Scotland can chart a new course with social security powers

One of my proudest moments as an MSP was playing a role in the establishment of the new Scottish social security system. Passed last year, the Social Security (Scotland) Act is a major step towards a fairer, more humane social security system than the UK system run by the UK Department for Work and Pensions whose punitive approach towards those who need help from the social security system has been well-documented.

In a genuinely cross-party, collaborative way that is now rarer in our Parliament than it should be, MSPs from all parties, Scottish Ministers and third sector groups worked together to establish the foundations of a system that has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Scots.

That hard work is starting to bear fruit. The Best Start Grant Baby and Pregnancy Payment has launched well ahead of schedule, and I was delighted to hear this week that it has paid out £2.7m in the short time since it opened for applications in September, more than the previous UK version paid out in a year. Once the other two parts of the Grant become available, it will be providing more than double the amount of the UK predecessor payment. The new Funeral Expense Assistance is also coming this summer, with eligibility being significantly expanded.

Assistance payments for disabled people, and also for carers, however, are yet to come online, and these present particular challenges. They are by far and away the biggest part of the new system, accounting for over 80% of the expenditure on the benefits being devolved. Over half a million Scots, about one in ten people, claim one of the disability or carers benefits being devolved.

And in the case of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) in particular, UK Government reforms have caused untold problems that have had a devastating impacts on individuals, with thousands of Scots Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claimants being re-assessed for PIP getting lower awards, or losing entitlement altogether. Re-establishing a fairer system of disability benefits will be a huge task.

Pushed by Greens and others, the Scottish Government has already made a good start on this. As well as the misery caused by the removal of financial support, face-to-face assessments for PIP are often distressing and stressful experiences for those people who are required to undertake them. This is almost everyone who applies, despite extensive medical and other evidence being available. Green proposals to outlaw face-to-face assessments that take place despite the evidence already being available were unanimously adopted by the Scottish Parliament last year, as were plans to give applicants greater say on where assessments are done, if they do prove necessary, so that forcing some people to take 100+ mile round trips to be assessed will become a thing of the past.

Again at the urging of Greens, and others, the face-to-face assessments that are needed will be audio recorded, so there is an independent account. Along with changes made by other parties, such as banning private sector companies and insisting on appropriately-trained professionals, we should have high hopes for a more humane way of assessing eligibility for Scottish social security.

But improving the assessment system is only the first step. PIP was explicitly designed to reduce the overall scope and cost of disability benefits, and MSPs and MPs see the impact of that every day, with many of my own constituents having their lifeline payments cut. Not money for extras, but support with the additional costs of disability. Support vital to live a dignified life. This is reflected in the astonishingly high rate of successful appeals, with now over 70% of those who challenge decisions to reduce or entirely cut PIP awards having their appeals upheld.

We therefore we need to look at improving the eligibility criteria so that everyone who faces additional costs due to their disability gets the support they need.  In particular, it is important the new system fully captures the impact of multiple and fluctuating conditions, and mental health conditions. For those older people receiving Attendance Allowance, payments should take of account the impact of reduced mobility, something that is done for people under the age of 65, but not over. This is an unjustifiable unfairness that has gone unaddressed by successive UK Governments.

Carers, too, deserve extra support. The value of unpaid care to the Scottish economy is around £10bn a year, a contribution that even the higher rate of Carer’s Allowance paid for by the Scottish Government does not adequately reflect. The Scottish Government needs to examine the case for recognising the contribution of those who care for more than one person. And, when the Government returns to Parliament with final proposals for a Young Carer Grant – a Green manifesto proposal – I hope it is payable to all young people who provide care. Its current proposals mean that some, such as where two young people share care responsibility, will miss out.

Clearly, many of these improvements would result in higher expenditure. But getting powers over several major social security payments means that we as a country, for the first time, do need to have a serious conversation about the kind of social security system we need to have to be an inclusive society, and the level of tax needed to pay for that.

Social security is rightly recognised as an “investment in the people of Scotland”, so the case needs to be made, by the Government and others, that we need to re-invest in a system that has suffered so many cuts.

With new powers over social security, Scotland has a huge opportunity to chart a different course to the one that it has had charted for it by an increasingly cruel UK Government. Towards a fairer society that supports everyone to play a full role in it. Whilst a great start has been made, the biggest challenges, but also the biggest opportunities to build that fairer society, lie ahead.