Social Security

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 20 February 2024.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-12203, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on the paper “

Building a New Scotland: Social security in an independent Scotland”. I ask members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can we have the cabinet secretary’s mic on?

Your card does not seem to be registering, cabinet secretary. Do you want to take it out and put it back in again? There we go.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Third time lucky, Presiding Officer.

I am pleased to open today’s debate to highlight the Scottish Government’s proposals for a fairer and more dignified social security system in an independent Scotland.

Social security is one of the most important responsibilities of any Government. It demonstrates where that Government’s priorities lie and how it values its people. It should protect us all through life’s ups and downs, and it is vital for the wellbeing of any society.

For too long, the Westminster approach to social security has been to provide inadequate levels of financial support, using arbitrary caps and limits to reduce the support that is available to children and families, and to unfairly stigmatise the most vulnerable people. The reckless and cruel decision making at Westminster can be summed up by the choice to scrap the universal credit £20 uplift just as the cost of living crisis was gripping households. That was a Westminster decision to rip away support when the Scottish Government was introducing the Scottish child payment. It is a tale of two Governments with different values and radically different prospectuses.

In its “UK Poverty 2024” report, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation clearly states that six successive United Kingdom Prime Ministers have overseen deepening poverty over the past 20 years. It comments:

“This is social failure at scale ... This is a story of moral and fiscal irresponsibility”

It is an affront to the dignity of people who are living in hardship. The report goes on to say that poverty levels in Scotland, when compared to those in England and Wales, remain much lower, which is

“likely to be due, at least in part, to the Scottish Child Payment.”

I will say more about that later.

When it compares Britain to Europe, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is clear: poverty levels and inequality are higher in the UK than they are in other independent European countries and are the highest in north-west Europe. The rate of unemployment benefits is also substantially lower in the UK than it is in other countries in north-west Europe.

It is clear that the UK social security system under Conservative, coalition and Labour Governments has not protected, and will not protect, people as it should. In just two weeks, the UK Government’s budget is expected to fail, once again, to deliver any investment in our public services, our people or our future.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I am happy to take an intervention from Paul O’Kane, who I am sure will tell us how UK Labour will stand up and ensure that we will have capital and revenue to protect the people of Scotland.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

The cabinet secretary referred to the collective failure of past Tory and Labour Governments. She has heard me talk in the chamber about the callous approach that has been taken by the Conservatives, but will she acknowledge that, in the time of the previous Labour Government, 1 million children were lifted out of poverty because of the action that was taken by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in reforming the social contract?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I refer Paul O’Kane to my earlier quotation from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. I also point to the fact that the change that Labour claims to be bringing to social security is not a change, but a review, which is not exactly inspiring. I also note that Mr O’Kane did not agree that the Scottish Government budget should be increased to allow for no cuts to be made to our capital budget. That is on the record.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Does the cabinet secretary agree that Labour’s “No change” attitude is immensely detrimental to the people of Scotland, especially when that party will not commit to getting rid of the rape clause and the two-child cap?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

That is very disappointing. Kevin Stewart is quite correct to point to the fact that, when it comes to both of the main UK parties vying for number 10, there would be no change. That is exactly why this debate will include discussion not only of devolution but of the fact that we can get change only through independence.

I will move on to Westminster’s hostile approach to social security, which punishes the most marginalised people. The Scottish people deserve better. By using the powers that we have, the Scottish Government has developed a different approach to social security and is treating people with dignity, fairness and respect. Although the UK Government stands by its harmful policies, we have delivered 14 new benefits, seven of which are available only in Scotland. Our programme for government made it clear that we are committed to reducing child poverty: we estimate that this Government’s policies will keep 90,000 children out of relative and absolute poverty this year, with poverty levels being 9 percentage points lower than they would otherwise have been.

One key way in which we are using our powers to reduce child poverty is the introduction of the Scottish child payment. It is forecast that that benefit alone will lift 50,000 children out of relative poverty in 2023-24. It has been described by Professor Danny Dorling from the University of Oxford as having

“an effect on changing the inequality level in Scotland, which I don’t see in any country for which there has been data for the last 40 years.”

Not only have we been introducing new benefits for the people of Scotland, but we are mitigating the worst impacts of the UK Government’s welfare reforms. We are already spending around £130 million per year to directly mitigate some of the UK Government’s benefit cuts, including the bedroom tax and the benefit cap—policies that have been described by many people as being deeply damaging to the most vulnerable people in our society.

Over the past six years, we have invested £733 million to directly mitigate UK Government policies, which we would have to continue to do under a Labour Government. That money could be better spent, I suggest, on health, education, transport and further ambitious anti-poverty measures; for example, it could pay for up to 2,000 band 5 nurses each year. However, this Government continues to have to mitigate the worst excesses of Westminster.

With independence, the Scottish Government would deliver a new approach across the whole social security system, with a system that sees high-quality social security as a human right and a safety net for us all, whenever we need it; a system that is free from corrosive and harmful policies—such as the benefit cap and the two-child limit—that push families into further hardship; and a system that has no more punitive sanctions that are designed to punish those who already have the least.

Only with independence can we have full control over the necessary levers that would allow us to create an integrated system of support that would work for everyone. It is an approach that would lift people out of poverty and support those who can access paid work and support from the labour market, thereby underpinning a flourishing economy.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

In an independent Scotland, what will the waits be for adult disability payment? Will they be shorter than they currently are, or will they be even longer?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

As Mr Rennie well knows, we have made progress in cutting the processing times for child and adult disability payments. It is important to note that he also knows that we cannot compare that to what happens under Westminster, which forces and obligates people who are going for a benefit to collect all the supporting information themselves. We take that burden off people. That sometimes takes time, but we relieve people of that burden, which is part of treating them with dignity, fairness and respect. However, as we have discussed before, Mr Rennie is right that we need to do more on that.

We cannot guarantee social justice unless we are in control of delivery. Although the complexity of social security means that building a new system will take time, we have strong foundations in place with what is already being delivered in Scotland. We have transformed social security provision by establishing a radically different system, despite the fixed budgets and limited powers of devolution.

While we build on that system, we have, in the paper, identified key early changes to improve the current system, which could be put in place from day 1 of independence. Our early priorities would include removal of policies such as the two-child limit, the subsequent rape clause and the benefit cap; replacement of universal credit advance loans with grants; ending of the punitive sanctions regimes; and removal of the young parent penalty.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I am happy to give way to Jeremy Balfour if he would like to defend any of those policies, as he usually does.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

In the fantasy world of politics that we are living in for the next couple of hours, how long would it take, once independence happens, for everything to be devolved to the new independent Scotland? What would be the timescale? Would it be months, weeks or centuries?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Cabinet secretary, I can give you the time back.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I struggled to hear Mr Balfour because of the chuntering from Stephen Kerr behind him, but I am happy to go with what I think I heard.

The challenge around the programme for devolution of benefits, which we are undertaking with the Department for Work and Pensions—it is a joint programme, and I make no criticism of the DWP in what I am about to say, because it is just a statement of fact—is that we sometimes need to work with the DWP, which can be difficult because its systems require updating and we need to work to build our systems. Under independence, we would, of course, work with the DWP on the transfer in order to ensure that we would look after the safe and secure transition of people in Scotland, just as we have done under devolution.

The early changes that we have talked about in the paper would prioritise, among other things, direct improvement of the lives of people who are in receipt of benefits. It is very important that that is done, because those people are not receiving the right support and security at this time. Our proposed reforms to universal credit would total around £250 million in 2023-24, which equates to just over 1 per cent of total benefits expenditure.

In the longer term, the paper sets out how independence could offer the opportunity to use innovative approaches to delivering a universal guarantee of financial security through a minimum income guarantee, thereby giving people the right to a decent income that would be set at a level that would ensure that everyone could have a dignified quality of life.

A minimum income guarantee is an ambition that would enable all households to live with financial security. It would sit at the heart of a strong wellbeing economy. The aim is that it would be simple and accessible. It also has the potential to bring all current Scottish income replacement benefits into a single integrated system. The paper also refers to a universal basic income as a potential longer-term model of social security.

The first Government of an independent Scotland would have an opportunity to deliver better outcomes for everyone, including families and households on low incomes, unpaid carers and disabled people. With independence, Scotland would have the choice to explore new, better and more forward-looking approaches to social security, without the limits that are placed on us by our being part of the UK’s outdated system.

We cannot guarantee social justice unless we control delivery. With independence, therefore, we have the potential to deliver transformational change by building on our successes to date, and to build a fairer and more equal society, in which everyone has enough money to live a decent, dignified and healthy life. With independence, Scotland would deliver a social security system that would be a vast improvement on what we have already been offered, and which would move far beyond the inadequacies of the current approach.

Earlier this month, the Scottish Labour leader told the

New Statesman that this Parliament is too focused on social policy and not focused enough, in his opinion, on the economy. That failure to recognise how critical the common weal is—the combining of a wellbeing economy with a social security net that would be there for all of us in our time of need—is a failure to recognise the kind of society that we can be. A fairer future for all will not be built on a binary choice between a strong economy and a social security system. It is disappointing to see the lack of ambition on that from the Westminster parties.

I have highlighted the fact that that we, in the Scottish Government, believe that social security is a human right. It is an investment in our people and our society that delivers better outcomes and supports a stronger and more prosperous economy. If members agree with that, they should also agree that benefits should be set at a level at which people can afford the essentials. That is why this Government has called on the UK Government—which the other Westminster parties have yet to do—to introduce to the current system an essentials guarantee. How can those parties genuinely claim to have that as the basis of their social security policies when they will not even call for those changes now?

I have no doubt that, over time, Scotland can match the performance of other independent European countries that have low levels of poverty and inequality and high levels of economic success. Our paper details how that success could be achieved. The first steps towards that would be independence and a step away from UK Governments—of whatever colour—that seem to be determined to make it harder for people to get the support that they need. It is time that Scotland had the opportunity to make a real change in people’s lives: the Government’s paper outlines exactly how it can do that.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the Scottish Government’s paper,

Building a New Scotland: Social security in an independent Scotland

; agrees that the people of Scotland would be best served by a social security system that embeds dignity, fairness and respect and provides a safety net for all as part of a strong wellbeing economy; notes progress made with Scotland’s unique social security benefits, including five family payments, with modelling estimating that 90,000 fewer children will live in relative and absolute poverty in 2023-24 as a result of Scottish Government policies, with poverty levels 9 per cent lower than they would have otherwise been, but recognises that only independence provides the full range of powers that would enable Scotland to provide the social security that the people of Scotland deserve.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

There is a bit of time in hand, so members will certainly get time back for any interventions.

I call Jeremy Balfour to speak to and move amendment S6M-12203.1. You have around nine minutes, Mr Balfour.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

This must be a record, because I cannot think of a time—certainly not during my tenure in the Parliament—when so many nonsense debates have been brought forward in such a short period. At breakfast this morning, my 12-year-old daughter asked what we would debate in the chamber today, and I outlined what the debate was about. Her immediate response was, “Why are you talking about something that doesn’t affect people’s lives today? Why are you not talking about homelessness or hospital waiting lists?” It is interesting that a 12-year-old has more insight than the Scottish Government.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I will in a moment.

In the past couple of weeks, we have spent valuable chamber time debating Scotland’s plan on the European Union—an organisation that we are not part of—and immigration policy, which is in no way devolved to this Parliament. Now, we are talking about a hypothetical social security system that has not existed and will not exist, because the people of Scotland do not want it.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I presume that Jeremy Balfour does not think that people in Scotland have not been impacted by the poverty that they have been pushed into by the Westminster Government, by the two-child cap and by the rape clause. He knows that people in all our constituencies are being impacted by those factors every single day and that there will be no change under either the Tories or Labour. That is why the Scottish Parliament has the right to debate how we could achieve such change, which we suggest would be under independence.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

The cabinet secretary misses the point. The people of Scotland voted to stay part of the union. Let us have debates about the type of social security that we want. The cabinet secretary is talking about fantasy politics to which the people of Scotland have already said no. I imagine that some of her more reasonable colleagues on the Scottish National Party benches—

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

No.

Some of the cabinet secretary’s colleagues must be feeling a bit embarrassed that the Government has run out of ideas to this extent.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

No.

I know for a fact that many SNP members are committed to making the lives of the Scottish people better in practical and tangible ways. For them, the party’s position cannot be anything short of a slap in the face.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

Hang on.

The truth is that things have got really bad for the SNP. It has been in government for 17 years with nothing positive to show for it. Now, its facade is coming down to reveal a party that is tearing itself apart through scandal and secrecy.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

No.

In a desperate act of deflection, the Government has decided to hold a series of debates based on its taxpayer-funded vanity projects that postulate what life would be like had it not failed to convince the Scottish people to break up one of the oldest and most successful political alliances in the world. I suggest that the cabinet secretary would have a bright future in fantasy writing, because the paper that has been put before us is about as serious a policy prospect as “The Lord of the Rings”.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

For the final time, no.

The paper provides a long wish list of everything that the SNP would implement in an imaginary situation, including increasing universal credit and removing any system of sanctions. That is all well and good, but nowhere does the paper explain how on earth the SNP would pay for it. It claims that all its changes would cost the taxpayer a mere £0.25 billion on top of what is already being spent in Scotland. However, that comes from the same people who are running a devolved system that, as it stands, will require more than £1.3 billion by 2027-28 just to keep the status quo. We are still to hear an answer from the SNP on its plan for plugging that gap.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

In two seconds.

Why should we trust the SNP on what it will do in that situation when it has proven its inability to deal with the very real mess that it has made?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I am grateful to the member for giving way again. I ask him to gently remind himself that we are going through a budget process in which the Government produces a balanced budget, demonstrating exactly how it will fund its policies. The choice that we have made is to spend £1.1 billion more on social security, because we are investing in the people of Scotland rather than pushing them into poverty as his party is doing.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

The reality is that, whatever the SNP says, it will need to do one of three things: abandon its promise to cut benefits, cut another budget and reapportion it to social security, or raise taxes. I will happily give way to either Mr Stewart or the cabinet secretary again, or to anyone else, if they are willing to tell the Scottish people what promises the SNP will abandon, which budget portfolio it will cut to make more room for social security, or how much it will pay to raise taxes.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I will be very happy if Mr Stewart can give me the answer to my question.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Mr Balfour has talked about fantasy. The people of Scotland are fed up of the nightmare of Tory Government and of Tory cuts to social security spending that have meant withdrawing their safety net. Is Mr Balfour happy that the two-child cap and the rape clause remain in place? Is he happy about the social security cuts that have impacted on disabled people in our country?

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I allowed Mr Stewart to intervene because he was going to answer my question, but he has simply failed to do so. If there is a secret fourth way that the Scottish Government has left out of its paper for some reason, I would be happy to listen. It can do one of three things: cut benefits, raise taxes or take funding from another budget. I ask the cabinet secretary, which of the three is it?

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I thank Jeremy Balfour for giving me an opportunity, once again, to say that we are providing a balanced budget to the Parliament, which demonstrates—as we have done every year since devolution—how we will fund our policy commitments to the people of Scotland.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

So, the Scottish Government will simply raise taxes or raise money from another budget next year.

As with previous debates of this type, this is not a serious subject matter. Even if we indulge the nationalists, simple facts get in the way of their delusions. The biggest insult in the paper is the single page on the transfer of social security following a referendum result. That transfer would be an incredibly complex and time-consuming process, which would have a direct impact on the day-to-day lives of the most vulnerable people. The cabinet secretary would not give a timescale for it. The lack of thought behind the process shows exactly why the SNP should not be trusted. There is no timeline for the handover, no detail of how the data would be transferred securely and no detail of how resources would be split if the DWP were to leave Scotland.

The reason that ministers are so light on detail in that regard is that the answer shames them. We can see a microcosm of the process in how the Government has handled the transfer of a small number of devolved benefits and in the setting up of Social Security Scotland. That has been years overdue, there have been constant issues with implementation and the Scottish Government has even had to hand benefits back to the DWP because it could not handle them. Can we imagine an independent Scotland handing power back to a foreign Government, saying, “Please could you do it for a few more years, because we are not capable of doing it?” It is a fantasy. Rest assured that there will be no handing anything back or asking anyone to help unless the UK Government is willing to step up and protect the Scottish Government.

The debate shows us two things. First, the SNP has totally run out of ideas and is desperate to deflect attention from its woeful record after 17 years in government. Secondly, its plans for independence are flimsy and ill thought through—and, ultimately, they will be have a negative effect on the people of Scotland. We could do it all better if the Scottish Government simply got on with the day job and accepted our amendment, which makes it clear that the Parliament wants Social Security Scotland to work but within the confines of the United Kingdom.

I move amendment S6M-12203.1, to leave out from “welcomes” to end and insert:

“regrets that the Scottish Government continues to miss its targets for delivering the transfer of benefits to Social Security Scotland, and calls on the Scottish Government to focus on the real priorities of the people of Scotland rather than obsessing over the constitution.”

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

This is now the fourth debate that we have had on social security in Government time in

12 months, but it differs from the previous debates because this latest debate from the Government is the clearest demonstration that ministers have their heads in the sand—or, perhaps more accurately, in the clouds. Instead of having a debate about the context of the social security system that the Scottish Government is responsible for, we are debating a fantasy plan for social security in a future independent Scotland.

I will begin by speaking about the social security system in Scotland and the challenges in that system, which is wholly devolved to the SNP Government. The cabinet secretary speaks about fairness, dignity and respect—and she did so in our debate prior to the recess—but it is clear that that is not the experience of everyone in the system. For many people, the Government is falling short of delivering the system that people need.

I always like to bring a degree of consensus. There have been welcome interventions such as the Scottish child payment, which is broadly supported across this place and has been supported by this side. We have to use all the tools in our arsenal to tackle child poverty. It is clear to me, however, that we need bold action. We have to tackle the root causes of poverty, and we have to do so with a strong economy that can prioritise growth and redistribute the money from that growth across our country, investing it in public services.

We need bolder action to tackle the fact that one in 10 Scots is locked in persistent low pay and to tackle insecure and inadequate housing, ensuring that people have access to affordable roofs over their heads. It does not help when the Scottish Government makes decisions in its budget that adversely impact that aim. I will give two examples of that. Parental employability funds, which serve to lift people out of poverty and get them into work, have been cut by £20 million a year, and the affordable housing supply budget has been slashed by 27 per cent in real terms.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Will the member confirm whether, if Labour were to win the next election, it would reverse the cuts to the Scottish Government’s capital budget? Unless it would—the cuts have resulted in a nearly 10 per cent real-terms cut to our capital funding between 2023-24 and 2027-28—talk is cheap. He can come to the chamber and demand that money be spent wherever he wants, but if no UK Government takes any action, it is just talk in this chamber.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

I will come on to talk about the changes that a UK Labour Government would make. As I have said, it is clear that economic growth is an absolute priority, because without that growth we cannot spend more money on public services. There was no hint in the cabinet secretary’s contribution about economic growth or about how the economy in an independent Scotland would contribute to all the asks that are in her motion.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

I will make some progress, if the member does not mind.

We focused on the cuts to the housing budget, which will have a hugely detrimental impact on poverty reduction in Scotland, but it is not just that. The social security system in the devolved context is creaking. The average processing time for child disability payment is more than five months, and almost one fifth of applications take more than seven months, leaving young disabled people without the payments that they need. The transfer of important devolved benefits such as employment injury assistance has repeatedly been delayed, with a lack of clear timelines leaving those benefit provisions in the hands of the DWP, which the Scottish Government has rightly critiqued.

The cost of social security spending in Scotland is spiralling and is now forecast to rise to almost £8 billion in 2029, which is £1.5 billion more than the block grant adjustment, according to the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s latest analysis of the budget. As I have said, failures to tackle the root causes of poverty, failures to process claims in good time and failures to bring about payments into the devolved Administration are all contributing to the continuing persistent challenges of poverty in Scotland.

The conclusion that I draw is that the SNP Government cannot run a functioning system now and there is no evidence in the latest paper to suggest that Scotland being an independent country would make it more capable of that. Indeed, although the paper sets out a swathe of plans from the SNP Government, it does not need to worry about delivering on them. I see no indication in the paper of how they would be paid for—indeed, there is no indication of the currency that we would use to pay those benefits.

Do not get me started on the fact that the paper does not say anything about pensions. Mr Hepburn is the man who is preparing the prospectus on the currency and pensions, so I would love to hear from him about the plans for those.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Mr O’Kane should pay attention. We set out our position on currency in the third paper, and we have a paper on pensions forthcoming. I have a simple question for Mr O’Kane. Would he prefer that the powers over social security in their entirety were vested in the Scottish Parliament, where we could collectively have control over the matter, or would he rather that they remained in the hands of the Conservatives in the UK Government?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

Mr Hepburn suggests that powers should be either in the hands of the Conservative Government or here. I disagree—I think that, within the devolved settlement, it is right that we control the elements of social security that we are making progress on. It is clear to me that the Tories will not be around forever, because change is coming with a Labour Government that will fundamentally reform social security in this country, invest in the economic growth that we need to fund public services and make the changes that we need.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

In a moment.

Forty per cent of claimants who are in receipt of universal credit are in work, so we know that we need to make fundamental changes to work in this country in order to support people. That is what a Labour Government offers. We offer a real living wage, an end to fire and rehire, an end to zero-hours contracts and investment in workers’ rights from day 1. That will be a substantial change to the prospects of many people in this country, and it will put money in their pockets and lift them out of poverty, just as we did when we were last in government. [

Interruption

.] Mr Hepburn from a sedentary position says that that is the past, as though it were a small moment, but a million children were lifted out of poverty, which has fundamentally changed the lives of people in this country, and that is what is important.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

With an eye to the future, we have heard from the Scottish Labour Party that it supposedly opposed the two-child cap, but we know that it does not have its hands on the power to change that and that its UK party leader has said that it will not reverse that position. What does Mr O’Kane say about that in relation to the prospects of young people not just in Scotland but across the UK under a Keir Starmer-led Government?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

Mr Hepburn knows my position on the two-child cap. It is a heinous policy that needs to be changed. [

Interruption

.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can you resume your seat, Mr O’Kane?

As the cabinet secretary advised us earlier, chuntering from a sedentary position should be discouraged at all times. There should be less of the running commentary, please, Mr Hepburn and Mr Stephen Kerr.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

I am very clear that a fundamental reform of universal credit means reform of all parts of the system. That includes the heinous and challenging policies that we see across the piece. However, on the point about economic growth, we need to ensure that we have the money to reform our public services fundamentally and that they work better for everyone.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

I will take an intervention from Clare Haughey, as she has been patient.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I hear what Mr O’Kane says about the Labour Party’s supposed plans to review universal credit, but I have not heard anything about what would be done about pensions. I know that the Labour Party has supported the Women Against State Pension InequalityWASPI—campaign. Can Mr O’Kane tell me what will be done to compensate the WASPI women if his party forms the next Westminster Government?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

It is interesting that Ms Haughey has brought up the matter of pensions. We do not have any detail from the Scottish Government on pensions in an independent Scotland. She wants to have a debate about pensions right now, but the SNP does not have a paper on pensions, it does not know how it is going to pay for them, and it does not know about the currency. What a Labour Government will quite clearly do is fundamentally reform the social contract—as we did when we were last in government, to take a million pensioners out of poverty—to make things fairer and better. That is what Labour Governments do.

I am conscious that I have been generous with interventions and that time is getting on, so I will draw my contribution to a close.

The change that Scotland needs is not another self-indulgent fantasy paper to make SNP ministers and back benchers feel good—I am sure that it feels great to be in the Parliament, talking about that. The reality is that people need help right now. We have been clear throughout that a UK Labour Government will provide change in the form of the fundamental reform of the social contract that is required.

More than that, it is about supporting people into work as a route out of poverty; ensuring that people have good, high-quality jobs, a living wage and trade union rights; and ending zero-hours contracts and insecure work. That is the change that a Labour Government offers. We did not see anything in the paper about routes into work and about jobs, and we did not hear anything about them in the cabinet secretary’s contribution. All that we heard was more of the same.

The reality is that we need to see change, and we can have change faster with a Labour Government. That is what we need, not more debates about a fantasy independence prospectus that may never come to pass.

I move amendment S6M-12203.2, to leave out from “welcomes” to end and insert:

“acknowledges that the people of Scotland would be best served by a social security system that embeds dignity, fairness and respect and provides a safety net for all in a strong and growing economy; notes Scotland’s devolved social security benefits; acknowledges that delays in processing adult and child disability assessments have left disabled people stuck in limbo and out of pocket during the worst cost of living crisis in decades; notes that the Scottish Government’s decision to cut affordable housing budgets by 27 per cent in the face of a housing emergency has been labelled as baffling by organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; acknowledges that cutting vital funding for affordable housing and employability schemes harms the eradication of the causes of poverty; notes that between 2017 and 2021, 12 per cent of people have remained in persistent poverty after housing costs, and recognises that the paper,

Building a New Scotland: Social security in an independent Scotland

, is the latest in a series of theoretical future plans by the Scottish Government, which has already been too distracted to focus on the here and now and make the devolution of social security work for the people of Scotland.”

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I am finding it difficult to curb my excitement. The chamber is packed, there is absolutely soaring rhetoric like I have never heard before, and there are cheering SNP back benchers. Actually, we are having a rather dull debate about a paper, which nobody has really read and nobody really cares about, for a referendum that SNP members know is not going to happen.

Jamie Hepburn chided Paul O’Kane for not paying attention. The truth is that nobody in the country is paying attention to Jamie Hepburn’s papers. I am a big fan of Jamie Hepburn. I have ambitions for him to go right to the top of Government, and I think that he could use his time far better than by producing papers that nobody reads. He will probably have noticed that nationalists are getting more frothed up by the Redcoat Café than by any of his independence papers, which should be a sobering lesson for him. We need to focus on the real challenges that the country faces.

Like Paul O’Kane, I have welcomed the reduction in child poverty that has come with the child payment—I think that that is a good thing. Compared with the previous time that we debated social security, when I perhaps criticised her for celebrating a big and growing social security budget, the cabinet secretary today talked a little bit more about the economy and the balance between the social and the economic. However, if we are having to use so many payments to prop up an economy that is not delivering proper, good wages, on which people can earn their own living, that, in itself, is perhaps a sign of a failure of the system rather than a reason for celebration.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Willie Rennie is quite right to point out that there are different drivers of poverty. One of those drivers is the inadequacy of the social security system, over which we have limited powers. Would he agree, therefore, that if we want real change in employability and wage levels, we need the devolution of employability and employment law to this Parliament, so that we can make those changes in order to make the differences that he talks about?

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

The cabinet secretary understates the powers that this Parliament has, which this Government refuses to use effectively.

As the cabinet secretary knows, I am in favour of the United Kingdom single market, and I do not favour breaking that up by devolving employment law. It is important to ensure that we have the automatic economic stabilisers with social security at a UK level so that, where there is a unique shock that affects one part of the country, the rest of the country is there to support it. I do not favour breaking up that single market, because that is effectively the prelude to independence, which—as the cabinet secretary knows—I do not favour.

It is important that the cabinet secretary understands and accepts—I do not think that she has yet—that the growing social security budget is not a point for celebration, but a sign of failure in the system. We need to improve productivity levels in Scotland, which are lagging behind those in the UK, while the UK lags even further behind other competitor countries. We need to improve our low wages, as there are far too many people in Scotland on them, and we need to drive up performance. In addition, in a time of very low unemployment, we still have large numbers of people who are not working.

That brings me to my second point, which is about the NHS and education. I have met far too many people who have been waiting to get an appointment and, during that period, have been unable to work because they have been in so much pain. The NHS and the education system are critically linked to the performance of our economy, and therefore affect the social security system. As long as we keep pumping money into the wrong end of the system, we will not be able to deal with the problems at the other end in a way that will deliver a sustainable economy.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I am sure that if we were investing less in social security, Mr Rennie would be the first to welcome that fact.

Mr Rennie has implicitly answered this question in making his point about a single market with regard to employment law, but I ask him to be explicit. This question also goes back to his point about low wages. Would he prefer that the Conservatives, rather than the Scottish Parliament, had control over the minimum wage?

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I have to say that that is beneath Jamie Hepburn, because it is a pathetic, narrow choice. That is not the choice that we face—

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

No, it is not the choice. We can have change across the United Kingdom that delivers a progressive future for our country and that does not fall into his false choice.

I am sure that the member is better than that, although I might have to revise my opinion about his ambition for high office.

The interventions that we need include looking at the long waits for the adult disability payment; I intervened on the cabinet secretary about that. It is, to be frank, embarrassing that the DWP gets money into the pockets of disabled people more quickly than does the Scottish Government. I know the answer, and I have heard—

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I will not take an intervention, as I have heard the answer before. I understand that the system here is more sympathetic—I get that. It is more understanding and it assists the individual. However, the truth is that people are waiting longer for the money—longer than the wait for money from the DWP. Surely that should be an embarrassment. The DWP is more generous than the Social Security Scotland system in getting money to people. We must drive that time down if we are to make any claim about our system being dignified.

This is an important lesson—I will conclude in a minute. We should remember that we were promised by Alex Salmond that we would have independence delivered in 16 months. It has taken years for just a small number of powers to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament; one can just imagine how long it would take to deliver all the other powers that would come with independence. Surely that, in itself, is a lesson for this Government: nobody is really enthusiastic about any of this debate, because we know that independence is never going to happen.

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party

From the game-changing Scottish child payment to the carers allowance supplement, devolution has shown how Scotland can begin to deliver a fairer social security system. However, the UK Government still holds most of our welfare powers.

Families across the country are seeing the benefits of having an SNP Government that recognises that social security is a human right and that the delivery of social security is a public service. When we look at Social Security Scotland’s record, we see that it has a remarkable satisfaction rate, with 97 per cent of people saying that they had received their benefit payments on time and 90 per cent saying that their experience was good or very good. Indeed, Social Security Scotland’s strong record has been recognised and it has won a number of prestigious national prizes, most recently at the Holyrood Communications Scottish public service awards.

At the heart of the First Minister’s vision is tackling the scourge of child poverty. In fact, as a result of Scottish Government policy choices, an estimated 90,000 fewer children are expected to be in poverty this year. In my constituency of East Kilbride, around 4,500 children have been in receipt of the Scottish child payment this year. The Scottish child payment of £25 per child per week for eligible families alone is keeping 50,000 kids out of poverty.

Save the Children welcomes the Scottish Government’s efforts to drive down child poverty rates over the long term and to help families with children during the cost of living crisis. Equally, the

Financial Times recognises that Scotland has the potential to be a

“European pioneer in reducing child deprivation”.

Of course, the Scottish budget for next year will ensure that benefits increase in line with inflation, putting into action our Government’s commitment to build a social security system that has dignity, fairness and respect at its heart.

However, while the Scottish Government uses its limited powers to put money in people’s pockets, Westminster takes it away. It is undeniable that the current UK welfare system is flawed. It punishes the most vulnerable in our society, placing the burden of austerity on those who are least able to bear it.

The Scottish Government’s vision for social security in an independent Scotland is of a fairer, more dignified and more respectful approach. Independence would reset the social security system, and we could undo the damage of the union by removing the two-child cap, scrapping the rape clause and ending the current benefit sanctions regime, while ensuring that we support people who can work into sustainable employment, remove the benefit cap and bedroom tax and end the young parent penalty.

The Scottish Government is having to soften the blow of the cost of the union to households across Scotland, but it cannot possibly mitigate every bad decision that comes from Westminster with our limited powers. However, in the past five years, the Scottish Government has spent more than £711 million mitigating some of the worst excesses of cruel Westminster policies. With the full powers of independence, we would also be able to eliminate poverty through a minimum income guarantee, with the right to a decent income, which could be achieved through paid work, affordable services and, when needed, targeted social security support, and we could ensure that everyone could have a dignified quality of life.

The most important thing for Scotland, though, is to escape broken Brexit Britain. We need independence to reset the social security system and to build a country with the powers and economy to tackle inequality and eradicate poverty.

What is the alternative? Let us look at the cost of Westminster in social security terms. The Tories, with their two-child cap, the rape clause and cuts to universal credit, are making active political choices to push children into poverty. Of course, if we are to believe the Scottish Labour Party, a UK Labour Government will come in and magically make everything better. What is it offering? On the two-child cap, Sir Keir will keep it. On progressive income tax, Labour is against it. On investment in the future of our economy with the transition to net zero, Labour has broken its promise before it has even got into office.

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I am just about to conclude.

However, the House of Lords, £9,000 a year tuition fees and uncapped bankers’ bonuses are the kind of stuff that Labour will keep. To me, that sounds like more of the same old Westminster broken record. Regardless of who is in government down there—Labour, the Tories or the Tories propped up by the Lib Dems—it is clear that Westminster does not work for Scotland.

It is clear to me that independence offers the best future for people in Scotland. When we look across Europe, we see many small independent countries proving that a strong social security system, backed up by a fairer and stronger economy, means a socially just and more equal nation. If they can do it, why not Scotland?

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

This debate is about creating and having a much better social security system. Of course, the UK could have such a system if it wanted, and that is perhaps a particular challenge for the Labour Party, which does not even appear to want a better system at a UK level. It remains to be seen how much Scottish Labour wants it.

The debate is not just about social security in an independent Scotland; it is about the kind of social security system that we want, either in Scotland or in the UK. Mr O’Kane will now tell us how Labour can cut tax and get a better social security system.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

I ask Mr Mason to reflect on my speech, in which I spoke about the need for fundamental reform of universal credit. Surely he agrees that the 40 per cent of people on universal credit who are in work deserve a real living wage and an end to precarious in-work poverty. Surely he agrees that the Labour Party’s policies on that are worth supporting.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I certainly agree that we should have a higher legal minimum wage, but I am not convinced that we will get that from London. Mr O’Kane’s leader has said that he will cut tax in Scotland and, as I understand it, the Labour Party is not planning to raise tax in the UK either. With that approach, we cannot have a better system of redistribution. That was the word that Mr O’Kane used, but he did not tell us how that would be done.

We need to be realistic that, when Scotland achieves independence, some of the changes that we want to make will take time and cost money. We have seen that taking on responsibility for adult disability payments has required legislation, the transfer of many records and other work that takes time. There are also one-off costs of setting up new information technology systems and other such systems.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

How long will it take to introduce the legislation and set up those new systems, including those for pensions and social security? Will that happen in John Mason’s lifetime?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you the time back for the interventions, Mr Mason.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

As I am sure Mr Balfour knows, because his theological position is similar to mine, I do not know for how long I am going to live, but that is another question.

We are talking about generalities. We know that, when we have taken on responsibility for an individual benefit, it has often—but not always—taken longer for things to be set up in the Scottish system. Of course, the same will happen when we become independent. It will take time, and those issues will have to be worked through as part of the negotiations. However, all that will be worth while if we end up with something better at the end of the day.

I will give a parallel picture. When I left home at roughly the age of 21, there were costs, time and effort involved in setting up a new home. I did not know how long it would take me to get sorted out and settle down but, looking back, I have no regrets that I did that. I could then go on and make my life better in the way that I wanted to. The same will be true if Scotland becomes free.

We need to be realistic that, if we want a fairer social security system, it is likely to be more expensive, at least in the short term—we will probably need to pay more in tax in order to pay for that. We would hope that, over time, the costs of social security would reduce as the population became healthier on the whole and more suitable jobs became available for more people, including those with disabilities and those with caring responsibilities.

I do not accept that the whole social security system is a failure. There are some needy people in our society who will always need support. However, I am happy to accept that a social security system that treats people with more dignity, fairness and respect will cost more money. We have already seen that to an extent, with our adult disability payment costing more than its UK equivalent, the personal independence payment. Currently, we are looking at spending some £1 billion more than we are receiving from the UK through the block grant, with the total rising from something like £5.3 billion to £6.3 billion in the current budget.

Let us remember, however, that the UK is a low-tax country compared to our neighbours such as France or the Nordic countries. We pay only 38 per cent of gross domestic product in tax, whereas some of them pay 50 per cent. That is why UK public services, including pensions, are so often poorer than those of our neighbours. I gather that the UK is currently 16th out of 30 European countries when it comes to pensions.

When we get our independence at last, we will still face the choices that every other country faces. Do we want to pay a bit more tax for better social security and other public services, or do we want to be more like the UK, with low tax and poorer services? Whatever happens, we cannot have quality social security coupled with low taxes—that is just not possible. I understand that Labour is considering lowering income tax and other taxes. That is up to Labour, but it will mean cuts to public services.

The paper mentions a minimum income guarantee several times, and I personally feel strongly and positively about that proposal. For starters, it is more realistic and achievable than a universal basic income, which several members have been sympathetic to in the past. Even with independence, a UBI could be expensive and difficult to implement in practice, but there is something fundamentally right about the concept of having a minimum income guarantee so that every individual and family has enough to live on with no strings attached.

After all, prisoners in our jails, who are allegedly some of the worst people in our society, are guaranteed a certain minimum standard of living. They get clothing, reasonable food, a roof over their heads, heating and lighting. If all our prisoners can expect that, surely everyone in our society should expect it. That is basically what a minimum income guarantee is about—it is about having enough income for decent accommodation, heat and light, food and clothing.

Of course, where we are now is very different from that ideal. We could and should make changes to the present UK system even before we get as far as a much better system in a free and independent Scotland. Some of the obvious faults at present include the two-child limit. We have a lack of population in Scotland as a whole, and even more so in rural areas, yet we discourage larger families. It should be the other way round, with more encouragement and support for families to help them to have more children.

On page 38, the paper makes the point that we should do more to ensure that people apply for their entitlements. However, I wonder whether we can go further than that. For example, I understand that about one third of those who are entitled to pension credit do not apply. Universal credit is a problem, too. According to one study at the start of the pandemic, around half a million people in the UK were eligible for universal credit but did not claim it. Of those, 220,000 thought that they were eligible for universal credit, and 41 per cent of them did not think that it would be worth the hassle. I wonder whether we should do more proactively to pay people what they need and are entitled to without their having to go through lengthy application processes.

All in all, there is a lot of room for improvement in social security, whether we are in the UK or once Scotland becomes free. We could all hit hard times, and our income could take a hit. Some might even lose their job at the next election. Let us at least aim for social security that gives people security, and let us not be satisfied with a harsh Westminster system that blames people when they get into trouble.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

I welcome the fact that the Parliament is, yet again, discussing social security. John Mason was correct to point to the importance to the debate of our taxation policy, and Paul O’Kane was absolutely correct to say that our attitude towards growth and the drive for growth are central to the debate.

We most recently debated social security on 7 February, which was the week before we went into recess. I yet again question the framing of this debate and the focus on independence—it seems to be the focus of much of the Scottish Government’s work—particularly given the significant issues that we see in Social Security Scotland, which seem similar to those in the Department for Work and Pensions.

Scottish Labour supported the devolution of social security benefits and the mitigatory action that the Scottish Government has taken to address certain aspects of Westminster policy. We are strongly supportive of measures such as the Scottish child payment, which we believe to be effective. However, we are very concerned about the length of time that it has taken to transfer some of the benefits and about the waiting times for benefits such as the child disability payment, for which the median waiting time was 106 days in the most recent statistics, and the adult disability payment, for which the median processing time was 83 days. Yet again, it would be better if the Scottish Government and, indeed, SNP MSPs could devote their energy to taking action to reduce those waiting times and making it very clear that such waiting times are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

As has been said, the outcomes of applications are often similar to or, on occasion, worse than those under the Department for Work and Pensions. We supported the devolution of social security benefits to improve outcomes and the service for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Scottish Labour will not tolerate outcomes and waiting times that are similar to or, indeed, worse than those of the Department for Work and Pensions, which has been under considerable political pressure from the UK Tory Government to reduce payments and provide an unsympathetic environment for people who seek benefits.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Katy Clark talks about what the Scottish Labour Party will tolerate. Will it tolerate Keir Starmer’s position on the continuation of the two-child cap? Will it reflect on the fact that, even if it says that it will not do that, it will have no influence whatever on that position?

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

The minister and his colleagues have made that point on numerous occasions and on numerous occasions it has been made clear that the Scottish Labour Party is opposed to the two-child cap and that there will be a review of the entire universal credit system under the next Labour Government. I make it clear to the minister that the Scottish Labour Party and Labour representatives will fight for a system that supports the most vulnerable.

Despite five years of a devolved social security system that was meant to be fairer than its predecessor, the reality is that, in many circumstances, claimants are not receiving a better service. The costs of our social security system have increased, but in-work poverty and deprivation levels remain stubbornly high, and the Scottish Government does not seem to have a plan to deal with the spiralling social security costs.

There has been a 38 per cent increase in social protection spending in Scotland, and it is right that we evaluate how well that money is being spent. As I said, the Scottish child payment seems to be an effective new benefit. However, many of the other benefits simply mirror those that existed previously. It is not acceptable that more than 50,000 Scots are being asked to wait more than three months for disability benefits. That is what we should debate. The increase in working-age poverty in Scotland over the past decade has been the highest anywhere in the UK. That is what we should debate.

Members around the chamber have high expectations for the social security system in Scotland. We expect far better than what Westminster has delivered in recent years.

There is no doubt that Scotland needs change. That will be the focus of the next general election campaign. In this chamber, week after week, our focus needs to be on making sure that the powers that we have are used effectively and that we maximise the benefits, particularly for the most vulnerable and poorest in our society. That will be Scottish Labour’s focus.

Photo of Marie McNair Marie McNair Scottish National Party

I am pleased to speak in this debate about the type of social security system that we could have in an independent Scotland—a social security system with fairness, dignity and respect at its heart, that is humane and compassionate and that recognises that decent levels of support and assistance are essential to help our citizens to thrive.

Today’s debate is important and necessary because the two political parties that aspire to govern at Westminster have failed Scotland. While in office, they have presided over a welfare system that is big on stigma but devoid of compassion. We have seen that in how, for decades, they treated unpaid carers with contempt by not aligning carers allowance with other earnings-replacement benefits—an injustice that was put right by the SNP Government.

We have seen so many other examples: entitlements of 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds being erased; private sector assessments that have caused so much pain and suffering; the young person’s penalty, which means less entitlement for under-25s; an obsession with a sanctions regime that entrenches stigma and promotes poverty; the benefit cap that denies families with children basic levels of subsistence; the bedroom tax that erodes support for paying rent and risks homelessness; and industrial injuries benefits being left unreformed for decades, so that women who are injured in the workplace are denied compensation.

We also see the Westminster Government’s future plans for a controlled Westminster social security system, its refusal to commit to scrapping the two-child policy with its abhorrent rape clause, and its proposed changes to work capability assessments that target many people who are sick and disabled. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that hundreds of thousands of people could be impacted, potentially losing more than £4,000 per year.

There is no essentials guarantee that would see universal credit being set at a decent amount that would allow families to afford the basics. There is no vision that sees social security as an investment in helping our country to thrive.

Scotland needs real change, which will be secured only with independence. With the Tories or Labour, we will have continuation of a system that sets people up to fail and does not help them to thrive. It is no wonder that the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty condemned the Westminster Government’s shameful record on poverty, saying that the UK’s “grossly insufficient” welfare system is simply not acceptable and might be in violation of international law.

Photo of Marie McNair Marie McNair Scottish National Party

I will not, at the moment. In an independent Scotland, our social security system would be fundamentally different to that of the UK.

For too long, people in my constituency and across Scotland have been penalised by the Westminster Government, which does not value people who are living in poverty or who are on low incomes. The austerity policies of 2010, which were put in place by our Tory and Lib Dem colleagues, have led to severe suffering in the Scottish community, particularly among people who are on low incomes. They have been described by economists and economic historians as “disastrous” and “reckless”.

We will not forget how silent Labour in Opposition was when that was happening. Those reckless policies have resulted in the Scottish Government spending a large proportion of its budget on counteracting the damaging policies that affect the Scottish people.

Photo of Marie McNair Marie McNair Scottish National Party

I will not, at the moment. In 2022, the Scottish Government spent more than £1 billion on mitigating Tory cuts. Just think what we could do with that money in an independent Scotland. We could change universal credit, further improve carer and disability benefits, remove the rape clause and the two-child policy, scrap the bedroom tax and end other punitive welfare benefit policies. Those are noble and ambitious goals, but they are also morally the right thing to do.

We should also consider a minimum income guarantee to ensure that everyone in Scotland secures a minimum acceptable standard of living, thereby giving families enough money for housing, food and essentials, so that they can live a dignified, healthy and financially secure life.

With one hand tied behind our back, we are already making significant progress with the social security system by delivering 14 benefits, seven of which, including the Scottish child payment, are available only in Scotland and tackle poverty and reduce inequality. In the end, social security is a human right.

The Westminster Government continues to strip residents of their human rights, but an independent Scotland would have human rights at the core of its policy decisions. That is not something that Labour or the Tories see as a priority. We heard that loud and clear when they refused to scrap the benefit cap but would not cap bankers’ bonuses.

People deserve to be treated with dignity, so a Scottish social security system would be designed with the people of Scotland on the basis of evidence. Social security is an investment in the people of Scotland. With independence, we will deliver a social security system that will transform lives.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. There have been inevitable comments about the debate being irrelevant fantasy, given that we are not yet an independent country. However, it is important for us sometimes to lift our sights to outline the better world that we want to have the opportunity to create—a better world that we will not get from Westminster.

I will begin—as did Peter Kelly of the Poverty Alliance at a Fairer Aberdeen event recently—by quoting Raymond Williams, who said:

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”

My goodness, do we need hope. Our social security system in the United Kingdom is commonly depicted as a safety net—although many experts describe it as more of a perilous tightrope over the abyss of poverty—but it is one that now has huge and gaping holes.

For the first three decades of the modern welfare state, from 1949 to the eve of the Thatcher Government in 1979, the equivalent of today’s universal credit standard allowance was usually between 25 and 30 per cent of average earnings. Since then, it has plummeted, falling below 15 per cent in the early 2000s and dropping again over the past eight years until, as the Government paper highlights, it is now at its lowest level ever in relation to average earnings.

That erosion really matters. It means that families who are reliant on those payments—very many of whom are in work—are experiencing shocking hardship. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that 90 per cent of low-income households on universal credit are currently going without essentials. That is not just a few of those people having difficulty in managing their budgets; it is almost every one of them. As others have pointed out, that is destitution by design. That design incorporates not only the plunging levels of universal credit itself, but the many ways in which the toxic sanctions system works to reduce actual payments yet further. Punitive to an extraordinary degree, it offers pitifully little with one hand and then takes away even that pittance with the other.

So, our first task, as responsible and compassionate—or even if we were barely humane—legislators is to patch up the worst of the vast and gaping holes. Some of that work, as the paper outlines, is already happening. It is happening in the different approach that we are taking in Scotland, as set out in our Scottish social security principles, which include an understanding that social security is not a work of charity or grudging generosity, but a basic human right.

The work is happening in the new benefits, including the five family payments, most importantly the Scottish child payment, and in new ways of supporting disabled people and carers. It is also happening in mitigations of the bedroom tax and of the benefit cap and in work towards facilitating split payments that would respect and empower people and, ultimately, save lives.

However, there is much more that could be done only with further powers of independence. I am thinking of measures such as abolition of the brutal two-child limit and the prurient rape clause. I warmly welcome the 10 key actions that are set out in the paper, including scrapping of the vicious sanctions policy and the malicious young parent penalty, but, vital, urgent and essential as those actions are, they are not enough.

The report speaks of a desire to move from a liberal to a social democratic approach. That is movement in the right direction, but as a Green and an eco-socialist, I would go much further.

In my vision of social security, social security would not merely be a safety net. In the image that “safety net” suggests, what matters is what happens on the high trapeze above—it suggests that social security is what happens to those who fall. Instead, I see social security as a seed bed—as the essential nurturing foundation for all the ways in which human beings care, and create for and with, one another, and not just through paid work, but in every aspect of our lives.

I long for a Scotland where people are seen primarily not as employees or consumers, but as citizens and neighbours. Our social security system can help to make that Scotland a reality. I want our social security system to have parity of esteem with our health service. The two must go hand in hand.

I particularly welcome the Scottish Government’s exploration of a minimum income guarantee and look forward to the final report from the expert group later this year. Action on that would see a positive step change in the support that is provided to our citizens.

I am encouraged, too, to see that the paper raises the possibility of a universal basic income being developed by future Scottish Governments. A universal basic income—paid to all, with extra support for those who need it—opens opportunities for a fairer, safer and happier future. It trusts each of us to follow our best path—to work, care and create, to develop ideas, to develop enterprises and to develop and build communities. Along with other policies—including on fair work and pensions and on a radical just transition—a universal basic income could be the cornerstone of the wellbeing economy that we long to create.

In an independent Scotland, we could do things differently; indeed, that is why we want it at all. How we see social security and how we work towards its transformation shows the world the kind of Scotland that we want to be. That time cannot come soon enough.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

This afternoon’s debate on the Scottish Government’s paper “Building a New Scotland: Social security in an independent Scotland” should have been a constructive opportunity for all MSPs in the chamber, irrespective of our constitutional position on an independent Scotland, to explore the kind of social security system that we want and the principles that underpin that system.

For those of us in the SNP, who believe in independence, it is an opportunity to point to the Government’s achievements to date—within the constraints of devolution—in delivering a social security system that embeds dignity, fairness and respect. There is much more that we could do in an independent Scotland—but more on that later.

However, for Conservative Party and the Labour Party members who still believe that huge chunks of our social security system, and much besides across many other areas, should still be controlled by Westminster, the debate also presents a constructive opportunity to say what they would do differently within the confines of devolution, in which Westminster and the UK Government hold much sway, in relation to not just powers but the purse strings. Unfortunately, we have not heard any of that in the debate.

I want to highlight the very first section of the Scottish Government’s paper, because that is at the heart of the debate. It states:

“With independence, Scotland would have the opportunity to design a social security system as an integral part of a fairer more equal society. A new approach would be designed in line with the current social security principles—a human rights-based system, delivered with dignity, fairness and respect.”

I think that we should look at any social security system through the prism of those underlying principles. That gives us a guide to just how different social security could be in an independent Scotland.

Let us look at the current situation in the UK. We have a Conservative UK Government—as with the next one, which is likely to be Labour—that simply does not believe that families who are on benefits should get enough money to live on, and certainly not if they have more than two children. Let us be clear: when the Conservatives and Labour defend the two-child cap, as they do, that is what they are saying. They will not provide many families in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK with enough money to live on. That is what they are saying. When Labour says that it will make the rape clause fairer, what it is really doing is defending a UK social security system that does not believe in giving families enough money to live on.

Let us look at that policy choice by Westminster parties through the prism of the kind of social security system that could be delivered in an independent Scotland. It is a system that would be based on human rights and delivered with dignity, fairness and respect. It is a system that would never deliberately impoverish families in the way that the current UK system does. The Scottish Government paper on social security in an independent Scotland identifies various aspects of the current UK system that could never be considered in an independent Scotland because of our underlying principles, which are based on human rights.

The paper identifies 10 initial actions that the SNP would seek to take in an independent Scotland. Those include the removal of the two-child limit, which I mentioned, and the scrapping of its rape clause. They include the removal of the benefits cap, which primarily affects families with children, and the scrapping of the bedroom tax that reduces benefits for people who are considered to have too many bedrooms in their homes. That last measure has been mitigated by the SNP, but at a cash cost to Scotland’s budget.

We would also replace universal credit budgeting loans with grants to help individuals and families during their first weeks of claiming the new benefit, which would ease the five-week wait and mean that universal credit would be paid at the full rate, without the deductions and debt that people face now.

There would be an end to the current benefits sanctions regime to ensure that people are supported into sustainable employment and have better long-term outcomes. I will not list the other actions, because of time constraints.

The question for the UK parties is this: why do they continue to wed themselves to a Westminster social security system that has no underlying principles at its core? That system is not based on human rights and does not embed dignity, fairness and respect.

I will say a little about housing support, including housing benefit, the housing element of universal credit and the cost of temporary furnished accommodation in hotels. The money that is in the system already could be far better spent and could better support the lives of the most vulnerable people in society. That would be far more likely to happen in an independent Scotland that placed principles based on human rights at the heart of social security. The then Social Security Committee looked at that during the previous session of Parliament; we would return to that in an independent Scotland.

I will also speak about supporting people who are on universal credit to get into work. I welcome the fact that universal credit is a passport benefit to securing the Scottish child payment. That payment, combined with other SNP policies, means that 90,000 fewer children are living in poverty in Scotland, that child poverty is 9 per cent lower than it otherwise would have been and that 323,000 children now benefit, including 52,000 in Glasgow—the city that I am proud to represent. My constituents in Maryhill and Springburn see the very real benefit of that. The poverty level is now significantly lower than it is in England or Wales.

I have spoken before about how that groundbreaking and welcome payment can interact unhelpfully with universal credit. For example, families who move off universal credit lose the Scottish child payment, which has an impact on making work pay—or not pay, as the case may be. Tapering universal credit seems eminently sensible and would be another example of using the core principles that would lie at the heart of social security in an independent Scotland to do something meaningful.

I simply have no faith in Westminster to do any of that. What I have not heard today from any of those who represent UK-based parties is an underlying core guiding principle. I have just heard soundbites and hubris; I have not heard about any actions that would be different from those of the defunct and discredited UK Tory Government. That is why we need Scottish independence.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

I am pleased to take part in this debate, particularly because it is about the Scottish Government’s success in creating a social security system with dignity and respect at its heart. I know that we have heard that phrase before and that we have heard it a lot here today, but that is the founding principle of our system and it is worth repeating.

Of those who have had contact with Social Security Scotland, 90 per cent have said that their experience of staff was good or very good and 93 per cent felt that they were treated with kindness.

Of course, things are not perfect and there are wrinkles to iron out. No one is saying that the system is perfect, but I know from constituent feedback that people see it as a breath of fresh air compared to the shambles and frequent trauma of dealing with the UK Government’s DWP.

It is fair to say that my constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden is not the most deprived in Scotland, but there are disadvantaged areas, as there are in every constituency, and, as in every constituency, food banks are a necessary evil for people who are pushed into poverty, not least by the crushing, Tory-made cost of living crisis.

In a relatively small local authority area of East Dunbartonshire, 3,780 children are benefiting from the game-changing and unique Scottish child payment, which is not available anywhere else in the UK, 1,835 people receive adult disability payment and 1,235 children receive child disability payment. I could go on with statistics, but it is clear that those benefits are helping the most vulnerable in society, which is their human right.

Ninety thousand children are being lifted out of poverty with the child payment. Devolution has shown how Scotland can begin to deliver a fairer social security system, but sadly, as we know, the UK Government still holds most of our welfare powers. Just think what more we could do with the full powers of an independent country. Despite mitigating the worst of the UK Government cuts and the horrendous policies that we have heard about today, such as the two-child cap, the rape clause, the bedroom tax and more, to the tune of more than £711 million, we have managed to lift 90,000 children out of poverty this year. However, at a time when the Scottish Government uses its limited powers to put money in people’s pockets, Westminster takes it away.

Small independent European states prove that a strong social security system means a fairer, more equal nation. If they can do it, why not Scotland? There simply is no logical reason. An independent Scotland could undo the damage of the union by removing the two-child limit and scrapping the rape clause. We would remove the benefit cap and bedroom tax, and replace universal credit budgeting loans with grants, so that families would not have to wait five weeks for the first payments.

We would end the current benefit sanctions regime and support people into sustainable employment, and we would end the unfair young parent penalty. We could provide more support for those who are starting work, such as up-front childcare and travel costs, and we could improve support for unpaid carers. We would halt changes to the delivery of existing reserved health and disability benefits.

The list of progressive interventions makes it clear that Scotland could do better with independence, as it would not have to mitigate the disastrous UK Government policies. With the full powers of an independent state, the Scottish Government would have greater freedom to eliminate poverty in our communities. With independence, people in Scotland could be guaranteed the right to a decent income that is set at a level to ensure that everyone could have a dignified quality of life. That could be achieved through paid work, affordable services and, when needed, targeted social security support.

The minimum income guarantee, which was well articulated by my colleague John Mason, would lay the foundations for future progressive Governments in Scotland to consider developing a universal basic income. We are a small nation and we can be progressive to bring about change and create wellbeing for the people who live here.

As has been mentioned, unclaimed benefits such as pension credit are a problem that should and could be resolved. I agree that we should be more proactive to encourage people to claim what they are entitled to.

It is clear that the UK Government does not see the value of social security—and neither does Jeremy Balfour, it seems, from his speech. The Conservatives are blind to the misery that their policies and cuts have created throughout Scotland.

Many folk who are struggling to get by see an independent Scotland as a light at the end of the tunnel. That is why we choose to follow that light, and we will not be held back by the Tories or Labour, who would keep us tied to Westminster. We deserve better. The people of Scotland know that having a decent standard of living, a warm home and the ability to put food on the table is their human right. With independence, we can give them that basic human right.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

We move to closing speeches. I call Neil Bibby to close on behalf of Scottish Labour.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

It has been challenging at times, but I have been listening closely to the debate this afternoon and, frankly, I have found it somewhat repetitive. I have a strong feeling of déjà vu. That is little wonder—here we are yet again. I apologise to all members if I sound like a broken record, but I feel like a broken record and, with the greatest of respect to Mr Hepburn, I have a strong sense that, when he gets to his feet, he may sound and feel like a broken record, too. He might even say that we are two sides of a broken record. I will leave it to others to decide who is the A side and who is the B side.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

I would like to make some progress, if that is okay.

Here we are, debating the latest of the SNP’s white papers. The last was published on 2 February—literally on groundhog day. How appropriate that was. Almost £2 million of public money has been spent on the production of those white-elephant papers. They are a waste of money, and these debates are a waste of time.

The Government fights on this territory not only in a bid to keep at bay the discontent from its flagging base but because it is increasingly clear that it has nothing left to offer contemporary Scotland. It has nothing to offer the families in work poverty and fuel poverty, who are forced to make the devastating choices between heating and eating in an on-going cost of living crisis. It has nothing to offer adults with learning disabilities in Renfrewshire who are in receipt of social security benefits but who face the closure or merger of their day centre facilities due to the Government’s cuts to our local councils. It has nothing to offer adults with disabilities who wait, on average, for 104 days—more than three months—to get their adult disability payments. Those are just three of the many topics that we could and should be discussing.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

Paul O’Kane and Katy Clark spoke for Labour this afternoon. All three of us represent the West Scotland region, and I want to talk about jobs—a word that I did not hear from the cabinet secretary earlier. In Inverclyde, where many people already have to resort to social security because of job losses at Amazon, Berry bpi and Wilko, almost 450 jobs look set to leave the area as a consequence of BT Group’s wrong-headed decision to relocate to Glasgow. Many workers will simply not be able to move with it and will face unemployment.

People from an area with above-average levels of unemployment want and deserve leadership from their Government. As the council leader, Stephen McCabe, has said, we need ministers to persuade the company to reconsider its decision—not this dereliction of duty. However, here we are again, lacking answers on real matters of substance—even on that issue.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

I will take an

intervention. [

Interruption

.]

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government paper, which I assume Neil Bibby has read, has 10 key actions—including on the benefits cap, the rape clause and the two-child limit—that the SNP would take speedily in an independent Scotland. I know that Neil Bibby does not want an independent Scotland, but would the Labour Party take those actions speedily if it came to power at Westminster? If not, it will be judged on that.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

As Paul O’Kane said, the previous Labour Government lifted out of poverty 1 million children and 1 million pensioners. We want to ensure that we have an economic growth plan and a social security system—and that we make work pay—to help people out of poverty and into positive employment. We heard a lot of proposals from the SNP and Mr Doris, but we did not hear whether there was a plan to pay for any of it.

As others have pointed out in the past, the papers set out plans on a range of subjects, from the finer points of marine regulation, to the colour of independent Scottish passports, to the latest intriguing one, on how Scotland could compete in the Eurovision song contest. The latest paper, which we are debating, is about social security in an independent Scotland. As Paul O’Kane challenged, surely the Minister for Independence or the cabinet secretary can tell us in what currency those Scottish social security payments will be paid. As Willie Rennie said, I am sorry if, like the whole country, we missed it, but that is not clear to many of us.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I am happy to confirm, very simply, that, in the immediate period after independence, as is laid out in the third paper, people will be paid in pounds sterling. We have laid that out—that should be understood. It is a very simple and straightforward proposition. I am happy to get that on the record and will be happy to hear Neil Bibby engage with some of the subject matter instead of sounding like a broken record.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

It takes one to know one.

Jamie Hepburn has omitted to mention what we discussed, in the last debate on European Union membership, about the Government’s plans to join the European Union and having to join the euro. The Government has failed to give us details of a credible plan for the currency, because it does not have one.

The Government’s motion states that

“only independence provides the full range of powers that would enable Scotland to provide the social security that the people of Scotland deserve.”

However, that is a red herring. What people need is a Government that will make work pay and will lift people out of poverty.

As Paul O’Kane and Katy Clark said, Scottish Labour welcomes the various measures on the Scottish child payment. The previous Labour Government introduced positive measures to lift more people out of poverty, and we will do so again. However, if we carry on—

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Bibby for finally taking an intervention from a female MSP. I asked his colleague Paul O’Kane what a future Labour Government would do for the WASPI women, given how vocal the campaign’s supporters have been, including his colleague Katy Clark, who is sitting behind him. Perhaps he can tell us how a future Labour Government would compensate those women for the travesty of taking their pensions off them and not informing many of them about that.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

I agree that the WASPI women have faced a great injustice, and I hope that we will consider how best to support them in the future. Both the Scottish and UK Governments currently have to deal with a challenging financial situation. However, I hope that, as part of our review of universal credit and other matters, we will properly support our pensioners, and particularly our women pensioners.

It is clear that, if we continue on the same path as the Tories and the SNP, the social security budget will have to increase. As Willie Rennie mentioned, because of appalling economic mismanagement by both Governments, Scotland’s economy is not growing or performing as it should. We will need to have economic growth if we are to share our prosperity and support people properly. Without such growth, we will not be able to do that.

Therefore, the answer is not independence or being plunged into years of economic insecurity as we compound the errors made during Brexit by tearing ourselves out of our union, which is exponentially more vital to the Scottish economy than the EU. That would make Brexit look like a cakewalk.

Jeremy Balfour and Paul O’Kane challenged the Scottish Government to tell us how it would balance the books and to say what it would cut to fund all the generous gestures that it has promised on a range of issues. Again, there have been no clear answers. From the cabinet secretary’s earlier response, it appeared that we could just do those things because we are able to balance the books at the moment. From that, are we to infer that the Scottish Government will increase taxes to fund all its promises, when people on £28,500 per year are already paying more tax than they would elsewhere in the UK?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member is concluding.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

The Scottish Government’s latest paper is about social security. People want security. They value economic and political security, security for themselves and their families, and security for their pensions. The last thing that would serve such a feeling of security, after so many tumultuous years, would be to rip Scotland away from our only land neighbour and by far our biggest economic partner. The people of Scotland deserve a Government that is focused not on its own pet projects and constitutional obsessions but on its people’s needs and priorities.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I feel that the nature of the debate, and the substance of the subject that we are debating, merits that I practise some energy conservation. I will therefore make a short set of remarks.

I have often wondered what it is like to be in attendance at an SNP conference. Now I know what it is like: it is dead boring and sleep inducing. It is like a competition to see how often we can repeat the words “independent Scotland”, which is not very inspiring.

I was grateful to Neil Bibby for reminding me that the cost of the proposals in the minister’s papers would be more than £2 million. What an extraordinary waste of taxpayers’ money. If the SNP wants to indulge its fantasies by producing white papers, it should do so at the expense of the SNP and not of the Scottish taxpayer.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

It is about time that the SNP was stopped in its tracks from using government as a means of furthering its cause which, frankly, is very much in the area of reserved powers.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

The minister can stand and holler and gibe all he likes. That is pretty childish behaviour—[

Interruption

.]

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

It is pretty childish behaviour from someone who purports to be a minister—even if he is one of 30, none of whom seems to have any meaningful responsibilities to attend to this afternoon.

Considering the members who are here, my goodness me—this entire debate represents, to borrow a phrase from Neil Bibby, a gross dereliction of duty by the governing party of Scotland. Instead of debating Scotland’s welfare system as it is today or how to genuinely abolish poverty, which I am in favour of, we are instead relegated to listening to a bunch of half-baked bletherings by people who seem to spend most of their time fantasising about independence.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

It is a sad spectacle, especially watching Kevin Stewart

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Will the member give way, given that he has mentioned me?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

It is a sad spectacle, because SNP members all know in their heart of hearts that it is not happening and will never happen.

The people of Scotland have given their judgment. Ten years ago this year we had a full-on debate, and the people voted decisively to remain part of the United Kingdom. We respect the result of that referendum, as we do those of all the referendums that have been held in this country.

The truth of the matter, in my view, is that the way out of poverty is through productive employment. That is not only my view: any time the Scottish Government produces any documentation about poverty, there is at least one line or paragraph in that document that relates to the fundamental truth that the way we will get rid of poverty in this country is through good work.

However, the SNP and the Scottish Greens represent a threat to the prosperity that we need in Scotland and to Scotland’s businesses. That is not me saying that; it is what Scotland’s businesses are saying very loudly and clearly. Here is a fundamental economic fact of life: we cannot tax and spend our way to economic growth and the creation of new jobs; that just does not work. The SNP refuses to acknowledge the lessons of basic economics when it comes to economic growth.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I will give way to John Mason. I quite like John Mason, and I am going to give way to him.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I thank the member for giving way, but he talks about economic lessons—would he be talking about the UK Government that has low tax and has led us into recession? There is no growth. Where is the lesson in that?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am afraid that the whole lesson is exactly the lesson that I am giving John Mason. It is an economic fact of life that we cannot tax our way to economic growth, and we cannot borrow and spend our way to economic growth. There are some hard facts of economic life that all Governments eventually have to face up to, regardless of their party colour. By helping people to get the skills, healthcare and transport that they need, allowing them to access employment, we help them to get out of poverty.

I was therefore very pleased to hear Willie Rennie say what he did. I concur with his fundamental observation that boasting about the size of a welfare budget is not much of a boast. Where the boasting comes in is when that budget comes down, because more and more people do not need to use the safety net that we all believe in on every side of the Parliament. It has always been my view that there should be a robust and sensible safety net that helps and supports people who need that support to get into work. Indeed, it should support that small number of people for whom we have a special responsibility: those who will never be able to access employment.

The proposed budget for next year’s social security bill is £6.3 billion, which is £3.8 billion more than for 2017-18. I repeat the point that the welfare budget does not tackle poverty; it actually leaves people sitting in a trap, which they can get out of only by accessing healthcare and skills training to get into productive, good jobs that are created by Scotland’s businesses.

Is it not ironic that skills, training, further education and higher education—the very things that become the golden ticket to getting out of the poverty trap—are the very things that the SNP chooses, as a political priority, to cut? Where is the genuine and sincere interest of SNP members? We have sat all afternoon listening to Jamie Hepburn accusing us all of not caring—“not caring” is all that I have heard him say. Well, we care. We care enough to deliver sustainable and workable solutions to the issues connected with poverty that leave people in need of social security.

I conclude by saying very firmly that this whole debate has been bogus—it has been bogus on the basis that it has been about as relatable to the subject as fantasy football is to football. This has been a fantasy political debate about something that does not exist and will never exist. The ministers on the front bench know that they are wasting the public’s time, the Parliament’s time and taxpayers’ money by indulging these fantasies at their expense.

All that those ministers care about is independence. They may feign a passing interest in the alleviation of poverty, but the speeches that we have heard in the debate show that independence is undeniably more important to them than anything else—it trumps any other concern. It is not about delivering real opportunities for the people of Scotland, because that is the furthest thing from their concern and the furthest thing from any priority that they have. The only thing that unites them is the desire to break up the United Kingdom and impoverish Scotland outside the United Kingdom.

We will focus instead on delivering real opportunities for the people of Scotland. Let us not waste any more of our precious time on this pointless debate.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Before I call the minister to wind up on behalf of the Scottish Government, I remind all members that all comments made in the chamber, including comments made from a sedentary position, which are not to be encouraged in the first place, must conform with the requirement to treat each other with courtesy and respect. With that, I call the minister.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I thank most members who contributed to the debate for their participation. I genuinely believe that this is an important debate and an important subject matter, which I will return to in a few moments, but I first want to mention someone who is not here, because, ordinarily, he would have contributed to the debate. Although I did not always agree with Donald Cameron, he would certainly have made a better contribution than the one we just heard from Stephen Kerr.

In one of my last exchanges with Mr Cameron, I pointed out that the Scottish Government has no plans for an unelected chamber in an independent Scotland. He has seen the writing on the wall and has had to seek to be a member of an unelected chamber elsewhere. I wish him well for his retirement at the Scotland Office.

I will start with Mr Kerr, lest I run out of time. In some ways, his contribution should not merit a response, but there are a few things that I have to respond to. I would have intervened on the self-proclaimed great debater if he had felt inclined to take my intervention but, of course, he did not. I wanted to point out that the papers that we have published thus far have not cost £2 million to publish but £150,000, which is some 0.00025 per cent of the Scottish Government budget.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

The independence white papers are produced by the constitution unit, whose salary bill is nearly £2 million. Therefore, the Scottish Government has spent nearly £2 million on the production of these white papers—money that could be much better spent on other matters.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

T he constitution unit does much more than just publish these papers, but if the member wants it on the record, that amount represents 0.0035 per cent of—

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I feel that this is very important, because I may not be able to intervene on the minister when he gets into full flow. It is important for the clarity of the record, and I hope that you will guide me on whether this is possible. I have never proclaimed myself to be anything other than a member of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and a member of the Scottish Parliament. I am afraid that I feel that I need to correct the record—I do not proclaim myself to be anything other than those two things.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

I know, Mr Kerr, that you will be well aware that that was not, in fact, a point of order. We continue with the debate, minister.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Let me say that it is heavily implied by the member’s usual demeanour.

The member says that we are not concerned about getting rid of poverty. A good way to start getting rid of poverty in this country would be to get rid of his rotten party from Government and, through independence, ensure that an unelected Tory Government could never again be imposed on Scotland.

I turn to the Tory amendment. Jeremy Balfour said that this is not a serious subject. I say to him that he did not make a serious contribution on what is a serious subject. How we support the most vulnerable in our society is surely a serious subject. Bob Doris was quite correct to say that some people have not risen to the occasion today.

The Tory amendment says that we should

“focus on the ... priorities of the people of Scotland”.

Let us talk about what we are doing in relation to the priorities of the people of Scotland that relate to social security, which is the subject matter today.

We have introduced 14 Scottish Government benefits, seven of which are available only in Scotland. In November, we introduced the carer support payment, which was our 14th benefit. We have created a free and independent advocacy service that actively supports disabled people to access and apply for social security benefits on the basis of seeking to maximise their income rather than minimise it—we know that the DWP operates to that approach. We are committing a record £6.3 billion for benefits expenditure in 2024-25, to support more than 1.2 million people.

It is little wonder that Professor Stephen Sinclair of Glasgow Caledonian University, in talking about the principles that are embedded in our Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, said:

“It is founded on an idea of a commitment to human rights. When you think about it, it is extraordinary that the whole British social security system is not founded on that”.

Marie McNair was quite right to talk about social security as a human right.

If we want any further proof that the approach that we are taking is satisfactory, 89 per cent of respondents to the annual client survey for Social Security Scotland rated their overall experience as very good or good. Collette Stevenson and Rona Mackay were right to point out the positive feedback that we have seen.

There has been some talk of processing times. Of course, we want to see processing times improve. However, in the last quarter, we processed the highest number of child disability payment applications since that benefit was launched. There was an 80 per cent increase on the same period in the previous year. The latest published figures show that average processing times for the adult disability payment reduced by seven working days. That is us responding to the priorities of the people of Scotland here and now in relation to social security.

This debate has been determined by the people of Scotland themselves to be a priority. Let us look at the last election result. We stood on the explicit basis of taking forward that work, and we won that election. That lot over there lost the election, and that lot over there lost the election. We not only have the right to take forward this work; we have a responsibility to do so.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. As you said to us earlier, respect should be shown to people across the chamber. I do not believe that pointing your finger and saying “that lot over there” shows the respect that the Scottish Parliament should be showing. Do you agree, Presiding Officer?

The Presiding Officer:

I thank Mr Mountain for his point of order.

I am sure that all members agree that it is extremely important that we treat one another with courtesy and respect at all times. We can debate robustly, but we can continue to do so in a respectful manner.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I am always happy to debate robustly and respectfully, Presiding Officer.

An issue has been raised by a number of members, including Mr Kerr, who said that all we care about is independence. This is where others do not get it. Independence is not some form of abstraction; it is the means by which we can achieve a better society for people in Scotland. Fundamentally, independence is about power and responsibility—where power and responsibility lie, who has them, and what they are doing with them. We know the answer to those questions. In regard to social security, power and responsibility lie at Westminster. The Tories have the power. They are not elected by the people of Scotland, but they are implementing their policies on us nonetheless. We know that what they are doing with that power is pushing the most vulnerable further into poverty. We could do much more and much better with power and responsibility being vested in the Scottish Parliament.

I turn to the Labour Party’s amendment, in the name of Mr O’Kane. It talks about the plan as representing a “theoretical future”. I suppose that it is, in so much as it is not the here and now. It is not where we are now, so one could argue that it is a theoretical future. However, Maggie Chapman, in a useful turn of phrase, said that we should “lift our sights”—and, indeed, we should.

Let us look at where Labour stands on social security. On 6 February 2020, Keir Starmer, when he was running for leader of the Labour Party, said that it was

“time to ... create a social security system fit for the 21st century with compassion and justice as its founding principles.”

He went on to say:

“We must scrap the ... two-child limit and benefits cap.”

What does he say now? On 16 July 2023, he said that Labour was “not changing” the Tory policy on the two-child limit, and in August last year, he said that Labour was going to implement the rape clause “more fairly”. That is a shocking position for the Labour Party to be taking into the election.

Mr O’Kane told us of his personal position on the two-child cap, as did Ms Clark. I say to them, and to the Scottish Labour Party, with as much respect as I can muster, that their individual positions on the matter are devoid of meaning, because they will not be determining that policy should their party form the next UK Government. It will be Keir Starmer rules OK, and we know exactly what he intends to do and not do with powers over social security.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

In the debate, when I explained in quite clear terms how a million children were lifted out of poverty by the previous Labour Government, the minister dismissed that as though it was not actually that important. He called it history, and he did not seem to care about the difference that Labour Governments make.

A Labour Government will deliver a fundamental reform of universal credit in order to ensure that children are lifted out of poverty, because that is what Labour Governments do when they are in power.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I do not dismiss history, but I will tell you what: in the here and now, and in the future, that history will not do children much good. Actions such as those that this Government is taking, which have lifted 90,000 children out of poverty, will make the difference. Maintaining the two-child limit and the rape clause will not do children in the future any good.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

There is no chance that I will give way to the man who would not give way to me, with respect to Mr Kerr.

Our paper on social security in an independent Scotland sets out an ambitious vision for the future, in which the people of Scotland have access to a fair and adequate social security system. That is a principle that should surely underpin every social security system, yet it certainly does not look like that in Britain today. Social security should protect us all through life’s ups and downs: when we are starting a family, looking for work or beginning our retirement. It should support us when we are caring for family members or friends, if we are unable to work or if we have extra costs because we are ill or disabled. It should reduce the harm that is caused by poverty and provide an income that allows people to live well and thrive, not just survive.

As I have mentioned, there has been much talk of what we have laid out as being theoretical, hypothetical or fanciful. However, let us look at reality today. What do we see when we look at the current UK Government’s approach to social security? We can see—every one of us; it is plain to see—that the current UK social security system is broken. It does not provide enough for people to buy healthy food or warm clothes or to heat their houses. There is no link between the rates of payment and need.

We see from the latest child poverty statistics that child poverty in Scotland is too high, at 24 per cent, but it is 31 per cent in England and 28 per cent in Wales. That is what the UK social security system is delivering—

The Presiding Officer:

Mr Kerr.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Our social security proposals for independence would prioritise making immediate changes to the current system and would also, in the longer term, take a much more human rights-based approach that would sustain and fulfil people in a way that the UK social security system does not.

We have set out the immediate changes that we have made, and the possibility of creating a minimum income guarantee: a guarantee of financial security, with the right to a decent income, regardless of life circumstances. That is what we should be aiming for, and that is the prize that can be won with independence.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate on “Building a New Scotland: Social security in an independent Scotland”.