The toughest job in politics?
Robert Armour met Scotland’s welfare minister Jeane Freeman to find out how she aims to create a fairer benefits system for Scots during a period of austerity
Jeane Freeman has potentially the best and worst job in Scottish politics. As the SNP’s minister for social security, she’s tasked with overturning Westminster’s hated welfare system that has created more negative reaction and civil unrest since Thatcher’s hated Poll Tax.
Welfare reform is, by some margin, the toughest task in politics.
So if she’s successful in creating the SNP’s vision of a “fairer, more humane” system, it alone could win her huge popular support among even the staunchest critics and bolster the SNP’s vision for an independent Scotland.
However at the same time there are huge expectations – and pressure – on the new Scottish set-up, even though in reality just a few elements of the welfare system are actually being devolved to Scotland.
In total just £2.7 billion of the £18bn total spent on welfare in Scotland will be under Scotland’s control, meaning the Scottish Government will be hugely curtailed in what it can change.
I put it to Freeman, at an exclusive meeting with TFN, that her hands as social security minister will be very tightly tied by Westminster and promises to create a more humane equitable system will be marginal. She disagreed: “In a system that is already punitive, many of the changes we can make will have a big impact on people in Scotland,” she said.
“Currently we have a broken welfare system where people have to prove they are disabled despite medical documents proving they are.
“We can and will deliver a system that is a more humane. Ours will be characterised by dignity, fairness and respect and enshrined in legislation.”
Those new powers will allow the Scottish Parliament to create new benefits, eventually run by a new Scottish social security agency, and to top up existing payments still run by the UK Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
What benefits are being devolved?
- Attendance allowance
- Carer’s allowance
- Disability living allowance
- Personal independence payment
- Industrial injuries disablement allowance
- Severe disablement allowance
- Cold weather payment
- Funeral payment
- Sure Start maternity grant
- Winter fuel payment
- Discretionary housing payments
Scottish ministers will also get part control over universal credit and be able to top-up other benefits and even create new payments.
The Scottish Government also has existing responsibility for a number of so-called passported benefits. This means that recipients of certain benefits are automatically entitled to receive additional support such as free school meals or blue badge parking.
However, sanctions and the despised Work Capability Assessments, which many say are a punitive exercise designed to humiliate and dehumanise claimants into submission, won’t alter by the time the powers are fully devolved in 2020.
Furthermore all job-related benefits will remain with the DWP.
“We want to gain the maximum advantage from these new powers,” said Freeman.
“Where we can make changes to create a fairer system we will. We will build a Scottish social security system that works for the good of people in Scotland, is fit for purpose and is properly accountable.
“That accountability and scrutiny has already started with the draft legislation for delivery being delivered to parliament by summer 2017.”
Creating this fairer system will involve 2,000 volunteers, many of whom are on benefits, who will join experienced panels to help design and test the system.
At the same time, Freeman will work directly with expert welfare advisers, third sector groups as well as the Disability Benefits and Carers’ Expert Advisory Group, to develop a strategy to integrate the Scottish social security service with the UK system.
The SNP government has already committed in its manifesto to increasing carer’s allowance to the level of jobseeker’s allowance, replacing the Sure Start maternity grant with an expanded maternity and early years allowance called the Best Start grant and introducing a new grant for young people at risk of long-term unemployment.
The minister has also announced changes to the way Universal Credit will be administered in Scotland so that people can receive it fortnightly rather than monthly and opt to have their housing benefit paid directly to landlords.
Just under a million and a half Scots receive some form of benefit so these top ups and changes could have a massive impact.
But how is the Scottish Government going to pay for this? The reality is that there will have to be compromises.
Freeman herself stresses that Scotland’s system will be fairer but not necessarily more generous.
This runs the risk of creating a new system that promises more than it can deliver.
What will the new benefits agency look like?
Former social justice secretary Alex Neil outlined five principles that will guide the Scottish Government's approach to welfare:
1. "Social security is an investment in the people of Scotland"
2. "Respect for the dignity of individuals will be at the heart of everything we do"
3. "Our processes and services will be evidence based and designed with the people of Scotland"
4. "We will strive for continuous improvement in all our policies, processes and systems, putting the user experience first"
5. "The need to demonstrate that our services are efficient and value for money"
When are the changes happening?
A bill to establish a Scottish welfare agency will be placed before Holyrood within one year. All the changes are due to be implemented by 2020.
How much will it all cost?
These benefits will be where the majority of the new
Scottish welfare agency’s spending goes. The cost of the disability living
allowance alone is more than the current combined budgets of three Scottish
government departments; culture and external affairs, rural affairs, food and
the environment and training, youth and women’s employment.
The 2020 delay to implementation is already leading to questions as to why the Scottish Government isn’t doing more to halt DWP Work Capability Assessments as part of the move from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independent Payments (PIP).
Some disability and anti-poverty campaigners have accused her of heralding changes to Universal Credit to cover up the fact the DWP will continue to administer what is easily the most controversial and hated element of the Tories’ welfare reform agenda.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland claims the Scottish Parliament could still make changes to improve devolved benefits now even while the DWP continues to deliver them in the short term.
Action could also be taken to stop repeat assessments for disability benefits for those with chronic ill-health or top up UK benefits, suggests CPAG.
However, Freeman insists the Scottish Government’s hands are tied, but she promises that there will be a better system in the long-run.
“We asked the DWP not to transfer DLA to PIP in Scotland because at the point the new system was about to start, and we and they knew it was being devolved to us.
“But they didn’t pay attention and went ahead,” she said.
“What we are now saying to them is you’ve started so now finish it.
“What I don’t want is the Scottish system to start with some on DLA, some on PIP and others starting for the first time on the Scottish benefit.
“The capacity for confusion between all that is enormous.
“I expect them to finish the job and what we’ll take over is people all on PIP and we will transfer them onto the fairer Scottish system.”
The government continues to look at tweaks it can make to the system – such as introducing split payments for couples so that people aren’t financially trapped into controlling relationships, for example.
However, poverty campaigners shouldn’t expect anything more radical to change in the short term – Freeman admits that budget constraints will leave no leeway for a boost to general unemployment benefits. It is expected the
Scottish system will be at a very similar rate to that across the rest of the UK.
“The Scottish budget is going to be cut by a total of 9.2% by 2020 so there isn’t a lot of additional resource going about.
“I do expect our system, going by how we design it, will be a better system and will achieve clearer, more evidence-based decisions.
“I can’t stop the current procedure. We will inherit what the UK government created.
“What we have to do is be mindful people have been subjected to an unfair system and make the new one fit for purpose.”