I am pleased to open this debate on the future of social security in Scotland.
The new social security powers will devolve a total of 11 benefits to the Scottish Government. These benefits affect one in four of us – 1.4 million people across Scotland.
It is no exaggeration to say that transferring the new devolved benefits safely is the biggest challenge that any Scottish Government has faced since devolution. When our Parliament was reconvened we, collectively, took responsibility for existing Scotland specific institutions, laws and delivery infrastructure in health, education and justice. There is no Scotland specific social security legislative framework or infrastructure. Our job is to build a social security system – a public service – from scratch.
The 11 benefits that will be devolved represent 15% of the total UK spend on welfare. So what we have to do, together, is simultaneously unpick an integrated UK benefits system which has developed in a piecemeal fashion over the past 50 years, design and build the Scottish social security system and 'plug it back in' to the UK welfare system that will, for the benefits it retains, still carry on and operate in Scotland – and will itself be undergoing reform at the hand of the UK Government.
So the scale is large – 11 benefits, 1.4 million people – and the task is complex. Let me give a couple of examples to give members some idea of the complexity. The existing cold weather payment rests on 11 different Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) IT systems, which have to work together to give us the data on who in Scotland is eligible for that payment. The industrial injuries disablement benefit is paper based. That means that for us to simply know who in Scotland receives that payment – the basic information of name, address, age and payment level – someone will need to go through all the brown folders, one each for everyone in the UK who receives this benefit, and pull out the Scottish postcodes so that those paper folders can be passed to us.
And we need to understand too that the UK Government's approach to transition will also have a bearing on timescales – introducing devolved benefits doesn't simply depend on what we do, but equally it depends on what the DWP has to stop doing. We are not, and will never be, entirely in control of any timetable for the 'switch on' or 'switch off' of social security powers.
If we set that scale and complexity against our overall primary objective – to secure the safe and secure transfer of benefits – then I hope members will understand why no-one outside of this chamber has at any point asked us to move more quickly, but everyone has urged us to move safely.
So we need to make sure that when we take over delivery of the 11 benefits – which will happen in the timeframe that we have consistently given, which is within this parliamentary session – every one of the 1.4 million receive the money they expect, at the level they are entitled to, on the day they expect it. Not one person can be let down or fall into any gap between the Scottish and the UK systems, because we have not taken the time to think through and work out every aspect and angle of what needs to be done.
Presiding Officer, we have been clear from the outset that the social security system we will build will be based on a clear premise and guiding principles. That social security is an investment we collectively make in ourselves and in each other; that our system will operate from the premise that everyone who comes to it for help and support does so because they need to and the service and the system will have embedded throughout its operation the principles of dignity, fairness and respect.
We are also very clear that to get this right, to deliver on those principles, we need to build the system from the ground up. We have recently completed a three month consultation, specifically designed to hear directly from those with real lived experience of the current benefits system; those who work with and support them; and the people who deliver the current system.
Over 120 events were held, covering every local authority area in Scotland and reaching many hundreds of people. Over 500 written responses, over half of these from individuals, have been received and these were published on our website yesterday.
The Cabinet Secretary and I went to many of these events and were privileged to hear very many people tell us about their experience. Very often this was not easy for those who told us their story – experience after experience – all of which had the common threads of lack of information, a difficult to access service, assessments that did not touch on how life really is for the individual concerned, decisions that are not based on the evidence presented, but on what appears to be subjective judgement – and a process that feels heartless and impersonal and leaves people feeling judged, demeaned and diminished. Members across this chamber will have heard very similar stories from their own constituents.
It was not easy for those people I listened to and the very many more who spoke out at these events, but I am profoundly grateful to them for their trust in us that we were listening and their experiences will be at the forefront in every step we now take and every decision we make to build our new social security system.
I am sure that every Member in this Chamber will want to take this opportunity, to put on record our thanks, as a Parliament, to each and every one of those who responded to our consultation exercise, attended the engagement events, took the time to write in and share their experiences, and have given their views through the hundreds of representative and partner organisations who have supported the consultation – we are profoundly grateful to all of you.
Now we can't fix every wrong or address every unfairness. Wrongs and unfairness in a UK welfare system that the UN Committee has rightly condemned for 'grave and systematic violations' of the rights of disabled people. Nor can we fix the cumulative loss to Scotland of £2 billion a year by 2020 as a result of the UK welfare cuts made since 2010, which the Sheffield Hallam University research for the Social Security Committee has highlighted.
But we can make absolutely sure that our social security system will not be ruled by an ideologically driven intent to impose cuts on those least able to withstand their impact and those least responsible for the state of public finances – as we have seen from Westminster Tory Government.
So each and every response, and each every one of those conversations, is important. The consultation responses are now being independently analysed and we will publish that analysis and our response to it early in 2017.
As we have said Presiding Officer, the devolution of these powers is a process. And in that process there are key stages. The relevant sections of the 2016 Scotland Act need to be commenced by the UK Government, this Parliament needs to make our own legislation, and as a government, we need to ensure the necessary operational infrastructure must be put in place. It all adds up to 'a robust delivery infrastructure and a legislative framework, scrutinised by this Parliament'.
So a number of parallel work streams have begun.
To continue to reflect our absolute commitment to build our social security system on the foundations of both real lived experience and grounded expertise, in January we will launch a recruitment exercise for 2,000 volunteers to join our experience panels. The volunteers will be people who currently receive one or more of the 11 benefits and they will work with us, long term, to help us make the right improvements and changes to every aspect and detail of how our system will work, how it will communicate, how it will engage and how it will make decisions.
We already have people coming forward to express their interest in joining us and I hope members will make sure that your constituents know about this opportunity and you encourage their involvement when we launch in the new year.
At the same time, we will bring together those with direct experience and expertise in providing benefit advice and support services to help us make sure that the benefits we deliver are aligned with the UK system and we do not create unintended negative consequences by improving Scottish benefits which then have a knock on detrimental impact on the benefits an individual receives from the UK system.
And alongside this, more real expertise in delivering payment systems – benefits and others – to help us design the processes and build the working culture of dignity, fairness and respect that will be essential for those who will deliver our social security system in Scotland.
All of this work will run in parallel with drafting the necessary legislation which we will introduce in this parliamentary year.
And to provide additional strategic oversight to our work and help us through the challenges of improving critical areas like the assessment process so that decisions are based on real, relevant evidence and not subjective judgement we will establish a Disability and Carers' Benefits Expert Advisory Group, working with us long term from early next year.
Presiding Officer, the scale and complexity of our task is clear. But so too is the golden opportunity we have. Not just to build a social security system for Scotland that brings our founding principles alive but to build that system in direct response to the lived experience and long term involvement of those who know best what needs to change.
Every party in this Parliament and every member has a direct stake in the future of social security in Scotland. Our collective job is to put the people of Scotland first, political point scoring last and get on and build this new public service as an exemplar of fairness, accessibility and transparency, focussed on doing the right thing for those it serves.