On the 7th February, Members had the opportunity to debate Scotland's social security system, and I had the chance to highlight the delays and needless overspend that have meant that the rollout of social security has been far from seamless.
Thousands of families were relying on this system to provide financial relief in times of severe hardship, and while I understand that delays happen, delays of this magnitude are just not on. Families look at Social Security Scotland as a lifeline, and when that lifeline is taken away from them, for whatever reasons, that has a serious impact on those families.
I will continue to hold this Government to account, and will fight hard to ensure the social security system is made the best it possibly can be, and to ensure as much of the money as possible that is spent on the system is put into the pockets of families.
You can see and read what I had to say in the debate below:
Opening speech in the debate:
Transcription from official Scottish Parliament website:
I, too, thank the Minister for the advance sight of the business case. The cost of living crisis is getting increasingly worse, which makes a functioning, fast and effective social security system more important than ever. However, the updated business case that has been published today reaffirms that people in Scotland are dealing with a system that is not those things.
We can see that that is the case in the handling of the new winter heating payment. The 415,000 people across Scotland who are eligible for the payment were told that they might be paid this month, but we now hear that it could be next month. The Scottish National Party negotiated the deadline with the DWP for the transfer of the necessary data for payments to be made in February. That deadline was met, but now the minister says that the payments could be made in March.
When people are struggling, every penny counts. When they are freezing and expecting money that does not come, that can throw everything up in the air. That is what the Government has done to hundreds of thousands of people who were relying on the payments. Saying that they would be paid this month or next is no use for people whose bills are piling up now. They cannot tell their energy supplier that they will pay in February or March.
The Government has lacked urgency on the payment from the offset, when people really needed it to act fast. The benefit that it replaces recognised the urgency of action in cold weather and was paid within 14 days. Social security in Scotland was supposed to be fairer: paying in March for heating that is needed in the cold winter is not fair.
Intervention from Minister: Does Pam Duncan-Glancy acknowledge that, under the UK Government’s cold weather payments system, on average about 185,000 people received that benefit, whereas the Scottish Government’s winter heating payment is projected to support around 415,000 people, including many people in Glasgow who often would not have received cold weather payments at all?
As the minister will know, and as I responded in committee, I am sure that people will be grateful for the £1 a week, although it is not going to scratch the surface. However, the bottom line is that, on the basis of temperatures in 2021-22, 65,000 people will lose out under the Scottish Government’s process and proposed benefit.
The devolution of that payment, as with others, was an opportunity to develop something new that would have a more significant impact on poverty and create a fairer system. Instead, the Government has created a payment that Energy Action Scotland has said is worse for fuel poverty than the one that it has replaced. Poor planning, disjointed communications and a lack of pace are common themes. The Scottish Government has done well to create a more positive narrative, but that is not enough. Under the surface, payments are delayed, processes are failing and social security in Scotland is being propped up by the DWP, because three quarters of benefits are still administered by it, due to the Scottish Government delays.
Last week, the UK Government agreed to extend existing agency agreements for carers allowance and the personal independence payment until 2025 and for other benefits including the industrial injuries payment—I appreciate the update given today—until 2026. In so doing, it made clear that any further slippage would create significant delivery risk. That means that, for many people, it will be nearly eight years after the devolution of benefits that they get the new and improved system that devolution could offer and that they were promised.
Even where the roll-out of a benefit has begun, such as the adult disability payment, there are problems. Devolution of social security could have consigned to history degrading and arbitrary measures such as the 20m and 50 per cent rules, developed indicators that reflect the real experience of disabled people and delivered a rate of payment that reflects the real living cost for disabled people. Instead, the adequacy and eligibility criteria are a mirror copy of the DWP’s and the consultation on it says that nothing about it will change in this parliamentary session.
In the meantime, disabled people across the country are struggling to afford to charge essential medical equipment. They are being let down not just by the lack of ambition but by the lack of effectiveness. They are facing additional barriers when making claims because the system is not supporting them in the way that it was designed to do. In an answer to my parliamentary question in January, the Government told me that only 23 people had been referred from Social Security Scotland to VoiceAbility, which holds a £20 million contract to provide independent advocacy. VoiceAbility told the Social Justice and Social Security Committee that work to embed “the offer of advocacy... in the agency’s information, systems, process and training” now needs to “gather pace.”—[Official Report, Social Justice and Social Security Committee, 24 November 2022; c 11.]
Embedding that offer and equipping people with the support that they need when making applications might reduce the redetermination rates, which last year saw 86 per cent of child disability payment applications awarded after decisions were overturned by review, in a system that we were told would get the decision right first time.
We were also told that the system would be dignified and fair, yet social Security Scotland is spending an undisclosed amount on a counter-surveillance team. One of the worst aspects of the DWP system is that people believe that it is spying on them—most likely, on those who are struggling the most in society.
Intervention from Minister: Does Pam Duncan-Glancy recall the session with Social Security Scotland at committee in December, where it was made clear that we are taking the counter-fraud measures to make sure that Social Security Scotland is not a victim of organised crime? Does she not think that that is important?
We pressed on that question. I would be keen to understand more about the evidence that the minister has of international organised criminals trying to claim benefits from the Scottish social security system that makes it a significant enough risk to put money into a counter-surveillance team. I would appreciate any information that we can have on that. That is one of the worst aspects of the DWP system and now it is being used here.
Social security spend should be going as directly as possible into people’s pockets, but, unfortunately, a lot is being spent on fixing systems, including the information technology system. Delays and poor planning by ministers have created a system that is slow and not functioning as it should, which is leading to operational costs that far exceed the Government’s initial spending commitment. Even worse, the Scottish Fiscal Commission has said that, without proper tools and techniques to publish data, Social Security Scotland is limiting its ability to accurately forecast spend.
What we do with the money that we have is crucial. Because we are not managing it properly, money that should be going to people is not going to them. People are being led up a hill on a false promise of better security, while other budgets are being raided to cover the shortfall, which strips resources from other areas that can help to keep people off benefits.
I am afraid that the Scottish National Party has missed opportunities and wasted resources. It cannot account for how it will pay for things in a few years’ time. It is overspending on projects, underdelivering on services and overseeing a system of chaos. That is not fast, functioning or effective, which is what people were promised. Now, in an unprecedented cost of living crisis, the Government must do better and give people in Scotland the social security system for which they have waited for too long and which they deserve."
Closing speech in the debate:
Transcription from official Scottish Parliament website:
I thank members across the chamber for their contributions.
I understand the concerns that have been raised and the heaviness of heart among some SNP members when they hear criticism of what is happening, because I believe that, when the Parliament set out to devolve social security benefits, they believed that we could create a system here that would work for the people of Scotland. I say a massive “Thank you” to the organisations that work tirelessly across Scotland to campaign for a better social security system.
Willie Rennie’s contribution was spot on in highlighting that everyone’s expectations were high when we devolved social security to Scotland—and I have to say that they still are. The situation that has been outlined can be turned around. I will not apologise for pressing the Government to do more faster and to plan properly, because this is about lives. It is about paying bills, meeting extra costs and lifting people out of poverty. We have an opportunity to do that in Scotland, and we should seize it.
Members have noted the difference between the Scottish Government’s approach and that of the Tories. I acknowledge the differences in the language and the narrative, the differing options for assessment, and better roles for recipients’ doctors and supports.
There are other differences that we have heard about, including from Bob Doris. The approach contrasts with the increasingly hostile benefits environment created by the Tory Government, of course. Most colleagues—even Tory members—would probably not wish to associate themselves with that too closely. The bar for a benefits system cannot and should not be the one that we see from the Tory Government.
I understand the frustrations of Bob Doris, James Dornan and others in highlighting Government successes and challenging those of us who want things to be better. However, I would press them on the examples that they used. I am not sure that carers thought that not getting their carers allowance assistance doubled after being told that they would was a success or that waiting until halfway through the next decade for changes to the rules for that benefit is a success. I do not think that families with children over six years old who had to wait for two years for their payments will think that the system is a huge success either.
It is possible that two things can be true. An intervention can be well intentioned but it can also be not well delivered, and that is what is happening here. That is not talking Scotland down; it is talking the truth. I care so much about getting it right because I want to talk Scotland up.
Emma Roddick and other members have mentioned safe and secure transfers. Members of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee will remember hearing from civil society organisations that disabled people might not have prioritised safe and secure transfers if they thought that that would mean getting no more money or being left to the DWP until halfway through the next decade.
Labour members and others across the chamber can recognise success, and I have said several times where I think the Government has got it right. I, too, pay tribute to the civil servants who are working tirelessly on the matter. However, they, too, are fed up. I know that because I have spoken to some of them in recent days.
Natalie Don expressed disappointment at concern from our benches about spend. I say to her that, if the money was going directly into people’s pockets, I would not be complaining about it—but it is not. Significant sums are going to an IT system that is overspent and underdelivering and to an advocacy project that is not reaching the people it should be reaching. Those are my concerns. People want and expect more, and so they should. I believe that we all believe that.
Intervention from Natalie Don MSP: When I made that point, I was referring specifically to the Scottish child payment, which, I would argue, is money going directly into people’s pockets. Would the member not agree?
I would agree, and I welcome that. Along with activists and campaigners across Scotland, we called on the Government to double it, increasing the payment so that it could help to mitigate the poverty that children experience. I have said in the past that we welcome that payment. My argument about the money that we are spending—with £39 million of additional expenditure on an IT system, because we had a minimum viable product rather than a fully functioning IT system—is that it could have been going into people’s pockets, but it is not. That is the concern that I have.
The minister said that it is with pride and purpose that the Government will continue with its programme. I hope so—I really do—because I believe that, for the most part, the minister’s intentions are good. We must make them a reality, and I hope that that will come sooner rather than later for the people of Scotland.