Benefits Uptake

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:21 pm on 20 June 2024.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party 4:21, 20 June 2024

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-12301, in the name of Evelyn Tweed, on increasing benefits uptake in the current economic climate. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament believes that it is important that people are accessing all the benefits that they are entitled to, especially in the current economic climate; notes reports from 2023 that £19 billion of benefits went unclaimed across the UK; understands that some benefits are especially undersubscribed; further understands that 25% of those eligible for the Young Carer Grant do not currently claim it, as well as 39% of those eligible for Funeral Support Payment; notes the encouragement for the people of Scotland, including those in the Stirling constituency, to ensure that they are receiving all the support that they are eligible for; highlights what it sees as the useful services available, such as Citizens Advice Scotland, Age UK, and various online calculators to help individuals identify benefits that they may be missing out on; understands that Advice Direct Scotland’s benefits calculator allows people to check their entitlement to both devolved and reserved benefits, and that it has been used by 56,000 people to identify over £43 million of unclaimed money; believes that a level of stigma is still associated with accessing some benefits; notes the belief that, although great work is underway, more work is required in this area, and recognises the stakeholders that are working to widen access to and reduce the stigma associated with benefits.

Photo of Evelyn Tweed Evelyn Tweed Scottish National Party 4:25, 20 June 2024

I am pleased to lead the members’ business debate today. As we all know, the current economic climate is extremely challenging, with years of austerity in Westminster, the cost of living crisis and Brexit. Prices are rising, wages are not going as far as they used to and many people are forced to choose between heating and eating.

In 2023-24, food banks in the Trussell Trust network in Scotland provided 86,000 emergency food parcels for children, which represents a 20 per cent increase since 2018-19. Six in 10—or 60 per cent—of all food parcels that were provided in 2023-24 were for families with children. No one should have to make those choices.

The United Kingdom welfare state was designed as a safety net, and many people are in need of it now but, last year, £19 billion of benefits went unclaimed across the UK, and I am sorry to say that that sum has now increased to £22.7 billion. That enormous sum could make a real difference to the lives of many people.

We can be in no doubt that the benefits that this Government administers in Scotland can be transformational, including the Scottish child payment, which is set to keep 60,000 children out of relative poverty in 2024-25. However, we must ensure that people are claiming what they are eligible for.

The latest statistics on benefits take-up in Scotland from November 2023 show that barriers persist for some benefits. For example, 25 per cent of those who are eligible for the young carer grant do not currently claim it, while 39 per cent of those who are eligible for the funeral support payment do not claim it either. The job start payment, which is a one-off payment of more than £300 for young people who are starting work, has a take-up rate of only 15 per cent. Many eligible people are not applying, and I welcome the steps that the Government has taken to increase take-up, including extending the application window.

Through the winter, I hosted two cost of living round tables in my constituency with local organisations, including Social Security Scotland, Startup Stirling, Citizens Advice Scotland and local housing associations. The aim was to hear about the challenges that face them and their service users, and stigma was mentioned time and again. The Poverty Alliance recommends that the Government develops training on stigma, poverty and inequality. There are also huge misconceptions about the scale of benefit fraud, which leads to stigma from the general public. Any awareness measures need to tackle that, too.

We in the Parliament also have a role to play. The Poverty Alliance points out that stigma is, in part,

“fuelled by language and messages of politicians and the media”.

What we say and how we say it really matters.

The Department for Work and Pensions system is punitive, and research has found that sanctions push people into poverty. Social Security Scotland is designed to put dignity, fairness and respect at the heart of what it does. The Poverty Alliance citizens panel agreed that dealing with Social Security Scotland was much less stigmatising than dealing with the DWP.

Although Social Security Scotland has been working hard to build relationships, I heard that some local organisations were still not sure about its role. Further to my round table, Social Security Scotland has made good connections locally. For example, staff now visit minister Barry Hughes’s church in Raploch at the same time as the food bank, the citizens advice bureau and many other services. That approach works extremely well.

The impact of bringing services to places and events where attendance is high and people are comfortable is huge. The Poverty Alliance found that having positive support from a trusted professional to encourage and help with applications was a tipping point towards applying for benefits.

We also need to consider the rise of in-work poverty. Around 60 per cent of children living in poverty in Scotland live in a household in which at least one adult works. I encourage all my colleagues to engage with local organisations and get them in a room together. Members will learn so much, and those connections can lead to amazing partnerships.

I seek assurances from the minister that the Government will seek to alleviate the barriers to take-up. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that £78 billion of public spending in the UK is linked to dealing with poverty and its consequences. Poverty wastes potential and deprives us of the talents and skills of many people.

We are living in tough times, and we need to ensure that everyone is aware of the help that is out there for them and feels able to accept it.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 4:32, 20 June 2024

I congratulate Evelyn Tweed on securing the debate. I will restrict my comments to the percentage of eligible pensioners who do not claim pension credit. This is not the first, nor probably the last, speech that I will make on the topic.

Earlier this year, pensioners received notification from the DWP of the pension that they would be paid from April, together with—to be fair—a leaflet advising of pension credit. However, members might not be aware that 40 per cent of pensioners who are entitled to pension credit do not claim it. That figure has remained unchanged for decades.

What is pension credit? It is a UK benefit and you can check online whether you qualify, or you can contact your local citizens advice bureau or my office or use Age UK’s website, which has a handy calculator to check whether you are eligible. It is discreet, and there should never be reluctance to claim that right.

Broadly speaking, when you apply for pension credit, your income is calculated. If you have a partner, both incomes are calculated together. If you qualify, your weekly income is topped up to £218.15 if you are single; if you have a partner, your joint weekly income is topped up to £332.95. Even if your income is higher, you might still be eligible for pension credit if you have a disability, care for someone, have savings or have housing costs.

Apart from that direct income boost, if you get pension credit, you can also get other help known as passported benefits, such as housing benefit if you rent the property that you live in, a cost of living payment, support for mortgage interest if you own the property that you live in, a free TV licence if you are aged 75 or over, and help to pay for national health service dental treatment, glasses and transport costs for hospital appointments. If you get a certain type of pension credit, you can get help with your heating costs through the warm home discount scheme, and you can even get a discount on using the Royal Mail redirection service if you are moving house. A whole range of passported benefits follow if you claim your pension credit, so it is worth seeing whether you are entitled to it. I stress that it is an entitlement, not a handout.

Here are some statistics that are relevant to Midlothian and the Borders. The estimated unclaimed pension credit per annum in Midlothian is £2.5 million, and in the Borders it is £3.66 million. The expected uptake in Midlothian, after campaigns, is only 31 per cent, while in the Borders it is 44 per cent. The lost passported benefits in Midlothian are worth £20,000-plus and those in the Borders are worth £30,000. The number of households that are losing out is estimated to be 92 in Midlothian and 133 in the Borders. Those are entitlements that could affect those 92 and 133 households, where individuals are scraping by when they need not, and should not, be doing so.

I have raised the issue of raising awareness with the UK Government, and I have asked Scottish Borders Council to publicise pension credit in the transport exchange in Galashiels. I will extend my campaign to increase awareness through my entire constituency. In these tough times of austerity and inflation, every claim counts. Please chase it up if you think that you might be entitled to pension credit, even if you are not sure. As I have said, my office would be pleased to help, and all contacts with us are confidential. To those 92 and 133 or so households in Midlothian and the Borders, I say: please claim. It can make all the difference, so that you do not have to choose between heating or eating.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative 4:37, 20 June 2024

I, too, thank Evelyn Tweed for securing this important debate. I am always pleased to have the opportunity to talk about social security in Scotland.

The truth that the motion uncovers is that lifting people out of poverty is not just about pledging money; it is equally important that the support gets to those who need it most. We can promise all the money in the world but, if people in need are not accessing it, what is the point?

Here in Scotland, we need to do more. As Evelyn Tweed pointed out, one in four eligible people are not claiming the young carers grant and 39 per cent of eligible people are not claiming funeral support payments. Both of those benefits are administered by Social Security Scotland. Those numbers represent real people who are not getting what they are entitled to.

It is clear that more needs to be done and, to my mind, it is clear that the most effective way to improve uptake is to remove the biggest barrier, which is the poor distribution of benefits. After eight years of devolved social security, we are still seeing processing times that are sky high. We are seeing websites crash, long forms that people find difficult to fill in and applicants being unable to go through Social Security Scotland for help. The poor experience of people when they interact with the agency puts them off doing so again in the future. That leads to many people claiming some but not all of the benefits that they are entitled to. If we can ensure a more positive user experience, we can increase the likelihood of higher uptake.

As members will know, the Social Security (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill is passing through Parliament now. It offers all of us, across parties, a real opportunity to use amendments to improve how Social Security Scotland works, to ensure that more people get what they deserve and that we hold the agency accountable for its performance day in, day out. I would be keen to work with the minister, the cabinet secretary and others as we lodge stage 2 amendments.

I will briefly bring up one other topic that a number of stakeholders have brought to my attention over the past few months. In Scotland, people need to interact with three different bureaucracies to access the full range of benefits that make up social security. Claimants have to interact with the DWP, Social Security Scotland and, sometimes, their local authority to access the support that they need. It has been put to me that the interaction between those three agencies is not necessarily seamless and that it sometimes puts people off if they have to apply three times to three different agencies to get three different types of benefits.

In a country of our size, we need to do more to bring together those three bureaucracies so that information can be shared better between the three of them and so that people who find it difficult to interact do not have to do it three times. I would appreciate the minister’s giving an opinion on that matter and on how to encourage the smoothness of those vital interactions. I am sure that he and all of us will agree that the better those agencies interact, the easier it is for claimants to access all the support to which they are entitled.

If we want to encourage people to access their full allowance, we must ensure that the process by which they do it is as easy as possible. Our first step in doing so is to ensure that we are providing a usable and easy-to-access service. We have made progress, but we still have a long way to go.

Photo of Marie McNair Marie McNair Scottish National Party 4:42, 20 June 2024

I thank my colleague Evelyn Tweed for securing this important debate. It is our duty as elected representatives to ensure that we maximise take-up of social security benefits to those who are eligible. Rightly, we have a system that helps our citizens thrive and provides support when they are in need. Despite the availability of various benefits and extra benefits that are specific only to Scotland, Policy in Practice estimates that the total amount of unclaimed income-related benefits and social tariffs across Britain is now £22.7 billion a year.

Understanding why people are not taking up benefits is really important if we are to increase take-up. Many people simply do not know that they are eligible, while others might be deterred because they feel that the application process is too complex and stigmatising.

It is welcome that we have useful services available to help people to navigate their way through the benefits process, such as citizens advice bureaux, VoiceAbility Scotland and, locally in my constituency, Improving Lives and Working4U. Those are all essential services that can help to assess eligibility for benefits and help people to apply. I highlight the work that the Clydebank Asbestos Group is doing with Unite the union’s retired members to maximise take-up of attendance allowance; it is determined to make a difference.

Unfortunately, stigma around claiming benefits continues to discourage people from getting the help that they need. It is up to us to combat the stigma and to change the narrative around benefits. Benefits are a safety net and they are normal; we are all only one life event away from needing to claim them ourselves.

A recent report from the Poverty Alliance Scotland for the collaborative project with the Scottish Government to assess the impacts of poverty-related stigma on benefit take-up found that

“Most Panellists agreed that stigma had gotten worse with austerity, the UK Government’s ‘welfare reform’, and the cost-of-living crisis ... Several spoke of putting off claiming as long as they possibly could, to the point of hunger and destitution,”

which is astonishing and really concerning. In contrast, dealing with Social Security Scotland was viewed as a “less stigmatising experience” than dealing with the DWP. The difference was noted as “night and day,” with one person commenting:

“I’ve only really felt in the past year or two that I’ve been able to draw breath, basically due to the change in attitude of Scottish government rather than Westminster government. Before that, every assessment was basically panic and dread.”

The approaches taken to promote the Scottish child payment were also felt to have been particularly effective. Panellists had seen advertising campaigns on social media and welcomed the more humane language, and 45 per cent of panellists were aware of the Social Security Scotland charter, having received copies of that in the post along with letters. Those really positive comments highlight how Social Security Scotland is tackling stigma to ensure that people feel encouraged to apply for benefits.

More work is, of course, required and I note the recommendations in the Poverty Alliance report, but it is welcome that the Scottish Government, through its benefit take-up strategy, is implementing a range of initiatives, including offering access to independent advocacy support and targeting the marketing of payments.

Social security is an investment in the Scottish people. We must raise awareness and fight stigma to ensure that everyone who is eligible receives the financial support that they so rightly deserve. One big issue facing Scottish families is the UK benefit system’s denial of basic subsistence levels. We act to maximise take-up, but the UK Government actively has a policy to deny full entitlement. The two-child limit policy and its abhorrent rape clause, which is favoured by the Labour and Tory parties, affects at least 87,000 children in Scotland. That is an appalling and deliberate denial of take-up that will end only when Scotland is independent and has full power over social security.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour 4:46, 20 June 2024

I begin by thanking Evelyn Tweed for raising this issue in the chamber. We have discussed social security on many occasions, but I thank her for making very important points about stigma and about people’s rights and their entitlement to social security.

I listened carefully to the previous speakers and was particularly pleased to hear Christine Grahame’s contribution about entitlement and her point that people should know what their entitlement is.

Research evidence shows that stigma around social security is keenly felt and creates powerful barriers to accessing entitlements. The May 2024 report from the Get Heard Scotland citizens panel on the impact of stigma on benefit uptake found that uncertainty about eligibility and entitlement played into fears about talking with family and friends and the wider community about social security, and that it definitely stopped people even considering whether they might be entitled to something that would improve their quality of life.

Most panellists in that research agreed that stigma had become worse because of austerity, the UK Government’s welfare reforms and the cost of living crisis. I am sure that we know from our constituents that, when people feel that the language around that is negative, that hinders or stops them coming forward to receive what they are entitled to.

I am glad that the panellists largely agreed that, although not perfect, dealing with Social Security Scotland is a far less stigmatising experience. We should all be pleased about that. However, I am interested in hearing the minister’s remarks about how the Government will ensure that we increase the uptake of benefits because, despite that kinder approach, we need action on uptake, as other members have mentioned.

We know that there have been reports that the system is sluggish or not always straightforward and that there are various hurdles. As the motion states, many benefits remain unclaimed in Scotland. I am sure that the kinder approach shows that the minister and the Government want to ensure that people take up their entitlement.

I will pick up on the point about the economic reality for many of our fellow citizens, concentrating the last part of my contribution on children in Scotland. We know that a quarter of children in Scotland are growing up in poverty and that we need solutions to ensure that children have a fair chance of a life free from hardship and with opportunities.

To do that, we need a good social security system to allow children and families the opportunity to flourish. If we can do that for children and families, the ripple will help right across society, which is so important. That is why we must strive to ensure that people know that the welfare state is there for everyone in their time of need. When we support and help families to find ways out of poverty, and when we provide a social security system that is based on compassion, dignity and a person-centred approach, the benefits are multiplied, and they apply to everyone in our society.

I thank Evelyn Tweed for the mention of third sector organisations in her motion. Whenever they can, those organisations maximise people’s understanding of and opportunity to access the benefits system. Other members will know from speaking with constituents that Citizens Advice Scotland, Age UK and other organisations across the sector are praised by people for the help that they offer.

I thank members for their contributions to the debate. I know that everyone in the chamber wants stigma to be removed from people who require to access benefits and social security. I would really welcome the minister’s contribution on what the next steps will be to ensure that we maximise the entitlement uptake for everyone.

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party 4:51, 20 June 2024

I congratulate my colleague Evelyn Tweed on securing today’s debate. With the on-going cost of living crisis, it is more important than ever that people receive all the support that they are entitled to.

Recent analysis by Policy in Practice found that, across Great Britain, the value of unclaimed income-related benefits, disability benefits, discretionary support and social tariffs exceeds £30 billion a year. That is a staggering amount of money that could and should be in the pockets of the people in our society who need it most. It shows that too many people are unaware of the support that is available to them or are facing barriers in accessing it.

It is crucial that we tackle these issues, and many services out there are doing just that. For people in East Kilbride, that includes the brilliant East Kilbride Citizens Advice Bureau, as well as local Christians Against Poverty representatives and advocates from VoiceAbility. In addition, my office is always there to help people in East Kilbride who do not know where to turn.

There are national services that offer benefits advice and entitlement checks, including through health charities for people with disabilities and Age UK for older people. Advice Direct Scotland’s benefits calculator allows people to check their entitlement to both devolved and reserved benefits. It has already been used by 56,000 people to identify more than £43 million in unclaimed money. There is no doubt that that has been a lifeline for people.

As Evelyn Tweed pointed out, 25 per cent of the people who are eligible for the young carer grant do not claim it. Furthermore, Policy in Practice’s data shows that more than £2 billion per year of carers allowance goes unclaimed in Great Britain. Part of that is perhaps due to people not identifying themselves as carers, but I encourage those who are out of work or on a low income to find out more about the benefit if they help to look after someone, whether that be with emotional support, giving medication, doing food shopping or assisting with personal care or grooming.

The Scottish National Party Scottish Government has already delivered a supplement to increase the income of unpaid carers, and it is now rolling out a replacement for the carers allowance: the new carer support payment, which will be open to people in East Kilbride from 24 June. Crucially, the Scottish benefit has wider eligibility that includes many full-time students. With that extra eligibility, it is crucial that people know about the payment, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s strategy to publicise it, as well as its work to increase benefits uptake in general. I hope that today’s debate helps to raise more awareness.

I said earlier that part of the £30 billion figure relates to unclaimed social tariffs. Currently, such schemes are few and far between. However, as our First Minister, John Swinney, set out yesterday, electing Scottish National Party candidates such as Grant Costello, who is standing to be the MP for East Kilbride and Strathaven, will mean that we will have MPs who will press the next UK Government to deliver social tariffs for energy—

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

Ms Stevenson, could you resume your seat for a second? It has been made clear over recent weeks that we should not be electioneering. This is not a hustings—this is a meeting of the Parliament, so we should refrain from such activity.

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party

My apologies, Presiding Officer.

We want the UK Government to deliver social tariffs for energy, broadband and mobile bills. Our plan will drive down utility costs for people who are on a low income, disabled or elderly.

There is much more that I could say on the topic, but I will conclude. It is important that we encourage people who are really struggling during the cost of living crisis to check what they are entitled to and to get the support that they deserve. We should all be committed to ensuring that our social security system is well funded and well advertised.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green 4:56, 20 June 2024

I join members in thanking Evelyn Tweed for lodging her motion for debate. I also congratulate her and her team on the very good work that they do in the Stirling area—in particular, the round-table events that have been organised have been very useful.

The Stirling area exemplifies many of the challenges that we face in supporting people across Scotland who are in poverty. Stirling has one of the biggest income-inequality divides in the country. Even in relatively affluent communities, there are people who are desperately in need of help, who are often very difficult to identify and support.

A lot of the issue comes back to stigma. Marie McNair talked about difficulties with stigma, as did Carol Mochan. We must break down the stigma. The language that the Westminster Government has used about the welfare state does not help to remove the stigma that exists in people’s minds.

Recently, I met Stirling District Citizens Advice Bureau, which is an incredible organisation that provides advice to thousands of people across the Stirling area. It told me that it has experienced a 43 per cent increase in demand for its services in recent years. Between 2020 and 2023, it experienced a 16-fold increase in the number of people who sought assistance for mortgage arrears. The number of council tenants who have sought help with rent has quadrupled in the past five years. Recently, there has been a spike in the number of people who face serious housing insecurity. The number of people who came through its doors because they faced homelessness more than tripled in 2022-23.

That is not a situation that is being seen only by the CAB in Stirling. According to the Poverty Alliance, more than two thirds of the children who live in poverty are now in working households.

Those are all deeply worrying statistics. They should be a wake-up call for decision makers here and at Westminster. As we have already heard, the cost of living crisis, with high energy bills and inflation, is really squeezing household budgets, which is making it more difficult than ever for people to make mortgage and rent payments.

Despite that, as we have heard, in 2023, £19 billion-worth of benefits went unclaimed across the UK. Successive Westminster Governments have treated social security as a drain on the public purse, not as an investment in society, which it truly is. The provision of social security is about helping people.

The two-child limit is a perfect example of austerity politics harming our welfare state. Any incoming UK Government must urgently address that wrong, remove the two-child limit from universal credit, dismantle the barriers that have deliberately been put in place to reduce access to social security, which include the injustice of arbitrary sanctions, and accelerate efforts to raise awareness of eligibility.

The policies that we have agreed to in the Scottish Parliament are keeping people out of poverty. This year, they will keep 100,000 children out of relative poverty and 70,000 children out of absolute poverty. However, even though we have made great strides, as we have heard, 25 per cent of young carers do not claim the support that they are entitled to, and it is estimated that the take-up rate of the Scottish child payment for children aged between six and 15 is still languishing at 77 per cent.

I understand that the Scottish Government is delivering a programme of activity to raise awareness of Scottish benefits and to ensure that everyone receives what they are entitled to. I agree with members that the third sector advice organisations are essential partners in ensuring that communities get the level of the support that they need.

Evelyn Tweed has already pointed to some of the great work that is being done in the Raploch in community settings to address the issue of stigma. Christine Grahame mentioned an example from the Borders, and Colette Stevenson mentioned one from her constituency.

I hope that the Scottish Government’s plans to increase benefit uptake include organisations such as the CABs from the outset—rather than just focusing in on the housing teams in councils—because they have a critical role to play; they can reach the parts of our communities that other organisations may not.

Of course we can make progress and increase the Scottish child payment, but we do not have all powers over welfare benefits; we need to focus on the powers that we have, to increase benefit uptake. In particular, offering targeted advice in communities is something that the Government can act on today.

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party 5:01, 20 June 2024

I apologise for coughing throughout the debate. I thank my colleague Evelyn Tweed for the opportunity to discuss this vital issue in the chamber. As she highlighted, the current economic climate means that it has never been more important to encourage and support people to access all the assistance that they are entitled to.

In total, our investment in social security benefits and payments in 2023-24 amounted to an estimated £5.3 billion, despite the on-going pressures on public finances, the spending cuts, the cost of living crisis and the inflationary pressures that we have had to wrestle with.

Since the devolution of Scotland’s social security powers in 2016, we have been clear that maximising the take-up of Scottish benefits is a fundamental priority for the Scottish Government. Our benefit take-up strategy sets out the principles by which we do that. I will touch on that later.

Those principles are applied through a number of specific take-up initiatives, including access to independent advocacy, which has been mentioned by a few members, continued investment in accessible advice, including welfare advice and health partnerships, and the targeted marketing of devolved payments. However, and what is perhaps more important, the principles form the fundamental basis for all social security policy development and delivery, ensuring that we prioritise person-centred approaches and put the needs of the people of Scotland at the heart of everything that we do.

I will touch on take-up rates, which have been mentioned. Our most recently published annual take-up rates give us much to be proud of. I am particularly heartened by the high and stable take-up of our five family payments, including the Scottish child payment. Given that the First Minister is crystal clear that his single most important objective is the eradication of child poverty, it is reassuring to note that the figures suggest that the vast majority of eligible, low-income families who are in or at risk of being in poverty are taking up those entitlements. However, we know that we cannot be complacent. We can and will do better in some of those areas, as today’s motion, rightly, highlights.

Right across the chamber, there has been mention of partnership working, which is incredibly important. I commend the work of Evelyn Tweed in Stirling, as has been mentioned by Mark Ruskell. I know that a lot of other members, across parties, have done something very similar.

We sometimes take for granted the work of our third party agencies; again, I am grateful to them. They tirelessly campaign and advocate on behalf of—and provide essential front-line support to—people up and down the country. Through our benefit take-up stakeholder reference group, we bring together third sector support organisations, public sector delivery partners and social innovation enterprises, whose experience, expertise and extensive networks are essential in informing our benefit take-up approach and driving continuous improvement.

Furthermore, just last year, we launched a dedicated engagement forum specifically for benefit calculator providers—a sector that I was glad to see was mentioned in the motion. Often, their tools offer a crucial first step in people’s journey to accessing their entitlements and can help to cut through the complex landscape of online information and interacting systems.

Although it is clear that online tools can offer great value in simplifying access to eligibility information across devolved and reserved systems, there is no substitute for accredited welfare rights advice. In recognition of that, the Scottish Government has allocated in 2024-25 more than £12 million to support the provision of free income maximisation, welfare and debt advice services. That includes funding to a range of advice providers, including Citizens Advice Scotland and its network of bureaux, StepChange Debt Charity, Advice Direct Scotland and One Parent Families Scotland. My responsibilities include debt and welfare advice, and I have visited all those organisations and seen their fantastic work.

The funding also includes investment in the aforementioned welfare advice and health partnerships, which will see welfare rights advisers being placed in more than 160 practices across Scotland, including four in Stirling, which is in Mark Ruskell’s region. That approach will make advice available in accessible and non-stigmatising settings where people already go. It will also have the dual advantage of reaching people who have not yet engaged with traditional advice services and reducing the time spent by general practitioners and other clinical staff on non-clinical matters.

It is important to mention the situation in relation to reserved benefits. It is clear that benefits delivered in Scotland, especially the Scottish Government’s seven payments that are available only here, are changing people’s lives. In 2024-25, we are committing a record £6.3 billion to benefits expenditure—that is, £1.1 billion more than the UK Government gives to the Scottish Government for social security. That investment supports disabled people to live full and independent lives, helps older people to heat their homes in winter and aids low-income families with their living costs. However, we continue to operate with one hand tied behind our back due to the cruel policies and devastating austerity that have been imposed by Westminster Governments. Immoral policies such as the two-child cap, which Mark Ruskell mentioned, continue to be supported by Conservative and Labour leaders at Westminster, which will ultimately put more pressure on the financial support that the Scottish Government is able to deliver.

A number of members have mentioned stigma, which occurs right across the age groups. As Christine Grahame mentioned, the right to social security is a human right and an entitlement. People should not feel stigma about it, but many do. That is still an issue. Discriminatory and stigmatising narratives have no place in the modern progressive society that we should all be striving for.

I will now touch on other members’ contributions. Evelyn Tweed spoke about visiting various food banks. I remember going to visit my local food bank after the universal credit uplift was cancelled. In the first month afterwards, there was an 80 per cent increase in the number of applications, and the figure is still at that high level. Some months ago, I visited One Parent Families Scotland and spoke to young women who were involved with that organisation. Many of them did not know about their entitlement.

Christine Grahame mentioned pension credit, which is a subject that we have had to deal with for decades. I know that Ms Grahame has mentioned it in the chamber on a number of occasions.

Jeremy Balfour touched on take-up of benefits and what we could do to improve it. The benefits take-up strategy was published in 2021, and it is important to say that an update is due in 2026.

Mr Balfour raised another key issue, which was about comparing rates of uptake and the processing times involved. Those times have improved over the past year or so, and they will continue to improve. I know that Mr Balfour has raised the matter with the cabinet secretary and that there is much work still to do on that.

We know that claimant satisfaction rates for Social Security Scotland are substantially higher than those for the DWP. For example, they are 92 per cent for disability payments, 93 per cent for the applications process, and 92 per cent for decisions in Scotland, compared with about 77 per cent for disability payments and 79 per cent for decisions under the UK system.

Mr Balfour mentioned a number of other aspects, such as interactions with some of the organisations and charities that are involved in the sector. We discussed those when we were both members of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee. Work still needs to be done on them.

Marie McNair talked about the advocacy support that is provided by organisations such as VoiceAbility. The essentials guarantee is another issue that several members covered.

Carol Mochan touched on moving away from stigma, which is an incredibly important issue. I hope that her colleagues in the Labour Party will work on that if they take power at Westminster in a couple of weeks, which it looks as though they will do. A key thing would be to consider the rate of universal credit and re-examining local housing allowance, both of which are incredibly important.

Collette Stevenson also mentioned VoiceAbility. I commend its work and that of Advice Direct Scotland, which I have worked with on a number of occasions.

Another key issue that Mark Ruskell mentioned is the importance of the role of MSPs, including the work that Evelyn Tweed has been doing. A number of members have arranged round-table meetings, for example

I return to the topic of stigma. The Scottish Government commissioned the Poverty Alliance to run a citizens panel to explore the impact of stigma on benefit take-up. The recommendations from that work, as well as the findings from a separate commissioned evidence review on seldom-heard groups, will form the basis for the action plan that I mentioned, which will be published later this year.

I note that Evelyn Tweed’s motion has achieved cross-party support. We hope that the principle underlying the motion enjoys popular support from members across the chamber. It should, after all, be uncontroversial to want to ensure that the people whom we represent are able to afford the basic cost of living, particularly at a time of such economic uncertainty. With that in mind, I thank Evelyn Tweed for bringing this vital subject to the chamber, and I implore members of all parties to join me in commending her motion.

Meeting closed at 17:10.