Scottish welfare powers debate

20th March 2018

Alok Sharma responds on behalf of the Government to a debate in Westminster Hall on Scottish welfare powers.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) on securing this debate on a key issue for the citizens of Scotland.

We have had an incredibly spirited debate, in which a range of views have been expressed. Of course there have been disagreements, but that demonstrates, as my hon. Friends the Members for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) and for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) noted, that ultimately we all care about our constituents and want to do the best by them. That is why we need to work together, across all parties, to ensure that we deliver for the people of Scotland.

Will the Minister give way?

No, I will not, if the hon. Lady does not mind. A lot of comments have been made, and I want to deal with them.

The devolution of welfare powers represents a considerable and positive change, but it will require strong collaboration and co-operation from all sides if it is to be a success. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) asked about the UK’s commitment. I can tell him that we have set up and resourced dedicated teams to lead on Scottish devolutions; we have shared—and we continue to share—our learnings and experience with the Scottish Government; we have run more than 100 workshops and operational visits; and we have shared many hundreds of pieces of information. We are absolutely committed to working in partnership with the Scottish Government to ensure a safe and secure transfer of the welfare powers for which they now have responsibility.

Scotland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, and our economic and welfare reform policies recognise that. Unemployment in Scotland is at a near historic low, which we should all welcome, and more people see greater security in retirement. Following the decisive result of the 2014 independence referendum and the ensuing Smith commission, we are delivering on the promises we made to people in Scotland by devolving £2.8 billion in welfare powers.

If we are working together and in partnership, will the Minister support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford)? That would negate the need for the Scottish Government to have to negotiate with the Department for Work and Pensions and would pay for the DWP to deliver split payment services under universal credit.

If I may, I will come on to how we are co-operating with the Scottish Government. At the end of the day, there is of course also a requirement on the Scottish Government to play their part. Many of the powers are being devolved: that involves not only a right for the Scottish Government, but a requirement for them to deliver.

The Scotland Act 2016 was an historic moment that created a shared welfare space for the first time. Since September 2016, the Scottish Government have had power to deliver employment programmes for disabled people and those at risk of long-term unemployment, and to vary the housing cost elements of universal credit through the universal credit choices. They have also had the power to top up reserved benefits using their own resources and to create new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility.

We have seen progress in some of those areas, with the DWP providing considerable support to enable the Scottish Government to deliver their transitional employability programmes from April 2017. From April this year we will support the introduction of their successor employment programme, Fair Start Scotland, which relies on Jobcentre Plus work coaches playing a key role in the referral process.

Since 4 October last year, we have been delivering universal credit Scottish choices through the universal credit system. That has allowed those living in Scotland who make a new universal credit full service claim a choice on whether they are paid twice monthly, instead of monthly, and whether their housing element is paid directly to their landlord. Since January this year, regulations allow for those universal credit Scottish choices to be extended to those who were universal credit full service claimants before 4 October, as well as to those claimants transferring from live to full service, once their claim has been established.

We are yet, however, to see any proposals for how the Scottish Government intend to use their powers to top up benefits or to create new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility. The Scottish Government are proposing to pay a carer’s allowance supplement to carers living in Scotland from this autumn, but they have still not put forward proposals on the disability benefits such as personal independence payments, disability living allowance and attendance allowance for people in Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock asked about joint working. As he may know, there is a joint ministerial working group on welfare, which is jointly chaired by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities in the Scottish Government. It continues to oversee the transfer of the new employment and welfare responsibilities. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions also attends the working group. My Department has worked hard to share our knowledge and experience and has invested significant resource to support the Scottish Government’s thinking and planning.

It is two years this week since the Scotland Act received Royal Assent, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock that the public need clarity, as there is still much to do. Meaningful devolution in such areas cannot happen until the Scottish Government make their policy intentions clear and put in place the infrastructure to deliver them.

The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts asked specifically what we were doing with the Scottish Government. I can tell him that, obviously, we have been supporting them in a whole range of areas, as outlined, but we are keen to understand in greater depth the Scottish Government’s plans for post-wave 1—when I say that, I mean the disability benefits that I have already outlined.

The reality is that if the Scottish Government fail to deliver those welfare powers by 2020, the people of Scotland will need to be protected. Plans are in place to ensure that the DWP will be able to continue to administer and deliver the devolved benefits, as we do now, under an agency agreement for a defined time. We will ensure that we provide the greatest support and the greatest protection for the people of Scotland.

Given that the parliamentary process is proceeding in a timeous fashion and to time, what evidence does the Minister have to suggest that the Scottish Government will not proceed to time unless the UK Government have not done the groundwork?

My intention is not to create any kind of ranking—we want to work with the Scottish Government. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock made, rightly, is that he has concerns about the pace at which things are moving. I repeat: the faster the Scottish Government move forward, the faster and more easily we can work together to deliver, ultimately, for the people of Scotland. That is what are here to talk about—not the politicians, but the people of Scotland.

It is good to hear about the support that the Minister is providing to the devolved Administration, but will he assure me and other Members that, although some devolution of powers will be helpful, he and his Department will work with them to ensure against duplication and our constituents receiving a lower standard of service? Creating a new welfare agency is another layer of bureaucracy and cost. Benefits are already confusing enough for our constituents. Will he make that guarantee? We are MPs in this place to influence Government directly for all the UK, not to devolve our responsibility away.

As I said, we are here to work together to deliver for the people of Scotland. I know a number of colleagues have castigated universal credit, but it is a welfare system that has simplified the whole infrastructure of welfare. Having gone to jobcentres around the country and talked directly to claimants, I can say that for them that has made a big positive difference.

I only have a couple of minutes left, so I will deal with a couple of points made during the debate. One was with regard to disabilities. There was an implication that we may be cutting disability benefits, but that is not the case. In fact, PIP and DLA are just one part of more than £50 billion that we will be spending this year alone to support disabled people and those with health conditions.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) mentioned the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We do not accept the commission’s analysis, because it only represents a partial picture, does not consider the effect of spending on public services and makes unevidenced assumptions about income sharing in households. She made a specific point about women of Pakistani origin. We are committed to increasing opportunity for them, which is why, as part of the work we have done in the race disparity audit, we have identified 20 challenge areas in which to have pilots, to ensure that we can get people into work.

In conclusion, we look forward to the Scottish Government ultimately making progress with the ideas outlined. We, of course, stand ready to work with them to deliver for the people of Scotland. That is certainly the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock made in his opening speech, and I commend him for that.

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