In the midst of all the political upheaval emanating from Westminster, which is understandably dominating the headlines, it’s important to remember that – in Scotland at least – the business of government goes on.
The ambitious commitments that we outlined at the election to support economic growth, create jobs, drive up standards in our schools and hospitals and build a fairer society are unchanged.
Of course, one big difference between this parliamentary session and the last is that some important decisions over taxation and social security will soon be made in the Scottish Parliament, rather than at Westminster.
The agreement reached after the referendum on more powers – although it didn’t go nearly as far as I would have liked – is now being implemented, and within the first year of this Parliament we’ll be bringing forward a Social Security Bill to set out how we will use some of these new powers.
Now, it’s important to put this in perspective – even once these powers are fully devolved, they will still only amount for around 15% of spending on social security in Scotland.
Many key benefits – such as Universal Credit, the state pension, child benefit and maternity and paternity pay – will remain in the hands of the Tories at Westminster.
But the devolution of these social security powers is a step forward. Those being transferred to Scotland include a raft of ill health and disability benefits, Carer’s Allowance, Discretionary Housing Payments, Sure Start Maternity Grants, Funeral Payments, Cold Weather Payments and Winter Fuel Payments.
We’ve just launched a consultation which will give you the chance to shape what will be our country’s first ever social security system.
We’ve already made a number of commitments about how we will use some of these new powers.
We intend to increase Carer’s Allowance to match the level of Jobseeker’s Allowance – giving carers an extra £600 each year.
And we’re looking at whether we can do more to support young carers – who as well as balancing caring responsibilities for a loved one often face financial difficulties.
Under UK Government criteria, only 250 people under the age of 18 in Scotland receive Carer’s Allowance. So we’re also now considering whether a Young Carer’s Allowance can help address that imbalance.
We’re going to significantly expand the support we give to families with newborn children on low incomes. We know from experience how important it is to have the right support at key stages in a child’s early years.
To do that, we’ll replace the Sure Start Maternity Grant that Westminster currently provides with a new Best Start Grant – significantly expanding the current support offered. It will give qualifying families a grant of £600 on the birth of their first child, and £300 for any subsequent children – as well as another £250 when they start nursery, and again when they start school.
Devolving these powers also gives us an opportunity to look at how benefits are actually delivered – and do so in a much fairer way than has been the case by Westminster.
Let’s take disability benefits. I won’t mince my words here – the Tories’ treatment of disabled people over the last few years has been frankly disgusting.
They have stigmatised people who should, in any civilised country, be able to count on their government for help and support.
Any of us could be faced with an illness or a disability at any point in our lives, and may need access to these benefits – and anyone who does so is entitled to know that they will not be treated with suspicion and scepticism.
We want to reform the assessment procedures – which often cause significant anxiety to applicants – with clear timescales for assessments and a transparent appeals process.
And for those with long-term conditions that are unlikely to change, we want to end the revolving door of assessments and bring in long-term awards.
The starting point for the Scottish social security system will be that it is based on dignity and respect.
From that starting point, we can build a fair, efficient and effective system.
There’s so much to consider and to get right – and that’s why we’re holding an extensive consultation.
I sure that people often hear about government consultations, and think that they are for other people and not for them. That’s certainly not the case – and on something as important as social security, the more we hear directly from people with direct experience, the better we can shape the system.
So please consider whether you or anyone you know has feedback or insight that may be of help. You can get involved in the social security consultation by visitingwww.gov.scot.
This article first appeared in the Evening Times on 9 August 2016.