Fri 19 May, 2017

Alison Johnstone

This week was an important one in Scotland’s devolution journey. Responsibility to legislate for a range of benefits, including Disability Living Allowance and Carers Benefit, was formally passed to the Scottish Parliament.

The purpose of devolution is to give Scotland the option to make different choices that fit with the beliefs and values of the Scottish people and the situation they face. Welfare reforms in recent years have been imposed on Scotland despite them being out of keeping with our values. For example, cutting the benefits of disabled people who need them to live independent lives and forcing women who have been raped to certify this before they can claim tax credits for more than two children.

Voicing concern and attempting to make the situation less severe are all we have been able to do until now, but from this week Scotland can start to create its own, fairer social security system underpinned by respect for individual benefit recipients and their rights.

Disability Living Allowance, and the benefit that replaces it for most people, Personal Independence Payment – as well as Attendance Allowance for older people – represent around 50% of the value of the benefits being devolved. The meanness of PIP is well-known, but it is worth underlining:

·      25% of all claimants who are re-assessed get no PIP award at all and 23% get a reduced award.

·      The figures are even worse for new claimants, almost 60% of whom get no award.

·      And with around 63% having claims reinstated on appeal to a tribunal, clearly something is deeply wrong with PIP.

Greens stood on a manifesto pledging to move towards long-term awards that minimise the need for re-assessments. Our response to the Government’s consultation included a proposal to conduct all assessments in-house, and not contract them out to the private sector companies that have such a poor record of providing accurate and humane assessments. I am glad that these are now being taken forward. We have also pushed for GPs and other medical professionals to be brought back into the heart of the process of assessment, and the Government appears to be moving towards this.

But it isn’t just the assessments that are wrong. PIP was deliberately designed from top-to-bottom to cut expenditure, without any regard as to who needed support. DLA, PIP and Attendance Allowance need to be reviewed thoroughly to see how well they are meeting the needs of disabled and ill people who need support to live independently. Mobility components – the test for which was made much more difficult for PIP and which is missing from Attendance Allowance for no clear reason, according to Age Scotland – need particularly urgent attention. Thousands of people have lost their adapted vehicles, scooters and electric wheelchairs because of the tightened PIP rules.

Building a fairer system of disability benefits will take time, but many thousands of people will continue to suffer from lower or no additional costs support in the meantime, and I urge the Scottish Government to examine what can be done to help them now.

According to Carers Scotland, unpaid carers save the Scottish economy £10.8 billion, which is close to the cost of providing NHS services in Scotland. Three out of five of us will become carers at some stage in our lives, but the value of the work that carers do is not recognised. Nobody should face poverty because of the care that they give, but research by Carers Scotland shows that a third of carers struggle to pay utility bills, 47% have been in debt and half of carers struggle just to make ends meet.

The Government made a manifesto commitment to increase Carers Allowance to the same level as JSA. That is a good start, but does not go far enough. That is why the Scottish Greens campaigned to lift Carers Allowance by 50%, to £93.15 a week. Bringing Carers Allowance into line with JSA does not recognise the vital work that carers do nor does it reflect what Carers Allowance is used for. For many carers, it pays for the additional costs that caring entails, and not just to replace lost income from work, and so any increase or new benefit should reflect that.

There should also be a premium for those who care for more than one person. The Scottish Government intends to increase the benefit for those who care for more than one disabled child; I urge it to take a broader view and consider everyone who cares for more than one person, no matter what age they are.

Building a fairer, more humane system will be a huge task spanning the whole of the Parliament and likely beyond, and will require us to think seriously about how we use the tax powers we now have to pay for these changes.

There is a strong consensus between most of the parties represented in the Scottish Parliament and civic Scotland that our social security system has been debased by recent welfare reforms, and that changes are needed to produce a fairer, more equal Scotland. Scottish Greens will continue to help bring about that vision of our country.


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