The Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Social Security Act in 2018 and we have wasted no time in putting these powers to good use.
Our new agency, Social Security Scotland, is based around the principles of fairness, dignity and respect. It is already delivering 12 benefits – seven of these are new and not available anywhere else in the UK. And it is during a cost-of-living crisis – such as the one we are experiencing so brutally right now – that these benefits really show their worth.
Take the Scottish Child Payment, which is the most ambitious anti-poverty measure currently being undertaken anywhere in the UK. It gives targeted support to families with children on low incomes to help lift them out of poverty.
We successfully introduced this new benefit in the midst of a global pandemic – which was no small feat – and in response to the cost-of-living crisis we are already stepping up our ambitions and have just doubled the weekly payment to £20 per eligible child.
By the end of this calendar year, we will increase it again to £25, while also rolling out the payment to children aged under 16, meaning that more than 430,000 children will be potentially eligible for Scottish Child Payment. We estimate this will lift a further 50,000 children out of poverty in 2023-24 – a huge achievement at any time, let alone in the current circumstances.
And our ambition goes further.
We recently began the rollout of the Adult Disability Payment, our replacement for the UK Government’s Personal Independence Payment.
This is the most complex benefit we have introduced, and transferring tens of thousands of disability benefit payments will be a major milestone in the growth of the Scottish social security system.
Our decision-making process marks a significant departure from the Department of Work and Pensions’ system. People have told us that in that system they feel they need to “prove” they have a condition and have described the process as stressful, complicated and often inhumane. The Social Security Scotland decision-making process is different and treats people with dignity, fairness and respect.
Looking ahead, we are working hard on further new benefits – including Scottish Carer’s Assistance to support those who care for their loved ones, and the new Low Income Winter Heating Assistance payment, to offer an annual stable £50 payment to 400,000 households next winter.
We are forecast to spend more than £3.9 billion on social security in 2022-23 and reach over one million people in Scotland – clear and meaningful financial support which will have a positive impact on the lives of people across the country.
We have chosen to invest more than the money being transferred by the UK Government for devolved benefits – this is a decision we have taken as a government on how we allocate our resources and use new social security powers to introduce further forms of support to tackle poverty and promote equality.
Indeed, it is encouraging to see that people are happy with Scotland’s social security service – with 92 per cent telling us that they thought it was good or very good.
We have ambitions to help more people as we create a modern, compassionate social security system that everyone in Scotland can be proud of now and for generations to come.
As people grapple with the cost-of-living crisis and how that is impacting on their everyday lives, the Scottish Government is firmly committed to taking steps to mitigate the impact by using our limited powers and budget to support people as much as we can.
I was glad we were able to uprate eight of our Scottish benefits by six per cent from the start of April, closer to the cost-of-living rise, and I have urged the UK Government to match this as well as introduce a child payment themselves.
But despite the significant powers at our disposal, there is no doubt that the key levers in this crisis remain in the hands of the UK Government. We cannot mitigate all of their cuts, and we need them to use their powers and match our commitment to help people through this.
The UK Government’s decision to cut Universal Credit by £20 has pushed 60,000 people in Scotland, including 20,000 children, into poverty.
Charities including Save the Children, Age UK and the Trussell Trust have repeatedly called on UK ministers to reinstate that £20 cut, which is leading to millions of people “spiralling into destitution”.
Last week's Queen's Speech was a missed opportunity. It was completely lacking in detail and clear commitments to provide the help that hard-pressed households need now. UK ministers cannot fail to act, they must take bold, radical action before people are forced into poverty.
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research predicted that Scotland will be the second hardest hit by inflation – behind London – with over 150,000 Scottish households facing energy and food bills that will exceed their disposable income.
Westminster holds most of the powers needed to tackle the cost-of-living crisis – both in the immediate and longer term. We will continue to press them to take more action. And if they do not act, then they should devolve the powers to the Scottish Parliament so that we can.
The current period is one of unprecedented challenges for households the length and breadth of Scotland, and our social security agency is one of the key levers in the Scottish Government’s response. As well as supporting families through this current crisis, we will continue to lay the foundations for our long-term vision for a fairer Scotland for all.
Ben Macpherson is MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith and minister for social security and local government