Devolution of Welfare — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 9th April 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk 9:30 am, 9th April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered devolution of welfare.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating this debate and to my colleagues who are here to participate. We are of course meant to be in our constituencies this week, but events have overtaken us, so I am pleased that we are able to use our time in Westminster to discuss an issue that affects many of the people whom we represent. Indeed, the devolution of welfare is set to impact more than 1 million people in Scotland. That is why it is so important that the process is got right.

I want to make it crystal clear that I enthusiastically support the devolution of the welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Act 2016 fulfilled a promise made by the United Kingdom Government—the so-called vow—that voting to remain part of the United Kingdom, as Scots did so overwhelmingly in 2014, would not mean an end to devolution. The Conservative Government established the cross-party Smith commission to look at what should be devolved. The Conservative Government then passed the 2016 Act, which devolved a significant tranche of welfare powers, and my Scottish Conservative colleagues in Holyrood voted for the Bill that has paved the way for Scottish Ministers to take over the powers.

No one can question this Government’s or the Conservative party’s commitment to this process. Devolution of welfare allows the Scottish Parliament to try different approaches, to learn from and build on experiences in other parts of the United Kingdom and to deliver welfare more locally in a way that is more tailored to Scottish needs. That is a good thing.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman refers to how things work in other parts of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland Assembly is not functioning at the moment as it should be, but when it was, we had a very good relationship with the Conservative party and Government that enabled us to bring in some changes in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions that helped us in Northern Ireland. That involved taking some money out of our block grant. It meant that we were able to help the more vulnerable people. We have very large numbers of disabled people who are in receipt of benefit, whether it be disability living allowance or personal independence payments, across Northern Ireland. A relationship between the Government—our Government, the Conservative Government—and the devolved Administrations is the way forward, and the way to make things happen.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about the importance of different Governments within the United Kingdom working together. Ultimately, and in this policy area in particular, we are helping some of the most vulnerable people in society, and it is imperative that we get it right. That is why this debate is so important.

I think it a good thing that more control over welfare is coming to Scotland, but it is clearly a challenge, and it is obvious that the Scottish National party Government in Scotland have significantly underestimated the challenge. Under the 2016 Act, 11 DWP benefits are being devolved to Scotland. The power to legislate for that has already been transferred. On 1 April next year, the Scottish Government are due to gain “executive competence”, which is essentially administrative control over the benefits. Those are significant new powers. Launching Social Security Scotland, the First Minister described it as an “historic moment”.

Although some of the benefits to be devolved are less substantial—they are of course hugely important to those who receive them—significant benefits will be taken on by the Scottish Government. They include PIP, carer’s allowance and DLA and, as a package, they account for about £3 billion, or just over 15% of total social security spending in Scotland.

The Department for Work and Pensions has been working with the Scottish Government to allow the change to take place. The Scottish Government have previously promised that they will be fully delivering these benefits by the end of the Scottish Parliament’s current term, which ends in 2021. In fact, the Scottish Government previously indicated that they hoped to complete the process by 2020, so the timetable had already slipped slightly. Given that the Scotland Act was introduced in this place in May 2015, the Scottish Government could have got ahead of the game and begun preparing for this process much earlier than they did.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

I compliment my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He has mentioned the investment that the DWP has already made in helping the Scottish Government to prepare to assume the devolved powers for these benefits. Does he know how much that has cost the DWP in addition to its usual expenses?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I am going to come on to that shortly. Clearly, there is a cost implication of the Scottish Government’s failure to keep to the timetable that they have anticipated.

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this incredibly important debate to this place. Does he agree that, in fact, the blame lies firmly at the door of the SNP Scottish Government? I asked a question in the Chamber, and have met the Secretary of State about this matter as well. The DWP did all it possibly could to ensure the Scottish Government were ready to take on these powers. The blame lies firmly at their door, because this UK Government have done everything they possibly can.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; I am going to expand on that a little further. Despite all the rhetoric we hear from the SNP about taking on these powers and many others, it has absolutely failed to fulfil those promises on the delivery of welfare.

By the end of February, the Scottish Government announced that they expected it to take until at least 2024 before this process would be completed. They also said they would not be taking on competence for the severe disablement allowance, instead leaving that controlled by the Department for Work and Pensions indefinitely. The issue is important for this place, because these powers were due to be devolved. It therefore now falls on the Department for Work and Pensions to step in and ensure that the people of Scotland—our constituents—receive the support they need.

All of this is perhaps understandable. Delivering a welfare system is a complex matter that we need to get right. I acknowledge that the UK Government have needed to delay the roll-out of universal credit, which is a much more complex undertaking. The SNP has spent the past decade criticising the UK Government for their welfare policies and demanding these powers, so the people of Scotland expected the Scottish Government to be keen to take them on as quickly as possible. Instead, it will take the Scottish Government nine years to build a social security system, despite one of the benefits being handed back to the Department for Work and Pensions here at Westminster. This is from a party that tried to con the voters of Scotland by saying that they could set up an entire independent country, with all the apparatus that this would have entailed, in just 18 months. This is from a party that is demanding the devolution of all welfare powers to Scotland, as well as a whole range of other powers.

There is not really any disagreement about why this has happened. I am sure the Minister will be tactful in his closing remarks, because the Department for Work and Pensions wants this process to be done properly and these powers to be devolved in a smooth way. However, the fact remains that these delays are entirely the fault of the Scottish Government and their failure to build capacity to deliver a new social security agency.

Department for Work and Pensions officials have been working hard to devolve these powers since the Scotland Act 2016 was passed. Indeed, they were working towards the 2021 timetable right up until the delay was announced by the Scottish Government. There had been warning signs long before, which should have made the Scottish Government think they had to improve progress. Last year, Audit Scotland warned that Scottish Ministers had not done their homework and had no idea how achievable the plans for Social Security Scotland were. It is already costing more than the Scottish Government thought it would, and plans for local benefits agencies are well behind schedule. It is very clear that the Scottish Government underestimated how complex and expensive it is to deliver a social security system, which is why they have caused these delays.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative, Moray

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I hope he agrees that it is very unfortunate that SNP Members have chosen to laugh at elements of what he is saying about an extremely serious issue, rather than focus on the debate. He mentioned the Audit Scotland report. Does he agree that it is wrong of the SNP to claim that it was prepared for this, when Audit Scotland said it had not even worked out how much a new benefits system would cost?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is quite telling that there are only three SNP Members here, given the number of Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour party Members. I sense that on this issue, they feel a deep sense of embarrassment about how their Scottish Government colleagues have delivered. They are not bobbing up to make interventions to challenge the points that are being made; instead, they sit and they laugh. The reality is that it is our constituents, the people of Scotland, who are being let down by this Scottish Government failing to deliver.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I just want to make a bit more progress. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Fine, on you go.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and commend him on securing this debate, as it will give us an opportunity to set out the positive things that the Scottish Government are doing on social security, as I will when I make my speech. The hon. Gentleman is laying all the blame at the Scottish Government’s door. Can he advise the Chamber on how many occasions the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has met with the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People in Scotland, or with the joint ministerial committee, and how often those meetings have been cancelled as a result of the Department for Work and Pensions’ failure to engage?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

The hon. Gentleman is doing his best to try to justify this, but the Secretary of State for Scotland regularly meets officials from the Scottish Government about the devolution of welfare powers.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

The Secretary of State and other Ministers in this Government have been working hard, because we recognise how important the continuation of welfare support is to our constituents and the people of Scotland, and that the Scottish Government have failed to deliver as they have promised. These delays are of huge concern to our constituents, because they raise doubt about the Scottish Government’s ability to take on functions of the Department for Work and Pensions and to deliver benefits in Scotland. People are looking at those delays and are rightly asking whether the Scottish Government are up to the job.

Although the Department for Work and Pensions has stepped in to ensure that benefits will be paid notwithstanding the delay, how long can that go on for? It is far from satisfactory for the DWP and Scottish Government to be working to a presumption that social security will be devolved by 2021, only for the Scottish Government to suddenly announce a three-year delay. Perhaps in his closing remarks, the Minister could provide some clarity about whether his Department was made aware of the new timetable, and whether any further delays are anticipated.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous with his time. Does he acknowledge the comments that have been made by Inclusion Scotland and the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability about the timetable for the delivery of Scottish social security powers? Given that those organisations speak for the people who will rely on those powers being delivered effectively, why is the hon. Gentleman so willing to challenge what they have said in welcoming the timetable set out by the Scottish Government?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I am grateful for that point, but it is astonishing—it is a Scottish Government timetable that has slipped. The hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in Edinburgh—the Scottish Government, the SNP—said that they would try to put the new welfare system in place by the end of 2020. That deadline then became 2021, and then became 2024. It is an absolute failure by the SNP Scottish Government to deliver and match their promises, and I think supporters of Scotland will judge them when the next election comes.

In the event of any further delays, I am confident that the DWP stands ready to step in, but perhaps the Minister could provide my constituents with some reassurances that that will be the case. There are also questions about the additional cost of these delays. Given that the Scottish Government are meant to be taking on these powers, and are spending considerable money on setting up Social Security Scotland, any extra spending by the DWP is an additional, duplicate cost to the public purse. The welfare system is crucial to the life of many of our constituents, and it is vital that these powers are devolved in an orderly fashion so that nobody falls through the cracks. It is important that a new timetable is developed so that the Scottish Government get ready to take on these powers, and there are no further unexpected delays.

One issue that is unique to my constituency, I think, is about the devolution of cold weather payments. In the Scottish borders, the TD12 and TD15 postcodes include homes on either side of the border. For the purposes of cold weather payments, other postcodes in Northumberland use a weather station in Scotland. Some properties will get their cold weather payment from the Department for Work and Pensions, while others in the same postcode should get theirs from Social Security Scotland. If cold weather payments are eventually to be taken on by the Scottish Government, could the Minister confirm whether there have been any discussions about how those payments will be delivered where postcodes are split across the border?

One final issue concerns other welfare powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament by the Scotland Act 2016. As well as delays to taking on devolved benefits, the Scottish Government seem less than enthusiastic about accepting these powers. The Scotland Act devolves the ability to top up reserved benefits, provide short-term payments and create new non-reserved benefits. UK Ministers have repeatedly made their view clear that these powers allow the Scottish Government to compensate women affected by the equalisation of the state pension age. The Scottish Government do not often accuse the UK Government of giving powers away, so the fact that UK Ministers say that these powers have been devolved is a compelling reason to believe this to be the case.

A more detailed look at the legislation clearly shows that the Scottish Government could act in three ways. First, section 24 provides the Scottish Government with the ability to top up pensions and, therefore, compensate women affected by this change once they reach the new pension age. This may not be an ideal solution; none the less, the Scottish Government accept it as possible.

Secondly, section 26 allows for payments to provide help with short term needs if payment is required “to avoid a risk” to the person’s wellbeing. The Scottish Government claim this requires each case to be individually assessed, but this is simply not true. The legislation allows payment merely to avoid a risk of harm. That is a low threshold. If the Scottish Government’s language about the impact of these changes is accurate, the threshold is clearly met.

Thirdly, section 28 allows the Scottish Government to create new non-reserved benefits, except to provide a pension or provide assistance merely by old age. This does not prevent the Scottish Government from taking action, because compensating Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign women before they reach pension age does not amount to a pension nor to assistance due to old age, which, in the context, clearly means the state pension age.

A letter from the then Minister for Pensions, my hon. Friend Richard Harrington in 2017 made the Scottish Government aware of this point. My hon. Friend wrote about section 28:

“Whilst this power cannot be used to provide pensions to people who qualify by reason of old age, many of those affected by changes to the state pension age will not have reached state pension age. As a result, this broad power does offer the Scottish Government the possibility of introducing financial support to help this group.”

Clearly, this is another way in which the Scottish Government could step in but fail to do so.

I have huge sympathy for the women affected by this change and I have been working with a number of them in my constituency to help them manage the process. However, I have no time for the SNP’s position on this matter, which is completely inconsistent. The SNP might not want to take action to compensate these women; that would be a perfectly legitimate position. The SNP might want to take action but feel it would be too costly; again, that is an entirely legitimate position. It is not legitimate to try and make political capital out of a group of women who clearly feel wronged, and mislead them about the Scottish Government’s ability to help.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian

The hon. Gentleman is making a very eloquent argument as to why the Scottish Government can pick up the WASPI problem, but this matter also rests with the Government. In his view, is the Government’s decision not to compensate the WASPI women legitimate or is it democratic?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I support equalisation of pension age. This is how devolution works. Just as we have different policies on prescription charges and university tuition in Scotland, potentially, you could have a different policy in Scotland about how women of a certain age are supported. I support the UK Government’s position, but there are options open to the Scottish Government to take a different approach. However, they are exploiting these women for party political purposes and for no other reason.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman has been making great play of the fact that he has the border near his constituency. Why does he believe that women south of that border do not deserve to be compensated because of his Government?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I support the equalisation of the pension age. It is quite astonishing for the hon. Lady to almost deny the devolution settlement. This is how devolution works. Different parts of the United Kingdom can pursue different policy objectives. The hon. Lady is almost arguing for the abolition of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government’s ability to take different decisions and pursue different policy objectives. Why not accept that they have the power and ability to take action to compensate those women and support the Scottish Government in taking a different approach if they choose to do so?

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

Given that the hon. Gentleman is advocating his support for 1950s-born women, is he in favour of the UK Government’s pension credit changes, which will go through in May, which are being referred to by WASPI women as a toy boy tax?

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

I support the changes. I have supported a number of my constituents. As I have said, the equalisation of the pension age is right. People are living to be older, and it is right that men and women are entitled to their pension at the same age. This is another example of the Scottish Government’s failure to take action when it has the power to do so. Despite all the rhetoric demanding more powers, they have an inability to use those powers.

Devolution of welfare by this Conservative Government has made the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the Scottish Government have found taking on those powers such a challenge. The latest delay is surprising, given the SNP’s criticism of the system they are inheriting. It is important that the Department for Work and Pensions continues to do all that it can to ensure the orderly transfer of welfare powers and to ensure that the recipients—the people of Scotland; our constituents—continue to receive the support they need.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

Seven Members wish to speak, so that is about five minutes each. That is guidance, not an absolute rigid time limit, but please stick to it, otherwise colleagues will not get their fair share.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Labour, Edinburgh South 9:52 am, 9th April 2019

It is great to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. If John Lamont will allow me to refer to him as the hon. Member for Berwickshire, that might save us a little time.

This is a strange debate, because we have two parties—the Conservatives and the SNP—arguing when they are both culpable for why we are here. Since 2010 the social security system has been completely and utterly discredited by a deliberate narrative from the then coalition Government that welfare was a bad thing. They completely changed the narrative in this place, and indeed in the country, from social security being a safety net to welfare being bad. That is part of the problem we have today.

Between 1997 and 2010, the previous Labour Government created a system that lifted millions of pensioners, and millions and millions of children, out of poverty. We should be incredibly proud of that. Since then, most of that has gone backwards in the name of austerity, which has been a political choice rather than a necessity. Before Conservative Members, if they wish, pop up and go on about the employment statistics, which are welcome, most of the decline in terms of poverty comes from in-work poverty—people actually in work.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Labour, Edinburgh South

I am happy to do so just once.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

Surely it is a good thing that there are now fewer children in workless households than ever before. That is good, isn’t it?

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Labour, Edinburgh South

It is a fantastic thing, but it is bad that most of those children are in poverty when they were not before. Social security is a sensitive subject, and we must be careful about the language we use.

I want to reflect on what the Smith commission has done. In response to the 2014 independence referendum, a commission was put in place that allowed all the parties to come together to find consensus about what the next stage of devolution to the Scottish Parliament should be in the devolution journey.

I am glad that Members across the House now extol the virtues of sections 24, 25 and 26 of the Scotland Act 2016, because while the Conservatives and SNP argued about the minutiae of what was not in the Bill, Labour were promoting changes at the Dispatch Box. We proposed amendments to put stuff into the Bill that could have been there, such as my amendment 31. The amendments that went through in the House of Lords gave Scotland the power to create its own social security system. The Scottish Government can top up any reserved benefit and create a new benefit in any devolved area; that is incredibly important. That is why it is so frustrating that the devolved powers have been delayed. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Berwickshire mentioned the WASPI issue, because it is a key aspect of the way the whole issue has been dealt with.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman will understand the difficulty and complexity of delivering a combined social security system—one that has to interact with a Department that is putting roadblocks in the way of some of the flexibilities and changes that the Scottish Government are looking to achieve. Can he outline an area where the Scottish Government could have gone more quickly, such as the passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018? Could that have been quicker? Is there any area where he thinks things could have moved more quickly than they have?

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Labour, Edinburgh South

That is an interesting intervention. I admit I am not an expert on social security, and I would not claim to be. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the intervention. However, is it not interesting that, whereas the Scottish National party social security spokesperson was telling everyone in 2014 that an entirely new state could be set up in 18 months, the matters we are discussing have been delayed not twice but three times, in 2016, 2018 and 2019? That was with respect to benefits that the SNP claimed had to be in the Bill and had to be devolved immediately, and that it would be able to deal with.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Labour, Edinburgh South

I will not, because the Chair has said we have only five minutes.

I wanted to mention the WASPI issue. The WASPI women in my constituency are beside themselves that the issue has not been resolved. Both parties, and both the Scottish and UK Governments, are culpable of robbing WASPI women of the pensions they have worked hard for. Scotland could use the powers at its disposal to take a different course, but its Government refuse to do so, because they would rather create grievance than deal with the issue.

It is important that the people of Scotland know we have an inhumane welfare system across the UK at the moment. Scotland can make a different choice and create its own welfare system. The UK Government have created a situation that means Scotland has the ability to do something different. The SNP Government of Scotland refuse to do so. They have delayed it until 2024—eight years after the passage of the 2016 Act. At the same time, disabled people and WASPI women in Scotland, in particular, are suffering. The SNP Government should hang their head in shame.

Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock 9:57 am, 9th April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend John Lamont for securing this important debate.

We have already heard about the foundation Acts of 2016 and 2018, enacted by the UK and Scottish Governments respectively to devolve various welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament and facilitate delivery of the new social security benefit scheme in Scotland. The Scottish Government’s website states that

“the benefits we will deliver may be different in nature but there is one common thread which binds them—an investment in the people of Scotland”.

I am afraid that that common thread is fraying. Delivery is delayed. The Scottish Government’s investment to date is not timeously delivering the promised benefits for the people of Scotland. The Scottish Government will, over time, take on only 10 of the original 11 devolved benefits. The severe disablement allowance remains with the UK’s DWP. The transfer of responsibility for a number of other devolved benefits, such as personal independence payments, is on hold—not until tomorrow or next week but until 2024.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned severe disablement allowance and he will be aware that no new recipient has been admitted to that benefit for 19 years. Can he describe what changes, and what difference, the Scottish Government could make to that area of benefits?

Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

That is entirely up to the Scottish Government. It is devolved. It is another ball that they have dropped and are not prepared to pick up.

The state of preparedness of the Scottish Government’s social security agency is such that it is unable fully to administer and make its annual payments of circa £2.9 billion. The Scottish social security system is apparently failing to fulfil, at least in part, one of its own stated principles, which is

“to be efficient and deliver value for money”.

I understand that Audit Scotland is due to report on a further audit, of how effectively the Scottish Government are managing the delivery.

The Scottish Government’s stated aim of improving benefits for disabled people and people with ill health is laudable, and I applaud it. However, I note that assessments may not be carried out by the private sector, so there is potential for an already overstretched public sector to inherit that significant, important responsibility. In an earlier debate, I acknowledged previous concerns about the DWP assessments that are carried out by the private sector, and those concerns are being addressed. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions advised in February 2019 that the average wait for an assessment had been reduced by nearly four-fifths since July 2014, while the average end-to-end claim journey had been significantly reduced.

Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

No. My concern with the Scottish plan of action is that constituents complain about the public sector, for both the length of time that they have to wait for an NHS appointment and the shortage of specialist medical staff. That said, I fear that either the waiting time for those constituents could increase or the decision-making process for benefit claimants could take longer. I note that the Scottish Government, in response to recent questions, have proposed to do away with some assessments and re-assessments unless there is no other way to obtain information.

In future, constituents need clarity. Will the Minister consider enhancing public awareness of the revised timetable for the Scottish Government—assuming that that is much wanted and desired—in their responsibilities to devolved benefits? The current situation is not good for the people of Scotland who rely on those benefits; it is not good for the Scottish devolution settlement; and it is not good for Scotland. It lies firmly and squarely at the door of the Scottish Government.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian 10:01 am, 9th April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate both the Backbench Business Committee and my near neighbour, John Lamont, on securing this most timely debate. We find ourselves discussing the devolution of welfare, and I shall start by echoing some of the comments made by my hon. Friend Ian Murray.

What is welfare? It is the bottom line below which we feel that people, as part of our community, should not fall. Somehow in the last 10 years, however, that argument has changed to looking at the most vulnerable people, as they are described—rather than people who are in the most vulnerable positions—as being something less, and possibly unworthy. They are certainly seen as a group who should pay for the problems, errors and omissions of the parts of society that led to the economic disaster. That is an appalling state to reach.

Our communities are being fractured enough, with the closures of banks and GP surgeries and the collapse of the high street, but they are now also being asked to turn against themselves and look down their noses at a group of people who find themselves in desperate situations. That is a truly appalling position to be in. I find it disingenuous when I listen to arguments, both in the main Chamber and in this one, in which those people are held up as those who should suffer most for the faults of others.

The Scotland Act and the devolution settlement in Scotland opened up the opportunity for something more. It opened up the opportunity for a fairer and kinder system, and to tailor welfare to the people who are closest to those who make the decisions. We find ourselves arguing over delay and postponement. That is an appalling situation, because those individuals, families and single mothers and children cannot wait for a more humane situation. They come to my surgery on a weekly basis and contact me almost daily. I find it appalling that the set-up of a system has been postponed until 2024.

I ask both the Minister, out of respect—he kindly asked for a civilised debate, which I think that we should have—and the SNP spokesperson: what went wrong? Was it the responsibility of those who advised the Scottish Government, or were flippant statements made with a level of enthusiasm for welfare that could not then be fulfilled? People in Scotland deserve an apology for the situation that they find themselves in. So much was promised and, at present, so little has been delivered.

I know that I have little time, and I would like raise the matter of PIP and epilepsy. Earlier this year, I lodged early-day motion 2124 on epilepsy and PIP payments, particularly in Scotland, where 55,000 people suffer from debilitating seizures, which seriously affect their mental health. Those people had hoped that the PIP system would become fairer and kinder, but they are now looking far into the future for that to occur. Will there be an apology in respect of those people and the situation that they suffer?

I want to ask both the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson about Motability. The Scottish Government have indicated they do not want to take it on, yet it is a benefit that individuals have come to me about. A constituent who suffers from spinal issues fears that the approach of the Scottish Government will be the same as the DWP’s and that she will lose the opportunity to use Motability to manage her condition.

Lastly, I seek reassurance on the people who have found themselves falling foul of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Originally brought in to help deal with terrorist activity, it is now being used to decide whether people are fit to work or are less disabled than they say they are. I met a constituent only last week who was still awaiting a decision so that she can appeal it. She is trapped in a circle; there are no responses from the DWP, so she cannot appeal a decision. There are no responses from the investigation unit to decide whether any criminal procedures will take place. Locked into that labyrinthine nightmare, she looks to the Scottish Government and asks genuinely whether things will get better. On the evidence that we have heard about the two delays, I fear that that will not be the case.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 10:07 am, 9th April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to follow Martin Whitfield, who made his usual thoughtful speech. I thank my hon. Friend John Lamont for securing this Westminster Hall debate.

I remember the conversation back in September 2014. The SNP had produced its blueprint for an independent Scotland, which it claimed was a White Paper, but, as it has transpired, was a work of pure fiction. Events have proven that beyond doubt. On page 339 of the document there was a timeline for independence, and it put independence day in March 2016. That is a total of 560 days from the date of the referendum to the date of independence: 560 days to set up an entirely new country from scratch. The timeframe would include all the negotiations on how Scotland would withdraw from and have a future relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. On reflection, how extraordinary those dates and numbers now seem, and how ridiculous, particularly in the light of what has transpired in relation to Brexit.

Today’s debate is about the establishment of the devolved Scottish social security system. The Scotland Act devolved the powers and they passed into law on 23 March 2016. The Act delivered on the promise made to the Scottish people about devolving more power to our Parliament. It fulfilled the commitments of the Smith commission, to which all the parties in Scotland contributed and agreed. The noble Lord Smith of Kelvin has confirmed that all the commitments made in the commission’s report have been delivered, so the powers in relation to social security should be transferred to the Scottish Government on 1 April 2020, but the SNP will not touch them. It will cost more than £308 million to set up Social Security Scotland. The SNP claimed, just five years ago, that it would cost £200 million to set up the new Scotland that it falsely promised the people of Scotland. In February, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security announced that the Scottish Government would not be in a position to introduce and own the devolved powers until at least 2024.

Photo of Ross Thomson Ross Thomson Conservative, Aberdeen South

My hon. Friend is right that the Scottish Government have not touched the powers. The nub of the issue is this: their only desire is to have the constitutional change of independence, which means using any mechanism at their disposal to attack the UK Government, bash Westminster, and use the politics of grievance rather than come up with solutions to help people.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

My hon. Friend is correct; there is no issue that it is beyond the SNP’s powers to politicise and use for its own nationalist agenda. Clearly, these things are more complex than they seem, and I accept that. I do not really want the SNP taking these powers and using them if it cannot handle them, because we are talking about the lives of the most vulnerable people in Scotland, who deserve to be protected from any possible incompetence on the part of the SNP. The SNP’s track record on IT systems alone is a horror story, and the farm payments fiasco is a warning.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman warns of the problems that his constituents could face if this system is not delivered effectively. To his credit, he has been a critic of this Government on universal credit, so does he not think it a tad ironic to be speaking about the potential incompetence of the Scottish Government who are delivering a safe system when his Government have presided over the shambles of universal credit and personal independence payments?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

The hon. Gentleman is someone I respect, but we are talking about the Scottish Government’s willingness to accept powers that have been devolved to them, and their unwillingness to touch those powers speaks volumes about them. They will now take until 2024 instead of 2020. That is more than 3,000 days’ notice—six times the number of days the SNP told us it would need to set up the new Scotland that it promised the Scottish people in 2014. This is the sad state of affairs of the SNP.

The fact is that the SNP does not want to have to handle these powers, because they are difficult powers to handle. Welfare and benefits are expensive and complex; they need politicians to be grown up, to make difficult decisions and to show leadership. Let us be clear: the next time we hear SNP politicians in this place or elsewhere deriding welfare reform or bemoaning a decision that they view as disadvantageous to their constituents, they will be complicit. The SNP Government could have set up a social security system; they could have grasped the nettle and dealt with this, but, through either political cowardice or sheer incompetence, they have failed the challenge.

The people of Scotland are sick and tired of the SNP and its excuses. Devolution works. The powers are there. It is simply the nationalists who, through their wilful negligence, are leaving Scotland to stagnate.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 10:12 am, 9th April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.

I thank John Lamont for calling this debate, which is timely and important, particularly for me. When full transition happens, I will have the largest number of constituents claiming universal credit of any constituency in Scotland, so it is something that particularly affects my constituents.

I suppose this debate leads us to reflect on why we are in politics and what our purpose is as Members of Parliament. For me, it is about building a country that has the capacity to ensure that the maximum number of its people are able to work, sustain themselves in a dignified way and achieve their opportunity. Enabling everyone to have that opportunity will improve our collective function as a society and our capability as a country. That is, in essence, what I want to achieve in Parliament and in politics and why I am a member of the Labour party.

Let us look at the record of the last Labour Government on child poverty. In 1998, there were 3 million children in poverty. By the end of the last Labour Government, that had been reduced to 1.6 million. Sadly, under the coalition and pure Conservative Governments since, that figure has risen to 3.7 million. That is shameful; and before there is any hubris from the Conservatives on welfare or social security, I just want to make clear that that is a shameful stain on their record.

That is a function of a society that has seen the narrative of removing the shame from need and the creation of a floor below which none can fall and everyone can rise completely destroyed. The ideal of the Attlee Government in creating the social security foundation that built the welfare state has been thoroughly damaged by this Government. That is the main take-away from this debate and one that cannot be dismissed.

However, I also reflect on 20 years of devolution and the great opportunities that we saw from it. I still remember, as a nine-year-old, watching the opening of the Scottish Parliament and that parade down the Royal Mile, and the great optimism in the immediate aftermath of a Labour Government coming to power, as well as the great opportunities sensed by people. The Parliament was built not just for the inherent right to have a Scottish Parliament, but as a functional thing that would achieve objectives. In my opinion, one of the key objectives was to have an effective bulwark against a future Tory Government that might attack the fundamentals of our social security system and welfare state.

The Scotland Act 2016 was passed in that spirit. That was due in no small part to the efforts of my hon. Friend Ian Murray, who fought valiantly to ensure key amendments to the Bill, in particular the power to top up reserved benefits, which gives the Scottish Government a significant measure of autonomy. That autonomy is combined with the great opportunity of the United Kingdom’s fiscal union, which each year delivers £10.2 billion extra for Scotland—£1,900 per person—to invest in the economy and public services. That would not be achievable under independence. Therefore, the Scottish Parliament has been pump-primed with a great measure of financial capability to achieve change in the face of an onslaught by the Conservatives, who wish to cut the fabric of our society and our public services.

With this delay we have seen a huge failure to live up to the expectations of devolution. Around 60% of all social security has now been devolved, with the exclusion of the state pension, which is an automatic stabiliser. That is a huge opportunity for Scotland. There have been some improvements, such as the ban on private sector involvement in assessments, but that was thanks to Labour’s campaigning efforts in the Scottish Parliament. There was a commitment to reduce face-to-face assessments—that was a Green proposal—and short-term assistance is now paid if an award is reduced and the applicant subsequently asks for a review or appeal.

However, we have also seen the Tories and SNP unite in Holyrood to vote down a £5 per week top-up to child benefit, by using the Social Security (Scotland) Bill and the budget processes. There has been an endorsement for the uprating cuts, which has blocked Labour’s move to revert to the retail prices index when uprating carers allowance. The 2011 cut based on the consumer prices index has cost carers £1,000 since 2011, while Tory uprating cuts have cost Scots £1.9 million in the past decade. Those are just some examples of a complete failure to live up to expectations. We need radical and effective measures, which is what we seek to propose, and we encourage all parties to live up to the expectations that people had when devolution was first delivered 20 years ago.

Photo of Hugh Gaffney Hugh Gaffney Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill 10:18 am, 9th April 2019

I congratulate John Lamont on securing this debate.

Government figures illustrate that 1 million people in Scotland now live in relative poverty, which equates to one in every five Scots. They also highlight that 240,000 children in Scotland are living in poverty, two-thirds of whom come from working households. The Independent Food Aid Network found that more than 480,000 crisis food parcels were distributed by Scottish foodbanks between April and September 2018, which included 27,000 parcels in North Lanarkshire and in my constituency. The Government are presiding over a crisis of in-work poverty, child poverty and food poverty, and their policies are directly contributing to that with the failing roll-out of universal credit and the unjust benefits freeze.

The central purpose of devolution is to give the Scottish Government a chance to take different decisions, yet the SNP Scottish Government are far too timid in their ambitions for a devolved social security system. Eleven benefits have been devolved, including PIP and DLA, which are worth more than £3 billion to Scots every year. The Scottish Government have shown no sign that they are prepared to take responsibility for those benefits, having twice asked the DWP to delay devolving them. Scottish Government Ministers now admit that the full devolution of benefits will not be completed until 2024, leaving hundreds of thousands of Scottish claimants to languish under the welfare reforms of this Tory Government.

I should stress that I welcome some of the positive changes that the Scottish Government are seeking to make to the devolved social security system. I am pleased that the responsibility for evidence gathering for assessments will be shifted away from claimants. I am glad that short-term assistance will be paid to those who find their awards reduced or who are challenging decisions through the appeals process, and I welcome the commitment to reduce the number of face-to-face assessments. However, I continue to have concerns that much of what is wrong with the current UK welfare reforms will remain in place in the new devolved social security system. There will be no changes to the rate of benefits. The current points-based system and assessment indicators for PIP will be retained, and the mandatory reconsideration process will not be reformed in any meaningful way.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the PIP points-based system staying the same. In many constituencies the change from DLA to the PIP-based system has meant huge losses for people. In my constituency, it amounts to £2 million a year. Does he not agree that that is shameful? Surely the Scottish Government could take action immediately to resolve it.

Photo of Hugh Gaffney Hugh Gaffney Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

That is indeed something that the Scottish Government could do. They want to be the Scottish power. They talk down here about “owning Scotland”. Well, start owning Scotland and start making changes to help people—our constituents.

The SNP has voted against topping up child benefit by £5 a week and against reverting to uprating carer’s allowance by RPI, and failed to mitigate the two-child limit. In the Scottish Parliament, Labour has already secured legal guarantees that the devolved social security system will have automatic split payments for universal credit and a ban on private sector involvement in assessments. We have committed to using the full powers available to take action, such as topping up child benefit, mitigating the two-child limit and bringing forward the income supplement that families across Scotland so desperately need. While I welcome the devolution of welfare, there is little point if the Scottish Government are not prepared to use their powers. That is why a Scottish Labour Government, committed to using those powers, as so desperately needed. If we are to tackle the crisis of poverty, make Scotland Labour.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I am going to start the winding up speeches at 10.28 am.

Photo of Danielle Rowley Danielle Rowley Labour, Midlothian 10:22 am, 9th April 2019

I am pleased to speak in this debate and to be the first woman called. Although we have had some interesting perspectives from men, it is important to note that welfare affects women disproportionately. We have women who are still mainly carers, women in low-paid jobs, who will often be working all the hours they can get while also caring for their children or perhaps elderly relatives, and also women affected by Government pension decisions, which have again been squabbled over. It is women who are affected by many of these policies, so I am glad to be able to speak.

I thank John Lamont for securing this debate. It is encouraging to see many of his colleagues here. However, when I listen to much of the arguments, I think about my constituents who come to my office every week, some of them in dire situations. They need support and advice, and often they need help. I think about one constituent, a young woman called Kelly, who is a fantastic woman. She is a working single mum in education who is currently on universal credit. She told me that she was once left with £6 in a month, which was supposed to support her and her young son. She was not sure why that had happened; it was not explained to her. She did not come to me and say, “Who should I point the finger at? Is this the Tories or the SNP? Which Government should I be angry at?” She just wanted it to be sorted out. She just wants a welfare system that works, so when I sit here and hear this blame game, it is very frustrating, because it is not really helping her.

We have heard a lot about the delay in devolving welfare powers that the Scottish Government have presided over. I will not go into that, because it has been well covered, but we have also heard about some of the changes that are not actually changes. We hear that the SNP wants more powers, but what is the point if it will not use them to improve things?

The recent consultation on disability assistance in Scotland and the position papers published just last month showed that the Scottish Government’s plan is to replicate much of the existing Tory-designed benefit system. Given that we hear criticisms of that system from SNP spokespeople, why do they want to keep much of the same? Severe disablement allowance is being devolved in name only and then outsourced back to the DWP, which is mind boggling.

I always call for more working together, and there has been some on this issue; however, I fear it has not been very positive. As some of my Labour colleagues mentioned, the SNP and the Tories have worked together in the Scottish Parliament to vote down a policy that would have supported 4,000 families and lifted 5,000 children out of poverty, yet cost the Scottish Government only 0.2% of their budget. There has to be a better way.

Labour has been leading the fight to improve social security for people in Scotland. For example, Scottish Labour pushed the Scottish Government to accept automatic split payments of universal credit—something that the SNP has now embraced and often takes credit for, despite voting against the initial move to amend the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 at stage 2, voting with the Tories. It remains unclear how split payments will be administered in Scotland. Will the Minister update us on that? What is the current timetable for implementing them in Scotland, and have the Scottish Government proposed a split formula?

The Minister and the SNP spokespeople in Westminster and in the Scottish Government need to work together to find a genuine way forward. I want to see less blame and more action to deliver for Kelly, my constituent, and the people who come to my office in need of help and a better system, because there is a better way.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

We move on to the Front Benchers, who will each have 10 minutes. That will leave a couple of minutes for the mover of the motion to wind up. I call Neil Gray for the SNP.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 10:27 am, 9th April 2019

Thank you very much, Mr Betts. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you, my Finance Committee colleague, in the Chair. I congratulate John Lamont on securing the debate, as it gives us an opportunity to talk about the great work being done by the SNP Scottish Government—

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

At least let me get started.

With support from other parties and brilliant stakeholders in Scotland, we are working to build our new social security system. I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk has a newfound interest in this area. Until now, he does not appear to have had much of an interest in the work and pensions brief since arriving in this House. A quick look at his speaking record shows that he has never mentioned universal credit or employment support allowance, and has raised personal independence payments—[Interruption.] I will not be shouted down, Mr Betts. The hon. Gentleman has raised personal independence payments just once, which, given the case that I and other colleagues have in this area, I find surprising.

If other search terms are entered, however, the number of mentions made by the hon. Gentleman rockets up. “The Scottish Government” gets 242 mentions, “the Scottish National party” gets 37, “the SNP” gets 116 and “independence” gets 43. That is quite the contrast. Those speaking records perhaps speak not just to his intentions today, but more to what he regards as his purpose in this place: not so much being part of a bloc of Scottish Tories holding this shambles of a British Government to account, but trying to do the job that he left as an Opposition Member of the Scottish Parliament.

I will tackle some of what the hon. Gentleman said and highlight some of what he conveniently forgot to say. I note that he did not once mention how the Scottish Government could safely deliver the new system any faster. I think we were right, having learned from the unsafe and disastrous delivery of universal credit and personal independence payment, to take our time, do this properly and delivery it safely for our constituents who depend on it.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative, Moray

The hon. Gentleman speaks about delivering functions in Scotland. Could he perhaps advise Westminster Hall how the SNP has done when it has tried to deliver things in Scotland—for example, paying our Scottish farmers, delivering i6, the IT system for Police Scotland, or delivering a social security system? Is it not the fact that it is failure, failure, failure under the SNP?

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I wish to put on record my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman and his wife on the safe delivery of their new-born—I think this is the first chance I have had to put that on record. He has a bit of cheek when he talks about farmers, given the way that the Tory Government robbed Scottish farmers of their convergence uplift money. I do not think that is a safe area of ground for him to be campaigning on.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk described the timetable that the Scottish Government have come forward with as a failure, despite it being welcomed by Inclusion Scotland and the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability. I challenge him to point out the areas of contradiction with those organisations, which speak for those who depend on the safe delivery of this system.

Ian Murray was right that the Scottish Government can do something different, and we are. We are creating a system that is based on dignity and respect, which I think is something that the Scottish Government and the Labour party agree on. We are looking to do something different in Scotland, which is why we have been working together in Holyrood on so many areas, in order to deliver that system. However, the hon. Gentleman did not answer how the system could have been delivered more quickly and fairly, so I am happy to allow him to intervene and describe that.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Labour, Edinburgh South

The narrative from the SNP Scottish Government has always been, rightly, about generating a new system that is more respectful of its claimants. Can the hon. Gentleman lay out why the Scottish Government are completely refusing to do anything about the WASPI women?

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

That is not actually true, and the hon. Gentleman knows it. We have been campaigning very hard in Westminster for the problem faced by the WASPI women to be sorted across the United Kingdom. He constantly talks about not having any differences between people in Livingston and people in Liverpool; we are in agreement on that. This issue should be sorted out for those women across the United Kingdom, and his ire should be directed at the Minister to resolve the situation.

Martin Whitfield asked why there was a delay. Again, we have been working hard to deliver the system as quickly and safely as possible, but sadly there has intransigence on the part of DWP Ministers. There has been good engagement—[Interruption.] No, it is not nonsense. There has been a good level of engagement at official level, but successive Secretaries of State have missed joint ministerial working group meetings and refused to allow the Scottish Government to utilise some of their powers, such as separate payments, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. There are areas where we are looking to make changes and develop new policy, but sadly the DWP is putting roadblocks in the way of that progress.

Stephen Kerr, who to his credit has been critical of this Government on the roll-out of universal credit, has not quite taken his concerns in that area to their logical conclusion when it comes to the safe delivery of a new devolved system. We have learnt from the shambles of the poverty-inducing roll-out of universal credit and the problems with personal independence payments, and we are determined to deliver the new system safely. It benefits and supports the people of Scotland.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

Last year, my hon. Friend Bill Grant secured a debate on the delivery of welfare. In criticising that debate, the hon. Gentleman said:

“Of course, the Scottish Government are proceeding quite nicely as they build the new Scottish social security agency.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2018;
Vol. 638, c. 119WH.]

Does he stand by his comments in last year’s debate?

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Yes, I do. The hon. Gentleman is a former Member of the Holyrood Parliament, so he knows how quickly legislation can progress through Parliament, and he knows the steps that need to go through in order—[Interruption.] I will not be shouted down. The hon. Gentleman knows how legislation goes through Holyrood, and knows that these things take time. Sadly, we are now, thanks to the intransigence of DWP Ministers, in a position whereby certain things are being delayed. I go back to the point that the hon. Gentleman had never mentioned universal credit and had mentioned PIP once before today’s debate. I am very surprised at that. He does not seem to have a problem with the delay—

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

No, I am answering the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk first. He does not appear to have a problem with the delay or the problems in the roll-out of universal credit or the roll-out of PIP. He has never mentioned those before, despite the constituency case load that I imagine he has in those two areas, yet he uses this place as a battering ram to criticise the Scottish Government. That says more—[Interruption.] That says more about the hon. Gentleman’s intentions than it does about the Scottish Government’s.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

I have listened to this gang of Trumpists shout and bawl and try to shout people down. Does my hon. Friend agree that the main issue, the real issue, is that the DWP and Social Security Scotland will truly share clients? Not once have we heard from a Conservative in this debate about clients—about people, about the poor—and what that means. The Conservatives have completely ignored the fact that universal credit is being delayed to 2023, which will have a real impact on all claimants.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He serves on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, so he knows these issues well. Of course, what the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and some others in the debate forgot to talk about was the fine work that the SNP Scottish Government, as a minority Government, have achieved by gaining cross-party consensus to protect the people of Scotland from the worst damage being inflicted by this poverty-inducing Tory Government. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents do not need to pay the bedroom tax and can still receive council tax benefit. If they are in receipt of carer’s allowance, they will have had a significant uplift in their payments. They can still get access to education maintenance allowance. Some 316,000 low-income households in crisis in Scotland have been helped to buy essential items, such as nappies, food and cookers, through the Scottish welfare fund—a local crisis grant system almost completely abolished elsewhere by the Tories. And we have set a clear path to deliver a new—sadly, it is limited to just 15% of spend—social security system based on dignity and respect. That is all with 55% of taxpayers in Scotland paying less than they would elsewhere in the UK. It is a more progressive tax system that sees those at the top paying a little more and those on the lowest incomes paying a little less.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am concluding.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk also forgot to mention the catastrophic introduction of universal credit and PIP, which has literally ruined lives. He calls a debate to attack a responsible Government making responsible progress to deliver a fairer social security system, but ignores the tragedy of his own party’s disgusting attack on low-income families. He ignores disabled people having their Motability cars removed. He ignores people on universal credit left in poverty. He ignores a freeze on benefits that is predicted to plunge 400,000 more children into poverty. So forgive me, Mr Betts, but the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and the people of Scotland will take no lessons from the hon. Gentleman or any other Tory party member preaching about how to deliver a social security system.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I call Mike Amesbury for the Opposition. [Interruption.] Order. Calm down a bit, please.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment) 10:38 am, 9th April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. It was almost a “Get the popcorn out” moment there.

I thank John Lamont for securing such an important debate. He is on record as saying:

“Devolution has been a good thing for Scotland” because it has

“the potential to bring power and decision makers closer to the people.”

That principle is a rare example of something that I can agree on with him. It is a historical reality that the Labour party and the late Donald Dewar were the architects of this landscape—a legacy that has strengthened the voice of Scotland and democracy in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend Mr Sweeney made me realise my age when he pointed out that he was just nine years old at that time.

To Labour Members, two things are clear from this debate. First, devolution of powers alone is not enough; we need an Administration willing and able to use the powers available to them, with a defining mission to reduce poverty and the political drive from the centre to get on with it and not to delay, delay and delay. Secondly, while devolution of particular policies may be a positive step, as we can all agree, it does not absolve the Conservative party, which conceived, developed and delivered a poor, failing policy here in Westminster, of responsibility for its effects elsewhere.

The Tory Government, as has been pointed out by Opposition Members, have used social security as a vehicle for cuts, with more than £37 billion taken away from UK citizens since 2010—£3.7 billion taken away from Scottish citizens. The effects and consequences of universal credit, as was rightly pointed out by most Opposition Members who have spoken, are a direct result of the Conservative party’s designing and pressing ahead with a policy that is deliberately under-resourced, cruel and unfair. That policy is causing hardship across the United Kingdom, and Labour Members are all too familiar with the effects on our constituents.

Those effects continue to be felt strongly in Scotland, but they have not been mitigated by the SNP-led Scottish Government, even though they have the power to do so. That is a cause for great regret and disappointment for Scotland’s Labour Members of Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

It is a great disappointment that in a debate on such an important topic, the SNP Members—who are the Scottish Government—did not even bother to turn up. Only Neil Gray, their spokesman, has been here for the whole debate. They have come in and out like a magic roundabout, but they have not stayed for the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a shame on the SNP?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

The hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Mitigation is essential, and a lack of it is a cause for unnecessary hardship and continuing poverty. It certainly shames both the Westminster and Holyrood Governments that that continues. Although legal powers to run benefits in Scotland will pass to the Scottish Government in April 2020 as a result of the Scotland Act 2016, the SNP-led Administration have wilfully delayed using those powers in full until 2024.

The spend accounts for some 16% of welfare, or £3 billion. As has been pointed out by Government Members, the SNP is a party that claims it can create an independent state in 18 months. Twice, SNP Ministers have asked the Department for Work and Pensions to delay devolving social security, in 2016 and 2018, which means that, over the next five years, we will have a ludicrous situation in which SNP Ministers will, effectively, send millions of pounds down south to pay the DWP to run social security provision in Scotland.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the absurdity, if the DWP is so evil and malevolent, of the Scottish Government’s effectively paying it to continue to administer the system. Even after the full transition has happened under the revised timescale of 2024, severe disablement allowance will still be outsourced to the DWP and still visiting harm on the Scottish people. Surely that is an absurdity?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

Yes; it is another failing of fine and warm words but nothing happening in reality.

While those agency arrangements are in place, SNP Ministers are blocked from making changes to any of the benefits the DWP delivers. They are not able to intervene in aggressive debt recovery or even to change the inflation measure to uprate benefits. While the SNP dithers and sits on its hands, as my hon. Friend Martin Whitfield has pointed out, thousands of families are falling into poverty every year. Both parties are concentrating on avoiding responsibility, rather than using what levers of power are available to change the failing policy.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman rightly talks about the high poverty levels that we have throughout the United Kingdom. However, will he reflect on the fact that the poverty rate in Scotland—although far too high—is significantly lower than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and that that might have something to do with the different policies that are being pursued in Scotland to ensure that we eradicate poverty as quickly as possible?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I know the hon. Gentleman will agree that a million people in poverty in Scotland is still shameful—

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

If I may continue, when we have seen SNP and Tory politicians working together, they have done so in an alliance, preventing any significant improvements to social security in Scotland.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time, and is making an excellent speech. We have talked about mitigating factors in the Scottish Parliament, but some of the key mitigating factors, such as mitigating the bedroom tax, were implemented only after significant and persistent Labour pressure. Indeed, John Swinney, who was finance Minister at the time, said that he did not want to let the Tories off the hook; he would rather the Scottish people suffered to make a political point.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent record of Labour in Scotland, campaigning to change things for people on the ground.

Together, SNP and Tory politicians repeatedly voted down a £5 a week top-up to child benefit during the passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill and the budget process. In February, they endorsed George Osborne’s uprating cuts, blocking Scottish Labour’s move to revert to RPI uprating of the carer’s allowance. During the recent budget, the SNP refused to mitigate the two-child limit—a policy that would have supported 4,000 families and lifted 5,000 children out of poverty, and would have cost just 0.2% of the Scottish budget. After years of warm words and claims that it will build a system based on human rights, the SNP relied on the Tories to block the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights from being included in the social security Bill.

Labour Members know the effects of Tory welfare policy all too well, wherever in the United Kingdom we represent. We have heard about those effects today: my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian argued that we need bold action for women born in the 1950s, and was right to highlight the woeful response of the Tory Government. My hon. Friend Ian Murray argued that in-work poverty is a major problem in Scotland, as well as out-of-work poverty, with over a million people in Scotland living in poverty. My hon. Friend Mr Sweeney attacked the political choice of austerity, and called for a social security system that draws on the founding principles of the Attlee Government: security, opportunity and dignity. My hon. Friend Danielle Rowley correctly pointed out that she needs to be the champion of women in this place, because women are disproportionately affected by that political choice of austerity—a choice made by this Tory Government.

Labour believes that the Tories’ approach to welfare is flawed and failing. It is a story of failure that begins with the Tory Government in Westminster’s cruel and unnecessary welfare policies, but has been worsened by the decision by the SNP Government in Holyrood not to use their powers to effectively mitigate those policies. As a result, it is a story of hardship and hunger, wherever in the UK a person is affected.

My questions to the Minister are simple. First, will he accept that universal credit is failing? It is cruel in design, it is under-resourced, and its roll-out needs to be halted. How about scrapping the benefit freeze, the two-child limit and the five-week wait? Hardship is hardship, wherever we are in the UK. Finally, will the Minister confirm whether the devolution of welfare to Scotland could have happened earlier, had the Scottish Government not asked the Department for Work and Pensions to delay the process twice, in 2016 and 2018? The only way we will change things is by having a Labour Government.

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 10:49 am, 9th April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Lamont on securing this important and timely debate. He spoke with great passion. He cares deeply about his constituents and he wants an effective welfare system in Scotland that leaves no one behind, which is something that we all want to see. We have heard passionate speeches. If I have time I will refer to some of the points raised. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for their contributions today.

To reiterate the context of where we are—colleagues have set this out—the Scotland Act 2016 provided a significant shift in the way that welfare would be delivered. As has been said, we are transferring responsibility for an estimated £2.8 billion of welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament, which currently support around 1.4 million people in Scotland. That will of course have a major impact on people living in Scotland as we move into a shared welfare space for the first time.

We should not underestimate the significance of the task. We recognise that responsibility for many vulnerable claimants will be transferred to the Scottish Government, and it is vital that both Governments get it right. The DWP has been instrumental in the Scottish Government’s delivery to date of certain benefits, and we will continue to support them to achieve their plans. We must ensure that the transfer of the welfare powers proceeds in a safe and secure manner with the claimant at the heart of what we do. That is why we have established strong Government structures, including a joint ministerial working group on welfare and joint working practices to oversee the transfer of powers and to ensure that we work together to identify and mitigate any issues that arise.

Neil Gray raised points about the ministerial working group. As he knows, there was a recent meeting that was both cordial and constructive. In terms of the support from DWP, we have approximately 80 DWP staff working exclusively on the Scottish devolution programme. Between 2015 and October 2018, DWP managed more than 2,297 requests for information from the Scottish Government. I gently point out to him that I do not think there is any intransigence on our part. He knows that I am happy to take up cases, and we are meeting later today to discuss a constituency case that he has.

Following Royal Assent to the Scotland Act 2016, the DWP has worked hard to support the Scottish Government in the transfer of powers. We have given them access to DWP payment and customer information systems to support their delivery, as well as providing training and knowledge transfer as they build up their capability. We have provided support to enable them to deliver their new employment support programme, Fair Start Scotland, with DWP work coaches making the majority of referrals.

As we approach the first anniversary of the programme, the Scottish Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills has recently written to me to praise our staff in Jobcentre Plus for the work that they have done to date. It is important that politicians talk not only about the challenges. Of course we should challenge each other to get things right, but we should also praise and acknowledge good joint working when it takes place.

Since 2017, we have also delivered Universal Credit Scottish Choices, giving people in Scotland a choice over the frequency of their payment and whether their housing element is paid directly to their landlord. We supported the Scottish Government to deliver their first new benefit, the best start grant, and we are on track to support delivery of their replacement for funeral expenses payments later this year. Critically, since September 2018, we have been paying carer’s allowance on behalf of the Scottish Government, enabling them to pay a six-monthly supplementary payment to carers in Scotland.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The Minister is setting out well some of the areas where there has been good working between the Scottish and UK Governments, particularly at ministerial level, as I said in my speech. I should put on the record that there have previously been problems at ministerial level between the two Governments, but in the most recent exchange of letters the Secretary of State appears to make a more conciliatory and helpful suggestion for work going forward. So I hope that the two Governments will be able to work together constructively, whereas previously that has not happened.

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Over the past few years we have been working constructively, and we want that to continue. My hon. Friends definitely want that. They come in to see me and the Secretary of State regularly to raise issues, and it is right that we continue in that spirit.

Many lessons have been learned in the first wave of devolution, such as in the transfer of accountability of carer’s allowance, where the DWP continues to pay carer’s allowance on behalf of the Scottish Government but under the same rules and rates as for people in England and Wales. It is vital that we consider these lessons as we move forward with the next wave of delivery.

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind, because time is short.

Mike Amesbury criticised the Government’s delivery of universal credit. I believe it is working, and we have put in an extra £6 billion to support the most vulnerable in the past two Budgets, which unfortunately he has not been able to support in votes. I point him to the summary of a Public Accounts Committee report from 2005 on tax credits, which says:

“In April 2004, the Committee reported on the severe problems following the introduction of the New Tax Credits, which meant that several hundred thousand claimants were not paid on time.”

I gently point out that we all want to get the system right, and I am not sure that constantly criticising is the best way forward.

As colleagues have noted, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People recently announced the Scottish Government’s delivery timetable for their replacements to the current disability, carer’s and industrial injuries benefits, as well as replacements for winter fuel and cold weather payments. The timetable proposes that the Scottish Government will progressively take over responsibility for delivery from April next year, with the final cases being transferred by 2024. That reflects the pace that Scottish Government believe that they can commit to and is achievable.

On timing, it will be for the Scottish Government to keep it under review. The Scottish Government’s plans involve considerable work for DWP in both supporting them to achieve their ambition and, as necessary, continuing to deliver benefits on their behalf. We share the Scottish Government’s commitment to a safe and secure transfer, and our priority is as seamless a transfer as possible from the person receiving the benefit’s point of view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk raised a number of issues in his remarks. He spoke of his concerns about the Scottish Government’s delivery plans, the continuity of provision for his constituents and the cost to the public purse from the DWP continuing to deliver devolved benefits on behalf of the Scottish Government. We will, of course, continue to work with the Scottish Government, and costs arising from the DWP’s delivery of services on behalf of the Scottish Government will be reimbursed by the Scottish Government.

Many other points were raised, and if colleagues want to write to me I will be happy to respond to them. A number of colleagues mentioned WASPI. It is for the Scottish Government to determine how to use their powers to make further payments, including to fix issues for those individuals.

The devolution of welfare powers represents a significant constitutional change that will require substantial work by both Governments to ensure that the people of Scotland are well served. We are committed to working constructively with the Scottish Government. I look forward to the future and seeing the Scottish Government successfully delivering their new social security benefits for the people of Scotland.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I thank the Minister and other colleagues for keeping within the time limit. John Lamont has a minute to wind up.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk 10:59 am, 9th April 2019

I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed. It is telling that we had only one substantive speech from the Nationalist benches; the other 34 SNP Members obviously find it very uncomfortable. I have a lot of respect for Neil Gray, but it is telling how much time he spent in preparing for this debate counting off how often I have spoken in this place and how many words I have mentioned; never mind trying to defend the Scottish Government’s record. It is more about a social media clip than anything else. The Scottish Government are always pleading for more powers and control over welfare, but it has taken them nine years to get 15% of welfare, so it would take 60 years for them to get full control over the welfare budget.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Our job is to ensure that our constituents—the people of Scotland—are getting the welfare support that they deserve, and I am pleased that the UK Government are taking action to deal with the failures of the Scottish Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered devolution of welfare.