Today I will set out more detail on how we will deliver new powers over social security for the people of Scotland, including what people can expect from Scotland's new social security agency and how we came to the decision on its configuration. I will also provide an update to members on our progress to abolish the bedroom tax at source and in delivering choice in universal credit – on rent payment direct to landlords and twice-monthly payment.
I was delighted to be with the First Minister yesterday when she announced the agency's headquarters will be in Dundee, with a second major site in Glasgow.
But as I announced in April, our new agency will offer a local presence across Scotland, supported by these efficient central functions. Throughout the consultation and since, the importance of that local presence, that human face, has been consistently expressed. It is this local aspect that marks a key difference between our agency and what currently exists.
For the agency, our aim is twofold: to give every person entitled to one of the benefits we will be responsible for the information, advice and support in applying that they need, and to complement what is already out there and working well.
Since April, my officials have so far met with 17 local authorities and many third sector organisations to understand the particular needs in each local authority area and current partnership provision where it exists.
I am grateful that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) is working collaboratively with us and can confirm that we are jointly developing an overarching partnership agreement on the guiding principles to underpin delivery and secure a consistency of approach across Scotland, building local social security services tailored to local needs.
We will not compromise the level of service we require and expect and for which we will be accountable. It will always be our agency staff meeting and helping individuals, not private companies; people will always be treated with dignity and respect; and we will always meet the expectations of the Charter we are developing with the people of Scotland.
That is both our ambition and our expectation.
Presiding Officer, let me now describe what the service might look like to those we are serving.
We know that increasing benefit take-up is a challenge. If a person is unsure of what they may be entitled to, our local staff will offer advice on the benefits we will deliver, alongside wider income-maximisation support.
If a person is looking to apply for a benefit, we will support them to complete the forms and advise on the evidence needed to support their application.
And where a person is already receiving benefits, they will be able to get face-to-face advice on their payments, on notifying the agency of a change in their circumstances, on other benefits they may be entitled to or on making a complaint where their expectations have not been met.
Above all, our service will be proactive, positive and geared to helping the individual in their particular circumstances.
The agency's local presence will be supported by vital central functions: case handling, payment systems, contact staff and the corporate roles that any efficient public body needs.
We have followed a robust, multi-criteria assessment process, in keeping with our evidential approach to designing the social security system, to determine these locations.
Dundee will be the agency headquarters, supporting regeneration in that area and demonstrating our commitment that key public services are not restricted to the central belt.
Glasgow will be our main administrative site in the west of Scotland, offering equal service capacity and capability, and ensuring the agency can deliver continuity in its crucial services.
As Members will see in the evidence published today, each part of the country was assessed against a variety of socio-economic factors.
We have considered the scale of economic opportunity that over 1,500 jobs can generate, plus the scale of risk to business continuity if we were to choose a single site. The sensible decision was to have two major locations of similar scale. Dundee and Glasgow both performed very well overall against the criteria and will benefit from the ability to attract staff from a wide catchment area, thus spreading the economic benefit new jobs will bring.
But, Presiding Officer, these vital central functions will not be hidden away in an industrial estate or business park, out of reach to those whom they are there to support. We will of course seek efficiency and effectiveness in line with our social security principles. But these two central locations will also form part of our local network. They too will be public-facing, open, welcoming and accessible.
Presiding Officer, we have already been clear that agency staff will be right across Scotland and that the economic benefit from this new public service will be spread.
I have spoken previously about at least 1,500 staff being required. As we move closer to the delivery of the first devolved benefits, we are clearer on the likely human resource required.
I can therefore confirm that we expect the social security agency to be employing around 250 staff by summer 2019 to deliver our first benefits – Carer's Allowance Supplement, our new Best Start Grant and Funeral Expenses Assistance.
In addition to the central functions, we estimate that at least 400 jobs will be created for the locally based agency presence. This number will be refined as we continue to work to design the service, but it illustrates the scale of our commitment to local delivery.
We recognise the scale of endeavour in staffing up an organisation of this size. We will therefore work with local colleges, employability services and other partners to ensure that we have the right supply of people to work in our agency.
Presiding Officer, before concluding I want to update Members on our work to abolish the bedroom tax.
I am sure members will recall that our absolute commitment to abolish the bedroom tax had encountered some areas of difficulty prior to the summer recess. I met with Ministers from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) last week and I am happy to report substantial progress in that we now have an agreed proposal that will fully mitigate the bedroom tax – without funding being clawed back or the support we provide to those to whom the tax applies being limited by the operation of the Benefit Cap.
I hope to be in a position to bring forward an amendment at stage two of the Social Security Bill to provide full legal cover for the technical solution.
I also want to update Members on the work we have been doing on the universal credit flexibilities that will be delivered by DWP on our behalf from 4 October. The flexibilities will offer people in Scotland the choice to have their housing costs paid directly to their landlord and to have twice-monthly payments.
We have tested our work directly with those who will use the service to make sure we are being clear about what is offered so that informed choices can be made and people are clear about what, as a person, they need to do.
Presiding Officer, the social security agency delivery configuration is not about bricks and mortar. It is first and last about a public service that exemplifies our founding principles of dignity, fairness and respect – in how it works as an organisation, how it works for those who need that support, and how it cooperates with its partners across our public sector.
I want us to be clearly at the opposite end of the spectrum of the existing DWP system of distrust, misery and despair. That is why we have set the groundwork for a public body with a rights-based service at its heart that will employ staff who are proud of what they do and create a positive, respectful culture.
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The Scottish Government
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