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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 7, 2024


Social Security (Investment)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-12079, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on delivering record social security investment in Scotland to tackle the cost of living crisis and inequality. I ask members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons.


The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We have transformed social security provision in Scotland. We have established a radically different system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect. That system is now an integral part of the social contract between the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland. We have achieved that despite our fixed budgets and the limited powers of devolution.

We are making that safety net for the people of Scotland even stronger through record investment, but all the while, the United Kingdom Government is steadily dismantling the welfare system across the UK and enforcing a sanctions regime that is punishing the most vulnerable people in our society.

In 2024-25, we are committing a record £6.3 billion for benefits expenditure—that is £1.1 billion more than the UK Government gives to the Scottish Government for social security, which demonstrates our commitment to tackling poverty. The Scottish Fiscal Commission forecasts that that figure will rise.

That is essential collective investment in a system from which we may all need help at any time in our lives. The money goes directly to people who need it most in the current cost of living crisis, and it is happening because of the deliberate budget choices that we have made in our national mission on equality, opportunity and community.

This morning, I was at Ibrox primary school hearing from parents who now automatically get early learning and school-age best start grants without the need for a separate application process. That money makes an immediate difference to their daily lives. Furthermore, we are delivering that investment against a backdrop of continued austerity at Westminster, catastrophic cuts to the Scotland block grant and a UK Government autumn statement that was the worst-case scenario for Scotland.

Our Barnett funding, which is driven by UK spending choices, has fallen by 1.2 per cent in real terms since the 2022-23 budget was presented, and the UK Government did not inflation proof its capital budget, which has resulted in a nearly 10 per cent real-terms cut in our capital funding over the medium term. However, as a part of our social contract here in Scotland, and in recognition of the cost of living crisis, we are uprating all Scottish benefits in line with inflation by 6.7 per cent in April.

Benefit expenditure is our single biggest increase in the 2024-25 budget, and it will support 1.2 million people in the year ahead. That means that more than one in five people in Scotland will get one or more of our broad packages of benefits, which range from helping disabled people to live full and independent lives and helping older people to heat their homes to helping low-income families with their living costs.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

When the minister was at Ibrox primary school this morning, did she discuss the very low take-up of the early learning and childcare provision for two-year-olds? We have discussed the issue before, but the latest figures show that there has been a reduction in the number of two-year-olds who are accessing that provision. What steps is she taking, together with the education team, to make sure that that figure increases?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We have indeed spoken about that in the past in the chamber. I recognise Willie Rennie’s continued interest in the area. As he and I have discussed in the past, work has been done to ensure that people who are eligible know about their eligibility and are encouraged to apply and take benefit from that. I will be happy to provide him with further information through the education team in due course.

Although Scottish Government benefits have already been introduced and clients have transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions, the number of children and adults taking part and being invested in through Social Security Scotland and our investment in social security will rise to 2 million. That is a huge achievement and one of which we should all be proud, regardless of our political standpoint. For example, next year alone, we will invest £614 million in new benefits and payments that are available in Scotland only and that offer unparalleled support that is not available elsewhere in the UK.

Those seven Scotland-only benefits include our Scottish child payment, which, last month, Chris Birt of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation called

“a vindication of the power and potential of the Scottish Parliament.”—[Official Report, Finance and Public Administration Committee, 9 January 2024; c 10.]

It is also a vindication of the Parliament’s unanimous decision in 2018 to enshrine in law the essential principle that social security is a basic human right. I agree absolutely with Professor Stephen Sinclair of Glasgow Caledonian University, who said that it is “extraordinary” that social security across the UK is not founded on that principle.

In keeping with that principle, and thanks to the difficult but essential spending decisions that this Government has made, the Scottish child payment will, from April, be paid at £26.70 a week for 329,000 children. It is estimated that 50,000 children will be lifted out of relative poverty in 2023-24, reducing child poverty levels by five percentage points. Modelling estimates that 90,000 fewer children will live in relative and absolute poverty this year as a result of this Government’s policies, with poverty levels nine percentage points lower than they would otherwise have been.

The Scottish child payment is just one part of our five family payments package, which, from 1 April this year, could be worth more than £10,000 by the time an eligible child turns six. That compares with less than £2,000 for eligible families in England and Wales. That package, of course, includes the best start grant and best start foods, for which we are widening eligibility later this month.

The five family payments package is part of a £3 billion investment next year in policies that tackle poverty and protect people from harm as much as possible during a cost of living crisis. That investment includes funding for childcare, providing free bus travel for more than 2 million people and offering free school meals to all children in primaries 1 to 5.

Our disability payments are also delivering for the people of Scotland, with the latest figures showing that almost £400 million has been paid out for child disability payment to more than 72,000 children. In delivering our commitment and reopening the independent living fund to new entrants, we are also further supporting disabled people who need it most, with an extra £9 million in investment next year.

Disabled people have told us that they found the DWP system humiliating, dehumanising and bewilderingly complex, so we have listened and acted. We are building our disability benefits in partnership with disabled people to be better, fairer and easier to apply for. In Scotland, disabled people no longer have to gather multiple pieces of evidence to detail every aspect of their disability just to get the benefits that they are entitled to. They no longer have to suffer the indignity of having their disability tested by private sector contractors. We have listened to families on carers as well.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I know about the cabinet secretary’s points from my committee work and agree with many of them, but what work has the Scottish Government undertaken to look at the fact—it is a fact—that the number of complaints that Social Security Scotland has received has increased by 174 per cent in just one year?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As Miles Briggs should know, one of the reasons why the number of complaints has gone up is that the number of cases has gone up exponentially because we took over child disability and adult disability payments. As a proportion of the number of cases, I am absolutely content with the fact that, as the client survey demonstrated, we still have a very high satisfaction rate. With the best will in the world to him, Mr Briggs is being slightly disingenuous not to also mark the fact that there has been a great increase in the number of cases.

What would the cabinet secretary say to the 50,000 people who are waiting more than three months for disability benefits, some of whom are being forced to go to food banks as a result?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

One of the very different aspects of the system that I have just discussed is the fact that Social Security Scotland will gather the supporting information. Previously, under the DWP, individuals were forced to do that themselves, which they found humiliating and difficult. It takes some time for Social Security Scotland to gather that supporting information for the client, but we reassure anybody who is eligible that their payment will be backdated to the point of application.

As I said, we have also listened to families and friends who are providing essential unpaid care for disabled people. That is one of the reasons why the carers allowance supplement was introduced—our very first act when we took over social security powers—why we have invested £3.3 million in our young carers grant since 2019, and why we are also delivering extended entitlement for full-time students to the carer support payment.

We have to contrast that approach with the approach from the UK Government. We have progressive policies here in Scotland, but that is happening amid a worsening fog of Westminster austerity. We have a contract with the people of Scotland, but that contract does not exist when it comes to reserved benefits. We could do so much more if we were not held back by, for example, the fact that universal credit is failing to support the people that it should be there for—it does not provide for essentials.

The two-child limit alone is affecting 80,000 children in Scotland, and no victim of sexual violence should ever have to disclose that fact to access welfare payments but, under Westminster, that is the society that we are living in. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that scrapping the cruel two-child limit and the abhorrent rape clause could lift 250,000 children out of poverty, including 15,000 children in Scotland.

Sir Keir Starmer says that he wants to implement the rape clause “more fairly”. I struggle to comprehend what he means by that. His Labour colleagues in this chamber should also struggle to comprehend that and then do something about it, because, with Labour at Westminster saying that it will keep cruel Tory policies such as the rape clause and the two-child limit, and that it will cap benefits but not bankers’ bonuses, it is increasingly clear that Westminster values are not Scotland’s values.

While Westminster chose to introduce the rape clause, the Scottish Government chose to deliver the baby box. While Westminster chose to hike tuition fees, the Scottish Government chose to keep tuition free. While Westminster chose to hike prescription charges, the Scottish Government chose to keep prescriptions free. While Westminster chose to scrap the universal credit uplift, the Scottish Government chose to deliver the Scottish child payment. That is how we are delivering for the people of Scotland.

The Scottish Government has spent more than £1 billion mitigating the impacts of Westminster austerity over the past 13 years. We could and should be doing so much better. I am concerned about what the UK Government has announced in relation to changes to work capability assessments and I call on it to reverse those changes. I call on the UK Government to accept that it is not too late to look at universal credit and to set it at a level that provides enough support to include an essentials guarantee. We have asked the UK Government to do so, and yet that is not forthcoming.

We have built a new system in Scotland, with the powers at our disposal, but our hands remain tied by restricted powers and by UK Government austerity. Even with the significant restrictions that we face, we have delivered a social security system that is built on the values of dignity, fairness and respect. We have introduced 14 Scottish Government benefits—seven of which, remember, are available only in Scotland—thanks to an investment of £12 billion to March 2023, delivering for the people of Scotland when they need it most.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that social security plays a vital role in tackling poverty and reducing economic and social inequalities, and that the Scottish social security system must have dignity, fairness and respect at its heart; welcomes the Scottish Government’s record investment of £6.3 billion in social security expenditure in 2024-25 and that the Scottish Fiscal Commission has forecast that this is an investment of £1.1 billion more than the funding received from the UK Government through the social security block grant; notes that this investment includes the Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods, as well as the landmark, and extended, Scottish Child Payment, which is estimated to lift 50,000 children out of relative poverty in 2024; recognises that £614 million of Scotland-only benefits are being delivered in 2024-25, which is support that is unparalleled across the UK; further recognises the substantial difference that Social Security Scotland is making through improved disability and carers benefits; notes that Scottish Government support is being delivered despite continued UK Government block grant cuts and continued UK Government austerity, and calls on the UK Government to drop planned Work Capability Assessment changes, introduce an essentials guarantee and immediately scrap the two-child cap and the associated so-called rape clause.


Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I remind members that I receive the personal independence payment.

I am pleased to take part in the debate. It is always encouraging when we come to the chamber to debate a topic that falls under the remit of this place; I am sure that the people of Scotland will be grateful that we are discussing a topic that actually reflects their priorities. In that spirit, I begin on a point of agreement. We in the Conservatives agree

“that social security plays a vital role in tackling poverty”.

A safety net can and should act to lift people out of poverty and help them to move towards a full and thriving life. Of course, the system absolutely should treat everyone with dignity, fairness and respect.

Unfortunately, however, that is where the agreement must end, because we cannot in any way endorse the Scottish National Party patting itself on the back in the ways that we see in the motion. It tells a story about a perfect system that works well to provide for those who are in need, when that could not be further from the truth. The past eight years of social security have been marked by error, delay and broken promises.

The devolution of social security was meant to signal an unprecedented opportunity to build a uniquely Scottish social security system that would work to address the unique issues that we face in Scotland. It was a radical affirmation of the doctrine of localism, and a chance for the Scottish Government to put its money where its mouth was and build a quality system that would leave behind the problems that the SNP claimed were embedded in the DWP.

Alas, it was not to be. Eight years on, we have what is essentially a carbon copy of the Westminster model that seems to be costing significantly more and producing worse results. As our amendment lays out, the Scottish Fiscal Commission has reported

“that ... the Scottish Government will need to find an additional £1.3 billion in”

its budget for 2027 to pay for its “demand-led” benefits. To put that in perspective, that represents more than double what the Scottish Government spent on the entire Scottish Prison Service last year. It is all very well to make big promises, but there has to be thought as to how we are going to pay for it.

We see costs ballooning at every level of the enterprise. Not only is the payment bill racking up; we see ever-increasing operational costs for Social Security Scotland as well.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Does the member recognise that we are spending more money than Westminster because our values are different? That spend includes investment of nearly £500 million in the Scotland child payment; investment in mitigation measures because the UK Government will not scrap the bedroom tax; and investment in protecting people in a cost of living crisis when the UK Government has just walked away from its responsibilities this week. That is why it costs more money—because we actually invest in the people of Scotland. I am disappointed that the Scottish Conservatives are suggesting that we would want to cut that money in the future.

I will give you the time back, Mr Balfour.

Jeremy Balfour

I say with respect that I think that the cabinet secretary has got the wrong end of the stick. I am simply asking, if the Scottish Government is going to need an extra £1.3 billion in 2027, what other Government budgets will be cut to pay for that.

I understand that Social Security Scotland will run up a £322 million operations bill over the next financial year, which is a 130 per cent increase from 2020-21. What on earth is going on in Dundee that is causing that meteoric rise in cost?

Will the member take an intervention?

Will the member take an intervention?

Jeremy Balfour

I will in a second.

One would think that, if the agency was spending that much on operations, it would be running a bit more smoothly, or at least the handover would be running a little more to schedule. The entire roll-out of devolved benefits has involved nothing but delay, delay, delay.

John Swinney

I am grateful to Mr Balfour for giving way, because he is advancing an entirely contradictory argument. On the one hand, he is telling Parliament that the Scottish Government has simply followed Westminster policies; on the other hand, he is saying that we are incurring more costs in social security because we are spending more money, as the cabinet secretary just said in her intervention. Will Mr Balfour please bring some coherence to this argument, rather than the incoherence that the Conservatives bring to any debate on welfare in this society?

Jeremy Balfour

I am always happy to try to help Mr Swinney. We have higher and higher costs of administration of the same benefits. We are spending more money on doing the admin compared with what happens in the DWP.

Most recently, the Scottish Government has pushed back its estimate of how long it will take to fully move everyone over from PIP and the disability living allowance to ADP. It was originally claimed that that would all be done by this summer, but the Government now estimates that it will be done by the end of 2025. The incredible thing is that I suspect that the Government will struggle to meet even the extended deadline. Up to this point, Social Security Scotland—[Interruption.]

Cabinet secretary, we need to hear the member who has the floor, which is Jeremy Balfour. Please continue, Mr Balfour.

Jeremy Balfour

I am grateful. Up to this point, Social Security Scotland has moved across fewer than 5,000 people per month on average. To meet the new target, the Government will need to move just over 10,000 people a month on average. I ask the cabinet secretary to clarify in closing whether she is confident that the deadline will be met.

None of that is acceptable in any way. It is a total failure to deliver for the people of Scotland. We have got nothing that was promised from devolving social security. There is no radical Scottish way of doing things, and there is no appetite from the Government to really put in the work to do what it claims that it wants to do.

The Government likes to pretend that it is kinder and more cuddly than the big, bad DWP, but the figures do not bear that out. One third of Scottish child payment applications are denied; two thirds of job start payment applications are denied; one in five funeral payment applications is denied; and more than a third of ADP applications are denied.

The Government claims to be kind and friendly, but it is no such thing. It parrots the mantra of dignity, fairness and respect without doing anything meaningful to pursue those ideals. For example, the Scottish Government could change the 20m rule to 50m in the budget—that would be a radical departure from the UK-wide policy—but it will not. All that it has done is commission a review of ADP that will not report until August 2025. Again—

Will the member take an intervention?

I will finish this point. I would appreciate it if the cabinet secretary, now or in closing, explained why it will take so long for the report’s findings to be published.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The independent review will decide its own timelines, but I suggest that, if Mr Balfour wants any changes to eligibility, it would be useful if the Scottish Conservatives came forward with costed budget proposals on how much that would cost and where the money would come from; otherwise, we are again hearing empty rhetoric but seeing no action.

Jeremy Balfour

I ask the cabinet secretary to reflect in closing that the August 2025 date came from her press release. That is the date that the Government has set.

I am aware that the SNP will accuse me of being partisan for pointing out those failings, but members should rest assured that I am not speaking for myself. I, along with many other members, have had a number of briefings from third sector organisations, which have all referred to the Scottish Government’s shortcomings. Age UK points out that we still do not have a minister for older people, and we have lost the title of minister for disability. Those are key responsibilities in the Scottish Government.

A number of organisations, including the MS Society, have been in touch with me this week to call for changes to the 20m rule. Others, such as Carers Scotland, are calling for changes to the way in which carers are supported in Scotland. Both requests demonstrate that the Scottish Government is not living up to its rhetoric. Our amendment recognises those shortcomings, and I am proud to move it. I hope that every member will vote for it at decision time.

I move amendment S6M-12079.2, to leave out from “; welcomes” to end and insert:

“, but notes with extreme concern that the Scottish Fiscal Commission reports that, by 2027-28, the Scottish Government will need to find an additional £1.3 billion in spending from within the Scottish Budget for these demand-led payments; understands that the Social Security Scotland agency is set to cost taxpayers in Scotland £322 million in operational costs in 2024-25, which is 130 per cent higher than spending in 2020-21; acknowledges that these benefits were first promised to be fully devolved to Scottish control by 2020, but that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has recently had to agree to extend the agency agreements to continue to assist and support the Scottish Government until 2026 as Social Security Scotland is, to date, unable to handle the full caseload; notes that these devolved benefits have not been significantly changed from the DWP criteria and that the promised review of adult disability payments may not be published until August 2025; acknowledges the disappointment from the third sector that the dedicated Minister for Equalities and Older People post was removed in March 2023, and backs the calls from Age Scotland and 15 partner agencies for this to be reinstated to ensure a targeted focus on tackling inequality, and welcomes the announcement by the UK Government that the third instalment of its Cost of Living Payment will be paid later in February 2024, benefitting more than 680,000 people across Scotland and totalling up to £900 paid to eligible households on means-tested benefits, and directly helping tackle the cost of living crisis and inequality equally across the UK.”

Paul O’Kane joins us remotely to speak to and move amendment S6M-12079.1.


Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

This is at least the third debate that we have had on social security in the past 12 months. As always, I will begin with a note of consensus. As in previous debates, the Scottish Labour Party recognises the impact that social security has in supporting people across Scotland, particularly the Scottish child payment, which we have supported since its introduction, and the binding poverty targets that were agreed by the Parliament.

We would also reflect that our aspiration for social security in Scotland should be one that is based on dignity, fairness and respect. Indeed, the changes that the previous UK Labour Government made to the social contract, including to social security across the UK, led to 1 million children and 1 million pensioners being lifted out of poverty. The principles of dignity, fairness and respect were very much at the heart of that.

However, we must recognise that, in lodging a motion that does not recognise the significant challenges in Social Security Scotland, presents no detail on what might be done to fix the issues and, in many ways, ignores the lived experience of thousands of Scots facing the blunt end of poverty, this Government seems to be more interested in self-praise and political posturing than it is in debating solutions.

Let me be clear: we on the Labour benches will always call out the failings of the current UK Conservative Government, its crashing of and failure to grow the economy, the failure to make work pay and, bluntly, its failure to tackle poverty and show compassion to the most vulnerable people in our society. It has failed working people and should be voted out of office as soon as possible, so that a Labour Government can go about the work of reform, making work pay and reforming social security to be a proper safety net for those who need it.

I wonder whether Paul O’Kane could identify specific welfare policies that Labour would reverse that the Tories have introduced.

Paul O’Kane

I believe that Ms Forbes has participated in a number of social security debates in which we have had this interaction before. I am very clear that Labour wants to fundamentally reform the system, because universal credit does not work and it is not working for all parts of our United Kingdom. We need to fundamentally reform the entire system so that it works and ensures that people have a sufficient safety net, as I have said. It is clear to me that we have opposed all that the Tories have done, and we are clear that the system needs fundamental reform. However, we will have to do that in terms of the fiscal situation that we inherit.

I move to the challenges that we are facing in Scotland. The current Scottish Government is presiding over a system that faces significant challenges. Today, the cabinet secretary has again repeated the words “dignity, fairness and respect” when referring to the social security system. Just saying that does not make it so, because we know that, in many ways, Social Security Scotland has failed to live up to people’s expectations and their aspirations.

We should reflect on waiting times. Last summer, the chief executive of Social Security Scotland told the Social Justice and Social Security Committee that he expected the waiting times for child disability payment to fall below the 80-day mark on average by the end of the summer. The end of the summer came and the statistical releases in September showed that the waiting times were stuck very stubbornly over 100 days, at 106 days.

Last week, at the committee’s evidence session, we asked Social Security Scotland when we would see a marked improvement in the waiting times and when it would get below the 80-day mark. I am not sure that we got any clarity on when that would happen or, indeed, on how that will happen.

It would be good to hear from the cabinet secretary about what part of keeping many families with vulnerable children in that waiting period for more than three months is meeting the aspirations of dignity, fairness and respect, because we know that people really are struggling as they wait for benefits.

It is not just child disability payment, either. As was reported over the weekend and as my colleague Michael Marra has already referred to, there are reports of almost 50,000 Scots having to wait for three months for their claims to be processed. Some have waited longer than that, and many people waiting have terminal illness. Many have also had to turn to food banks as a result of the wait. Charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support are sounding the alarm and urging the Government to take urgent action. We absolutely must reflect on that, because I do not think that people would recognise that picture as according with the aspirations of dignity, fairness and respect.

Social Security Scotland has been in development or existence for five years now. We have heard in the debate about the many benefits that it delivers and much of its work that is going on. However, I think that we are past the point where many of the delays can be blamed on teething problems. It is high time that the Government accepted that it has responsibility and must be held accountable for the significant challenges in the system.

We know that social security alone cannot solve the problem of poverty in Scotland and across our United Kingdom. More than 1 million people in Scotland still live in poverty—nearly half of them in very deep poverty—according to reports from various third sector organisations. In-work poverty is on the rise, with more than 10 per cent of workers locked in persistent low pay. The Scottish Government’s statistics show that lower and middle incomes have decreased over the latest three-year period. Yet, we hold this debate in a week in which we will debate a budget that will do nothing to stimulate economic growth and will take actions such as cutting the housing budget by 27 per cent, which will clearly impact on people who are struggling on low incomes.

It is against that whole backdrop that we consider today’s motion, which is rich in praise but perhaps lacking in the reality of the situation. If we want to tackle the cost of living crisis, inequality and poverty, we need a Government that is willing to take the decisions to make work pay and to tackle the structural causes behind poverty and inequality. Positive change can be delivered by a Labour Government that is willing to get to grips with the challenges that surround the system. The previous UK Labour Government, as I have said already, understood that when it removed 2 million children and pensioners from poverty through its action. We can do the same again, by making work pay and so ending in-work poverty, by growing the economy and by fixing the broken social security system across the UK. That is the change that I believe the people of Scotland want, the change that the people of Scotland need and the change that Labour will deliver when the SNP has failed to do so.

I move amendment S6M-12079.1, to leave out from “Government’s” to end and insert:

“Child Payment; notes the stubbornly high waiting times for Child Disability Payment, where the median processing time was 106 days, and for Adult Disability Payment, where the median processing time was 83 days, according to the latest statistical releases; is concerned by the Scottish Government’s failure to sufficiently and swiftly address these long processing times, which are driving some people to rely on foodbanks, according to reports from third sector organisations; is further concerned by the rise of in-work poverty in Scotland, with over one in 10 workers locked in persistent low pay according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and agrees that a UK Labour administration will implement a New Deal for Working People that will end in-work poverty and implement a fundamental reform of the Universal Credit system to provide a real safety net for those who need it.”


Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

John Swinney will recall how we got here. It was as a result of the Smith commission. I know that John Swinney was not wholly satisfied with the process, but there was significant movement through those cross-party discussions. At the start, I think that not many of the UK parties were in favour of the devolution of significant parts of the social security budget; however, by the end of the process, we agreed that, in total, combined with what had already been devolved, there would be a £3 billion budget for it. It was quite significant at the time, because it was probably the first time that a service was disentangled across the UK and a new service devolved to the Scottish Government. Therefore, the challenges of delivering it are not to be underestimated.

That is why at that time we committed to work in partnership across the Parliament to build a consensus on forging a new social security system, in many ways similar to when the national health service was forged after the war, although there was more collaboration then on building a consensus. I think that that commitment is to be welcomed.

However, I have been concerned slightly with today’s debate. I recognise that the child payment has significantly reduced the levels of child poverty—there is no doubt that it has. I do not think that Jeremy Balfour is right when he says that the Scottish Government has just replicated what Westminster is doing but in a more inefficient way—I do not think that that is correct.

I think that something has been missing from this discussion.

Will Willie Rennie give way?

Willie Rennie

Not just now. Although it is right to reflect on the decline of child poverty levels, we have not dealt with the root causes of why we have such high levels of child poverty. I am not saying that that is wholly at the door of the Scottish Government or wholly at the door of the Scottish Government to resolve, but I would have expected some kind of discussion today by the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice on the ambitions for reducing those levels.

Paul O’Kane was right to talk about in-work poverty and the need to boost the economy. I would have hoped that the Government would perhaps say that the high level of children who are accessing the payment is not good enough and that we must try to drive down those numbers, because that would be a reflection of more people being not just in work but in well-paid work.

John Swinney

Mr Rennie makes a serious point. The Government’s child poverty action plan takes into account things other than the child payment. Some of us who served in Government at the time made sure that that was the case and that there was an emphasis on employability to tackle exactly the issue that Mr Rennie raises.

Down at the bottom end of the Parliament’s garden lobby today, there is an illustrative picture that goes through the history of the development of child poverty. I am afraid that the genesis of the current crisis that we face is the austerity that commenced after 2010—it is crippling our society. That is why we have to have an honest discussion about the financial choices that are inherent in the budget, which will be discussed tomorrow, and about trying to tackle child poverty. The UK Government has made the situation that we face in Scotland a great deal worse as a consequence of the prevalence of the austerity agenda.

Willie Rennie

I think that we are all learning from the impact of that period and the financial decisions that were made, and how those affect future decisions. That is right, and I have certainly learned lessons from that period. We would rather not have made some of those choices, but they were made because of the financial position at the time. Nevertheless, we all need to reflect on how we learn the lessons from that period.

I, too, have been briefed by the people from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health down in the garden lobby, and I understand the point that they are making. However, we need a greater emphasis from the Government on the economic aspects and the economic opportunity. There should be not necessarily a celebration of reducing child poverty but an impatience to deal with its root causes rather than just its symptoms, which is what the child payment is doing, in effect.

I want to deal with a couple of technical transitional issues. One has already been referred to, which is the delays with ADP. I understand the cabinet secretary’s point that, as a result of gathering information on behalf of the client, the process is taking longer, but that is having a big financial impact on the individuals who are having to wait longer. The target was eight to 10 weeks, but the waiting time is now 16.6 weeks, which is a long time. I cannot believe that, with PIP, the process is taking nine weeks. We should aspire to be much better than that, and I hope that there is an impatience on that front, too, to drive down those waiting times, because that is having a big impact.

My second point is on the transition. I have a constituent who was on PIP and had a change of circumstances when her health deteriorated. She applied to have that change of circumstance recognised, which triggered the transfer to adult disability payment. Subsequently, her payments have been backdated to the point of transition rather than the point of change of circumstance, which has resulted in her losing out on £1,000. For her, that is an enormous sum of money. We must have a means to backdate the funds to the point at which her circumstances changed. That is when she needed more money; it was not at the point of the technical transition from PIP to ADP.

I hope that the cabinet secretary can look at that problem and resolve it, because I do not want more of my constituents to face a loss of £1,000.

We move to the open debate. I advise members that, at this point, there is a bit of time in hand for interventions, should members wish to take them.


Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

I am glad that the Scottish Government is choosing to spend more on social security. Scotland has built a new social security system that is rooted in compassion and that has dignity, fairness and respect at its heart. That has resulted in great changes, even with the limited powers that we have.

Stakeholders such as Save the Children welcome the Scottish Government’s positive choices in tackling poverty, so it is baffling that Labour and the Tories cannot even acknowledge that investment is increasing. All parties should recognise that devolved social security is actively lifting children out of poverty, and we should continue in that vein.

The Scottish Government is supporting people through the Tory-made cost of living crisis by providing on-going investment of about £3 billion per year in policies including 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare, the expansion of free school meals and the council tax reduction scheme. On top of that, despite continued Westminster austerity, the Scottish Government has chosen to spend more on social security and has delivered 14 benefits, seven of which are unique to Scotland. Those benefits will continue to tackle inequality and support the national mission to tackle child poverty.

A crucial part of that is the game-changing Scottish child payment, which Inclusion Scotland recognises is the single policy intervention that has created the largest fall in child poverty anywhere in Europe for at least 40 years. The payment of £25 per eligible child per week is a lifeline for many families, and it will keep up with inflation. This year alone, it is lifting 50,000 children in Scotland out of poverty, and it will benefit a further 250,000 children.

Other initiatives include the best start grant and best start foods, which help families in the face of inflated food prices. Estimates suggest that such policies are lifting 90,000 children out of poverty this year, so I am glad that those bold initiatives will continue.

However, Scottish efforts to tackle the scourge of child poverty are needlessly undermined by cruel UK Government policies such as the two-child cap, which Labour will keep, and the £20 cut to universal credit. Those policies have a social and financial impact, and reversing them could lift 30,000 children in Scotland out of poverty and allow the Scottish Government to reallocate the resources that it spends every year on mitigating the worst aspects of Westminster policies, including the bedroom tax.

I want to touch on aspects of Labour’s amendment, and waiting times for disability payments in particular. It is important to note that successful applicants will have their payments backdated. Social Security Scotland figures cannot be compared with DWP figures on a like-for-like basis. In Scotland, people get help to apply, including by medical information being collected on their behalf, thus reducing the stress of the application process compared with that under the DWP system.

Collette Stevenson has made a not-unreasonable point, but does she accept the financial impact on people who have to wait so much longer to get benefits? Is that not a factor?

Collette Stevenson

I will come on to issues relating to backdating, which Willie Rennie alluded to in his speech. Having visited Social Security Scotland in Dundee, I know that it is trying to mitigate the waiting times. As far as I know, at the last count, waiting times had gone down by eight days, so Social Security Scotland is doing progressive work to tackle the issue.

When the Social Justice and Social Security Committee visited Social Security Scotland, as I said, we learned about the work that is under way to speed up the process of dealing with all the applications, and I am glad that that will not come at the cost of delivering a Scottish social security system that has fairness, dignity and respect at its heart. We were told that part of the processing time is due to Social Security Scotland checking that people have not underreported their conditions, thereby ensuring that they get the full payment to which they are entitled. Some claimants have complex needs, so discussions with multiple stakeholders, including hospital consultants, general practitioners and mental health practitioners, are required. There might also be issues with the use of the Scottish care information—SCI—gateway by external agencies, so it is definitely worth exploring that matter further.

Some of those points tie in with Jeremy Balfour’s remarks about case load. I hope that there is a consensus and that we can all accept that Social Security Scotland is trying to do things in a much fairer way.

On finance, disabled people and their families are at greater risk of poverty than non-disabled people. Inclusion Scotland welcomes the additional £1.1 billion that is being spent on social security in Scotland. We should all recognise that the Scottish Government’s approach to the application process for adult disability payment has resulted in a higher number of claimants receiving support, and support the investment required for that.

While Westminster rips the UK welfare state to shreds, the SNP in government is investing in Scotland’s social contract. However, Scottish policies are being stymied by the Tories. I call on the UK Government to introduce an essentials guarantee to ensure that people who are in receipt of UK benefits have enough to cover their basic costs, such as food and fuel.

With its powers, the Scottish Government will deliver record investment in social security next year and will continue to deliver unique benefits that are lifting children out of poverty. Overall, estimates show that Scottish Government policy is lifting 90,000 children out of poverty this year alone. It is right that we increase investment in social security to tackle poverty. Surely colleagues in other parties will vote for that tonight.


Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives and I will support the amendment in the name of Jeremy Balfour.

It is right that the Scottish social security system be used to support those who are suffering due to the cost of living crisis. With the significant social security powers that Scotland now has available to it, we would expect nothing less from the Scottish Government, just as we would expect nothing less from the United Kingdom Government, which has already invested an additional £94 million to support households in this difficult economic climate. That support was significant and helped to avoid a recession in 2023, according to estimates from the Office for Budget Responsibility.

There have also been significant increases to universal credit and other means-tested benefits—more than 700,000 Scots will benefit. That is in addition to the increase in the state pension of more than £900 per year, an increase of nearly 10 per cent in the national minimum wage and national insurance cuts worth more than £750 to nearly 3 million working Scots.

On the face of it, there are laudable statements in the Government motion, which speaks to the importance of using Scotland’s social security powers to support those who are in need of assistance. Unfortunately, however, the motion also contains too many self-congratulatory statements, so we will not be able to support it. As our amendment sets out, the Scottish Government’s record on this issue is not one for which Scottish ministers should pat themselves on the back.

As we have heard in the debate, the Government’s record so far is one that includes many delays and missed opportunities. The Government missed its original deadline for transferring benefits to Social Security Scotland. In total, a decade will have passed between the Scotland Act 2016 and the Scottish Government taking full control of them.

Although it is good news that benefits such as the Scottish child payment and the adult disability payment have finally been introduced, we are still seeing problems with how those benefits are processed.

Nearly a third of applications for the Scottish child payment have been denied, and Social Security Scotland has admitted that processing times for the adult disability payment are still too long and are causing concern for those individuals.

Recent data shows that, in 2023, the number of applications that were processed within three months decreased from 26 per cent in January to just 15 per cent in July.

The number of applications that were processed in fewer than two months has now fallen to just 3 per cent. On top of that, as we have heard, the number of complaints has increased by 170 per cent in the space of a year. The cabinet secretary talked about managing the situation and coping with the increase, but the reality is that people are waiting longer and that more people are making complaints about the process.

The SNP Government has often liked to criticise the Department for Work and Pensions and the UK Government’s approach to dealing with benefits; I have heard that on numerous occasions in the chamber over the years. However, with Social Security Scotland, the SNP is now learning hard facts about how it tackles the issue, how that works and what it looks like.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

You said that the Scottish Government has been critical of the way in which the UK Government’s Department for Work and Pensions has handled things. Are you critical of it, or do you think that what it has been doing for the past few years has been acceptable?

We need to speak through the chair.

Alexander Stewart

There is no doubt that mistakes have been made on all sides. However, the basic necessity is to ensure that individuals receive, and have been receiving, support. As I said, Scotland is taking longer and getting more complaints, so your record on that process is not blameless.

The UK Government has made mistakes, and I have admitted them many times in the past. I do not necessarily always agree with what it has achieved. At the end of the day, the safety net is there to support individuals.

It is clear that more needs to be done as case loads are increasing, as we have seen. However, despite the SNP Government not being able to manage all the current situations with the powers that it has, we are getting into the realms of pie-in-the-sky plans for more benefits. The Scottish Government recently put forward its independence paper, “Social security in an independent Scotland”, which makes the usual collection of undeliverable promises, which the Scottish public are becoming very tired of listening to.

Those include suggestions that an independent Scotland could consider introducing a universal basic income. Although the details of that have been talked about in the past, the Government has not given us a full estimation of how it would be funded and how many billions it would cost. It is surprising that the Government does not go into that clarity, given that we have seen that in the past.

Instead of wasting yet more time and more money setting out hypothetical plans for a hypothetical social security system in Scotland, the Government should be putting its efforts into using the powers that it has to support the individuals who need that support on the ground today.

Members on the Conservative benches want to see a distinctly Scottish approach to social security that takes full advantage of the powers of this Parliament, underpinned by the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom Government. We all want to see a distinctly Scottish approach. However, it is disappointing to see that the current Scottish Government wants to have a distinctly Scottish approach that overpromises and underdelivers. The whole idea of capitalising on the Parliament’s powers cannot be swept under the carpet.

Our amendment sets out an alternative vision for how to deliver the social security system that the Scottish public expects, which members should support.

Will the member take an intervention?

The member is closing.

I call on them to do so.


Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Today, the Scottish Parliament has an opportunity to reaffirm the kind of social security system that we all wish to see. It is an opportunity to recognise, on a cross-party basis, the huge progress that has been made by Scotland’s Government and Scotland’s Parliament to embed a social security system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect. It is also an opportunity to set out how we can build further on our fledgling social security system and to have a frank conversation about the barriers to allowing us to go further, as we would wish to.

I am not surprised that the Conservative approach to the debate is to seek to airbrush out of the public record the very real progress that has been made by the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland towards helping those who are most in need in Scotland. I am also not surprised that they seem to question whether it is money well spent, by drawing attention to the cost of social security in Scotland.

Let me say clearly to the Conservatives that the £6.3 billion of social security expenditure in 2024-25—which the Scottish Fiscal Commission forecasts will be £1.1 billion beyond what we will get from the UK Government for social security through the block grant—is an investment that is well spent and welcome. It will support the most vulnerable people in our society, and I am proud of it.

The nearly £500 million annual investment in the Scottish child payment means that the level of child poverty is significantly lower in Scotland than it is in Conservative-run England and in Labour-run Wales. The level of child poverty in Scotland is nine points lower than it would be without the payment. That is still too high, of course, but 90,000 fewer children are living in poverty because of the Scottish Government’s actions.

I agree with the Conservatives’ concerns about cost—but it is the cost to Scottish society of having to pick up the pieces when a Westminster Government is prioritising a tax on the poor and disabled and tax cuts for the rich over doing the right thing. I, too, am concerned about that. The Scottish Government is absolutely right to reference UK Government block grant cuts and continued UK Government austerity. Those directly undermine the positive progress that Scotland’s Parliament has signed up to for a number of years. We must never take the progress on child poverty, carers allowance, disability assistance, the bedroom tax and so much more for granted.

The Scottish Government’s motion also calls on the UK Government to drop planned work capability assessment changes that have all the hallmarks of another Westminster attack on our most vulnerable. They could potentially directly attack some of the most sick and ill people in society. Shame on the UK Government. If it were to immediately scrap the two-child cap, the 80,000 children in Scotland who are affected by it no longer would be, and 15,000 of those children would be lifted out of poverty. There is also the heinous rape clause.

I sign up to the Scottish Government’s motion, which acknowledges the excellent progress that has been made by Social Security Scotland and our Parliament in supporting many of our most vulnerable citizens. It also acknowledges the £6.3 billion investment and the progress that has been made on tackling child poverty. The motion also points out the clear cruelties and deficiencies of the current UK Conservative Government’s approach to welfare. Acknowledging that should be plain sailing for any Labour Party that is worthy of the name. How sad that the UK Labour Party representatives in the Scottish Parliament have again failed to offer any commitment to scrapping the repugnant Tory rape clause or seeking to raise any concerns about work capability assessments.

As we look to the Parliament passing the 2024-25 Scottish budget in the days ahead, let us also draw attention this afternoon to the Labour Party’s actions in seeking to remove all reference to the impact of Westminster austerity on Scotland and any reference to cuts to Scotland’s block grant by Westminster. This is a diminished Labour Party; it is a Labour Party in name only. Let us have no crocodile tears from the Labour Party about the tough choices that the Scottish Government will make in the days ahead because of the UK cuts. We need to be champions for the most vulnerable people in Scotland, not apologists for Westminster.

I will now talk about the what nexts for social security in Scotland. I acknowledge that the what nexts depend heavily on the extent of UK austerity and the budget constraints on the Parliament, but I want to suggest a few. We need to explore whether there is a need for a taper when people move into work or lose universal credit when they were previously receiving the Scottish child payment. Should those payments be removed in a phased way? Is there a cliff edge as families try to get back into work? Are there unintended consequences of that? Willie Rennie made some points in relation to how we support making work pay in Scotland. Perhaps the Scottish child payment has a role to play in getting people into well-paid work. Using a taper might be one way of doing that. I would like to know what the cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government think about that.

I also believe that we need to do more to provide support with energy costs for terminally ill individuals, their families and their carers. Ahead of this afternoon’s debate, Marie Curie Scotland and Motor Neurone Disease Scotland gave us a briefing in which they call for several things, one of which is targeted support with energy costs from the Scottish Government for those in that situation. I acknowledge that one of my SNP colleagues at Westminster, Marion Fellows, is seeking to bring in legislation at the UK level to establish a social tariff for those who are disabled and those who have a terminal illness. However, if we can do more in Scotland, even though it is the UK’s responsibility, let us do so, despite the financial constraints.

I will support the Scottish Government’s motion this afternoon and will reject the amendments from a discredited Conservative Party and a diminished Labour Party.


Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

A quarter of families in Scotland are now living in poverty, and urgent action is required across a range of areas to protect families from the immediate impact of the cost of living crisis and austerity. Parents need to have a consistent and sufficient income to plan ahead and make decisions for their children. Parental employability funds exist to assist in lifting people out of poverty, but they have been stripped of more than £20 million in a year by the SNP Government.

We welcome the news that the Scottish Government has finally listened to the Scottish Labour Party and has provided resources to wipe school meals debt. However, the policy is limited to a year and, without sustained investment, the debt will begin to build up again almost immediately.

Adverse childhood experiences have been found to have a lifelong impact on mental health. One of those experiences is a childhood that is spent below the poverty line. According to Public Health Scotland, children who are born into poverty are more likely to experience mental health problems. Prevention of adverse childhood experiences, such as poverty, is essential for fostering the long-term mental wellbeing of young people. Public Health Scotland has advised that the majority of people’s mental health problems will develop before the age of 24, with 50 per cent of mental health difficulties being established by the age of 14. The SNP is set to miss its own statutory child poverty target, with 23 per cent of children in relative poverty in 2021-22.

Children who are born into impoverished areas will eventually face significant hurdles in their life. The longer children live below the poverty line, the bigger the impact it has on their overall health, development and wellbeing. If the Scottish Government fails to meet its own 2030 child poverty targets, it will place an even bigger strain on the NHS. Mental health services and social security will be affected as a result.

Will the member take an intervention?

Foysol Choudhury

I want to make progress.

The Scottish child payment is a welcome investment in lifting children out of poverty, but there needs to be a more targeted approach to addressing the consequences of a childhood lived below the poverty line. This week, the Glasgow Centre for Population Health has an exhibition in Parliament, and many members will have already visited its stand. The centre’s recent report outlines that the cost of living crisis and austerity are affecting mortality rates across Scotland. In 2019, it was reported that a boy who was born in Muirhouse had a life expectancy that was 13 years less than that of a boy who was born in neighbouring Cramond. That is still the reality for many children who grow up in poverty. Across the nation, healthy life expectancy is decreasing, but it is decidedly lower for those who are from the most deprived areas across Scotland.

Will the member give way?

Foysol Choudhury

I want to make some more progress.

The report also emphasises increasing death rates among poorer communities across the country that were made worse by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. Those inequalities can often be linked back to a childhood below the poverty line, yet we are still seeing budgets for tackling child poverty and social justice reduced. This year alone, those budgets have gone down by £3 million, and they are £68.8 million lower than they were two years ago.

The Scottish Government must meet its 2030 child poverty targets, but it must also address other inequalities that people in Scotland are facing. Social security costs are spiralling. There has been a multimillion-pound increase in the cost of supporting the delivery of devolved benefits, yet we are still seeing alarmingly high waiting times for the child disability payment, and there has been no great improvement in waiting times for the adult disability payment. Around half of all people who live in poverty live in a household in which at least one member is disabled.

The Scottish Government must do so much more to patch up the broken system.


Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

Although I am pleased to be taking part in today’s debate, I will be even more pleased to see the day when the cost of living crisis and inequality are no longer an issue here in Scotland. However, at the moment, they are, and we are still trying to mitigate the situation.

Therefore, I am delighted to hear that the Scottish Government will invest a record £6.3 billion in social security in the year ahead. That money is an investment in the folk of Scotland, in our social contract with them and in the safety net that should be there to catch folks when times get tough. Right now, times are tough.

During the cost of living crisis, every single penny that we can put towards helping folk to get by is worth it. I am particularly pleased that, when folk interact with Social Security Scotland, they are treated with dignity, fairness and respect. That approach is a key part of why 90 per cent of people who had been in contact with Social Security Scotland said that their experience with staff was “good” or “very good” and 93 per cent felt that they were treated with kindness. I think that that approach stands in sharp contrast to what folk have experienced with the UK Government’s Department for Work and Pensions, especially since the UK Government first started to implement its welfare reforms.

The idea that social security needed to be reformed was not in itself a bad idea, but it was not simply reformed. Instead, billions of pounds of support was snatched from the very hands of folk who needed it most, right across the UK. Looking back, I remember the devastation of those who had been sanctioned and simply did not know where to turn to for help. I remember the fear of those who did not know how they would cope with the impending bedroom tax. I remember the trepidation of those who were asked to attend a work assessment, including those with lifelong or terminal conditions. I remember the implementation of the benefit cap, the child cap and the rape clause. I remember food banks becoming commonplace.

For a lot of folk, the early 2010s was when their cost of living crisis started. That was when they started to struggle to afford food and electricity. That was when they could no longer afford to socialise, play sports or enjoy certain hobbies, or to take part in a wide range of activities that give joy and meaning to life, because they cost money. In the past two years, most folk have cut back on such things or have simply gone without.

I am worried about how many folk are now struggling with their utility bills, their housing costs and their food bills, because those are the price rises that hit folk hardest. However, my even greater worry is for the people who have been struggling for a decade or so. The pressures that they face are not cost of living pressures. Heating, shelter and food are basic essentials. The challenge that they now face is with the cost of merely surviving. They face that situation because the UK Government did not see the value of social security and the safety net that it is supposed to offer in time of need. Today, I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government values that safety net and that Social Security Scotland is starting to repair it.

That this Parliament has the power to make some differences is a result of the independence referendum and the Smith commission that followed. If we look at the communities that have been hardest hit by the Tory welfare cuts, we see that they are the communities where support for Scottish independence was the highest. In my Aberdeen Donside constituency, that was certainly the case across Middlefield, Mastrick, Cummings Park, Northfield and Heathryfold. I know that we will have seen that in other communities right across this nation.

It is fair to say that, during that campaign, many of the folk who were struggling to get by saw the prospect of independence as a light at the end of the tunnel. Those of us in the yes campaign promised that things could be better with independence, with control over our own affairs. The independence campaign gave a lot of folk hope, and we saw how powerful that hope could be with the turnout that we saw on 18 September 2014.

The aftermath of the referendum saw the Smith commission and further devolution, and now this Parliament has some power over welfare. What has followed has been the establishment of Social Security Scotland. We are building a social security system that, even at this early stage, is offering support from the cradle to the grave, with best start grants, best start foods and the game-changing Scottish child payments there for the start of life, while funeral support payments are supporting families who are grieving the loss of a loved one at the end of life.

All of that has helped to bring about a situation in which 90,000 fewer children are growing up in poverty than might be otherwise. That is investing in Scotland’s future, and that is what we can do with just some control over our own affairs. There is more to do, but we are on the right path, and continued record investment in social security will help to make the fairer and more equal Scotland that we all want to see a reality.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I put on record my thanks to all the organisations that have engaged with me over recent weeks or sent in briefings for today’s debate. The work that those organisations and their staff and volunteers do is a vital part of our system of social protection, on which we all rely. I will not manage to address today all the asks in those briefings, but I undertake to keep them in mind in forthcoming discussions about budgets and service deliveries.

For decades now—for the whole of my lifetime—both the idea and the practice of social security have come under cynical and sustained attack. In the UK, they have been undermined by the vicious drip-feed of media myth, made subject to humiliating and often impossible hurdles, and reduced to levels of near and often actual destitution. Too often, even those defending social security have been apologetic and half-hearted. They cannot, it seems, fully withstand those tabloid lies, the constant bombardment of stereotypes and the perpetuation of the deep and damaging stigma that generations now bear.

Social security is not an unfortunate side hustle—a grubby little job to be got out of the way before we begin our important business. It is our important business. It is at the heart of what a responsible Government does and what a responsible Parliament cares about. Why is that?

First, it is a question of justice. The degree of inequality in our society goes far beyond anything that might be explained by natural variations of fortune, aspiration, hard work or talent. It represents deliberate dispossession and the on-going transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. It is a reverse Robin Hood, obscenely celebrated as though the Sheriff of Nottingham were the hero and Maid Marian a woke activist, getting in the way of economic growth. Salaries for the richest have been rising in what Professor Danny Dorling has described as a “spiral of excess”, involving not only bankers and hedge fund managers but those such as university vice-chancellors who once saw their work as a matter of public benefit and the common good.

Faced with such injustice, we should be unashamed in calling for fair redistribution—for the poor to recover what has been stolen from them. Social security is one way in which we can do a small part of that essential rebalancing—a small act of justice and solidarity.

Secondly, it is a question of rights. Among the four freedoms that President Roosevelt set out as the foundations of a post-war world was freedom from want. The social and economic rights that expressed that freedom are integral to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 75th anniversary we celebrated just a couple of months ago. It was a pure political project on the part of capitalist Governments to pretend that those rights were less important than their counterpart civil and political freedoms. It is part of our role to dismantle that project and to restore a dignified and healthy life to the heart of our human rights endeavours.

Thirdly, it is a question of sustainability and of what our shared future will look like. Inequality, as the authors of “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” demonstrate, damages our whole society. The traumatic effects of poverty harm not only individuals and families but communities and social structures across time and place. There are huge tasks ahead as we work for a fair, peaceful, unpolluted and thriving Scotland, and we each need the resources and resilience to play our part.

As the motion reflects, we can and, I think, should be proud of what we have done in Scotland, including our record investment in social security, our increased benefits, our respectful approach and our mitigation of Westminster cruelties, but most of all we should be proud of the Scottish child payment, which Professor Danny Dorling has described as

“the single policy intervention that has created the largest fall in child poverty anywhere in Europe for at least 40 years”,

as others have highlighted.

However, we must do more. We must look at all our policies, budget decisions and proposed legislation from the perspective of a child in poverty. We must use the tools that we have and develop those that we need. Participation, transparency, accountability, accurate data and monitored targets all take meticulous work, humility and a willingness to challenge and be challenged. This afternoon’s debate is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to that work and that willingness, and I thank Bob Doris especially for his suggestions and clear proposals for us to consider.

We must continue to call out Westminster’s cruel and vindictive policies, its direct social security decisions, the inhuman two-child limit and the prurient rape clause, and its failures in reserved areas, especially in energy, trade and immigration. Social security that excludes children seeking sanctuary from the worst horrors of the world is neither social nor secure.

We must challenge vested interests that hide their exploitation of the poor behind a cloak of invented inevitability. The reality of the cost of living crisis is that it represents the cost of greed. The new report by Global Justice Now and others, “Taken, not earned: How monopolists drive the world’s power and wealth divide”, shows how huge corporations and their billionaire controllers set exorbitant prices using their effective monopoly power not only to gouge consumers but to strangle the smaller firms on which our communities depend.

Social security, at its best, is the essential oil that keeps our society, our communities and our families working as they should—safe and secure and freed from want to come together in growing our shared future. We are privileged to help to make that a reality.


Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

I welcome the Scottish Government’s plans to invest £6.3 billion in benefits and payments in 2024-25, thereby supporting more than 1.2 million people. The Scottish Government has rightly taken a different path from the UK Government on social security. The contrast between the two Governments could not be greater. Here in Scotland, we are creating a social security system that is humane and compassionate, and which recognises that decent levels of support and assistance are essential to help our citizens to thrive. It is an investment that secures a fairer Scotland that wants to leave no one behind.

That is in stark contrast to the Westminster system, which has a punitive approach at its heart. It promotes stigma and drives down living standards to the lowest levels since records began, with a sanctions regime that stigmatises and denies basic subsistence. It ignores the evidence of experts such as Dr David Webster of the University of Glasgow, who believes that

“The workhouse aside, there’s never been a social security programme that delivered as much pain for so little gain”.

Yet, that system has been supported by the two main Westminster parties, Labour and the Tories, as has use of private sector medical assessments, which have caused much misery and harm.

A humane system needs to take a different approach. The Scottish Government has taken that path with our social security system by delivering 14 benefits that tackle poverty and reduce inequality—seven of which, including the Scottish child payment, are available only in Scotland—and, which is most important, an overall system that treats people with dignity, fairness and respect.

That record investment demonstrates the Scottish Government’s choices in particularly challenging times. With increased food, energy and general living costs, we are trying to reach the people who need it most. That is delivering real and meaningful change, through Social Security Scotland.

In the recent London School of Economics and Political Science blog post entitled “What Scotland’s policies can teach Westminster about fighting poverty”, academics from the University of York wrote:

“The devolution of some social security powers has meant that Scotland has been able to forge a different path, introducing potentially transformative policy reforms which mean families with children living north of the border face a more hopeful future than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK.”

When discussing the Scottish child payment, the blog states:

“Oxford University’s Danny Dorling has predicted that the increased and extended payments will transform Scotland from being one of the most unequal places to live in Europe to being one of the most equal. In short: it’s a big deal.”

Those academics are right. It is a big deal and we will do more, but we are hindered in that endeavour by the need to mitigate Westminster welfare cuts. For instance, £90 million has been made available for discretionary housing payments, including payments to fully mitigate the bedroom tax, which will help more than 92,000 households in Scotland to sustain their tenancies. More than 50 per cent of Scottish households that are in receipt of universal credit housing element have rents that exceed the local housing allowance that has been set by Westminster, so discretionary housing payments are in many cases necessary to help to cover the rent.

The benefit cap has also been mitigated as fully as possible to support more than 2,700 families, which include more than 9,400 children. The cap denies children the support that they need, but the Tories persevere with it. Shamefully, Labour is silent on the cap that plunges families into poverty, but is all chatty about the cap on bankers’ bonuses. Labour is happy to see the cap on bankers’ bonuses lifted, but will not commit to lifting the cap on benefits or to scrapping the two-child policy and its abhorrent rape clause. That is disgusting.

We are also righting wrongs that the Tories and Labour refuse to fix. One example is the raw deal that both parties have given unpaid carers when in government. Since 1976, when the carers allowance was introduced as invalid care allowance, successive UK Governments have refused to align the amount that is paid with other earnings-replacement benefits. It has taken the SNP Government to change that, with the carers allowance supplement.

We are making further improvements, in contrast with the neglect from Westminster. The recent proposed changes to work capability assessments show that that neglect will continue. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that hundreds of thousands of people could be impacted and will lose more than £4,000 per year. Unfortunately, that shows that the cruel UK Government austerity measures are continuing at pace.

We need to end that Westminster approach, which lacks humanity and compassion. Real change will come only with independence and full control over social security. Then, we could remove the two-child limit and scrap the rape clause, remove the benefit cap and bedroom tax and end the benefit sanctions regime and the young parent penalty. We could provide more support for people who are starting work, such as up-front childcare and travel costs.

The Scottish Government will continue to invest in social security, providing help when needed and investing in our citizens. With independence, we will do even more.


Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the debate as an opportunity to scrutinise the work of Social Security Scotland and the devolution of benefits in Scotland. As others have said, we face significant problems with poverty, deprivation, deindustrialisation, poor growth and poor productivity in Scotland. We will not be able in the debate to lay out a strategy to deal with that situation.

However, I believe that we can use the debate as an opportunity to scrutinise what has happened in recent years and how social security is working in Scotland. The cabinet secretary and others are, of course, correct to make the point about mitigation; decisions that this Parliament has made to mitigate some of the inhumane policy decisions of the Westminster Government are part of the reason why social security benefits in Scotland are under strain and the budget is so high. The role of this Parliament is to ensure that the new significant social security benefits and budgets are properly spent and that support is provided to those who are most in need.

It is fair to say that all parties in the chamber have the expectation that Social Security Scotland will be significantly better than the Department for Work and Pensions, but as a member of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, I would like to highlight some of the flaws that I believe exist in the design of the Scottish social security system, and which are becoming increasingly apparent.

Despite more than five years of a devolved social security system that was meant to be fairer than its UK predecessor, in-work poverty and deprivation levels in Scotland remain stubbornly high, with many of the problems that claimants highlight being very similar to those that were experienced when the DWP was dealing with similar benefits. Unfortunately, the cabinet secretary’s claim to have transformed the social security system in Scotland—I presume that she means the experience of claimants—is simply not borne out in reality.

For example, last week, my office was contacted by two constituents who were receiving daily communications by email saying that their payments would be stopped. Both cases were resolved when we intervened. However, I believe that that is an example of overreliance on systems sending out automatic computer-generated emails, which cause distress. On both occasions, the social security emails indicated that information had not been provided and that, therefore, benefits were being stopped. However, it was later accepted that, in fact, the information had been safely received.

There are also serious concerns about the over-budget and behind-schedule social security information technology system, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will respond to those concerns in her conclusions.

If we look at some of the most recent statistics that are available, it appears that processing times have worsened for several services, compared with previous years’ times. I note what the convener of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee said in relation to one specific benefit—it might be that she has information that I have not been provided with, yet. However, when we look at the data for the adult disability payment, which is a substantial benefit that takes up a substantial part of the budget, we see that the average number of days waiting for an application to be processed has increased. Between March 2023 and October 2023, the average waiting time for an adult disability payment to be processed was 104 working days. Over the same period for the year before, the application processing time was 37 days.

If there is more up-to-date information on any progress, it would be helpful if that could be provided. However, according to the most recent available data on the child disability payment, the average number of days for an application for it to be processed has also increased. Between January 2023 and September 2023, an application took 105 working days, which was longer than the previous timescale.

Collette Stevenson

I touched on that point earlier, in my response to an intervention from Willie Rennie. When the Social Justice and Social Security Committee visited Social Security Scotland in Dundee, we heard that there were external factors at play, which I also alluded to in my speech. Notwithstanding that, there are also significant factors with regard to the varying degrees of disabilities and activities that need to be dealt with.

However, the member asked about processing times—the number of days has gone down. When Social Security Scotland gave evidence to the committee last week, it stated that the time that is taken is clearly going down, and that it is a work in progress.

I do not know whether I am going to get time back, Presiding Officer—

I can give you the time back for that.

Katy Clark

I am grateful for that, Presiding Officer, because—as you can see—time is progressing.

Similar information to the data that I set out is available in relation to the funeral support payment. However, I will look at what the committee convener said, because that information has not been provided formally as yet and, as she will be aware, I did not attend that particular committee visit. As she will also be aware—and as other members have highlighted in the debate—the turnaround times for some benefits are the same as, or have at times been worse than, DWP levels.

Labour members fully appreciate the financial pressures on the Scottish Government. As I said, most social security spend goes on the adult disability payment, and there are pressures. We strongly support new benefits that have been introduced, including the Scottish child payment. That specific measure is worthy of mention, because recent research suggests that it has been successful.

As a Parliament, however, we have to say clearly that we have high expectations of Social Security Scotland. It is not helpful for the Scottish Government to lodge self-congratulatory motions. We need a balanced debate, and some significant issues have been raised today. It is appropriate to raise those issues in the chamber, and I hope that, as we move forward, there will be a constructive debate as to how we ensure that what claimants receive in Scotland is at least as good as what they receive south of the border or—as most of us would hope—significantly better.


Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

I am happy to contribute to the debate, and proud to highlight the work of Social Security Scotland, which I believe has been hugely positive and has been making a real difference to people’s lives. I am disappointed, however, that in the amendments that are before us there is no recognition of the huge amount of dedication and effort from all those who are involved in delivering Scotland’s social security. The Government motion rightly recognises that they play

“a vital role in tackling poverty and reducing economic and social inequalities”.

That work stands in stark contrast to the callous right-wing policies of the Tory UK Government and the UK Opposition’s meek desire to ape them.

A decade of austerity, a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for and disastrous economic decisions such as Liz Truss’s infamous mini-budget have hit Scottish households and deepened inequality. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently highlighted that more than one in five people in the UK—22 per cent—were in poverty in 2021-22, which is a total of 14.4 million people. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated:

“It has been almost 20 years and 6 prime ministers since the last prolonged period of falling poverty.”

The Scottish Government is doing everything that it can, with limited powers, to put money in people’s pockets, as the Tories take it away and Labour promises more of the same.

The United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has gone as far as to say that the UK Government’s welfare system is “grossly insufficient” after a decade of austerity and may potentially be in violation of international law. However, what is Westminster’s response to that shocking statement? It is more cuts and more austerity, as Rishi Sunak considers plans to slash sickness benefits to the tune of £4 billion. Those proposed changes would mean that, in Scotland alone, as many as 56,500 people would lose out on existing health benefits worth £390 per month.

Should we be proud of the fact that in response to being told that mothers were being forced to water down baby formula, the Prime Minister said, after being pressed, that he was, of course, “sad” to hear that someone was in that situation. Sad? He and his party should be ashamed that, in 2024, families cannot afford to feed their children.

Can the Prime Minister be proud of the fact that, rather than showing compassion and focusing on making people’s lives better, he is happily gambling with lives instead? While people struggle to scrape together another tenner for food, he is happy to wager £1,000 with Piers Morgan on whether his unlawful and inhumane Rwanda deportation policy will ever get off the ground, turning ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s self-proclaimed “dream” and “obsession” into a reality.

Meanwhile, Keir Starmer even praised Margaret Thatcher in a recent article, and that was amid a string of U-turns and broken promises from the shadow cabinet, most recently when it confirmed that it has no intention of reinstating the cap on bankers’ bonuses.

We should be proud of a social security system that puts dignity, fairness and respect at its heart. Tackling poverty and protecting people from harm is one of the three critical and interdependent missions of the Scottish Government, alongside focusing on the economy and strengthening public services. Remember that it is only with the full economic and fiscal powers of an independent nation that ministers can use all the levers that other Governments have to tackle inequalities.

The paper “Building a New Scotland: Social Security in an independent Scotland” shows how a progressive Scottish Government with full powers could take

“a human rights-based approach, treating people with dignity, fairness and respect”;

“build a system that is an integral part of a wellbeing economy”;

and deliver

“financial security for all through a Minimum Income Guarantee”.

Small, independent European nations that are comparable to Scotland have lower inequality and poverty rates than the UK does. If they can do it, why can Scotland not do it? Until then, the SNP Government will use the limited powers of devolution to build a social security system with dignity, fairness and respect at its core. We should support that and be proud of it.

We move to the closing speeches.


Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to close on behalf of Scottish Labour.

It is fair to say that the debate has been a bit of a mixed bag. Much of the cabinet secretary’s opening speech and the content of the motion look as though they have been copied and pasted from the 12 September debate, much of which was copied and pasted from our debate on 4 September.

I note that we have another debate on social security on 20 February, which is slightly different in that the Cabinet will lay out how to build a full social security system in Scotland in the context of an immediate £14 billion cut to the revenue spending in this country. We look forward to that.

Today, many members have, rightly, set out the benefits of an evolving constitutional settlement in Scotland, which has provided social security powers and, crucially, presented real and often very difficult decisions for this Parliament and the Government to take about how to use those powers and how to provide the resources to pay for them.

It falls to all of us who support a progressive welfare system that recognises human dignity and supports our families and the communities in which they live to continually make the case for an effective and efficient Social Security Scotland. Public support for that institution and for the powers and how they are used is absolutely crucial, but it depends on the effective operation of that system. The job of Parliament in that regard is to ensure that we ask those questions and challenge the Government to make sure that the system performs properly. It is on that basis that we will continue to command full public support for the system.

Members are correct to question the operation of the system as it stands, and we have had some useful exchanges on that today. However, we should not be in a position where waiting times for disability payments are longer in Scotland than they are in the rest of the UK. When people are facing destitution, that has a real and immediate impact.

Willie Rennie was right to discuss the issue of backdating payments, but for many people the need is immediate—it is not just a case of whether they can get the money in a few months’ time. The cabinet secretary highlighted some of those issues and will continue to have those conversations, but many people cannot wait weeks, months or even days.

Collette Stevenson highlighted the committee visit to Social Security Scotland in God’s own city of Dundee and, crucially, the recognition from senior staff there that they must, and are striving to, do better to reduce waiting times. There can be consensus that more has to be done in that area and that we want to see those performances improve.

There are considerable challenges in the system, and significantly growing numbers of people have long-term sickness. Paul O’Kane was right to highlight the numbers—50,000 people—in that regard and the calls from Macmillan Cancer Support to ensure that people with a terminal illness are given proper respect and the dignity that the cabinet secretary says she wants to see in the system that she presides over.

There has been some discussion during the debate about what is next. Bob Doris talked about some of the challenges that the system will face, and I will highlight one in particular.

Recently, the Office for National Statistics highlighted that an additional 200,000 people across the UK are suffering from long-term sickness. That is a significant strategic challenge for the entire UK’s social security system, not just Scotland’s.

The causes of the sickness rates are far from clear. There are certainly issues to deal with in the post-Covid environment, with its burden of legacy disease. We know that the figures are partly a consequence of the Government’s complete failure to restart our NHS appropriately and the failure of its recovery plan, with one in six people on waiting lists, disastrous accident and emergency performance and elective surgery that is at a standstill for many people across Scotland. If we do not solve such issues, we will continue to increase the burden on our social security system.

Paul McLennan

We keep on hearing that Labour is the change that we need. Paul O’Kane was asked what welfare policies Labour would reverse if it were in power in the UK and he mentioned fiscal rules. Fiscal rules are something that Labour could change if it is in power. That would be a political choice, which is an important point. Marie McNair mentioned mitigation policies, but, to start with, a Labour Government could reverse the two-child cap, the rape clause and the capital cuts, and it could raise the local housing allowance. Does the member support making that request of an incoming Labour Government?

Michael Marra

The minister rightly points to the issue of fiscal discipline in the UK. We have seen, and we regularly discuss, the complete lack of fiscal discipline from Conservative colleagues, which has left us in a disastrous situation, with rising household prices, mortgage payments going through the roof and the real challenges that are pushing people into poverty in this country. Labour will never play fast and loose with the public finances, and we will examine the situation that is inherited, if we have the opportunity to serve in a UK Parliament after a general election.

Will the member give way?

Michael Marra

No, thank you, sir.

It is on those bases that those decisions will be taken—and rightly so, because those are contingent issues. We must have an economy that works and effective stewardship of our public finances to ensure that we can do that.

That brings me to the point about the effective stewardship of public finances in Scotland. There is a £1.9 billion gap in our budget, of which £1.3 billion is above and beyond the block grant allocations on social security—in other words, it relates to decisions that are taken by the Government. However, those issues will be exacerbated by the long-term sickness figures. If we listen to the Office for Budget Responsibility, all of that leads to a 1.5 per cent downtick in gross domestic product figures. That in itself would also be disastrous, if we are to deliver the resources that we all want to deliver for social security and many other public services that we require.

Will the member give way?

Michael Marra

No, as I am just coming to a conclusion, but thank you for your interest, Mr Doris.

I will briefly reflect on the contributions of my colleagues behind me, Foysol Choudhury and Katy Clark, who detailed some of the issues that they have received in representations from their constituents. It is the divergence between the representations that we MSPs receive in our inboxes and the content of the motion that means that we shall not be able to support it today.

There are significant challenges that the Government must face up to. The sooner we can get into a more constructive debate on that, the better.


Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I think that we have heard a lot of the SNP rhetoric that we will hear during the Westminster election.

I thank the organisations that provided helpful briefings for today’s debate. We all want a social security system that can help people to realise their potential and provide a safety net when they need it.

As the cabinet secretary stated at the beginning of the debate, Parliament has worked on a cross-party basis to support the delivery of new payments. Ministers have highlighted, for example, the Scottish child payment, which is making a difference, and we should collectively welcome that.

However, Katy Clark was right to say that today’s debate should have been about scrutinising the Scottish Government. It would have been more honest for the cabinet secretary and SNP and Green members to acknowledge the many and increasing challenges that Social Security Scotland is facing, as well as the increasing questioning of the future sustainability of the new and existing benefits.

The Conservatives have stated—I have stated—in previous debates that we cannot believe that ministers and SNP and Green MSPs have not received complaints from constituents about Social Security Scotland processing times and arrangements. It does not help any of us—certainly not our constituents—to dismiss or sweep those concerns under the carpet.

Despite the SNP-Green Government claiming that all is well, it is clear that the transition to and establishment of social security powers in Scotland to date have not been as easy or straightforward as Scottish ministers suggested they would be. The fact that the DWP and UK ministers have been able to provide contingencies and extensions is welcome—it shows that the UK is working together—but those assists will be in place until 2026 to support the delivery of what was meant to already be in place here. Promises made by SNP ministers about the establishment capabilities of Social Security Scotland have clearly not been realised.

We are in the middle of a Scottish budget process. Although ministers today highlight a forecasted £1.1 billion more in welfare spending, what is not clear—although it is something that we should all, across the parties in the chamber, take seriously—is the future sustainability of that spend, especially as we see the developments in relation to new demand-led payments. The Parliament’s Social Justice and Social Security Committee has consistently, and on a cross-party basis, raised concerns in Parliament about the future financial sustainability of our welfare budgets, but we have not heard much about that from ministers today.

Bob Doris

I mentioned the idea of tapering the Scottish child payment to support families and parents back into work without there being a cliff edge. It would be of financial benefit to the UK Government to get people off universal credit and the like. Do you think that the UK Government could help to finance some of that in Scotland? Is there hope that the UK Government will fund Scotland more, to allow us to do innovative things that would save the UK Exchequer cash?

Miles Briggs

I definitely think that that should be looked at.

A number of issues have been touched on that both Governments can look to take forward collectively—Willie Rennie made a characteristically measured contribution. However, today, we have lacked a vision for our social security system.

On that point, 150,000 of our fellow Scots who have never been able to get into work—that is 6.8 per cent of our working-age population—need additional support to achieve that. One of my key questions is whether cuts to employability schemes in Scotland over recent years have hampered that happening.

Changes to carers allowance have been touched on. The extension of payments towards six months for people who have been bereaved is something on which I think there is cross-party consensus.

We have seen a negative impact on rural households from changes to the winter heating payment. Maggie Chapman, who represents North East Scotland, did not want to mention the fact that, under the SNP-Green Government, her constituents are facing an unfair and cruel cut to the winter support that they receive. The Scottish Government should look at that again, because many people in rural Scotland are losing out because of the SNP-Green Government.

Bob Doris highlighted Marie Curie Scotland’s briefing and the call for more targeted support for those who are terminally ill and their families and carers. I hope that we can look at that issue in future debates. I agree with Marie Curie Scotland that we need to see more support.

Last week, I chaired a round-table meeting with Kidney Care UK, at which I was pleased to hear from the minister responsible for palliative care about work that is progressing to deliver a national home-dialysis energy reimbursement scheme. That is really welcome, but, although kidney patients are an important group of patients, they are few in number. I hope that we will see more cross-party support for patients who run NHS medical equipment in their homes. The former First Minister said that providing such support would be a priority, but we have not quite seen it happen.

Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

Members have alluded to reform of the work capability assessment by the UK Government, which is under way. Does the member think that it is acceptable that, at a time of high poverty, while the Scottish Government is investing more than £1 billion above the Westminster funding for social security, the UK Government is looking to slash health benefits further to the tune of £4 billion?

Miles Briggs

I do not think that that is the case. The decisions that the UK Government has taken to increase Barnett formula funding have provided the Scottish Government with the resources to make different decisions and to make that investment.

I was about to come on to the point about UK Government support. We have heard a lot from SNP and Green back benchers about that, but let us look at the facts. This year alone, UK Government benefits will increase by an average of £470 for people in Scotland, which will benefit more than 700,000 of our fellow Scots.

The UK Government has provided £94 billion of support for households in navigating the cost of living crisis. No one has mentioned the real heart of that crisis, which is the global pandemic and the illegal invasion of Ukraine. It is welcome that, just last week, the UK Government announced the third instalment of its cost of living payment, which will be paid later this month to qualifying households and will benefit more than 680,000 people across Scotland through payments totalling £900 to each of those households.

The UK Government has also announced a national insurance cut that will put £754 in the pockets of more than 2.8 million working Scots.

Will the member take an intervention?

Miles Briggs

I do not have any more flexibility.

The UK Government has also raised the minimum wage from £11.44, which will result in an increase of more than £2,000 a year for many households. Let us not forget that the state pension will increase by an average of more than £900 this year, benefiting more than 1 million pensioners in Scotland.

Taken as a whole, both Governments can and should be working together to deliver the welfare system that we want. As I have outlined, the UK Government has made many welcome changes to support people during the cost of living crisis.

Across the parties in this Parliament, we need to take seriously the future financial sustainability of our welfare system in Scotland. The Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament are responsible for that, and it is important that, in future debates, we consider how the system will be fully funded. That is why I am happy to support the amendment in the name of my colleague Jeremy Balfour.

I call Shirley-Anne Somerville to conclude the debate. You have a very generous nine minutes, cabinet secretary.


Shirley-Anne Somerville

Presiding Officer,

“The right to social security is of central importance in guaranteeing human dignity for all persons when they are faced with circumstances that deprive them of their capacity to fully realize their human rights.”

Those are not my words; they come from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and they underline exactly why we, as a Parliament, should be very proud of the difference in social security in Scotland, in that we recognise in statute that social security is a human right.

There have been a number of contributions that I will try to respond to. A variety of members, including Katy Clark and Willie Rennie, offered up cases as examples of areas where Social Security Scotland and social security in Scotland are not performing as they should be. In case I miss anyone out, at this point I say that, if members wish to provide me with details so that we can learn lessons about where things need to get better, and if the constituents concerned are agreeable, I am more than happy to look into those cases.

Willie Rennie

I appreciate that but, in principle, does the cabinet secretary accept that we need to backdate beyond the transfer from PIP to ADP to the point of the change of circumstance? Does she accept, in principle, that that should happen?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said, I am more than happy to look into what is preventing that from happening and to see whether we can do something in general about shortening that timeframe. I am happy to look into that—the offer is a genuine one.

That offer shows the difference between how we are running social security in Scotland and the DWP’s approach. Despite criticisms to the contrary, I am willing to learn lessons and I recognise that things need to improve. We will always ensure that we continuously look to improve. In his introductory speech, Jeremy Balfour somehow suggested that there have been no changes when compared to the DWP system, but he also criticised us for spending £1.1 billion more on social security because of policy changes that we have made. As Mr Swinney said, that was confused.

I point out to members what that £1.1 billion additional investment is all about. It is about new benefits that are unique to Scotland—those make up £614 million, including the £457 million for the Scottish child payment. It is about other social security payments totalling £110 million, which include the Scottish welfare fund and discretionary housing payments, many of which are there to mitigate the worst excesses of Westminster. It is also about the spend above the block grant adjustment for social security—that makes up £368 million, of which £300 million is on adult disability payment. That is the difference that we are making. We are making policy changes because social security is an investment in the people of Scotland.

I will make two suggestions to those, particularly Conservative members, who ask how we can ensure the sustainability of social security. First, if the UK Government got its act together and ensured that we did not have to mitigate its worst excesses, that would save us hundreds of millions of pounds each year. Secondly, if the UK Government raised universal credit or introduced an essentials guarantee—we are still waiting for a reply on that, but I do not hold out hope—the Scottish Government would have more money to invest in and make other changes to social security. Many members have asked for such changes today, but none suggested where the money would come from.

When it comes to how people feel about social security and its delivery, I point to the number of complaints about ADP that were received in the first half of 2023-24—it represented 0.67 per cent of cases. We still have lessons to learn in that regard, but that clearly shows a marked difference with the DWP. The client survey results show that 97 per cent of people who use the service get their payments on time, and 93 per cent say that they were treated with kindness. I would compare that with the DWP, but it does not publish figures on that. I wonder why.

In relation to the contributions from Labour Party members, Paul O’Kane’s introductory remarks put the issue into focus right from the start. He talked about social security overall needing reform but, in response to the intervention by my colleague Kate Forbes, he gave no suggestions about what Labour would do. To be fair to Mr O’Kane, he said that Labour would have a review. I do not need a review to know that the rape clause is immoral or that universal credit is not fit for purpose and is not at a rate that allows people to survive, never mind thrive. [Interruption.] Unless anyone from Scottish Labour—I hear Michael Marra speaking from a sedentary position—wants to say that Labour will introduce an essentials guarantee and scrap the rape clause, we have, unfortunately, just heard more empty rhetoric from the Labour Party today.

We need to do better on processing times. There has been some discussion about people with a terminal illness. For absolute clarity, I say to members that, under the special rules, the processing time for people with a terminal illness is three days. That is an important reassurance, and I hope that everyone will be able to provide it to those who are suffering in some of the most difficult circumstances that they and their families will ever face.

In saying that, though, I know that people are waiting too long in many cases. That is why I am pleased that there have been improvements—there is more to do, but there have been improvements. The latest published figures, covering the period to October 2023, show that the average processing time for adult disability payment applications was reduced by seven working days. Social Security Scotland processed 18 per cent more adult disability payment applications than it did in the previous quarter, and more child disability payment applications were processed in the latest quarter than were processed in any other.

Yes, absolutely, there is more to do, but it is very important to recognise, once again, that the critical difference between Social Security Scotland and the DWP is that, in Scotland, we collate the supporting information for an individual. Previously, that time and stress lay on the claimant’s shoulders, but that will not happen under the system here.

Many members talked about case transfer. I can confirm that we are on target to complete all case transfer for care and disability benefits in 2025.

Many members also mentioned the work capability assessment, and they were right to do so, because I am very concerned about the changes to universal credit that were announced in the UK autumn budget statement. Last week, I met disabled people’s organisations to hear more about their concerns about the planned changes to the work capability assessment. I call on the UK Government to reverse its plans. The changes will lead to disabled people and those with long-term health conditions losing out financially, and they will cause stress to anyone who has to take part in the benefit sanctions regime. The Conservatives need to roll back their plans, and Labour needs to find a backbone and say that it will have nothing to do with them if it gets into power.

I was at Ibrox primary school this morning, where we had a very good discussion with parents. We talked about those who were already receiving the Scottish child payment and we learned once more what we need to do to encourage those who are eligible to apply. I ask everyone, regardless of their contribution to today’s discussions about social security, to work with their constituents to ensure that they know about the benefits that are available to them.

I hope that we can have a consensus on the importance of bringing people together and ensuring that they get the benefits that they are entitled to, but we must look at our differences as well. Social Security Scotland is now delivering 14 benefits, seven of which are unique to Scotland. I compare that with an essentials guarantee, on which we cannot even get a reply from the UK Government; a rape clause, on which, with either Labour or the Conservatives, there will be no change; a two-child cap, on which there will be no change; and a sanctions regime, on which there will be no change.

I could go on with the areas where there will be no change, but there is one area where there will be change, and that is work capability assessments—driving more disabled people into the sanctions regime with all that worry and all that stress. Again, that is where those parties are united on the change that they will bring forward.

Once again, the debate has shown that our values in Scotland—the values of this Government—are about dignity, fairness and respect. We are delivering that through 14 benefits, seven of which are unique to Scotland. The values of Westminster, the values of the Conservatives and the values of Labour are not Scotland’s values and they are not this Government’s values. That is why we will continue to deliver for the people of Scotland with pride, to ensure that they get what is their human right: their social security entitlements.

Thank you, cabinet secretary. That concludes the debate on delivering record social security investment in Scotland to tackle the cost of living crisis and inequality.