Presiding Officer, it is a pleasure to address the Chamber today in my new role as Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People.
It is just 30 months since the Scotland Act 2016 which devolved powers over social security to this Parliament. Yet in that time, we have the legislative framework for delivering benefits through the Social Security Act - passed unanimously by this parliament five months ago; we have delivered our first benefit payments, with Carers receiving the Carers Allowance Supplement, increasing their financial support by £442 a year; and assuming the DWP can keep to pace and plans, we will deliver the first Best Start Grants by Christmas over 6 months ahead of schedule.
In addition we are establishing a new Social Security Chamber making provision for an Upper Tribunal in the Scottish Tribunals system to hear devolved benefit appeals and have launched our consultation on young carers grant.
None of this has been simple or straightforward. We are carrying out a difficult and complex transfer of benefits and powers that will impact on 1.4 million people across the country. So I’d like to pay tribute to the stakeholders, our expert groups and our engagement panels who have done so much to support the Scottish Government in keeping up the pace to deliver the social security system Scotland needs and deserves.
Their hard work is very much appreciated. I would also like to pay tribute and record my thanks to my predecessor Jeane Freeman for her commitment and dedication in getting us to this point.
A key point Jeane made over and over is that social security is an investment in our people and a public service. This is important; so important, that the principle is enshrined in the Social Security Act. It is also why in April last year, she announced her plans to establish a Scottish social security agency to deliver benefits.
I am pleased to say that this month that new public service - Social Security Scotland - is up and running and I have had the privilege of recently meeting staff in our HQ in Dundee.
Therefore, Presiding Officer, I am delighted to announce to the chamber today, in line with that important principle of public service, I have decided that it is our new public agency Social Security Scotland that will deliver assessments to determine eligibility for disability assistance, fully supported by public sector healthcare professionals. I want to ensure that disabled people can access a flexible, person centred assessment service across the length and breadth of the country and it is clear to me that Social Security Scotland is best placed to deliver that.
The process which we followed
This decision has been taken after an extensive period of research and analysis to consider how assessments for disability assistance should be delivered and careful consideration of all the evidence. In a clear demonstration of the trust we want people to have in the system, our five criteria for determining the assessments process were dignity and respect; equality and poverty; efficiency and alignment; implementability and risk; and economy and environment. This has shown that an in-house approach will deliver on our principles.
We have also consulted with stakeholders and sought advice from the Expert Advisory Group on Disability and Carers’ Benefits, led by Dr Jim McCormick, which fully backs our in-house approach. As we further develop our model over the coming months we will of course continue this engagement and I greatly value all of their input in ensuring that we deliver a service which is right for the people of Scotland.
Presiding Officer, to deliver a successful disability assessment process we have of course considered what is needed from a social security system that ensures dignity and respect at every stage. We have also looked at what does not work for people. Throughout our engagement with individuals, we have repeatedly heard about the stress and trauma caused to ill and disabled people by the UK Government’s current assessments system. A system that is failing people and has been widely criticised, including by the Westminster Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. So we have learned the lessons of their failures and have also taken account of the two independent reports of Paul Gray on the failures of the UK Government’s Personal Independence Payment assessments, and his subsequent recommendations.
Presiding Officer, this Government ruled out the use of private contractors in the delivery of disability assessments in April 2017 and in April 2018 this commitment was enshrined in the Social Security Act by ensuring that no-one will be forced to undergo an assessment carried out by a private sector provider.
It is clear that the UK Government are content with an approach that sees private sector assessment providers prioritise profits over people. This government puts people first and foremost. We will not see individuals’ assessments farmed out to private companies. The experience people have when trying to access disability assistance is the responsibility of the government.
From application to award, we will provide a service and will manage performance, quality and outcomes. And it is this approach that will see dignity and respect embedded throughout, and ensure people can trust in the benefits system.
The Scottish Government remains committed to significantly reducing the proportion of people required to attend a face to face assessment. It is enshrined in legislation that individuals should not be required to do so unless it is the only practicable way to make a decision about their entitlement.
So when a face to face assessment is carried out, I will make sure the process is right for people. Presiding Officer, I would therefore also like to update the chamber on four clear actions on that process.
These actions have again been developed following consultation with stakeholders, and extensive engagement with Experience Panel members and our Expert Advisory Group.
It is clear to me that the current UK Government disability assessment system has not been designed to prioritise the needs of the individual being assessed. Instead, it is structured to maximise case volume, to deter flexibility, and to ensure rigid compliance.
We have heard from a great many people about their dissatisfaction with the way in which assessments are organised including people who have had to travel for hours to get to assessments; those who are too ill to leave the house being refused home assessments; and those who unavoidably miss their assessments being told they must start the entire application process again.
The first of four actions I want to outline is that we will put the needs of the individual at the centre of our system by providing greater choice and control. Therefore I can announce that individuals will be provided with choice and flexibility, taking into account the distances people are expected to travel and their location preferences. When invited to assessment it will be at a time that suits them.
Second, for those who have difficulty travelling to an assessment centre, I will ensure that we have a service that can deliver home based assessments to those who need them.
Third, Presiding Officer, is an action to build trust with people who currently have no trust in a DWP assessment process which is exacerbated by a lack of transparency.
Therefore I can announce we will introduce the audio recording of assessments as standard. We want people to be confident in the knowledge that there is an accurate record of all that has been said during their assessment. Recording will also provide assessors with an additional tool that they can access when writing assessment reports, ensuring reports are an accurate reflection of the assessment.
It is our intention that a properly functioning assessment system, robust decision making and a thorough re-determination process, will bring about a marked reduction in the number of decisions which are taken to appeal.
We recognise however that in any social security system, there will still be instances where individuals challenge the decision made about their entitlement and they should do so. And we want to get appeals right, so I can announce my fourth action, which is that we will ensure that the tribunal can use the audio recording to inform their determination.
Presiding Officer, I am proud of what has been achieved so far and of the actions I have outlined today. They are a further demonstration of how we will embed dignity, fairness and respect in everything we do and I look forward to further updating this chamber on progress towards delivering Scotland’s system of disability assistance.
The Scottish Government will continue with the kind of innovative engagement which has led to the proposals I have outlined today. And we will continue to build a social security system that the people of Scotland want and deserve.
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