Shirley-Anne Somerville’s address to #SNP19

Conference, I am delighted to address you today as the second Minister to have had responsibility for social security powers in Scotland and I would like begin by paying tribute to the previous Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman, under Cabinet Secretary Angela Constance.

Since powers were devolved through the Scotland Act in early 2016 your SNP Scottish government has done a power of work to establish a Scottish social security system. We have now introduced six benefits and are on track to deliver another six by end of this parliamentary term (as well as additional payments for carers of more than one disabled child).

In that same time, there have been three Prime Ministers, and seven Secretaries of State in the Department of Work and Pensions. In fact in my 18 months in post I’ve gone through three Secretaries of State already. Conference, this doesn’t just highlight the disarray at the heart of the Tory party. It shows the disarray at the heart of their welfare system.

Whilst we have chosen to build our system embedded in the principles of dignity, fairness and respect, they have chosen to dismantle a welfare state that was put in place in the post war years alongside one of our other greatest public services – the NHS.

So it is no wonder that Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations Poverty and Human Rights Rapporteur, speaking in Edinburgh just two weeks ago said that Scotland is “on a very different trajectory than England when it comes to the social protection of its population” and that whilst here the “spirit” of the welfare state is “alive and humming”, it is on the wane in the rest of the UK.

This, he said in his report to the UN earlier this year, is causing a massive rise in poverty and destitution. He called it, “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one” which has led to “tragic consequences”.

And those tragic consequences aren’t hard to find.

UK Government welfare cuts are estimated to reduce spending on social security in Scotland by a massive £3.7 billion by next year. And the largest Tory welfare cuts are hitting children the most.

Their decision to freeze benefits will cost Scots £300 million a year. And yet the Tory’s keep hammering. Changes to the work allowance in Universal Credit takes away another £100 million. And the removal of the first child premium and the two-child cap on tax credits is another cut of £100 million.

There are appalling consequences to the cap on children. It is of course how they introduced the abhorrent rape clause. Conference, I struggle to even imagine how anyone can come up with such a shocking, degrading policy. But I struggle even more when Tory after Tory both at Westminster and Holyrood rise to defend it.

And this is just a snapshot of the harm that has been caused by this Tory government. A decade ago, no-one had even heard of foodbanks, now under Tory Westminster rule, it’s an everyday phrase.

And it’s a response from charities and from the public to an imposition of Tory austerity, welfare cuts and the chaotic, shambolic, introduction of Universal Credit.

A report from Trussell Trust last month showed that demand for their food bank services had increased by 30% in areas where Universal Credit had been introduced for a year, it had increased by 39% after 18 months and by two years there was an increase of almost 50 per cent.

There is now a mountain of evidence that shows Universal Credit is not working and what fixes are needed to make it work, starting with the minimum five week wait  – which for many is weeks longer. This leads immediately to financial hardship and in the longer term, the evidence shows that along with the other flaws in the system, contributes to rent arrears and debt.

A poverty trap created by a callous Tory government which in turn is creating a spiral of debt for households across Scotland.

They could end this misery. They could scrap the minimum 5 week wait. They could end the paying back of advance payments which immediately puts people into debt. Just as they could restore the work allowance. They could do all of that and more but they chose not to.

That is their legacy on welfare. It will not be ours.

Look at what we have built in the 18 months since the Social Security Scotland Act gave us the powers to start delivering social security for Scotland.

In just that short time we have delivered so much.

As well as the introduction of new benefits, we have also established our Experience Panels so we can build our system with people with direct experience of welfare; set up our Social Security Commission to independently review all our regulations; and published a Social Security Charter so people know their rights when it comes to Scotland’s benefits.

And we now have, just down the road in Dundee, the Headquarters for Scotland’s newest public service, Social Security Scotland, which delivered £190 million to 91,000 households in its first few months and is set to deliver £335m this financial year.

Now these are not just replacement benefits – many are brand new benefits to support the people of Scotland. And by the time we have introduced our planned 16 benefits, five will be completely new.

This includes our new Job Start Payment which will start next spring. A brand new benefit to help around 5,000 young people every year with the cost of starting a new job. Helping them to pay for transport, clothing or childcare and support them into work after a period of unemployment.

We want carers to benefit from our new powers. That’s why our first act was to pay carers more. Through our Carers Allowance Supplement, carers here get £452.40 more this year than those outwith Scotland

And we are going further. We want to support young carers between 16 and 18 who cannot get Carers Allowance. So we will introduce a brand new benefit – a £300 grant – to help those young people who help their families. A clear example of what we can do with powers over social security.

And conference I am delighted to announce applications for the Young Carers Grant will open next Monday.

Our three Best Start Grants have been a great success. On the first day of the pregnancy payment being introduced we had over 4000 applications.  And in the first seven months of the programme, we dealt with over 63,000 applications and paid out nearly £13 million of Best Start Grant payments – a massive £11 million more than the UK Government had paid out in the whole of the year before.

And it’s not just because our benefit provides more, which it does; or that it doesn’t cap children so second and subsequent babies can also benefit from a payment, because it does that too. It’s because we actively made it easier to apply. We removed the stigma and promoted the benefit. We told people about it and we made it simple and easy to apply.

Unlike the Tories we believe the social security system should be there to support people to get what they are entitled to rather than putting barriers in the way and belittling them in the process. Why? Because we know this vital financial support will help children get the best start in life.

From 1 April next year, we will take over full responsibility for disability benefits, including their funding. We will start next year with disability payments to young people, before moving on to those of working age in early 2021 and then older people.

These benefits will be different from all those we have delivered so far. There will need to be much more support from application to assessment to appeals. Frameworks and infrastructure need to be put in place in time for delivery and we are working had to do that.

Conference, in this job, I have heard from far too many people who fear applying for welfare support. They only know of stigma, stress and anxiety. They tell me about the ‘dread of the brown envelope’.

We can, we must and we will do things differently.

We have already committed to significantly reduce the number of face to face assessments needed when it comes to disability assistance. And when such assessments are necessary they will be carried out by Social Security Scotland at a time and location that suits the person.

We will never use private sector contractors like ATOS to deliver disability assessments. There is no place for profit in this newest of public services.
We believe social security is an investment in our people. It tackles inequalities; it tackles poverty.

We will soon be administering 16 benefits that will support over half a million people and I want people to know and be encouraged to take up the financial support that they are entitled to.

I know many groups provide valuable support to thousands of people when it comes to accessing benefits.

That is why Conference, I am delighted to announce that I will be making half a million pounds available (£0.5 million) to organisations who support people to access benefits.

The Scottish Benefit Take-up Fund will help charities and third sector organisations get prepared for our new benefits. I want them to be equipped to provide information, and promote the take up of Scottish benefits. Whether its training staff, getting information ready, or delivering promotional materials, we want to support organisations who support the people of Scotland.

Scotland’s social security system will always be rooted in dignity, fairness and respect. And this really does sum up the difference between an SNP Scottish Government and the Tories at Westminster.

The Tories are a disaster when it comes to welfare. And they are a disaster when it comes to Brexit.

We have a Prime Minister who has lost every significant vote under his premiership; who illegally prorogued parliament; who ignores a democratic parliament and increasingly looks like he is going to ignore the law by ignoring the Benn Law. Anyone else would lose their job. He doesn’t even apologise.

If being dragged out of the EU against our will is a nightmare, then being dragged out with No Deal is a night terror.

The damage that could be just a fortnight’s away. And it is all of Scotland that will be hit – rural and urban. The Yellowhammer papers laid bare what we could be facing. And it’s those on low incomes who will be hit the hardest. Fuel and food could see big rises in prices – just where those on low incomes spend the greatest proportion of their salaries.

Scottish Government analysis shows that 130,000 people in Scotland could be pushed into poverty by a No Deal Exit.

That is why my colleague Aileen Campbell has urged the UK Government to take action to protect people on low incomes through launching an immediate benefit awareness and take-up campaign; removing the benefit cap; lifting the benefit freeze and increasing benefits; and making some immediate changes to Universal Credit including reducing the wait time for payments and providing a grant not a hardship payment in that time.

The Tories cannot push us to the cliff edge of a No Deal Brexit while at the same time putting nothing in place to protect our poorest and most vulnerable from their reckless damaging ideology.

They say they want to get a deal but take no action to get one. Just like they say they want to tackle poverty, yet take no action.

Conference you know that we only have 16% of social security spending devolved to us. We do not have all the powers we need to fully tackle poverty and inequality, but where we do we use them. In housing, childcare, energy efficiency, education, and social security.

Last year the SNP Scottish Government invested over £1.4 billion in low income households and that is over and above universal services such as our NHS and our schools. This includes around £100 million that we spend every year to mitigate the worst effects of the Tory’s welfare cuts. Funds that we could be investing to meet our ambitious targets to tackle and end child poverty.

Because we want Scotland to be the best place for a child to grow up. That is why we have taken the radical and bold move to introduce a new Scottish Child Payment to tackle child poverty head on.

Described by poverty campaigners themselves as a game-changer, this new Payment will be introduced in 2022 for all under 16s in low income households in line with our commitment in our Tackling Child Poverty Plan. And I can confirm that for under 6s we will start paying this benefit worth £10 a week by next Christmas.

There will be no cap on the number of children for this Payment – or any other Scotland social security benefit.

Over a third of Scottish children – will be eligible for the Payment when fully rolled out and early introduction means 140,000 households with 170,000 children will benefit from this early investment.

The Scottish Child Payment has the potential to lift 30,000 children out of relative poverty and increase the incomes of tens of thousands more.

Whilst the Tories double down on a No Deal Brexit and risk the jobs and incomes of thousands of families, we are tackling poverty and inequality, and supporting people every step of the way.

Conference, I’ve spoken today about two social security systems – the Tory Government’s built on stigma and fear and ours based on dignity, fairness and respect.

And in many ways, how you run social security is a demonstration about the type of country you want to be.

Dignity, fairness and respect talks to the values behind why I joined this party, about why we all continue to work so hard to improve the lives of the people of Scotland. It is embedded in what your government delivers day in, day out.

We have done so much in one year and there is rightly much to be proud of. With the limited powers we have we are making a real difference.

But we could do more, so much more. Our work is not limited by our ambition or our determination but by the lack of powers to get on with the job at hand.

The powers we will only get with independence.