending the jobcentre and making my claim for what at the time was jobseekers allowance, and, honestly, feeling like a piece of dirt that someone had just scraped off their shoe. As a young teenager who left home under difficult circumstances, I needed support, not judgment, and it was not there.

That is why I am so happy that our social security system is taking a different route. Evidence from claimants and others who have used the system saw a clear contrast in the way in which people are treated. Not everyone can work, and that can be for a variety of reasons. Not everyone can work full time, not everyone can work regular hours and, over and above that, a person’s circumstances can change at any point in life. That is why it is key that we have a robust and compassionate social security system in place to protect our citizens.

Let us get down to the real issue here. We can highlight all day long the positive steps that the Scottish Government is taking with just 15 per cent of welfare powers. While the Scottish Government is actively encouraging benefit take-up and investing in social security, UK Government welfare policies are deliberately penalising those who need it the most in our society. It is notable that the UK Government does not have its own comparable benefits take-up strategy, but not only is the UK Government shirking its moral responsibility to encourage benefits take-up, its welfare policies are actively harming people, causing poverty, destitution and hunger. It is embarrassing to listen to members speaking about the “broad shoulders” of the United Kingdom Government, when that Government has imposed the two-child limit, the benefit cap, the removal of the £20 uplift and the continuation of the bedroom tax. Those are just some of the aspects of the UK benefit system that have deliberately hurt people.

Only with independence can we ensure that we have at our disposal all the economic levers to protect our social security budget from the car crash that the Tories have made of our economy—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You need to wind up now, Ms Don.

Photo of Natalie Don Natalie Don Scottish National Party

—and to protect ourselves from red Tories in the Labour branch office who bow to their masters down in London and will indeed overlook Scotland, as they already have for decades. We will—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Ms Don, I ask you to resume your seat.

Photo of Sharon Dowey Sharon Dowey Conservative

Social security in Scotland is undergoing its biggest transformation in generations. With that comes many opportunities, but the journey is not without its challenges. The system’s success is essential for the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of our fellow Scots, and it is in the interests of all parties in the chamber to support the system where appropriate.

I am a member of the Public Audit Committee, and the section 23 report about the progress of implementing the devolved benefits was one of the few positive reports that the committee has discussed over the past few months. The Auditor General for Scotland noted that

“the implementation of the” new

“social security powers” was

“going well.”

However, he drew the committee’s attention to substantial risks that remain unaddressed.

To look at the positives, Social Security Scotland now administers 12 benefits. As mentioned in the motion, we are now seeing automation of some of those benefits, which is a welcome development. Child winter heating assistance is paid automatically, based on entitlement, and the carers allowance supplement payments are made automatically. In addition, by the end of the year, the Scottish Government is aiming to award the best start grant, the early learning payment and the school age payment automatically to eligible families in receipt of the Scottish child payment, which is welcome news.

However, as I mentioned, new systems face challenges and Social Security Scotland is not immune to those. When giving evidence to the Public Audit Committee, the Auditor General highlighted three

“substantial remaining risks, including assessing relevant data, putting in place longer-term digital solutions and getting operational staffing in place.”

He went on to say that

“Managing those effectively will be crucial.”—[

Official Report, Public Audit Committee

, 23 June 2022; c 29.]

Therefore, I will use some of my time today to focus specifically on the issue of data collection and measuring outcomes.

Lack of data is a problem that has been highlighted in numerous Audit Scotland reports. I believe that all of us across the chamber can agree that without data it is near impossible to determine whether solutions are cost effective and are achieving the desired outcomes. We need to be looking at the outcomes; otherwise, it is like throwing money into the fire, and the people whom we are trying to help see no long-term benefit.

As it stands, the baseline data is there to tell us how many of those who are entitled are claiming a benefit, but it does not go much further than that. For example, less than one third of eligible Scots took up the job start payment—that is the lowest estimated take-up rate for any Scottish benefit. Only 73 per cent of those who were estimated to be eligible for the young carer grant claimed it in 2021-22, and only 66 per cent of eligible Scots received the funeral support payment.

Why? The truth is that we do not know. We need to find out why—what is preventing people from applying? We need to find out what the barriers are and remove them. We need to speak to the people on the ground to find out what is happening, but, more importantly, we need to listen and to take action. I noted what the minister said in his speech about the actions that he is taking and that he is going to write to us about them, which will be appreciated.

Poor data collection and evaluation are persistent problems that the Government regularly runs into. One policy area that has been negatively impacted by the absence of sufficient data collection and evaluation is tackling child poverty. As highlighted in Audit Scotland’s “Tackling Child Poverty” report, it is abundantly clear that a crucial barrier to developing sufficiently targeted policies is the absence of children and families with lived experience of poverty in the policy development stage. Again, that is something that I have noted on various topics in various reports. We need to spend more time in the policy development stage, work out what it is that we want to achieve, listen to stakeholders and put in timescales, targets and measurements for outcomes.

We should be using every tool at our disposal to understand why there is only partial uptake of some benefits and whether they are even delivering the desired outcomes. A system that does not listen to the people whom it sets out to help is simply unsustainable. It requires two-way communication. In fact, a key recommendation of the “Tackling Child Poverty” report includes working with stakeholders such as

“local government, the third sector,” the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and people

“with lived experience of poverty to ... set out how ... actions ... will be delivered, monitored, and their impact evaluated.”

I reiterate that no matter how much or how little progress has been made, if the Scottish Government truly wants to build a system that works for Scotland, the data must capture a detailed picture of that system’s workings and its impact, and stakeholder involvement must be woven throughout its operation. Given the ever-changing nature of the external environment, the system must be flexible, adaptable to change and set up with the input of stakeholders.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

I understand that this is not a registrable interest, but in the interests of transparency, and as other colleagues have indicated the same, I state that I am now in receipt of adult disability payment.

I have been really happy to see the efforts that the Scottish Government has made to make applying for, and receiving, new Scottish benefits as easy and accessible as possible.

Just last week, I noticed a sponsored column in my local newspaper,

The

Inverness Courier

, which directed people to the Scottish Government’s cost of living support page—www.gov.scot/costoflivingsupport. The next morning, the fancy online graphic of a sponsored post promoting the same web page popped up on my Facebook home feed. It was great to hear the minister talk earlier about the translation efforts and the leaflet campaign that is going on as well.

Effort and money are being put in by the Government, not to gatekeep and confuse, but to reach out to people and make them aware of what they might be entitled to. Ensuring that people can access the support that they need is a moral and legal duty, so it should not be surprising or refreshing to hear that that is happening, but to those of us with experience of trying to get help from the DWP, it really is.

Visiting the headquarters in Dundee remains a highlight of my time as an MSP so far. On Jeremy Balfour’s earlier point about regional delivery, I have been in touch with the relationship lead for Shetland, Orkney, Moray and the Highlands, following round robins from the minister and the agency, and I look forward to my visit to the local delivery team in Inverness later this month. I encourage MSPs of every party to ensure that they are doing all that they can to get information about Scottish support to their constituents.

It is right that today’s motion focuses on “progress”. It means that we can recognise that we have come a long way and that there is more to come. Nobody is claiming that the system is now complete and as good as it will ever be.

I have a lot of sympathy with Labour and my colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy’s asks, and I am sure that they are being put forward in good faith. However, we have to recognise that going too fast risks the safe and secure takeover that the Scottish Government has prioritised.

Automation is complex. It is not unreasonable to acknowledge that complexity or for the Scottish Government to ensure that it gets things right the first time. The progress on automation has been impressive and welcome: carers allowance supplement is automatically given to those people who receive carers allowance and child winter heating assistance is automatically paid to those people with qualifying benefits. The fact that the best start grant early learning and school age payments will be added to that list of automatic payments by the end of this month is extremely welcome news.

There seems to be extremely welcome news just about every day at the moment—the doubling of the fuel insecurity fund, the doubling of the Scottish child payment bridging payment, and £1.4 million for islanders with higher energy costs, which will mean so much to so many in my region. The new systems that Social Security Scotland is building are fantastic. They are a world away from Whitehall’s “Computer says no” attitude and claims that payments cannot be increased because of limitations in the software.

However, what holds us back are the very limited fiscal powers in place here—if we can neither borrow nor overspend, we cannot react to crises. Whatever we do with the 30-ish per cent of social security powers that we have here, our constituents are still subject to humiliating and degrading treatment if they need universal credit or another benefit that is still administered by the DWP. We have to keep in mind that that punitive approach does absolutely no good in tackling the massive stigma that still exists around social security, because even those people who are entitled to, and getting, some help might not be comfortable seeking out further help. Regardless of how well automated the system is, tackling that stigma will still be a worthwhile endeavour. To automate top-ups, people still have to be in receipt of the passporting benefit. We need to get to a place where nobody is ashamed or afraid to ask for basic help.

It is interesting that the Tories have focused on data collection in their amendment; I wonder whether their members think that it is okay that the DWP repeatedly refuses to publish the data that it collects. A committee in Westminster had to use special powers to publish a DWP report on disabled people’s experience of its benefits system. We cannot compare Social Security Scotland’s client satisfaction rate of more than 90 per cent with that of the DWP because it has not published those figures in years.

The Tories do not have a better strategy for social security; they do not have a strategy at all beyond criticising the Scottish Government. While the SNP Government focused on increasing benefit uptake, the Tory Government down south—

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

Emma Roddick says that the Conservatives criticise the Scottish Government, but she will be fully aware that the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, of which we are both members, and the Finance and Public Administration Committee are also raising those very concerns with ministers. It is important to put that on the record.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

There are ways to raise concerns, and I think, as one of its members, that the Social Justice and Social Security Committee does great scrutiny work. However, the hypocrisy in the Tory amendment is worth pointing out.

The Tory Government down south decided to increase the threshold for people having to actively search for work before being sanctioned. It focused on taking benefits away, during a cost of living crisis, for those with the least. Child Poverty Action Group told the Social Justice and Social Security Committee:

“We have evidence that strict conditionality does not help people to find better jobs, better-paid jobs or more hours. In fact, poverty in itself is a barrier to people being employed.”—[

Official Report

,

Social Justice and Social Security Committee

, 22 September 2022; c 32.]

Not only is the approach down south cruel; it is ineffective. It does not work, so much so that the DWP—again—does not publish data on just how bad it is.

That is why, although both Governments working together in this set-up is necessary, we cannot put politics aside. Political ideology is what determines whether a person or party believes in spending money or not, whether they prioritise helping people or funnelling money to those who already have more than they can use, and whether they move money around in the budget to increase the Scottish child payment or to increase bankers’ bonuses. Politics matters—it is our job. We cannot leave politics at the door when we discuss social security, because my idea of what a social security system—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You need to wind up now, Ms Roddick.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

— would look like with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart is extremely different from that of the Tories.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am sorry, particularly for those who are taking interventions, to keep members to six minutes, but we have no time in hand.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

With more than one in 10 eligible people not claiming the Scottish child payment, one in three not applying for funeral support, which is concerning, and only 29 per cent claiming job support, we can see that we have a huge job to do to ensure that people claim the benefits for which they are eligible. I am sure that we all agree on that. During my time as deputy convener of the Social Security Committee, I recognised that many families were entitled to vital financial support that they were not claiming, and I championed that issue at the time.

I am sure that SNP members will give Scottish Labour some credit for the work that we did in the early years of the creation of the social security system. We championed a Scottish social security system that was fit for purpose—on that, we, the SNP and even some Conservative members were as one. Mark Griffin put essential elements into the 2018 act, and I want to talk about some of them, including the importance of automating social security benefits.

I moved the Labour amendment to the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill on

“supporting local authorities to consider the automatic payment of benefits and support”.

There is also a duty on the social security agency in Scotland to check, on someone’s application for a benefit, whether they have other benefits. I have not heard much about that. Those are the kind of distinguishing things that are meant to set apart the Scottish system from the Westminster system, so we need to see evidence that those provisions are being used.

In 2018, I convened a round-table meeting on automation in order to explore the options that we needed to be looking at, particularly for the figures that we have considered today. I agree with Emma Roddick that automation is not a simple thing to do, but we need to be ambitious about it, and I am fully content that the Scottish Labour amendment asks the Government to be so, because here we are in 2022—four years later.

The round-table meeting that I conducted brought together local authorities, anti-poverty campaigners, other MSPs and the then minister, Jeane Freeman, who was very keen on the idea of automation. We discussed the automation of benefits such as free school meals and the school clothing grant to help to reduce the number of children living in poverty. Glasgow City Council, which is the authority for the region that Pam Duncan-Glancy and I represent, has been extremely good on that, and it is definitely worth looking at what it has done. There were 3,500 children who were eligible for free school meals but were not registered for them and therefore not accessing that important benefit. I think that that situation exists across the country.

An important point that no one has mentioned so far is that single parents, in particular, are a group who do not apply for eligible benefits, because the very nature of being a single parent means that filling in forms is not first on their agenda. There are many reasons why automation of benefits is really important.

When it automated the school clothing grant, Glasgow City Council’s financial inclusion department said that people were phoning up to say, “I’ve got this cheque for £200—I think there’s been a mistake,” and they had to be told that it was money that they were entitled to. We can see the change that automation of benefits can make to people’s lives.

Pam Duncan-Glancy is also right to mention the issue of redetermination, the Scottish system’s approach to which was meant to set us apart from Westminster. I confess to the minister that I am a wee bit out of touch on the issue, so he should feel free to intervene on me. The idea behind that was that we would get it right first time so that fewer people would have to appeal, and that the appeals system would be easier for people. If the Government cannot demonstrate that that is the case in 2022, I would like to think that the minister would put his hand up and recognise that, four years on, the Government has not got that right.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I thank Pauline McNeill for taking an intervention, and Pam Duncan-Glancy for raising the issue. I re-emphasise to Parliament that the situation that Pam Duncan-Glancy raised with regard to redeterminations on child disability payments is not one that I recognise and not one that has been brought to my attention when I have had discussions with my officials about child disability payments. Let us all look at the issue carefully and liaise together.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I am pleased to hear that answer, and I am sure that Pam Duncan-Glancy is, too. A lot of time was spent on the provision in question at the time. There is a further provision that says that, should someone lose their redetermination, all the paperwork for their appeal will automatically be sent to the tribunal. That is another way of helping people to make an application for their appeal.

There are lots of things that set our social security system apart.

We know that 104,000 children under six are already getting the Scottish child payment and that, given the Government’s very welcome announcement to extend the scheme, an additional 300,000 children could be eligible. With uptake at only 87 per cent, we must find out why the rest of those who are eligible are not applying for that benefit. That is another reason why automation of benefits is really important.

The Resolution Foundation suggested that, sadly, Scottish child poverty could rise by 29 per cent by 2023-24. I think that we all agree that there has never been a more important time for us to get our work in this area right to ensure that people get the benefits that they are entitled to.

We have all used the term “the cost of living crisis”, which, in many ways, is an innocuous-sounding phrase. However, the grim reality is that behind that phrase lies hungry children, anxious families and mothers who are going without basic essentials. We can change that. Higher levels of automation would ensure that families receive the support that they are entitled to.

I stress that I welcome the progress that has been made, but, four years on, I ask ministers to think very carefully about what else can be done. One of the issues is to do with data sharing, which I recognise is a complex area. We must and can do better, and it is up to the Scottish ministers to be more ambitious.

I am happy to support the Labour amendment.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I remind members who are expecting to speak to check that they have pressed their buttons.

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party

As a member of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, I am delighted to speak in this afternoon’s debate and to support the Scottish Government’s motion. The automation and take-up of benefits is an important issue that merits our attention.

As the motion says, the positive impact that the existing automation of Scottish social security payments is having is very welcome. That impact includes ensuring that the most eligible people receive the child winter heating assistance and the carers allowance supplement without needing to apply. The proposal to automate the best start grant early learning payment and the best start grant school-age payment for eligible families, which the committee discussed a few weeks ago, is very welcome, too.

As the minister mentioned, the Scottish Government also intends to continue to explore the opportunities that exist for further automation. That will involve looking at opportunities to ensure that more people get the benefits that they are entitled to, which is especially important during the current cost of living crisis. The committee has discussed that with the minister in detail.

Uptake of benefits is also key at this time. The Scottish Government has launched a one-stop shop with its new cost of living website, which Emma Roddick spoke about earlier.

Scotland offers a unique level of support with benefits such as the Scottish child payment. The Scottish Government also decided to increase eight Scottish benefits by 6 per cent in April 2022, compared with a 3 per cent increase by the UK Government. The UK Government must immediately commit to raising benefits in line with inflation. If it chooses not to do so, it will, according to research by the Child Poverty Action Group, be responsible for pushing 200,000 children into poverty.

The Tory UK Government focuses more on sanctioning than supporting people. The number of sanctions issued against universal credit claimants in Scotland has almost doubled in the past three years—doubled. That demonstrates a fundamental issue with the DWP’s attitude towards those on lower incomes, which prevents vulnerable families from receiving the social security that they are entitled to when they need it most. That is a political choice. Natalie Don mentioned the two-child limit and the bedroom tax. Again, those are political choices.

In comparison, and in line with Scottish Fiscal Commission forecasts, the Scottish Government is committing £4.2 billion in social security spending, which will rise to £6.5 billion by 2026-27. That additional spending is needed for the Scottish child payment and to fund the improved approach that Social Security Scotland will take with its adult disability payment, as opposed to the different approach taken with PIP.

Social security is a demand-led service, so we need the ability to react to the current increase in demand. I can understand the Tory position of not wanting increased borrowing powers, but I cannot in any way, shape or form understand Labour’s position of not supporting giving more powers to Scotland to tackle the issue.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

At what point in any of our speeches today did we mention borrowing powers at all?

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party

They were not mentioned in the speeches today, but the issue has been raised in the committee. It was discussed even this morning and Labour would not support our position.

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party

No. I am struggling for time, which the Presiding Officer has warned us about.

The Child Poverty Action Group sent a briefing for the debate, highlighting three key areas. Pauline McNeill mentioned data sharing, which is the first step towards the automation of low-income social security benefits and other low-income payments such as those delivered by local authorities. Aligning the eligibility criteria for low-income benefits would make the automation and promotion of take-up easier, which the committee has discussed. Universal payment and high rates of take-up have a vital role to play in tackling poverty.

I will touch on some of the points that CPAG raised. It welcomed the Scottish Government’s ambition to automate payments to low-income households, but it raised the issue of access to data, saying that data sharing is key to automation and that it helps in making decisions about spending and resource allocation so that support can be targeted at the families who are most in need. The committee has raised that subject with the minister, and I ask him to pick it up in his closing speech.

We should, of course, be aiming for 100 per cent take-up of the Scottish child payment and other low-income benefits. Local authorities have individual household data about many low-income families and already deliver support to those families on behalf of the Scottish Government. Social Security Scotland has access to data from the DWP and HM Revenue and Customs to allow for the processing of Scottish child payment claims. I know that data sharing arrangements can be complex, but, if solutions can be found, that would allow the identification of families who might be entitled to additional support such as the Scottish child payment and school clothing grants. I know that the Scottish Government is looking at that complex situation.

CPAG welcomed the commitment in “Best Start, Bright Futures” to bring entitlement for best start foods in line with the entitlement criteria for best start grants and the Scottish child payment. That will make automation easier for Social Security Scotland. During committee discussions, members mentioned the benefits of aligning the entitlement criteria for other payments. School clothing grants and free school meals could be aligned with the Scottish child payment. That would make automation easier, simplify messaging and ensure greater take-up.

The Scottish Government is unique in its support for the most vulnerable in society. The automation of existing and future benefits will make take-up easier and support even more people.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I join my parliamentary colleagues in welcoming the work that has gone into the automation of Scottish social security payments, the proposals to extend that further and the acknowledgement that there is more work to do. Those payments are vital to the wellbeing of people across Scotland, both in supporting their day-to-day expenses and at critical times, especially in the lives of young families.

I also welcome the work that has been done previously in development and, over the past year, in implementation of the second benefit take-up strategy. The principles that underpin that strategy are worth reiterating, especially now, when the existing challenges of child poverty and Covid recovery have been so heartbreakingly deepened by brutal food price rises, terrifying energy costs and Westminster policy that swings between incompetence and outright cruelty. The principles are focusing on real people and their actual needs; speaking and listening with clarity and sensitivity; reaching people where they are and not where we assume that we will find them; co-operating with those working for the same common good; and learning from both successes and mistakes. Those are principles that we can usefully apply not only to social security but to all the issues that we face as a Parliament, a country and a world.

The strategy also identifies barriers to the take-up of social security entitlements. One of those is the ways in which access can be so complex—and so costly in terms of time and energy as well as money—that the process itself acts as a wall instead of a doorway. That is a challenge to policy makers and to systems, and it can be addressed, in part, by the automation that we are focusing on in the debate.

Another barrier is lack of information. That, too, is an issue for those who make and implement policy—not just at national level but in local government and other agencies—and here we should remember and celebrate the crucial role of the third sector.

However, it is clear from evidence from other European countries that, even with very slick and integrated systems such as those that Pam Duncan-Glancy and other members have urged Social Security Scotland to develop, take-up remains below 100 per cent. That is why the final barrier identified in the strategy matters, and it involves us all: it consists of the complex and often hidden and deep-rooted social obstacles that still stand between so many people and fulfilment of their rights.

The Scottish campaign on rights to social security, which represents key organisations, has written wisely about institutional stigma from official processes, social stigma from the attitudes of others and self-stigma—a person’s own feeling that it is somehow shameful or negative to be receiving what they are entitled to. We know only too well the role that toxic media and poisonous politics have played in creating, extending and embedding the discourse of shame, stigma, othering and demonisation. We know how it interrelates with other forms of bigotry and prejudice, and with other expressions of hate and hostility—not least that of the current Home Secretary, just this week, towards people who were seeking the protection of the United Nations Refugee Convention, which lays down a solemn obligation that it is her particular duty to uphold.

One of our most serious responsibilities as members of this Parliament is to challenge the language of stigma, exclusion and hate. We have a secondary responsibility as well. It is to tell different stories, based on evidence and experience, of why and how social security supports and builds the common good and helps to create strong communities, thriving families and healthy, confident, informed and compassionate children who are ready to take their place in the society of the future—one that will need them more than ever before.

I think that we have a third responsibility: to think not only about how we talk about those who are in, or at risk of, poverty, but also about how we talk about the rich. How does our language—phrases such as “philanthropist”, “wealth creator” and “business leader”—together with our concepts of aspiration and success and the speed with which our doors are opened reinforce hierarchies that are based on money, privilege, status and profoundly ableist conceptions of competence and contribution? In a world where net subsidies to the fossil fuel industry were more than $4 billion in 2019, it is not social security recipients who are taking more than they give.

I reiterate my welcome for the automation measures and for the on-going work that is being done at many levels and in many sectors to improve rates of social security take-up. However, that is not just work for policy makers, institutions and advice providers—vital though all those actors are. If we are to build the fair, resilient, compassionate and creative Scotland that we long for, we need to dig deep, uncover and challenge the assumptions that we have brought with us, and recognise and celebrate our interdependence. This is a work in progress. We need to keep going, and we need to keep going better.

Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

I am pleased to contribute to the debate, as Scotland continues to develop its own distinct social security system. It remains my hope, and the hope of members on the Conservative benches, that that journey will result in a distinctly Scottish social security system that is tailored effectively to Scotland’s needs.

One year ago, the Parliament debated this Government’s progress on implementing the social security powers, as well as its obligation to promote the uptake of those benefits. Since then, the social security picture in Scotland has continued to develop. Most notably, as we have heard, the adult disability payment has finally been introduced across all areas of Scotland. Although I welcome the nationwide launch of what is the 12th benefit to be delivered by Social Security Scotland, it is disappointing that it has taken so long to get to this point. In addition, it remains the case that it will not be until 2025 that the Government will finish taking on all the devolved benefits under the powers that it has.

While Social Security Scotland continues to grow its capacity, it has not been without its problems. The total cost has doubled in comparison with original estimates, and administration costs have quadrupled. It is disappointing that, given those costs, the agency will be no cheaper to run than the DWP system that it is designed to replace.

Social Security Scotland lost nearly £65 billion to fraud and error last year; that cannot be allowed to increase in scale as its case load grows significantly in the coming years.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

For clarity, as these points are important, I point out that I am sure that the member meant to say £65 million, not £65 billion. I recognise the need for us to continue to reduce that figure through diligence.

Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

I thank the minister for that clarification—that is quite correct.

The satisfaction levels of service users must also improve. It is important that we look at that, because there has been a 74 per cent increase in the number of complaints received in the past year alone.

With 475,000 cases to administer by 2026 for the adult disability payment alone, it is important that the Scottish public receive the services that they rightly expect. I certainly hope that Social Security Scotland does not face any further problems, because if the agency is to succeed, we will all benefit across Scotland. That is vitally important.

More generally, several issues with benefit take-up remain. For example, the Social Justice and Social Security Committee highlighted the problems that a lack of internet access can create where digital access is required to ensure that people can apply for and get benefits. That is especially true for older people, who are more likely than other groups to live in remote and rural areas where internet access is more likely to be a problem. The issue is made worse by the fact that only one in 10 people between the ages of 65 and 79 are able to use a computer effectively, as shown by research that Citizens Advice Scotland carried out.

It is important that Social Security Scotland continues to engage with older people, and with other vulnerable service users, to ensure that its systems are properly tailored to their needs. It should also engage with the committee’s recommendation to increase internet access in public places such as libraries and community hubs.

Of course, automation is potentially key in increasing take-up of benefits among those who are eligible. In a complex social security system, it remains the case that many families simply are not fully aware of what they are entitled to. As such, anything that can simplify the process of ensuring that payments go to all those who are entitled to them is to be welcomed.

To that end, the automation of payments such as the best start grant and school-age payments will, I hope, provide a significant boost to the overall take-up of those benefits. There is no doubt that the automation of certain payments can also have benefits in other areas, including processing speed and good value for taxpayer money; we need only look at some of the automated elements of universal credit for an example of that. It remains to be seen, however, whether such automation can be adopted more widely across the Scottish social security system. I urge the Scottish Government to take an evidence-based approach when assessing how effective that will be.

When it comes to Scotland’s social security system, any progress is to be welcomed, but there is still a long way to go on this journey.

With devolved social security spending projected to increase by £2.5 billion by 2027, it is important that we get this right at all levels. It is important that the Scottish Government works constructively with the UK Government, and I am delighted to have heard from the minister today that he wants to ensure that there is good dialogue and good discussion. It is equally important that we engage with service users to ensure that all benefits are being delivered as effectively as possible.

In conclusion, the coming years will be crucial to getting the system right and ensuring that it is something that we all can be proud of, rather than a missed opportunity. To that end, there is much that we can look forward to, and I hope for a successful journey. Like others, I will continue to ensure that this Government delivers the social security system that the Scottish public expects and deserves.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I cannot speak in a debate on social security without highlighting my disgust at the hostile and cruel welfare system that is overseen by the Tories in Westminster. Their treatment of working people, their lack of compassion in helping those most in need and their intrusive and discriminatory assessments are representative of a Government that is not fit for office.

I must say that the Scottish Conservatives are also responsible for the actions of the UK Government in relation to welfare and social security. Their lack of opposition to—and, in some cases, their involvement in—a Government that has overseen such brutal cuts to social security is shameless. However, as colleagues have said before, I stress that we must work across the Parliament to tackle the impacts of the cost of living crisis in order to ensure that more people are not forced into poverty and to alleviate the pressures that face working families on a daily basis.

The ambition of the Scottish Government to automate payments to low-income households, whether delivered by Social Security Scotland or local authorities, is welcome. The Scottish Government says that it is committed to delivering a transparent social security system and reporting annually on progress, and that is also welcome.

In the first annual publication providing estimates of the benefit take-up rate, the minister said:

“We are committed to making sure everyone gets the financial support they are entitled to and our benefit take-up strategy outlines how we are doing this. We actively work to encourage take-up of Scottish social security benefits by promoting our 12 benefits, collaborating with various organisations and removing barriers to access.”

I appreciate that the minister wants that to happen, as I have said before, and I do not doubt that many of the Government backbenchers want that, too.

However, as we have seen in today’s debate, we need to be a bit more honest about what the movement is. If we are not honest, how are we going to achieve the outcomes that the minister and the Government want? We must not ignore the fact that these measures are coming too late and too slowly for many, and will not be enough for others.

We should also not ignore the fact that this is a powerful Parliament. It has the power to do something, but this Government acts with no urgency and seems little ready—or, perhaps, little able—to use those powers. As we have heard from across the chamber, it has been four years since the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed, yet the Scottish Government is not expecting to take over full control of the system from the DWP until the end of 2025.

In December 2021, the Scottish Government boasted that

“2022 will be our biggest year yet in building a new social security system for Scotland”, but today it has come to the chamber with a motion that contains a list of fantasy predictions of what the Scottish benefits system will look like.

I have acknowledged that the Scottish Government has made some progress, and I acknowledge the benefit that the existing automation of Scottish social security payments is bringing, including ensuring that the most eligible people receive the child winter heating assistance and the carers allowance supplement without having to apply for them. I believe that that is a good thing, and I welcome it, as other speakers have done. However, as is often the case, the motion is self-congratulatory. The Government and its backbenchers need to understand that there is some urgency to the issue.

The system is not even nearly fully automated, and we have heard how important that is if we are to lift our communities out of poverty. The take-up of Scottish benefits is not complete. More than one in 10 people who are eligible do not claim the child payment; one in four people do not claim the young carer grant; and one in three people do not claim their funeral support payment. The Government has not mentioned any plans to automate the benefits for the largest case load—the Scottish child payment. There is an estimated of 304,000, and 353,000 claims, for the adult disability payments. By comparison, the number of claims that have not been automated is tiny.

It is important that we think critically on the Opposition and Government benches. I believe that the Government wants to get better systems in place for people. It is important to note that over three quarters of devolved social security spending is still administered by the Department for Work and Pensions. As I mentioned when I intervened on Natalie Don, Labour members are so keen to raise again and again what more can be done because we want the compassionate system that the Government and its back benchers speak about so much.

If the Scottish Government does not get a grip and alter the speed of change, child poverty targets will be missed and more children will grow up in poverty. I accept that any additional support for children and their families is welcome, and I have welcomed the child payment before, but a lot more urgency is needed. It is time to keep moving forward, to keep making progress, to be more radical, to end child poverty and to support families and those most in need using all the powers that the Government has at all the times when it can do so. That has to be the Parliament’s aim, and I will continue to hold the Scottish Government to account on that.

I will be the first person to stand up to oppose Tory UK Government cuts to social security benefits, but it is clear that, in Scotland, we can, and must, do more.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Kaukab Stewart, who is the final speaker in the open debate. We will then move to the winding-up speeches. I expect everybody who has participated in the debate to be present then.

Photo of Kaukab Stewart Kaukab Stewart Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer,

“social security is itself a human right and essential to the realisation of other human rights”.

That statement in the 2018 act affirms the Scottish Government’s commitment to develop a benefits system that is accessible and efficient, with dignity, respect and fairness at its core.

As we know, 12 individual benefits are currently delivered by the Scottish Government to people across the country. Seven of them are new and unique to Scotland, and all of them are of vital importance to those who are in receipt of them. We also know that the development of Scotland’s social security system reflects the lived experience of users of the much-criticised DWP systems.

Having heard of the often callous and distressing way that people feel that they are treated in engaging with the DWP, I am glad that the Scottish Government has taken an entirely different approach?to administering and delivering benefits. People are supported at all stages, and they can request extra support. The application process includes the innovative local delivery service in every council area, which means that anyone who applies for Scottish benefits can access direct support from an adviser.

At the end of last year, more than 90 per cent of those who responded to the Scottish Government’s survey described their experience with Social Security Scotland as “very good” or “good”. However, it is clear that there is work to be done to reach 100 per cent take-up—or as close to that as we can get. Automation is, of course, key among the means of achieving that. Automated benefits dramatically improve the experience of eligible people and remove the need for multiple applications.

Along with campaigners, I welcome the imminent automation of the best start grant early learning payment and the best start grant school-age payment, and I urge the Government to move as swiftly as possible to automate further benefits in the interests of increasing uptake.

The recent One Parent Families Scotland report, “Living without a lifeline”, acknowledged the importance of the Scottish child payment. The increase from £10 to £25 for each eligible child and the extension on 14 November to all young people up to the age of 16 will be welcomed by one-parent families, as it will by all eligible families.

Described as a game-changing benefit by John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, it is providing essential support at a time when the UK economy is in free-fall and making life so difficult for so many people. It goes without saying that our goal must be for 100 per cent take-up of the benefit.

I ask the minister in his summing-up to confirm whether a further round of invitations to apply will be sent to all families to coincide with the extension of the Scottish child payment and to provide some detail on data-gathering on behalf of Social Security Scotland to support benefit take-up. I would also ask him to confirm that thresholds for eligibility are reviewed regularly so that they keep pace with the reality of income and expenditure.

Free school meals and the school clothing grant do not lie within the remit of Social Security Scotland. However, it would make a great difference if those payments could be automated for those who are in receipt of universal credit and tax credits. I understand that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills is already acutely aware of that and is working with the UK Government on the provision of data to progress that—next year, we hope.

I was pleased to welcome Advice Direct Scotland to Parliament today. Supported with Scottish Government funding and based in my constituency of Glasgow Kelvin, it has a powerful benefits calculator on its website where people can check what Scottish benefits they are entitled to, including passported benefits. I commend that calculator to my colleagues and their constituents. Anyone struggling to check their entitlement can phone for friendly and helpful advice.

Social Security Scotland is a work in progress. It is growing in terms of the number of benefits that it delivers, the number of claimants that it supports, and the automation that it facilitates. It is delivering well for all those who are already engaged with it. Its urgent task is to identify those who are not yet claiming what they are entitled to and I urge the Government to consider all practical means of achieving that.

I am glad that the motion has been brought to the chamber so that we can celebrate the successes so far and move the debate forward so that we can improve further.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the winding-up speeches. I am disappointed to note that, despite my earlier warning, a couple of colleagues who participated in the debate are not here. I expect an explanation for that.

Photo of Foysol Choudhury Foysol Choudhury Labour

It is a pleasure to close the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour. Once again, less than six months after those in the Scottish Government last patted themselves on the back over their delivery of social security benefits, they have presented us with another motion of self-congratulation. Once again, the motion does not represent the reality on the ground and, once again, the significant points of caution in the Audit Scotland report on Social Security Scotland go unanswered.

My colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy has already noted the apparent lack of priority given to the automation of social security. Moreover, she has highlighted the amount of benefits that are still being left to be administered by the DWP, which is surely nothing to congratulate the Scottish Government on, if the entire point was for it to do things better.

The Scottish Labour amendment highlights many of those on-going problems, which were left out of the Scottish Government motion. There are many problems waiting down the line in relation to the delivery of Scottish social security benefits, but I will focus on the so-called agile approach that the Scottish Government is overseeing in its IT system.

The theory is that that allows Social Security Scotland to be adaptable and to focus on must-have systems for launch before building on them later. Those systems will be crucial if automation is to work. However, in May, the Audit Scotland report made it clear that that approach has trade-offs. It says:

“For Social Security Scotland to operate efficiently and effectively, resources will be needed over the longer term to continue systems development and replace temporary and manual processes.”

It continues:

“The scale of this is not fully known and will need to be planned for alongside other government priorities”.

This remains a huge step in the dark by the Scottish Government.

Photo of Foysol Choudhury Foysol Choudhury Labour

I am running out of time, as I have a lot to go through.

What that agile approach has produced so far is a minimum viable product to onboard the initial social security benefits. As we have heard, it has automated only two so far, and too many benefits still rely on the DWP systems. What we do not know is how easily the system can be scaled, how well a scaled-up version will function and, crucially, how much any of that will cost. We already know that IT costs for Scotland’s social security system have soared to more than £250 million, from initial estimates of £39 million. Jeremy Balfour noted those additional costs.

When we on the Labour benches raised those questions in May’s debate, there was no answer from the Scottish Government on any of them. I suspect that that is because it does not have the answers. Audit Scotland certainly does not seem to think that it does. The consequence of that is that the Scottish people are being asked to take much of this purely on faith. Again, we need to note the looming £760 million black hole in the budget for Scottish social security benefits, as identified by Audit Scotland.

We cannot take on faith alone such a large and important part of the functioning of our social security system. The Scottish Labour amendment also notes the problems with take-up of the devolved benefits, as mentioned by my colleague Pauline McNeill. Pam Duncan-Glancy rightly noted that that could be solved by automation, but it has not yet been. The minister noted in his opening remarks that Scottish Labour’s amendment engaged in “wishful thinking” in suggesting that automation had proceeded faster, yet he also said that the Scottish Government is not quite where it wants to be on the take-up of benefits.

Surely, that raises the question of why the Government has presented us with a motion declaring a job well done. Put simply, it is far too early for the Scottish Government to congratulate itself on matters of devolved benefits. For that and many other reasons, I commend the Scottish Labour amendment as a dose of reality.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

It is important to recognise the context in which today’s debate is taking place. Indeed, the minister stated it at the beginning: the global cost of living crisis is impacting on the most economically vulnerable individuals and families across the UK. That is why both of Scotland’s Governments need to work together to address the pressures and to support people through this period.

It is also why we have called for and supported the delivery of targeted benefits by Social Security Scotland. In addition, it is worth reflecting on the fact that £243 billion of support is being delivered by the UK Government and the Scottish Government together to focus direct support on the most vulnerable families in Scotland and across Britain.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

In Tuesday’s debate, the member asked me to welcome one of the measures that he is talking about—the £324 for people on tax credits. However, that money has been denied to people with a sanction, 7,342 of whom are in Scotland. Does the member welcome that?

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

Reviews are built into the system to look at such matters, and that is important. What is also important is how the system is being reformed, in the UK and in Scotland. I welcome that, and it is the work that I want to take forward in the committee.

Despite the SNP-Green Government’s motion for the debate, it must be said that the establishment of Social Security Scotland has not all been plain sailing. As Jeremy Balfour stated, we are all fully aware that SNP ministers have had to hand back to the DWP their administrative role with regard to many of the payments. I have to say, though, that I welcome the positive comments that the minister has often made in committee on the relationship between the two organisations. They have to work together, and we must ensure that they succeed in making our welfare system in our United Kingdom and here in Scotland work for everybody.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I urge the member to ensure that, when he engages in any correspondence with the new DWP ministerial team at Westminster, he encourages them to do the same thing.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I am absolutely happy to do that.

SNP ministers have not put in place the full welfare system, despite the many promises that we have heard and, indeed, as was promised ahead of the 2021 elections. Audit Scotland continues to express concern about the challenging timescales for delivering all of the new devolved benefits. I have stated previously, and I state again today, that it is in all of our interests for Social Security Scotland to succeed and to deliver efficient and cost-effective assessment and payment systems. That said—I am sorry to tell SNP members this—it is the role of Opposition parties to hold ministers to account on these matters. We must focus on making sure that the delivery of Social Security Scotland is effective and that the outcomes that we all want are indeed delivered.

A few members have highlighted certain issues that I hope that the minister has taken on board. Alexander Stewart made an important point about the digital divide and why people might not be taking up the payments that are available, and Pauline McNeill raised the important issue of the funeral support payment for those who are planning funerals. Why have 40 per cent of the people who are entitled to that payment not taken it up? It is a real issue that ministers should have tackled by now.

Sharon Dowey referred to her work on the Public Audit Committee and talked about the Government ensuring that it takes an efficient look at value for money for the taxpayer. That is important. I also point out that the Parliament’s Social Justice and Social Security Committee and Finance and Public Administration Committee have raised concerns with the Scottish Government about its data collection system not being fully in place.

Foysol Choudhury made an important point about the projected costs for Social Security Scotland and delivering our welfare system. As of today, those costs are over £290 million, which equates to 10 per cent of its total resources for delivering payments, compared with the figure of 6 per cent for the Department for Work and Pensions. I know that those costs are projected to come in line, but we have had no data to allow us to see where we are and whether all of that is, as I hope, on track. I know from discussions with Social Security Scotland that that is the projection, but we need to hold ministers to account for it.

Today’s debate presents an important opportunity to highlight the need for greater transparency, which is something that all the Parliament’s committees have been highlighting and asking for. Audit Scotland has stated that the implementation costs of the new devolved benefits have not been routinely reported on in the public domain, and that situation needs to change—and change quickly—because it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to have the kind of proper scrutiny that we all want.

With regard to some of the other points that were raised earlier, the minister highlighted 90 per cent satisfaction with Social Security Scotland, but that was as the benefit system was being rolled out. As more benefits are being rolled out, it is concerning to note that client complaints have increased by 74 per cent in the space of one year. I note and welcome what the minister said with regard to looking at the appeals system and redeterminations. It is important to be sure about why there have been rapid increases in complaints around Social Security Scotland. We all want that to be addressed.

The Scottish Government needs to make clear its long-term vision for Social Security Scotland and lay out practical steps that it is taking to make sure that the body is more transparent and accessible to the public on the delivery of the new system.

The debate has brought up another matter. Some members raised the issue of independence and what they want to see, but there is a key part of Scottish public finances that no SNP member can get away from and that can be expressed simply, in two words: the Barnett formula. We are spending £8.5 billion of Scottish taxpayers’ money because of the Barnett formula. I welcome that, because it is an important part of redistribution, and ministers and members of the SNP and the Green Party cannot simply wish that away—it is the size of the NHS budget in Scotland. Independence would leave an £8.5 billion black hole, and we need honesty from SNP and Green members over what would be cut.

One of the key things that today’s debate has brought to the fore is the future, and this week’s announcements show the future around our public finances. We must all work together to deliver Social Security Scotland and the payments for the people who desperately need them.

The Presiding Officer:

I call Ben Macpherson to wind up the debate for the Government.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I thank colleagues for an important debate in these serious times. Sharon Dowey made a very thoughtful and, in the majority, fair contribution and, at the beginning of her remarks, she made the important point that it is in the interests of all parties to support Social Security Scotland and for us to work together in the service of our constituents to make sure that the service delivers for people, particularly at this time.

Pauline McNeill and others raised important points around data sharing. I confirm that, in this time ahead, we will continue to work with many parties, including local authorities, the DWP and HMRC, to improve data sharing and increase take-up, and that also extends to our work on automation.

Kaukab Stewart asked me some particular questions regarding thresholds. We continue to keep them under review. When the Scottish child payment is extended and uplifted, we will, indeed, text message and email all current claimants to make them aware of the extra support that is available.

As I set out in my opening statement, and others have set out today, that demonstrates the practical and proactive work that is under way to promote benefits in our communities. Of course, the Scottish Government—rightly, under the 2018 act—is obligated to take a lead in that. Beatrice Wishart raised a question around what specific engagement the Scottish Government is taking to promote benefits. In my opening remarks, I laid out the 12 paid-for marketing campaigns that have been undertaken since October 2021. In consideration of digital exclusion, to promote our benefits, we used a range of channels on television, as well as radio, print and digital. For example, when adult disability payment was launched across Scotland at the end of August, there were eight pieces of broadcast television and radio coverage across national and regional channels, and 44 pieces of print and online, as well as individual engagement by organisations and MSPs to promote the benefits.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

Given the system and how you plan, what work has been done specifically with regard to funeral support payment? Forty per cent of eligible people are not applying for that payment.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

It is an important point and it is encouraging that the amount of support that people are getting through funeral support payment is much higher than it was under the previous UK benefit. There is a lot of engagement with providers and relevant support organisations to encourage people to take up that support.

Evaluative work is going on as we speak, based on the estimates that were published on Monday for the first time, which is the useful data that Kaukab Stewart talked about. The fact that we now have the estimated data helps us in that analysis, and I am happy to engage more with Mr Briggs on the matter. He is right that we want to get the uptake of funeral support payment to a much higher level.

I confirm to Jeremy Balfour that welfare rights advisers are in around 150 GP practices around Scotland, so that is happening. I am happy to pick that up further with him if he would like more details.

I will talk about some of the wider points that were raised and the thematic issues that matter to us all. Alexander Stewart said that we want Social Security Scotland to be something that we can all be proud of. I am proud of Social Security Scotland. It is not perfect, but what it has achieved in its short existence since 2018 with the thousands and thousands of people it has helped, and the way in which it has developed with 21st century infrastructure and a proactive approach based on the values that we agreed as a Parliament, are things to be proud of. That is why I find it so deeply unhelpful when members, especially one as well intentioned and well informed as Jeremy Balfour, call Social Security Scotland a mess. That is such an unjust characterisation of an organisation that is helping people every single day and is staffed by such well-motivated people.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I genuinely do not believe that I used those words in my speech. My point was that, due to the Scottish Government—nothing to do with the agency—there have been major delays in delivering those benefits. I ask the minister to please correct the record; I never called the agency a mess.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

The process of rolling out our delivery of devolved Scottish benefits and Social Security Scotland being that delivery agency are part of the same equation. Opposition members are absolutely right to hold the Government to account, but when we are doing things well in Scotland, let us be honest about the achievements as well as about the challenges, and about how those achievements make a difference to all the constituents we serve.

Social Security Scotland is a success story. Foysol Choudhury raised a point about IT costs, but he followed that by speaking about how he wants to see more expenditure. We have to get a degree of consistency and fair analysis when it comes to this question. The agency is at the beginning of its development, but it will be a really important organisation that will deliver for all our constituents, particularly this year compared with years past but also in the decades ahead. We are investing in and establishing firm and effective foundations to do that.

When Carol Mochan and other Labour members talk about a sense of urgency, I can tell them that there is a deep sense of urgency in the ministerial team and in the civil service about doing this as quickly as possible. There is also a sense of responsibility for doing it right and effectively, not only for the short term but in order to future proof the service.

Social Security Scotland is a very successful delivery organisation, so when the Scottish Labour Party criticises the SNP—which, as I mentioned, is responsible for gaining the powers over social security here in Scotland—and says that we have not done very much and the debate is about back patting, I will not take that. Around 25,000 children in Scotland are getting £200 through our child winter heating assistance, and the Scottish child payment—which was £10 a week, is now £20 a week and will be £25 a week from 14 November—is helping people now. We have had an effective roll-out of the bridging payment to 140,000 households. That represents a significant amount of investment that is helping people in our constituencies day in, day out.

By the end of 2022, our five family payments could be worth up to £10,000 when the first child turns six, and up to £9,700 for subsequent children. That is significant. It is an investment in our communities. Do not talk that down as if it is not a remarkable achievement. Some £460 million is going to households above the block grant adjustment, and that is more than in any other part of the UK.

Let us be really serious about this. We have done remarkable things with the powers that we have, and we have a lot more to do. We need members from all the parties to be thoughtful and realistic about the lesson from Social Security Scotland that taking the time to do things correctly enables good delivery. It is an example from which we can take learning and confidence.

I will end on what I hope is a point of consensus. I hope that everybody votes for the motion, because I have drafted it to be consensual. We all have a responsibility—whether through cost of living events in our constituencies, the social media that we engage in, the communications from our political parties, or whatever ways we share things in our community—to get the word out. The Scottish Government is being proactive in showing leadership in driving benefit take-up and increasing automation, but we all have a role to play. On 14 November, which is coming very soon, when the Scottish child payment is extended to under-16s and goes up to £25 a week, I want to see every single MSP taking responsibility to amplify that in their communities. That is what working together is all about, that is what making a difference is all about, and that is what this Government is absolutely focused on.

In closing the debate, I ask members to support the motion in my name.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate on progress on the automation and take-up of Scottish social security benefits.