I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Scottish welfare powers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I extend my thanks to Members from both sides of the House who have turned out to debate this important issue for Scotland.
The Scotland Act 2016, which was delivered by a Conservative Government to the people of Scotland to implement the recommendations of the Smith Commission, has elevated the Scottish Parliament to one of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world. It has unprecedented power at its disposal, including over some welfare and social security elements. I am proud of my party’s record on devolution. It is the Conservatives who are delivering on devolution. It is this party that gave the Scottish Parliament the powers to top up existing benefits, make discretionary payments and even create entirely new benefits. In total, the Government have devolved 30% of working-age benefits in full, meaning that Scotland has significant control over its welfare system. The question now is how those powers are used.
Between the powers held by this Parliament and those rightly held in Holyrood, the welfare system in Scotland should, I believe, be based on three overarching principles. First, we must always ensure that adequate support is available for the most vulnerable in our communities, and we are rightly proud that in this country we have a system designed to offer a safety net to those who need it most. Secondly, any welfare system must be flexible and, where possible, personalised. Far too often we approach these debates with a singular focus on numbers and statistics. We must remember that behind every one of those numbers is an individual or a family with their own set of unique circumstances, and any welfare system must be able to work for each and every one of them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for most kindly giving way on my birthday. Does he believe that social security is also a human right?
That is an interesting question. We cannot see people going without entirely, so yes, I would lean towards its being a human right. Social security is a safety net that in this country, and in Scotland, we can be proud of providing, and I hope that we are able to do so for a long time to come, through a good, strong economy and people in employment.
The third principle is that the welfare system should give those who can and want to work the opportunity to do so. That is an essential part of its modernisation. It has rightly been the guiding principle of welfare reforms across the UK in recent years, and we should not underestimate the dignity and sense of fulfilment that accompany employment.
It is with those principles that I have approached the debate today, but one further important requirement underpins them all, which is that the system works. That sounds very simple and easy, but I am increasingly concerned that the Scottish Government are simply not moving fast enough to ensure that it does. Hundreds of thousands of people receive the benefits, so it is vital that the devolution of powers is delivered safely and in an orderly way. It is vital also that people know what will happen under the new system, that the Scottish Government think through policy properly and that they have the structures up and running to take over the important responsibilities.
I can honestly say no, but I believe that it is not my role to do so at this juncture. The hon. Gentleman may have a different view, which I fully respect. If there is a need to do so, I will certainly take him up on that.
This is no easy feat. I accept that we cannot just magic up a new welfare system. I do not underestimate how much work must be done. We have known the timeline for the devolution of the powers for quite some time now, yet there is still no real detail about how the Scottish Government intend to use the important main powers. The fact is that Scottish National party Ministers in Scotland are proceeding exceptionally slowly with implementing this aspect of devolution. I suspect that the SNP is now beginning to realise that creating a welfare system that is fair to everyone, including taxpayers in the UK and in Scotland, is not an easy task. That I accept.
Disabled people across the UK have suffered a cut in their disability benefit of £30 a week under the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that some 10,000 disabled claimants in Scotland will have to find £1,400 a year. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that to be fair?
Disability funding has increased over this Parliament, and will continue to do so. Fairness is a double-sided coin. The hon. Gentleman will learn that in the Scottish Government. Fairness must apply to the taxpayer and to those who receive assistance. I am sure that he agrees.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission produced a report last week that suggested that 75% of cuts have fallen upon Pakistani families in England. Does the hon. Gentleman think that is fair?
I have to take the hon. Lady’s word for that. I have not seen that report. I have no reason to doubt it, but I would have to know more about it before I agreed to apply the word “fairness.”
Disability benefits are being devolved by April 2020, and we have been promised that a new Scottish social security agency will be up and running, ready to take on the handling of welfare issues, in time for the next Scottish election. Time is moving on, yet many of the details are still desperately lacking. For example, we do not know how the system will interact with and work in parallel with the UK system and the Department for Work and Pensions. Might the Minister be able to indicate whether he has discussed that with his Scottish counterparts? That might reflect on Neil Gray tasking me with that job.
That lack of detail and policy is a concerning feature of the SNP Government’s approach to welfare. We know that they will take over responsibility for benefits such as disability living allowance and personal independence payments. What we do not know, however, is precisely what their policy will be on disability benefits. What assistance do they propose for people with disabilities? How will claims be made, assessed and processed through the system? How much will people be able to receive?
With due respect, the hon. Gentleman is clearly not following proceedings in Holyrood. At the Committee stage alone we discovered from the Scottish Government—supported, I think, by the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in Holyrood—that the medical information required for the assessments will be gathered by the social security agency so that there will be a reduction in the need for face-to-face intervention. That is just one area in which we know there is clear detail from the Scottish Government.
Reference was just made to the Scottish Social Security Committee report. In its conclusions, it in fact states:
“There have been a number of consistent concerns raised about the Bill, in particular the balance between what is contained in the Bill and what will be in regulations.”
The distinct lack of detail in the Bill is causing parliamentarians and outside interest groups grave concern.
I will not be the referee on what is right or wrong in the report, but the truth will be in there somewhere.
Most worryingly, the detail we have from the SNP simply has the look of an attempt to move away from Westminster systems and be different just for the sake of it. Take disability benefit assessments, for example. One of the first and only changes that the SNP has announced is over the role of the private sector in those assessments. It has yet to justify that approach, and I am not clear what the actual benefits will be.
The hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. Is the role of the private sector in assessments not best covered by the recent Work and Pensions Committee report, which documented individual men being told by the DWP that they were in actual fact pregnant? Does that not tell us that there is something wrong with the private sector dealing with assessments?
I do not think that I would pass judgment on the private sector system based simply on that one example. You can pick out poor examples from any system. Any identified problem will be rectified. The Government have been rectifying issues over a long period of time.
Are you seriously coming to the Chamber today and telling us that since you have been elected, no constituent has come to you to complain about the way their applications for DWP assessments have been treated? Is that what the hon. Gentleman is telling us? If he is telling us that, it must be the only constituency in Scotland where that is the case.
My apologies. I checked with the office. Cumnock jobcentre went live on
I thank my hon. Friend for that. It may be prudent for us to focus on the purpose of the debate. The SNP appears to be unprepared for the powers it has demanded for so long. It has repeatedly demanded powers—it could be called a power grab—and it has now been granted them. We urgently need to know whether the Scottish Government will be ready to take on responsibility for welfare by 2020, as is planned, or whether they will have to ask the UK Government to delay the process. I hope that later in the debate the Minister will touch on some of the contingency plans we must have, as we cannot allow the Scottish Government’s delays to impact on those who rely on these benefits.
At the very least, the hon. Gentleman is being generous in taking interventions. Can I clarify something with him? He is saying that the Scottish Government are not taking action ahead of time. Does he support the hundreds of millions of pounds that the Scottish Government have put into mitigating the bedroom tax in Scotland?
I have no issues. That is the choice of the Scottish Government, and I respect their choice. They have chosen to do that.
From what we do know of the SNP plans, we can see that they are likely to be incredibly expensive. The Scottish Fiscal Commission said that devolved welfare spending—this is an astronomical rise—will increase by nearly 50% between 2017 and 2023, going from £330 million to £470 million of taxpayers’ money. It is never the Government’s money; it is the tax raised from the hard-earned income of those in employment. Of course any system must be able to cope with the needs of those who depend on it, and do so adequately, but my concern is that the Scottish Government might devise a social security system that is so expensive that it will not provide fairness to taxpayers. The balance of need and affordability must be carefully considered.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that people are either claiming benefits or paying tax. Does he not agree that that is not the reality? Some people supported through tax credits are working.
It might be my Scots accent that is causing an issue, because I did not indicate that. I said that the welfare system is generally dependent on those who earn money and pay tax, but there is a middle group. There are those who earn and who are not dependent on the welfare system, and those who are wholly dependent on it and are perfectly entitled to that support. The hon. Lady is right that there is a middle group where there is a balance of work with tax credits and assistance, and that is to be welcomed.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I want to make a wee bit of progress. Just like the policies themselves, there is little detail on future costs. It is important that we know how much things will cost and how taxpayers will be expected to fund the Scottish system. Are we going to see yet more tax rises for the people of Scotland, or will other services begin to see cuts? My Scottish Conservative colleagues and I have spoken regularly in this place about the need for Scotland’s two Governments to work effectively together, and that is true for welfare.
Has the hon. Gentleman read the financial memorandum that was published for the Bill on Friday? Has he considered the Scottish Government’s remarks that suggest we will always pay for the social security system out of the funds we have in Scotland and any efficiency savings that come forward? Clearly the finances are there.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I certainly hope that there are efficiency savings in that regard, but I am a bit sceptical.
Take universal credit, for example. The Scottish Government have made use of the flexibilities available, and they are well within their rights to do so, but consultation and information sharing with the DWP could be much better. In Scotland, claimants can choose to have the housing element of their universal credit paid directly to landlords. In England, the DWP does not simply pay people money and turn its back on them. If somebody has fallen two months in arrears with rent payments, a UK-wide system of alternative payment arrangements is triggered and rent can be paid, where needed, directly to landlords. It is best if individuals can manage their own money to match the working environment. It is important that they are allowed to manage their own money where they can and that there is a system to support them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. In terms of flexibilities, does he not accept the evidence that has been given to the Work and Pensions Committee, and to the consultations on the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, is that those moving on to universal credit who have been in work are paid weekly and fortnightly. The majority are paid that way, not four-weekly.
I think I have indicated in the debate today that flexibility is a good thing. I welcome such things for people until they, for want of a more elegant phrase, get on to an even keel. It is a support system; it is not a permanent system. Where the system would benefit from flexibility, I welcome that.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the flexibility now afforded to the Scottish Government in the payment of universal credit. Does he not agree that it is regrettable that his party and his favourite sparring partners the SNP voted down the Labour amendment to ensure that women in particular can be protected from financial abuse by being able to split universal credit?
I support that. I think discussions are going on between the UK Government and the Scottish Government to resolve that. It is a serious issue, particularly in terms of abusive relationships and so on. I respect and support that point.
I am conscious of time. It is not clear how Scottish flexibility and the UK-wide alternative payment arrangements system will work together in the future, and both Governments must provide further clarity on that. Universal credit is an area where the Scottish Government have already exercised their devolved powers. While it is rightly a reserved benefit, it is also right and correct that it should be tailored to Scottish needs, but these flexibilities throw up issues that must be worked out between the two Governments. People in Scotland who opt for the flexibility of two-weekly payment may not be able to access things such as direct debits to secure lower utilities prices. Will the Minister commit to working with the Scottish Government to resolve such issues in the devolved system?
Providing welfare is one of the most important and complex tasks a Government delivers. As we move into the 2020s, the Scottish Government will rightly take on more and more responsibility in this area. By 2021, the leadership of the Scottish Government might look rather different—it might look much the same—but it must be ready regardless. We simply cannot afford for the SNP not to be ready. We know that it is a party that prefers complaining to governing, but that has to end now—the stakes for these individuals are far too high.
The UK Government promised devolved welfare and have kept up that end of the bargain. The SNP Government now need to get on with the work to secure a welfare system in Scotland. They need to be 100% focused on what to do with the powers. They need to ensure that Scotland is ready for this significant and important change. We are not there yet, but there is still time. Let us all hope that, for once, they rise to the occasion. Finally, I thank the staff of the Department for Work and Pensions, in offices around Scotland and the United Kingdom, for their continuing commitment to the needs of their clients on a daily basis, and for embracing change and digital technology.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for your expert chairmanship of the debate. We have had a spirited introduction from Bill Grant, with some interesting re-writing of history regarding the Tory party’s legacy when it comes to defence of the welfare state in Scotland.
At every stage of the process of devolution, it is Labour that has led the charge. During the passage of the Scotland Act 2016, although the welfare provisions were agreed by the Smith commission, it was only the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Ian Murray that extended the new benefits in devolved areas, and top-ups in reserved areas. It was only his action that forced that change in the Lords, and pressure from the Labour party that ensured that that provision was included in the Act.
A huge opportunity has been presented to the Scottish Government with the extension of welfare powers. That is exactly what devolution was intended to do. Remember that the spirit of devolution was set up in the face of rampant Thatcherism and the rolling back of the industrial and welfare settlement that Scotland had enjoyed since the end of the second world war.
I think I referred to the “spirit” of devolution. If the hon. Gentleman recalls his history, devolution, which of course the Tories implacably opposed throughout, was born in the 1980s. Likewise, the popular campaign for a Scottish Parliament was born out of the 1980s and the reaction against Thatcherism, the policies of which were anathema to the Scottish people. Devolution was born in the face of Thatcherism. If I am not mistaken, it was the former Secretary of State for Scotland, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who referred to Thatcher as the midwife of the Scottish Parliament.
Clearly, Labour led the charge at every stage in the process. Although there is a great opportunity for the Scottish Parliament to be what it was designed to be—a bulwark against Tory austerity, not a conveyor belt for it—we have seen a weakness in the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, which was built on empty rhetoric, not substance. Again, it has been Labour pressure that has led the charge against the SNP pulling off an audacious power grab, without any scrutiny or accountability, in the Bill’s development in the Scottish Parliament.
Scotland has the powers to create its own social security system, to change the lives of disabled people, to tackle poverty, and to reinforce the safety net, but there is still so much missing from the Bill. The Bill at stage 3, as it goes through the Scottish Parliament, will be very different from the form it was issued in last June. That has been achieved through campaigners lobbying, and Labour holding its ground, seeking to deliver real change to improve the lives of the people of Scotland. I want to be clear about how it has progressed through the Scottish Parliament, for the avoidance of any doubt and any rewriting of history.
In June 2017, a briefing was circulated to all MSPs highlighting that the Bill contained no top-up to child benefit, no rules setting out how the Government should create new benefits in devolved areas, and no ban on the private sector, going back on the Scottish Government’s word from April 2017. There was also no hard commitment on uprating, going back on their word from June 2016, and no scrutiny through the legislative process. By the end of that summer, during stage 1 Labour had secured the following concessions in the Bill: scrutiny and parliamentary procedure, a right to independent advocacy, a right to payment cash as default, and a statutory duty to maximise incomes.
However, the Minister for Social Security in Scotland continued to block protections for recovering overpayments made by office errors, which is more onerous than the UK system. She also blocked inflationary uprating—that is to say, the Minister wanted to do less than the UK system—and redeterminations, as they wanted to replicate the UK system. She also blocked the banning of the private sector, and the setting of binding targets to encourage the uptake of £2 billion in unclaimed benefits. However, since January we have seen a U-turn on all those issues, by laying or supporting amendments and seeking Labour’s support, while antagonising the third sector and civic society in the process.
During stage 2 of the Bill, the SNP and the Tories voted down amendments to secure human rights in the Bill. For months, a key and fundamental part of SNP rhetoric focused on how the system would be built on dignity and respect, yet when put to a vote they teamed up with the Tories to vote that down. That rightly angered the third sector, and some of the Scottish Government’s key supporters, who have long called for the right to social security to be part of the legislation. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations said in response to this issue:
“This ‘due regard’ amendment...was to ensure that the principles in the Bill, something we have heard a lot about from the Scottish Government, could be realised in practice.
Astoundingly, despite the Scottish Governments rhetoric around a social security system based on human rights, the amendment was not agreed and no such duty will exist in the Bill.
Confused? You should be.”
That is a shameful indictment of the Scottish Government’s true commitment on this issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I congratulate him on his powerful speech, even though I do not agree with everything that he is saying. Does he agree that the evidence that he is presenting shows how difficult it is for the Scottish Government to get their arms around the issue of providing a social security system in Scotland? It is a complex issue, is it not?
I agree that the complexity of the social security system should not be underestimated, but none the less we should have committed at the outset to the objectives and the vision that we wanted to see, which we share. Surely they should live up to their rhetoric on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Labour party has been leading from the front on this issue. In the light of that statement, I ask him whether he regrets, and would like to apologise for, the fact that 184 members of his party abstained on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in 2015, thereby letting through £12 billion of welfare cuts.
I am afraid that is a total misrepresentation of what Labour was voting for in that case. If anything, the SNP should apologise for abstaining on the Third Reading of the Tory Finance Bill just last month, when we were all in Parliament. I cannot speak for colleagues who were not elected at the time she refers to, but I can accuse the hon. Lady of that act just last month.
On the progress of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill and how complex it has been, even at stage 2 in February, Labour continued to challenge the Scottish Government to deliver a number of further improvements, which have been resisted. For example, a child benefit top-up of £260 per year was blocked by the Tories and the SNP voting together. Changes that would prevent the winter fuel payment as well as disability and industrial injuries benefits from being means-tested were backed unanimously by Labour, the SNP, the Tories, and the Greens—a good concession. Binding targets to boost the take-up of all benefits was also backed, and protection for carers from inflation—the current carefully crafted Scottish Government plans look set to save £5 million—was backed unanimously.
However, a requirement in law to secure the automatic splitting of universal credit so that women are protected from financial abuse was blocked. The competency of that is contained in section 30 of the Scotland Act 2016. The Tories and the SNP blocked that by voting together—just days before, somewhat ironically, Dr Whitford introduced a Bill in this place on the same issue. It is an example of how the SNP talks a good game at Westminster, yet acts very conservatively at Holyrood. An attempt to secure a higher legal threshold to prosecute claimants who fail to notify a change of circumstances was also blocked when the Tories forced a vote on it.
There is clearly much more scope to improve the quality of the social security system in Scotland. The only party that has driven real change and a real defence of working people in Scotland who rely on a social security system and a safety net has been the Labour party at every stage. We should not forget that the only force that will ensure that we have real, radical change for disabled people, that we tackle poverty, and that we reinforce the safety net will be a Labour Government at Holyrood in Edinburgh, and at Westminster in London.
Order. There will not be time for everyone to speak in the debate unless everyone keeps their remarks down to just over a minute. We have only eight minutes before we have to move on to the SNP spokesman. We will have to be very strict with that timing, because there is very little time left. I call Luke Graham.
I will try to keep my remarks as close to one minute as I possibly can. Welfare is one of the key elements of the modern British state. We launched the NHS together and we built the welfare state together. It started at the turn of the 20th century and was built throughout the last 100 years. Beveridge was the son of a Scottish civil servant and helped lay the infrastructure in which we operate today.
Welfare is also one of the biggest issues that I have experienced as an MP. Constituents regularly come to me with a whole range of welfare issues and my staff and I work incredibly hard to make sure that we resolve them. We have been able to successfully resolve 94% of the universal credit inquiries we have had in just a few days. The greatest concern when we get into the politics of the devolution of welfare powers is the impact on constituents. I have already had constituents coming to me in a state of confusion because they do not know whether to go to the local authority, the MSP or the MP, and that is just with the current system, before we create a whole other agency with a whole other bureaucracy and the costs that go with that.
The Smith commission put the powers in—
I will try to be brief. I am bewildered about what this debate is supposed to achieve. Bill Grant agreed with many of the points we put to him—for example, that social security is a human right. I wonder what the Minister will think of that.
We will take no lessons from the Labour party. It does not matter what Mr Sweeney says, £12 billion-worth of cuts on welfare went through in 2015 and 184 Labour MPs abstained. That is why we need to have people in here protecting Scotland’s interests.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock talked of the need for mitigation. By definition, if we need to mitigate Tory cuts in Scotland, that suggests that the Tory cuts should not be taking place.
In setting up the new welfare system in Scotland, there has been widespread consultation. For the hon. Gentleman to suggest that it is some dark secret and nobody knows what is happening is clearly nonsense. His colleague, Adam Tomkins MSP, talked about the welfare legislation in Scotland as being landmark legislation and the great consensus around it. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman cannot agree with his Tory colleagues in the Scottish Parliament. Adam Tomkins MSP congratulated the Scottish Government on bringing the legislation forward in the form that they did. It is very clear that the only people who are standing up for the people who find themselves relying on benefits—
Having made a number of interventions, I will take a few seconds simply to say that what concerns me most about the passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, as outlined by Mr Sweeney, is the disregard that the Scottish National party in Government in Scotland show to due parliamentary process. They are reluctant to expose their legislation in detail. They are reluctant to allow that legislation to be properly scrutinised. They make bad laws. They have a consistent record of making bad laws. They ram legislation through the Parliament. We have an example right now with the wrecking Bill that is going through Parliament with very little time for scrutiny. This is another typical example. The Social Security (Scotland) Bill as it was originally presented included enormous powers reserved to Ministers—called Henry VIII powers here. They are practitioners of reserving powers to Ministers for regulations of the highest order and that is why sometimes when they speak in this place, their actions in Government in Scotland should be set against what they say.
I am delighted to serve my community and to stand up for the most vulnerable in society. It has not always been easy in public life, but it is easy to stand up for what is right.
I am so sick of seeing the impact of the SNP and Tories on my constituents. On a national level, we have seen jobcentres closed. We have seen DWP offices closed. We have seen housing benefit for under-25s scrapped. We have seen support for local authorities across the United Kingdom slashed. We cannot forget that many of the decisions taken by the Tories in London and the SNP in Scotland have taken money out of the pockets of people in need. I am ready for real change.
That is why I am delighted that Richard Leonard has become the leader of the Scottish Labour party. Under Richard, we will see radical change for disabled people and plans to tackle poverty, and we will reinforce the safety net. This is not and should not be political. It is about a better future for the people of Scotland.
Like, I suspect, most hon. Members, I got involved in politics to make people’s lives better and to make our country a better place. A large part of the casework I have to deal with revolves around welfare and ensuring that people get what they are entitled to from the safety net that the state rightly provides. That is why I find it so annoying and so frustrating that the SNP chooses to make party politics of this. While they constantly condemn the choices that the UK Government make about welfare, when this Conservative Government gave the Scottish Parliament even more powers to take those decisions itself, the SNP Government have dithered and delayed and pushed the powers back for as long as they possibly could to avoid making the tough choices and taking responsibility for being in Government, and would rather just stoke up the politics of grievance. The voters see through it. We see through it. It is about time the SNP stood up for the rhetoric that it is so keen to articulate and actually took responsibility for being in Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. So far we have been subjected to what one can only call buzzword bingo. I am only waiting on one from either the Labour or Conservative Benches.
Bill Grant complained, on the one hand, that not enough was being done and then, on the other hand, complained about what has already been announced. It is incredible behaviour. It can be summed up like this: the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities has criticised the UK Government for grave and systematic violations of the conventions on the rights of persons with disabilities and, at the same time, it has praised the Scottish Government for engaging with disabled people and the organisations that represent them.
If we are building a social security system—not a welfare system as the Conservatives talk about, as if it is some sort of handout—
It is not a handout; it is a human right. Language is important. The hon. Member for Stirling can shout all he likes—it is social security we should be talking about, not welfare. That is a big difference between my party and his in terms of how we view the issues. We need to ensure—
Bill Grant has brought this debate to the Chamber and was largely complaining about two things: cost and time. I do not have much time and so I would refer the hon. Gentleman to some of the speeches I have made about the misery of universal credit in my constituency since 2013, which he is invited to come and see.
Let me just make a point on cost. The UK Government have already lost in court, being found to have unlawfully discriminated against disabled people—a move that could cost billions. So there is the cost. In terms of dates, the Scottish Government will introduce the first of the devolved benefits, carers allowance, in the summer. It will bring in the best start grant in summer 2019, funeral expenses assistance in summer 2019, and the young carers’ grant—a £300 payment for young people—in autumn 2019. Recipients will also benefit from free bus travel from 2021. The Benefits Expert Advisory Group will extend winter fuel payments to families with children on the higher rate of disability living allowance and not means-test them. That is the way to deliver with the very limited powers that have been at the disposal of the Scottish Government, in terms of the best value for money and the best value for people.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate Bill Grant on securing the debate. As has already been evidenced, it has allowed us to highlight the rather stark differences in the approach to social security in Holyrood and here at Westminster.
I also feel a wee bit sorry for the hon. Gentleman as, when he secured the debate, he really must have thought it was going to be a chance to get another “SNP bad” story on the Scottish Government for failing to deliver on their promises. Of course, the Scottish Government are proceeding quite nicely as they build the new Scottish social security agency. He must have been choking on his kippers at breakfast this morning as he read the headlines about his Prime Minister selling out the Scottish fishing industry. Today is really not the day for Scottish Tories to talk about promises to the electorate, when the SNP Government are keeping theirs.
Last week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published its report on the cumulative effects of the UK Government’s tax and benefit policies, which showed that the very poorest in our society—the bottom 10%—are the ones who have suffered the most, and the ones who have suffered the least are the richest 10%. In other words, it is a system that is in direct and converse relationship to what it should be. Does my hon. Friend agree that, given their legacy, Government Members have a bare-faced cheek to try to attack the Scottish Government?
I absolutely concur.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock suggested that the Scottish Government are not following due process in preparing for the new system, and that they are not ready for the new powers because there is a lack of detail in the plans. I politely suggest to him that both statements cannot be true. Indeed, both are false. He himself acknowledged many of the areas in which the Scottish Government have used their powers to act. The Bill to create the new Scottish agency passed Committee stage at Holyrood—it did so with remarkable consensus, given the topic of discussion—so the process has been followed in a timeous fashion.
The Scottish Government are in regular contact with the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the DWP about how the two systems relate to each other. I wonder whether the Minister has done the groundwork that the Scottish Government have. We have yet to see evidence that he has. On the process point, the hon. Gentleman is clearly wrong.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that benefits across this country should at least be of one high standard? We have to be careful that, in creating another agency, we do not end up duplicating services, creating more cost for our taxpayers and delivering a worse service for our constituents. In other words, there has to be an incremental benefit, not duplication, more cost and bureaucracy.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s constructive intervention to a point. That is why the Scottish Government are taking time to consider setting up the agency and are doing what they can to liaise with the UK Government about how the systems will operate in tandem.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock is also wrong on the detail point, which relates to our readiness. From the Bill’s progress in Committee alone, we know that private companies will not be involved in delivering assessments. A new benefit will be provided to overcome his Government’s removal of housing benefits from most 18 to 21-year-olds.
To paraphrase Mike Russell, I am afraid I have too few minutes and too much to contradict the Tories on. I am very sorry, but I do not have enough time. I have taken other interventions.
We will establish an independent scrutiny body—the Scottish commission on social security—and we have a legal duty to scrutinise proposals for regulations and have regard to human rights. The new agency will seek medical information at the outset of an application—applicants will not be required to collect it at appeal stage—so face-to-face assessments will be reduced. The legislative process required to deal with the successful transition of 11 benefits is still going on in Holyrood, so there may be more detail to come.
Those who contradict the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock are not restricted to SNP Members. I am keen to quote a couple of his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament. On
“the general principles of the bill should be supported.”
His colleague, Michelle Ballantyne MSP, went even further on the same day, and said that our Bill
“has the potential to revolutionise social security in this country.”
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman has chosen this topic for debate, given that his colleagues up the road are not quite so keen to denigrate the Scottish Government’s actions. That is one of the reasons why I asked whether he had written to the Scottish Government at any stage about any of his concerns. You will be shocked to learn that he has not, Mr Rosindell. Call me cynical, but I think motives other than just inquiring about the progress in this area might have been at play when he called this debate.
The Scottish Tories were supposed to be coming to Westminster to vote as a bloc to protect Scottish interests and advocate for Scotland. Instead, they have used Westminster as a platform to try to denigrate the Scottish Government to the point of farce. Perhaps if the Scottish Tories had spent less time trying to do the job of MSPs, which many of them left, and more time watching what their own Government are doing, they would not be in the fisheries mess they currently find themselves in.
That leads me to my main questions for the Minister. How are the UK Government’s plans for the new Scottish social security agency going? What work has the Minister commissioned to ensure there is no delay to the smooth progress, which is currently on track to be delivered by the Scottish Government? What work have the UK been doing to keep up with—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I welcome this debate, and I thank Bill Grant for securing it.
It is important that we debate the impact of the Westminster Government’s cuts to the social security system in Scotland and the whole of the UK. Although the Scottish Government’s response takes steps in the right direction, is not without problems. I pay tribute to my Labour colleagues in Scotland who have worked hard and continue to do so to ensure opportunities are not missed in the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, as my hon. Friend Mr Sweeney said powerfully. They have used every opportunity available to them to improve the legislation, but we are concerned because, for all the Scottish Government’s warm words, progress has been slow.
I will not go through every aspect of the Bill, because many have been discussed today, or the powers available to the Scottish Government, but I want to raise some key issues that we need answers to. The previous Labour Government strengthened the social security net to lift 120,000 children and 110,000 pensioners in Scotland out of poverty, but ground has been lost since Labour left office. More than one in four children in Scotland now live in poverty.
The Westminster Government’s decision to limit the cap on uprating to 1% from 2013-14 to 2015-16, and the subsequent freeze on the majority of social security payments, have caused low-income households to suffer a significant deterioration in the adequacy of social security support. The freeze to payments and support is having a detrimental impact on millions of people on low incomes across the UK. Inflation has more than doubled in the past year. It hit 3.1% in November, and it is now at 2.7%. Meanwhile, food inflation is at 3.3%. The Child Poverty Action Group states that
“the failure to uprate benefits in line with inflation is the single biggest driver behind child poverty.”
I want to see the uprating of social security support both in Scotland, via the powers given to the Scottish Government in the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, and in the rest of the UK. Unfortunately, the Government here have refused to do that, but the Scottish Government still have the opportunity to take action.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservative Government’s handling of welfare changes has been absolutely shambolic, and that the SNP Government in Holyrood have dragged their heels? At the centre of this are people, and the finger pointing on display here does nothing to reassure them.
My hon. Friend makes a really important point, but I am so short of time.
In Scotland, some 50,000 households with three or more children are in receipt of tax credits. From April 2017, families no longer received support through child tax credits or universal credit for any third or subsequent child born on or after that date. That also applies to new UC claims. On top of that, the abolition of the family element of the child tax credit for all families whose third child is born after the April 2017 deadline will affect thousands of families who will lose £545 a year. Yet in Scotland the SNP blocked Labour’s plan to introduce a child benefit top-up of £260 each year, which would have lifted 30,000 children out of poverty. After housing costs, 26% of children in Scotland were living in relative poverty in 2015-16—approximately 260,000 children. Does the Minister think that is acceptable? Why does he refuse to act?
On top of that, the switch to universal credit will cause up to 100,000 families in Scotland who are currently in receipt of housing or council tax benefit to lose an average of £1,196 a year in state support for childcare costs. Universal credit is clearly not fit for purpose, so why does the Minister refuse to pause the roll-out and fix the problems to make the system work?
Members have spoken about the flexible payment system, which is important—we have been calling for one for the rest of the UK—and the system of split payment. I would be grateful if the Minister explained to us whether there are any practical reasons why split payments cannot be the default position. There is a great deal of concern about the impact that the current system has on the safety of people living in situations of domestic violence.
Labour has long campaigned for the abolition of the bedroom tax right across the UK, so we welcome the Scottish Government’s action to mitigate its impact. Like the bedroom tax, the imminent changes to support for mortgage interest is another Conservative policy that will hit those on low incomes. Right now, 11,000 people in Scotland who rely on the current scheme have little more than a month to decide whether to take out a loan or pay for the shortfall. I am eager to hear what the Minister has to say about that devastating yet avoidable change. Will he delay the impending changes and review the impact of the options before him?
We welcome the Scottish Government’s agreement with Labour that the new social security agency in Scotland should have a duty to ensure take-up, but we should go further. Will the Minister commit to considering a duty for the rest of the UK? We need a social security system that is reliable, is there for us in our time of need, and provides support should any of us become sick or disabled, or fall on hard times. I am interested to hear how the Minister intends to address that in the light of the changes his party is pursuing.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend Bill Grant on securing this debate on a key issue for the citizens of Scotland.
We have had an incredibly spirited debate, in which a range of views have been expressed. Of course there have been disagreements, but that demonstrates, as my hon. Friends the Members for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) and for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) noted, that ultimately we all care about our constituents and want to do the best by them. That is why we need to work together, across all parties, to ensure that we deliver for the people of Scotland.
No, I will not, if the hon. Lady does not mind. A lot of comments have been made, and I want to deal with them.
The devolution of welfare powers represents a considerable and positive change, but it will require strong collaboration and co-operation from all sides if it is to be a success. Neil Gray asked about the UK’s commitment. I can tell him that we have set up and resourced dedicated teams to lead on Scottish devolutions; we have shared—and we continue to share—our learnings and experience with the Scottish Government; we have run more than 100 workshops and operational visits; and we have shared many hundreds of pieces of information. We are absolutely committed to working in partnership with the Scottish Government to ensure a safe and secure transfer of the welfare powers for which they now have responsibility.
Scotland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, and our economic and welfare reform policies recognise that. Unemployment in Scotland is at a near historic low, which we should all welcome, and more people see greater security in retirement. Following the decisive result of the 2014 independence referendum and the ensuing Smith commission, we are delivering on the promises we made to people in Scotland by devolving £2.8 billion in welfare powers.
If we are working together and in partnership, will the Minister support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend Dr Whitford? That would negate the need for the Scottish Government to have to negotiate with the Department for Work and Pensions and would pay for the DWP to deliver split payment services under universal credit.
If I may, I will come on to how we are co-operating with the Scottish Government. At the end of the day, there is of course also a requirement on the Scottish Government to play their part. Many of the powers are being devolved: that involves not only a right for the Scottish Government, but a requirement for them to deliver.
The Scotland Act 2016 was an historic moment that created a shared welfare space for the first time. Since September 2016, the Scottish Government have had power to deliver employment programmes for disabled people and those at risk of long-term unemployment, and to vary the housing cost elements of universal credit through the universal credit choices. They have also had the power to top up reserved benefits using their own resources and to create new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility.
We have seen progress in some of those areas, with the DWP providing considerable support to enable the Scottish Government to deliver their transitional employability programmes from April 2017. From April this year we will support the introduction of their successor employment programme, Fair Start Scotland, which relies on Jobcentre Plus work coaches playing a key role in the referral process.
We are yet, however, to see any proposals for how the Scottish Government intend to use their powers to top up benefits or to create new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility. The Scottish Government are proposing to pay a carer’s allowance supplement to carers living in Scotland from this autumn, but they have still not put forward proposals on the disability benefits such as personal independence payments, disability living allowance and attendance allowance for people in Scotland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock asked about joint working. As he may know, there is a joint ministerial working group on welfare, which is jointly chaired by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities in the Scottish Government. It continues to oversee the transfer of the new employment and welfare responsibilities. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions also attends the working group. My Department has worked hard to share our knowledge and experience and has invested significant resource to support the Scottish Government’s thinking and planning.
It is two years this week since the Scotland Act received Royal Assent, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock that the public need clarity, as there is still much to do. Meaningful devolution in such areas cannot happen until the Scottish Government make their policy intentions clear and put in place the infrastructure to deliver them.
The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts asked specifically what we were doing with the Scottish Government. I can tell him that, obviously, we have been supporting them in a whole range of areas, as outlined, but we are keen to understand in greater depth the Scottish Government’s plans for post-wave 1—when I say that, I mean the disability benefits that I have already outlined.
The reality is that if the Scottish Government fail to deliver those welfare powers by 2020, the people of Scotland will need to be protected. Plans are in place to ensure that the DWP will be able to continue to administer and deliver the devolved benefits, as we do now, under an agency agreement for a defined time. We will ensure that we provide the greatest support and the greatest protection for the people of Scotland.
My intention is not to create any kind of ranking—we want to work with the Scottish Government. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock made, rightly, is that he has concerns about the pace at which things are moving. I repeat: the faster the Scottish Government move forward, the faster and more easily we can work together to deliver, ultimately, for the people of Scotland. That is what are here to talk about—not the politicians, but the people of Scotland.
It is good to hear about the support that the Minister is providing to the devolved Administration, but will he assure me and other Members that, although some devolution of powers will be helpful, he and his Department will work with them to ensure against duplication and our constituents receiving a lower standard of service? Creating a new welfare agency is another layer of bureaucracy and cost. Benefits are already confusing enough for our constituents. Will he make that guarantee? We are MPs in this place to influence Government directly for all the UK, not to devolve our responsibility away.
As I said, we are here to work together to deliver for the people of Scotland. I know a number of colleagues have castigated universal credit, but it is a welfare system that has simplified the whole infrastructure of welfare. Having gone to jobcentres around the country and talked directly to claimants, I can say that for them that has made a big positive difference.
I only have a couple of minutes left, so I will deal with a couple of points made during the debate. One was with regard to disabilities. There was an implication that we may be cutting disability benefits, but that is not the case. In fact, PIP and DLA are just one part of more than £50 billion that we will be spending this year alone to support disabled people and those with health conditions.
Alison Thewliss mentioned the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We do not accept the commission’s analysis, because it only represents a partial picture, does not consider the effect of spending on public services and makes unevidenced assumptions about income sharing in households. She made a specific point about women of Pakistani origin. We are committed to increasing opportunity for them, which is why, as part of the work we have done in the race disparity audit, we have identified 20 challenge areas in which to have pilots, to ensure that we can get people into work.
In conclusion, we look forward to the Scottish Government ultimately making progress with the ideas outlined. We, of course, stand ready to work with them to deliver for the people of Scotland. That is certainly the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock made in his opening speech, and I commend him for that.
It is left to me simply to thank all Members and the Minister for coming along this afternoon—and indeed you, Mr Rosindell, for chairing the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Scottish welfare powers.