Presiding Officer, today marks the next important step in this Government's work to build a new social security system in partnership with the people of Scotland.
Today we have published a comprehensive, independent analysis of the responses to the recent consultation on social security in Scotland, together with the initial response from the Scottish Government.
I want to thank all of the people and organisations who have contributed directly to the consultation and to the many more who participated in engagement events across Scotland.
Throughout the consultation and since, I have listened to those with direct personal experience of the current benefit system. I have heard their experiences of the impact it has had on them and their families, and I have learnt a great deal. Let me assure this Parliament that I will continue to listen and to learn from those currently using the benefits system and those working with them who provide such vital support and help.
What has emerged is a rich seam of evidence – a solid foundation which we will continue to use as we build each step of this new public service for our country.
What is also clear is the widespread support for our intention to build a fairer and more dignified social security system – one based on the understanding that social security is an investment we make in ourselves and in each other.
From the outset we have said that we will build our social security system in partnership with the people of Scotland. In a fair and more inclusive way.
Today I will set out the specific ways through which we will achieve that.
Presiding Officer, the right to social security is established in Article 9 of the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. That is our starting point. Social security is a human right.
The consultation responses backed our commitment to a rights based approach, a cornerstone of our vision for the new system and one on which our core principles of fairness, dignity and respect will be grounded.
I am pleased to announce that the forthcoming Social Security Bill will honour this great Scottish tradition by enshrining these core principles in the new system's founding legislative framework. A clear statement of intent that we will embed a rights based approach, with dignity and respect into the Scottish system from the very outset.
Putting this on the face of the Bill will also provide a legislative mechanism for the people who interact with the new service to know exactly what they should expect from the service: from application to advice, to assessments, to any necessary appeals. Presiding Officer, we are committed to ensuring that this Government, and all future governments, are held to account to deliver for the people of Scotland.
We will introduce the Bill to Parliament before the end of June, starting the process of Parliamentary scrutiny that will support us to shape, improve and pass the legislation we need to set up our new social security system. That legislative framework, both the Bill and the secondary legislation that will flow from it, are the necessary foundations underpinning our new social security system. I am sure this Parliament will want to ensure we get it right and will take the time it feels necessary for scrutiny, evidence taking, and reporting.
Respondents also overwhelmingly endorsed the concept of a publicly accessible charter, to communicate clearly what the public is entitled to expect from the Scottish system, and to frame the culture and positive ethos of the new social security agency.
Which is why I can announce today that the requirement to prepare a Charter will also be in the Bill, introducing a legislative requirement that reflects the core principles I have outlined and placing a series of statutory duties on Ministers to periodically review and report on the delivery of our aim of creating a fairer, more inclusive system.
In this way, we will guarantee that the Charter goes much further than warm words. This will be a central part of the new system, effectively creating a binding contract between the system and the Ministers responsible for it – and the people who use it.
The Charter will continually be refined as we learn and grow, creating an additional device for both the Parliament and the public to scrutinise and hold Ministers to account for the delivery of a fairer, more inclusive and rights based system.
Presiding Officer, the scrutiny of this Parliament is a vital component of our democracy and I believe our intention to secure a rights based approach through legislation and in the practical embodiment of the Charter are vitally important. Scotland's social security system will sit within the overarching social protections this Parliament is responsible for, including housing, education, and health.
But, learning the lessons from elsewhere, I also believe it is important to ensure there is independent scrutiny as we deliver a social security system for Scotland. So I can confirm that we will enlist the support of objective experts to advise us on the most appropriate arrangement for the independent scrutiny of our new system's overall performance.
Presiding Officer, I intend to further embed a rights based approach by making good on our commitment that the people of Scotland will be our full design, development and delivery partners.
To that end, in the coming weeks I will make a detailed announcement on the launch of experience panels – an ambitious programme that will see us work in formal partnership with at least 2000 individuals who have direct experience of the current system to design, build and refine a new and better model.
These panels will build on the consultation, using this rich body of evidence, while continuing and deepening that engagement. Learning from what people have told us about how they want to be involved in helping to build a new and better system, the panels will be involved throughout the design of the new service.
I hope that the whole Chamber shares my enthusiasm for this progressive and innovative way of working, and that all members will look for ways to support it in both principle and action.
Presiding Officer, this theme of collaboration with experts and the public will be a common thread running through our entire programme of work.
Which is why an Expert Advisory Group on Disability and Carers' Benefits will provide ministers with independent, expert guidance in this crucial policy area.
So I am delighted to announce today that this group will be chaired Dr Jim McCormick, a current Associate Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
I am sure that everyone in the chamber will agree that Dr McCormick's credentials for the role are impeccable, combining exceptional policy expertise with a genuine passion for fairness and equality.
I am pleased that we will be able to reap the benefits of both his advice and guidance, and the expertise and experience that the Group as a whole will bring to us.
The consultation responses and the experience panels will also play a key role in shaping the nature and structure of the new social security agency.
We are paying close attention to the findings that face-to-face contact between those in receipt of benefits and agency employees is of key importance, and that medical assessments are best done by professionals who understand the conditions of the people they are assessing. These examples demonstrate how both collaboration and our core principles will meaningfully influence the delivery of services on the ground.
I expect to announce later in the spring a preferred model that will be closely aligned to the views of the people of Scotland.
It is apparent from the consultation that advice and advocacy services will be crucial, with many respondents sensibly predicting an upsurge in demand as we transition to the new system. Many also highlighted the importance of specialist advice for people with particular needs, and the necessity for equal access to advice and support.
I know from the consultation that advice services will play an important role in ensuring that our social security system delivers on its founding principles. That is why we will therefore build on these findings, and our wider review of advice services, to work with our experience panels to develop the high quality support that will be necessary to complement the new social security arrangements.
Presiding Officer, I will close by emphasising that while we will do things in a different way, it is crucial that we must also do it in a careful way. Our number one priority is the safe and secure transition of 11 benefits for the 1.4 million people who rely on them. These 11 benefits are currently worth just over £2.7 billion – equivalent to the cost of building two new Forth replacement crossings every single year. This is the largest and most complex programme of change since devolution.
The scale is such that we must design from scratch new technology that will process, each week, roughly the same number of payments that the Scottish Government currently makes in an entire year. And we must make sure that our system works alongside the UK system so that no individual in Scotland either falls through a gap between them, or suffers because of the interaction of the two parallel systems.
So while our ambitions are high, so too are the stakes. I am very conscious of that and I know that the right way to ensure we meet all of our responsibilities is to work, collaboratively, towards our objectives, in a planned and methodical way.
Members will be aware that both the Scottish and the UK governments (UKG) have stated their clear, shared commitment to working together to deliver implementation of these new powers. But it is also true that we and the UKG come to this exercise with different ideological and political perspectives and it was always realistic to expect that there would be times when we disagree. Our starting point is the Smith Agreement, backed as it is by the Fiscal Framework and the Enduring Settlement. Each is clear that any additional income provided to a person as a result of our exercise of these new powers must not be offset by a reduction elsewhere in the UK benefit system.
We have two current areas of difficulty. We have committed to abolishing the bedroom tax at source, using our new powers over the housing element of Universal Credit. For some individuals, that may take their benefit level over the UK imposed benefit cap. We are clear that in such a circumstance the individual should not be penalised and our straightforward, person centred solution is for the benefit cap calculation not to include that element. So far, we have not been able to secure the UKG agreement that this is how they will deal with these instances.
While the UKG intends to remove housing benefit from 18-21 year olds, we have committed to retaining it. We believe that there is a technical way by which both governments can pursue their opposing commitments but so far, the UKG has not agreed.
Both these areas matter – not only to us as a government seeking to honour the commitments we've made but more importantly to the very many individuals who stand to gain – or lose. So we will continue to pursue these issues with the UKG so that we can exercise our new powers to build that fairer, transparent and person centred social security system we are committed to.
Presiding Officer, there can be little doubt that the system we aspire to can make an important difference to people's lives. But it is only through listening to people who have experienced the benefits system, working with experts in the field, and ensuring we have both a legislative framework and a robust infrastructure in place that that we can ensure that the new social security system we are building will embody the modern, inclusive and progressive Scotland that we all wish to see.
I am sure that the Parliament supports that important aim. Thank you.