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What is the Scottish social security system?

Henry Anderson

“I want us to be clearly at the opposite end of the spectrum of the existing Department of Work & Pensions system of distrust, misery and despair.” - Jeane Freeman

This is how Jeane Freeman, the former Labour special advisor turned SNP Minister for Social Security, has described her aspirations for Scotland’s new social security system. It’s very clear the SNP want it to be different. But what, exactly, will change?

The Scottish Government now has full control over 11 benefits, which were devolved in the Scotland Act 2016. The Act also devolved other powers, including the ability to top-up reserved benefits and change payment arrangements for Universal Credit. The Social Security (Scotland) Bill, currently making its way through parliament, will give effect to these powers.

“Quite unlike any other social security legislation that has gone before… a significant new departure for social security legislation” - The Law Society of Scotland

The new approach begins with drafting of the Bill itself. Light on detail, the legislation instead outlines seven core principles of the new system, with regulations left for Ministers to decide later. By enshrining these principles in legislation, the Government hopes to create a new, more supportive system.

These are:

  • Social security is an investment in the people of Scotland.
  • Social security is a human right.
  • Respect for the dignity of individuals is at the heart of social security.
  • The Scottish Government has a role in making sure that people are given the social security assistance they are eligible for.
  • The social security system will be designed with the people of Scotland and based on evidence.
  • The social security system should always be trying to improve. Any changes should put the needs of those who require social security first.
  • The social security system is efficient and delivers value for money.

The first benefit to be paid in Scotland under the new system will be Carers’ Assistance, scheduled to begin in summer 2018. Currently paid by the DWP at £62.70 a week, this will rise to £73.10, matching Jobseekers’ Allowance. A year later, the Best Start Grant - an expanded one-off payment to help low income families with the cost of having a child - will follow. The grant will increase from £500 to £600, with further supplements when a child starts nursery and school. At the same time a new Funeral Expense Assistance be introduced. Rather than increasing the level of award, the emphasis here will be speeding up the application process, with the Scottish Government committing to processing applications within ten working days.

The Scottish Government has also set out a different vision for disability benefits. It has committed to banning the private sector from carrying out assessments, reinstating lifetime awards for people with debilitating conditions and providing support for claimants awaiting appeals. Disability campaigners have also welcomed a change in rhetoric. The 11 devolved benefits have been renamed “assistance” and it has been reported that Ministers are considering ditching the word “benefit” entirely.

Another significant difference north of the border will be Universal Credit. Although this will still be administered by the UK Government, the Scottish Government has created ‘flexibilities’, meaning claimants have the option of being paid fortnightly rather than monthly, and of having the rental element paid directly to their landlord.

There is potential for some of these provisions to change, as the Bill is yet to face amendments at Stage 2 and 3. Disability groups, like Inclusion Scotland, have called for the ban on private sector contractors to be entrenched in legislation, to make it harder for a future government to reverse. Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab), who sits on the Social Security Committee, has voiced concerns that the proposed system would criminalise claimants who accidentally make an incorrect application. Labour has also indicated it will amend the Bill to include the annual uprating of benefits in line with inflation.

The final step, before any payments can be made, is to build an agency with all the required staff, IT systems, training and expertise. While specific details have yet to come, we know the agency will be located in Dundee, with a subsidiary site in Glasgow, and employ around 1,500 staff. IBM has been awarded the contract to build the IT system, which, when it is fully set up, will handle more payments each week than the Scottish Government currently makes each year. Public sector IT projects are not renowned for being delivered on time or under budget, as Audit Scotland reports have made clear, and already Government officials have been grilled on the projected running costs of the new agency.

It’s no surprise that Nicola Sturgeon has described this as the “largest, most complex programme of change in the history of devolution”.

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