On Wednesday, following a vigorous, four hour debate MSPs voted unanimously in favour of establishing Scotland’s first social security system. Around the Chamber, there were smiles from MSPs, while I, like many colleagues from the third sector, watched on from the gallery contemplating how far this legislation has come.
The Social Security (Scotland) Bill has been at the top of the agenda for many third sector organisations over the last year. That the legislation would pass has never been in doubt. The devolution of the eleven entitlements to Scotland has been enthusiastically supported by both MSPs, the third sector, and wider civil society. There has long been an appetite for a new approach to social security and the Scottish Government’s aspirations to create a rights-based system with the central principles of dignity, fairness, and respect, has been a welcome contrast to the negative UK level rhetoric and its consequences.
However, the transfer of social security powers to the Scottish Parliament is a complex task and what a rights-based approach means in practice has been hotly debated. As the Bill has progressed through parliament there have been disagreements, disappointments and bitter defeats. But there has also been listening, learning, and, yes, lobbying. Colleagues across the third sector have been ambitious for this Bill, striving to ensure that the legislative framework for this new public service is as robust as possible. This ambition has resulted in what is, in my view, a vastly improved piece of legislation.
Just a few of the improvements the third sector contributed to include:
- The restriction of private-sector involvement in medical assessments
- The introduction of the Scottish Social Security Commission to provide independent scrutiny
- Restrictions on the circumstances in which overpayments are recovered
- A duty to consider the effects of inflation on the value of devolved assistance
- A duty to uprate disability, employment- injury assistance, and funeral expense assistance in line with inflation
- A duty to communicate with people in an inclusive way
- Recognition of the role of independent advice
- A right to independent advocacy for people with disabilities
- Payments of entitlements in cash, unless the individual chooses an alternative
- Changes to the reconsideration and appeals process to make it easier for people to challenge decisions.
Individual third sector organisations also highlighted and lobbied on some of the most important, high profile, and often controversial, improvements.
MND Scotland and Marie Curie, with support from organisations across the third sector, lobbied for a fairer system of support for the terminally ill. To be fast-tracked for benefits, the DWP requires a terminally ill person’s clinician to state that they have just 6 months or less to live. This fails many terminally ill people, their carers, and their families. The Scottish legislation will allow clinicians to approve their terminally ill patients for fast-tracked benefits, at the highest amount, without face-to-face assessment, and with no reference to life expectancy.
A reduction in face-to-face assessments was a priority for Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) after Citizens Advice Bureaux’s across Scotland found that ensuring decisions about entitlements are made using available evidence, was the highest priority for their clients. MSPs agreed and the number of such assessments will be reduced and existing information used to make the right decision first time. A relief to all those with a disability who have experienced the stress of these unfair and unnecessary assessments.
Third sector organisations across Scotland, including Engender and Scottish Women’s Aid, have also long campaigned for the Scottish Government to exercise its power to automatically split a Universal Credit paymentbetween two members of a single household. Split payments are critical for women experiencing domestic abuse; no one should have to choose between putting food on the table or leaving an abusive partner. The Scottish Parliament unanimously passed this amendment, further ensuring the new social security system will promote and protect women’s financial autonomy and safety.
As we enter the regulation phase there are many more opportunities to highlight to the Scottish Government and MSPs what can be done to improve the lives of people and communities in Scotland. But let’s take a moment to reflect on our sectors successes and the impact that these will have on the people we support. Organisations across the third sector challenged the Scottish Government to deliver what they had promised, a rights-based social security system that treats people with dignity, fairness, and respect. MSPs from all parties rose to this challenge, the result is a vastly improved Social Security (Scotland) Bill.