Alok Sharma MP responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the devolution of the welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on securing this important and timely debate. He spoke with great passion. He cares deeply about his constituents and he wants an effective welfare system in Scotland that leaves no one behind, which is something that we all want to see. We have heard passionate speeches. If I have time I will refer to some of the points raised. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for their contributions today.
To reiterate the context of where we are—colleagues have set this out—the Scotland Act 2016 provided a significant shift in the way that welfare would be delivered. As has been said, we are transferring responsibility for an estimated £2.8 billion of welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament, which currently support around 1.4 million people in Scotland. That will of course have a major impact on people living in Scotland as we move into a shared welfare space for the first time.
We should not underestimate the significance of the task. We recognise that responsibility for many vulnerable claimants will be transferred to the Scottish Government, and it is vital that both Governments get it right. The DWP has been instrumental in the Scottish Government’s delivery to date of certain benefits, and we will continue to support them to achieve their plans. We must ensure that the transfer of the welfare powers proceeds in a safe and secure manner with the claimant at the heart of what we do. That is why we have established strong Government structures, including a joint ministerial working group on welfare and joint working practices to oversee the transfer of powers and to ensure that we work together to identify and mitigate any issues that arise.
The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) raised points about the ministerial working group. As he knows, there was a recent meeting that was both cordial and constructive. In terms of the support from DWP, we have approximately 80 DWP staff working exclusively on the Scottish devolution programme. Between 2015 and October 2018, DWP managed more than 2,297 requests for information from the Scottish Government. I gently point out to him that I do not think there is any intransigence on our part. He knows that I am happy to take up cases, and we are meeting later today to discuss a constituency case that he has.
Following Royal Assent to the Scotland Act 2016, the DWP has worked hard to support the Scottish Government in the transfer of powers. We have given them access to DWP payment and customer information systems to support their delivery, as well as providing training and knowledge transfer as they build up their capability. We have provided support to enable them to deliver their new employment support programme, Fair Start Scotland, with DWP work coaches making the majority of referrals.
As we approach the first anniversary of the programme, the Scottish Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills has recently written to me to praise our staff in Jobcentre Plus for the work that they have done to date. It is important that politicians talk not only about the challenges. Of course we should challenge each other to get things right, but we should also praise and acknowledge good joint working when it takes place.
Since 2017, we have also delivered Universal Credit Scottish Choices, giving people in Scotland a choice over the frequency of their payment and whether their housing element is paid directly to their landlord. We supported the Scottish Government to deliver their first new benefit, the best start grant, and we are on track to support delivery of their replacement for funeral expenses payments later this year. Critically, since September 2018, we have been paying carer’s allowance on behalf of the Scottish Government, enabling them to pay a six-monthly supplementary payment to carers in Scotland.
The Minister is setting out well some of the areas where there has been good working between the Scottish and UK Governments, particularly at ministerial level, as I said in my speech. I should put on the record that there have previously been problems at ministerial level between the two Governments, but in the most recent exchange of letters the Secretary of State appears to make a more conciliatory and helpful suggestion for work going forward. So I hope that the two Governments will be able to work together constructively, whereas previously that has not happened.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Over the past few years we have been working constructively, and we want that to continue. My hon. Friends definitely want that. They come in to see me and the Secretary of State regularly to raise issues, and it is right that we continue in that spirit.
Many lessons have been learned in the first wave of devolution, such as in the transfer of accountability of carer’s allowance, where the DWP continues to pay carer’s allowance on behalf of the Scottish Government but under the same rules and rates as for people in England and Wales. It is vital that we consider these lessons as we move forward with the next wave of delivery.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, if my hon. Friend does not mind, because time is short.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) criticised the Government’s delivery of universal credit. I believe it is working, and we have put in an extra £6 billion to support the most vulnerable in the past two Budgets, which unfortunately he has not been able to support in votes. I point him to the summary of a Public Accounts Committee report from 2005 on tax credits, which says:
“In April 2004, the Committee reported on the severe problems following the introduction of the New Tax Credits, which meant that several hundred thousand claimants were not paid on time.”
I gently point out that we all want to get the system right, and I am not sure that constantly criticising is the best way forward.
As colleagues have noted, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People recently announced the Scottish Government’s delivery timetable for their replacements to the current disability, carer’s and industrial injuries benefits, as well as replacements for winter fuel and cold weather payments. The timetable proposes that the Scottish Government will progressively take over responsibility for delivery from April next year, with the final cases being transferred by 2024. That reflects the pace that Scottish Government believe that they can commit to and is achievable.
On timing, it will be for the Scottish Government to keep it under review. The Scottish Government’s plans involve considerable work for DWP in both supporting them to achieve their ambition and, as necessary, continuing to deliver benefits on their behalf. We share the Scottish Government’s commitment to a safe and secure transfer, and our priority is as seamless a transfer as possible from the person receiving the benefit’s point of view.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk raised a number of issues in his remarks. He spoke of his concerns about the Scottish Government’s delivery plans, the continuity of provision for his constituents and the cost to the public purse from the DWP continuing to deliver devolved benefits on behalf of the Scottish Government. We will, of course, continue to work with the Scottish Government, and costs arising from the DWP’s delivery of services on behalf of the Scottish Government will be reimbursed by the Scottish Government.
Many other points were raised, and if colleagues want to write to me I will be happy to respond to them. A number of colleagues mentioned WASPI. It is for the Scottish Government to determine how to use their powers to make further payments, including to fix issues for those individuals.
The devolution of welfare powers represents a significant constitutional change that will require substantial work by both Governments to ensure that the people of Scotland are well served. We are committed to working constructively with the Scottish Government. I look forward to the future and seeing the Scottish Government successfully delivering their new social security benefits for the people of Scotland.