Jeane Freeman MSP, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Social Security, provides an indepth Q&A to the issues facing the nation, including austerity and Brexit, and the reforms being put in place to meet the challenges.

Jeane Freeman

Since 2014, Scotland is undergoing a series of reforms affecting social protection services. What are the main features of this reform?

Public services touch on many aspects of everyday life – health, social care, education, early years, community justice, business and education – and play a crucial role in ensuring people’s wellbeing. We are undertaking a programme of public service reform to ensure our public services are inclusive, sustainable, and effective in improving people’s lives.

Scotland’s bold and ambitious programme of reform has an emphasis on prevention, integration and empowerment, where public services work collaboratively, with and for communities to respond to local circumstances.

We are supporting a long-term approach that will ensure that our public services are inclusive, sustainable and improve outcomes for the people of Scotland We expect our public services to work with each other and with communities to deliver services that are underpinned by the following principles:

  • subsidiarity and local decision making: decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level or at the level closest to the people they affect
  • simple, open democracy: people should be able to influence decisions that affect them and their families, and trust the decisions made on their behalf by those they elect
  • personal and empowering: people should have equal opportunity to participate and have their voice heard in decisions shaping their local community and society
  • fairness and equality of outcomes: arrangements should be appropriate and tailored towards the needs and aspirations of people and places, to support the delivery of shared national outcomes
  • financially sustainable and preventative: arrangements should be effective, efficient and represent value for money for Scotland as a whole.

Reform is supported by advances in digital technology, greater integration, effective partnerships, and the expectation that all services will work collaboratively to address the problems facing people and communities that cannot be meaningfully and effectively tackled by one organisation working alone.

What is the impact of austerity measures on the most vulnerable people in Scotland?

Scottish Government analysis on the impact of UK Government welfare reform, published in June 2017, highlighted that continuing austerity will result in an overall reduction in welfare spend of £4 billion a year in Scotland by 2020 – impacting on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.

The Resolution Foundation, an independent policy institute, estimates UK Government policies will leave the poorest third of households an average of £745 a year worse off by 2022-23. This stark figure is backed by independent projections commissioned by the Scottish Government, which show that relative child poverty is set to rise sharply from 23% in 2016-17 to 34.5% by 2020-21. With the reduction in real-terms generosity of the social security system between 2016/17 and 2020/21, as a result of planned reforms by the UK Government, noted as a key driver.

The Scottish Government, in contrast to the actions of the UK Government, has set statutory targets to reduce levels of child poverty to fewer than one in ten by 2030 and are mitigating against UK Government action by increasing investment in welfare measures to £128 million this year.

How will the ‘Scottish Commission on Social Security’ help protect the rights of vulnerable people against austerity measures in the future?

The primary role of the Scottish Commission on Social Security (“the Commission”) is set out in the Social Security (Scotland) Bill 2018 and will be to scrutinise Scottish social security legislation, though the Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament will also be able to ask it to report on any matter relevant to social security that is wanted.

The Commission, which will be an independent group of experts, will also have a role in relation to the new, Scottish social security Charter. The Charter will reflect the Scottish social security principles, which are set out in the Bill, and which include principles such as:- respect for the dignity of individuals must be at the heart of the Scottish social security system; the need for the system to contribute to reducing poverty in Scotland; and the need for continuous improvement to advance equality and non-discrimination.

The Commission will report on whether the system as a whole is delivering on the expectations set out in the Charter and, if it isn’t, the Commission will be able to make recommendations for improvements. The Bill makes express provision to ensure that the Commission can take into account evidence from other parties – such as representative groups, human rights organisations or the ombudsman. And the Bill also enables the Commission to have regard to international human rights instruments in performing any of its functions.

This means that the Commission will be constantly reviewing the Scottish social security system and judging it against the requirements of both the Charter and international law standards, to ensure that the rights of vulnerable people are protected against austerity measures in the future.

How is Scotland putting forward an investment approach in social policies?

Scotland has set out bold action to invest in social policies, including free prescriptions and residential care, free tuition and free school meals to all children in primaries one to threee – benefiting more than 134,500 children each year. We have also introduced a baby box of essential items for every new-born child in Scotland since August 2017, representing the equal start we want for all children.

Since 2007 we have delivered over 70,000 affordable homes in Scotland, and have committed £3 billion to deliver 50,000 over the course of this Parliamentary term, including 35,000 for social rent. We have also announced  plans to almost double free provision of Early Learning and Childcare by 2021 to 1,140 hours – for all threee-four years olds and vulnerable two year olds.

By the end of this summer, we will start paying the first Scottish benefit. The Carer’s Allowance Supplement will mean a 13% increase for Scottish carers – equivalent to an extra £8.50 per week in people’s pockets, paid twice a year as a lump sum. It’s worth over £30 million a year and will benefit more than 70,000 carers.

With new powers over Social Security being devolved to the Scottish Government we have also set out how we will utilise these powers to better meet the needs of the people of Scotland. By summer 2019 we will be paying the Best Start Grant. That’s a payment to help low income parents across Scotland – a one-off £600 grant for the birth of a first child and then two further £250 payments in the early years of a child’s life. We don’t put caps on our future generations, so we are introducing birth grants of £300 for second and any other children born in a family.

In total this is worth up to £1400 more for a two-child family – a significant improvement on the current UK government system and an important one, because we believe in investing in families and young children at the earliest possible stage.

These policies outline our commitment to invest in the people of Scotland, to build a fairer future for all.

What impact will Brexit have on Scottish reforms?

The EU is not simply an economic union, but also a union of solidarity, social protection and mutual support. The Scottish Government greatly values both the contribution that non-UK EU Nationals bring to our economy and society, and the benefits of freedom of movement enjoyed by our own citizens, such as the right to free movement to live, study and work in all EU countries and benefit from their social security systems. We want to protect these rights and will do so by designing the Scottish devolved benefits so that they don’t discriminate against non-UK EU nationals and by engaging closely with the UK Government to influence its approach for the benefits remaining reserved.

The EU social security co-ordination requirements currently apply to all 28 EU member states and, by mutual agreement, to Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. This system ensures that people who exercise their freedom of movement retain fair access to benefits, pensions and healthcare on broadly the same basis as UK citizens.

In March, the UK and EU27 reached an agreement on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Importantly, it provides the same rights for EU citizens in the UK (and UK citizens in EU countries) regardless of whether they arrived before the UK’s intended withdrawal from the EU on 29 March 2019, or during the transition period. This would mean that EU nationals would broadly be able to access benefits in the same way that they do at present, with UK nationals enjoying similar treatment across the EU.   As with many other areas relating to citizen’s rights, the UK’s position on social security beyond transition remains unknown.  The Scottish Government believes that the existing social security co-ordination arrangements should be extended to those who are allowed to live and work in the UK beyond the transition period.

What do you hope to get from the conference?

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to discuss the social security system in Scotland. The Scottish Government is dealing with the largest, most complex programme of change in the history of Scottish devolution. On 25th April this year, The Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to pass the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, a historic moment for our Parliament. Not only does it mark the biggest transfer of powers since devolution began, it heralds the first social security system in Scotland and a brand new public service that will sustain the people of Scotland for generations to come.

Ever since we began our consultation in 2016, we have been clear that our social security system would be built with the people who will actually use it. This is why we formed our innovative and unique Experience Panels last year and recruited over 2,400 people with experience of the current benefits system to help shape what Scottish social security will look like. More and more, we’re hearing exactly what they think needs to change.

I am keen that in Scotland we create something that people take comfort in knowing is there and that they want to contribute to and are proud and protective of. To make that happen, we need to continue to keep our promises and when we come to deliver our service, doing it differently by demonstrating what dignity and respect looks like in practice. We believe that we are developing some existing new best practice and it is of great value for us to share our experience so far.

I look forward to hearing about both the successes and challenges faced by other countries and I will be open and frank with you about how our system is developing in Scotland.  We believe in working collaboratively and Scotland is always looking to learn and listen from others, and I am keen to share my experience and learn from others as we strive towards a common goal.