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Coronavirus (COVID-19) - update on devolved benefits: Cabinet Secretary speech

Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP's update on devolved benefits to the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday 1 April 2020.

Presiding Officer, these are unprecedented times. Every one of us is affected by the Covid-19 pandemic gripping the world. Our people, our communities and our economy are facing major challenges.

Tough decisions have had to be made across government and my portfolio is no different. As has been said so much over the last few weeks, our lives are being impacted like never before. We need to work at home if we can, and many parents are doing this alongside caring for children now at home; and we are very aware people will be off work through their own ill health or because they are caring for loved ones.

This is no different for the staff working on the social security programme in the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland. Business as usual is not an option. Our entire focus is on the health and wellbeing of our citizens, and everyone is turning their attention to responding to this unparalleled global pandemic.

So now to the difficult decisions I have had to take.

All our public services need to ensure they are doing everything they can to manage our country through this crisis. Social Security Scotland is no different.

I am incredibly proud of what we have already achieved. The Scottish Welfare Fund, Discretionary Housing Payments, Universal Credit Scottish Choices are firmly established. And of course the introduction of seven new Scottish benefits – the Carer’s Allowance Supplement, Young Carer’s Grant, Funeral Support Payment, the Best Start Grants and Best Start Foods. They will all provide crucial support to people in Scotland during this difficult time.

My officials in the Scottish Government and in Social Security Scotland have been working hard to respond to the impact of Covid-19. Plans were activated quickly to protect the wellbeing of staff, who are mostly now working flexibly, and importantly safely, from home, whilst ensuring vital benefits will be maintained.

We will of course face further challenges in the weeks and months ahead. This is very likely to have an impact on how we provide this service. But I can reassure the public today, that we will continue to deliver our frontline services: applications are being processed and crucially payments are still being made.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for those benefits we were on track to deliver within the next year. Covid-19 has changed our plans completely.

My officials have been engaged in an intensive exercise to determine the impact on our programme, assuming the spread of Covid-19 develops as we expect and with the impact on staffing I have outlined. We have used assumptions which see staffing levels fall for between 2 and 12 weeks due to school closures, caring responsibilities, self-isolation and contraction of Covid-19.

And this is of course wider than the Scottish Government, it also applies to the DWP where staff are necessary to this joint work programme, and to our suppliers and contractors. As Members will know, the DWP are also facing challenges and concentrating, quite rightly, on meeting the emerging huge demand for Universal Credit.

Presiding Officer, not long ago, I had anticipated laying out my plans for launching Scottish disability benefits this week. Work had been continuing at pace and I planned to lay out plans for rolling out Child Disability Payment and the Scottish replacement for Personal Independence Payment to the previously agreed timescales alongside, importantly, our plans for a new method of decision making, which would in effect end face to face assessments.

Those timescales are clearly no longer possible.

Alongside the clear challenges we have within the government and agency and with the UK Government and suppliers, there is another reason why we cannot go ahead with our replacement for PIP.

We have been working hard to introduce a new disability benefits service to meet expectations people rightly have of us. As with all our work, we have designed that service with people who have lived experience of disability and long-term health conditions and those who support them. They told us they want decision making for disability assistance to take into account the professional judgement of health and social care practitioners.

Therefore we have designed a service which draws on this resource at all stages. Our new system will mean that when people apply, they can tell Social Security Scotland about the health and social care professionals who already support them. Social Security Scotland would then contact those professionals or their organisations to collect supporting information for clients.

When it is the only practical way of collecting the information, a minority of working age clients would be invited to a discussion with a health and social care practitioner. If such a client consultation happens, it would be arranged to suit the client, including by phone.

The words I’m using here are important: ‘client consultation’, not ‘assessment’, ‘practitioner’, not ‘assessor’. This whole service is built on a relationship of trust with the client, and grounded in the professional ethics and expertise of our health and social care practitioners across Scotland.

Our new model will provide a wide range of tools and guidance, including detailed medical guidance, prepared by health and social care professionals.

It will require new information sharing arrangements with Health Boards and with each local authority.

And significantly, it will require an entirely new service, staffed by health and social care professionals, who can carry out those consultations and provide advice to case managers in Social Security Scotland.

These professionals are needed now on the frontline in our health service.

Presiding Officer, this new way of working, a disability benefits service with respect and dignity at its heart will happen. But it cannot happen yet. We cannot introduce Child Disability Payment or Personal Independence Payment until the Social Security Programme and Social Security Scotland return to something approaching normal operations. Given the uncertainty, I can offer no precise timescale on how long that will take. It will likely be several months, possibly beyond the summer, before I can do so. But I will do so as soon as possible.

I know people will be distressed at this decision and I am more than sorry for that. Be in no doubt, I personally, but also the many, many people who have been working so hard on these plans, are absolutely devastated by this decision. But I know there was no choice.

I have therefore spoken to UK Ministers and we have agreed they will continue delivering disability benefits for existing and new Scottish clients over a longer transition period.

While this is not what I wanted, and it isn’t what the public would have wanted either, it is simply the only way to ensure people continue to get the financial support they are entitled to. It provides security at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. Leaving people without financial help and assistance is something no responsible Government would do, and it is not a situation I would allow. And, I would like to thank the DWP for ensuring that we can continue within both governments with a safe and secure transition, even in this most difficult of circumstances. 

In these unprecedented times, I have agreed two key priorities with my officials.

Priority one is, bluntly, ‘Keeping the Lights On’, maintaining the delivery of existing benefits for Social Security Scotland’s clients – including the Carers Allowance Supplement, which will be paid as usual this year. To allow Social Security Scotland to focus on this, Job Start Payment, which would have launched in March, has been delayed. We’ve also made provisions within the emergency Covid Bill we are debating today allowing more time for redeterminations and appeals.

To support our clients, regulations will come into force on Friday temporarily allowing carers to retain carer’s allowance over a break in caring, and temporary changes have been made so emotional caring also counts. I’ve also relaxed some rules about the timing of applications so, for example, if someone applies for young carer’s grant after their 19th birthday their application will be considered as though it was on time.

Priority two is the Scottish Child Payment. I will focus the remaining resources within the Social Security Programme on delivering the Scottish Child Payment as soon as we can. This new benefit will support families on low incomes and tackle child poverty, and this Government will prioritise it.

Introducing the Scottish Child Payment will involve enormous effort. As with disability payments we had been on time, if not indeed ahead of schedule. Applications would have opened in the autumn if not before.

However, this timescale is dependant on a major recruitment exercise, which has now been paused. We simply cannot recruit and train the staff required and it is not possible to say when we will be able to do so.

I still hope we will see applications open for Scottish Child Payment by the end of 2020 with payments made next year. However, I must be blunt and state that if Covid-19 is with us longer then this may change again. Members can be assured we will do everything humanly possible to deliver this payment as soon as practically achievable. There is a resolute determination from me and from everyone who has worked so hard and at such pace to make this happen at the earliest opportunity. I also hope to deliver the Child Winter Heating Assistance on schedule for winter 2020. This will make a tangible difference for severely disabled children in Scotland, without impacting on Social Security Scotland’s wider delivery.

Presiding Officer, nobody can predict the future and how this virus will impact on our lives. I cannot make guarantees, today, about dates and times. But I can guarantee the work, albeit at a slower schedule, will not stop.

Though it is with very heavy heart I make these announcements, I know members across the Chamber will understand why I make them. And I hope you will all join me in thanking the staff who are working so hard that has allowed us to operate as close to business as usual during the current crisis we all face.


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