Our work to create a fair social security system

The transfer to Scotland of some powers over social security is a hugely important development in the devolution settlement. Not only because of the significance of the powers themselves – 15% of all benefits in Scotland, the power to to-up the other 85% and the ability to create new benefits – but because there is such a divide in opinion over what a fair social security system looks like between the UK Government and a majority of MSPs at Holyrood.

Having asked for these powers, we must now be bold and imaginative in using them, and this is what Greens have been calling for, often successfully, throughout the passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, which will likely move onto the statute books at the end of next month.

Boosting the incomes of our poorest people through higher and more reliable social security payments will make huge inroads into poverty. This is why Greens argued for one of the founding principles of the new system to be the reduction of poverty. An amendment to introduce this was backed by all parties except the Conservatives, and will soon become law.

Increasing Child Benefit by £5, a Scottish Green manifesto commitment, and eradicating the Benefit Cap, which puts an arbitrary limit on how much can be claimed by poor families, have long been argued by Greens as vital to reduce rapidly increasing poverty. Whilst neither of these proposals has been accepted by the Scottish Government, the new Poverty and Inequality Commission has published research showing that they would lift, respectively, 5000 and 30,000 children out of poverty, and echoed Green arguments in advising the Government that “investment in social security is a necessary element to meet the child poverty targets.”

The Scottish Government was also pushed into major concessions over the uprating of benefits, something Greens have campaigned for, along with other parties and many representatives from Civic Scotland. Previously, the Government has claimed that previous commitments to topping-up disability benefits were not required in law, but Greens and others argued this could lead to a Scottish version of the UK benefits freeze, which will take £300m out of the pockets of poorer Scots by 2020/21. Now, the Government is accepting that the uprating of disability benefits and carers benefits will be enshrined in law.

Greens have also made progress in highlighting the unfairness experienced by claimants of the UK Carer’s Allowance. Because the Allowance is only ever paid in respect of one cared-for person, those caring for multiple people do not getting any more recognition, and can even lose out altogether. I was pleased to hear the Social Security Minister say in response to an amendment addressing this issue “many of Scotland’s carers are splitting their hours of care between more than one person and might be missing out on support despite having significant caring responsibilities”. I look forward to working with her in run-up to the launch of devolved Carer’s Assistance to ensure that the tens of thousands of Scots carers get the support they deserve.

And last, but certainly not least, Green calls to ban unnecessary benefits assessments. I am bringing an amendment that seeks to ban assessments from being undertaken unless the Scottish Government can demonstrate that already existing evidence from GPs, social workers and other professionals is not sufficient to corroborate a claim. This would have the effect of significantly reducing the much-hated assessments, a move described by Citizens Advice Scotland as "the highest priority for the Scottish social security system”. 

The About Your Benefits and You report, summarising findings from the Social Security Experience panels, found that benefit recipients with experience of benefit assessments recommended that such assessments "should only be carried out when necessary, and that evidence provided by medical professionals should be enough" to determine eligibility. Whilst the Scottish Government has already indicated support for this in principle, they should follow the expert advice of the Experience Panels and now fully back my bid to put this principle into law.

Greens want to see a fairer Scotland where poverty is a thing of the past, not a reality of our present and future. That’s why the devolution of powers over social security is an opportunity that cannot be missed, and Greens are seizing that opportunity.