NEW Communities Secretary Angela Constance promises social security will be done differently when Holyrood gets its new welfare powers.
She says her own family’s experience of benefits and the problems faced by people she has helped as a social worker and an MSP will drive her determination to make sure the new powers are used in a way that treats everyone with dignity, fairness and respect.
At various times and for various reasons my family has used the benefits system and I’m determined people in Scotland will be treated with fairness, dignity and respect.Angela Constance
The Almond Valley MSP – moved by Nicola Sturgeon from education to take charge of social security in the post-election Cabinet reshuffle – is looking forward to the task.
In her first interview since taking up the post, she says: “This is an exciting time for Scottish politics as we continue to expand our powers – the expansion of powers in social security is greatly welcomed,
“While it’s not as many powers as I would have hoped for, I’m determined to use these new powers for maximum impact.
“As a Scottish government we have a good record of mitigating against the worst excesses of Westminster austerity and their so-called welfare reforms. But we are determined to do more to lift people out of poverty.”
Ms Constance’s official title is Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, but the remit ranges from local government reform to human rights protection and from the voluntary sector to housing, homelessness, planning, disabilities and older people. “This is a big, broad portfolio,” she says. “And the new social security powers are front and centre.”
The new powers will see responsibility for 11 benefits – including disability and caring allowances, maternity grants, cold weather allowance and winter fuel payments – transferred to the Scottish Parliament. Together they are worth £2.7 billion and make up 15.3 per cent of welfare benefit expenditure in Scotland.
But control over pensions, job seekers allowance and many other benefits will remain at Westminster.
Outlining the SNP’s priorities on Wednesday, the First Minister pledged to abolish the bedroom tax, increase Carers’ Allowance, change how Universal Credit can be paid, extend winter fuel payments to families with severely disabled children and restore housing support to 18 to 21-year-olds, as well as introducing a maternity and early years allowance to support new mothers.
The SNP is also committed to setting clear timescales for assessments and decisions in relation to the benefits being devolved, with a transparent appeals process and guaranteed timescales for decisions.
Ms Constance says: “I’m absolutely determined that we will do things differently in Scotland – that dignity and fairness will be at the heart of absolutely everything we do.
“This is an area I’m deeply committed to – I think my background and working life will contribute a lot to my day-to-day thinking and priorities.”
She grew up in the mining village of Addiewell in West Lothian during the Thatcher era and her father was one of the many who found themselves out of work.
“At various times and for various reasons my family has used the benefits system and I’m determined people in Scotland will be treated with fairness, dignity and respect – and that we start to recast the debate.
“I was also a social worker for ten years. I have seen the best and worst of our criminal justice and mental health systems. I know from first-hand experience the impact poverty and unemployment has on individuals, families and communities.
“And as a constituency MSP, I have had to represent many people – young vulnerable people, people looking for work, older people as well – who have been unfairly treated quite often because the bureaucracy doesn’t work, communication doesn’t work and no clear expectations are given to people.
“We don’t want people with long-term conditions going through needless re-assessments. It creates bureaucracy it’s a waste of resources and it’s inefficient and inhumane.”
The government prefers the term “social security” to “welfare”. Ms Constance says: “After a lot of consultation, we talk about social security as opposed to welfare very deliberately – that’s because social security is for everyone – everyone could potentially rely on social security at some point in their lives We don’t know as individuals whether we will have a future illness or disability or we may need to care for a loved one.”
The timescale for transfer of the new social security powers from Westminster has yet to be agreed, though it is expected some will come sooner than others. Negotiations are also ongoing about the finance that will be transferred. But Ms Constance says: “We have a good track record in securing settlements for Scotland.”
The first task, however, is to bring forward legislation to establish a new Social Security Agency to administer the devolved benefits.
There will be a consultation on a proposed Social Security Bill over the summer.
“The current Social Security system and broader welfare state has evolved in a piecemeal fashion over the last 60 years. We’re taking part of that out and doing it differently, but the new powers we gain will still have to be connected to that wider benefits system so it is really complex, painstaking work.
“I’m a bread and butter politician. We will always have at the centre, the experience of people using the services and receiving these benefits. Our approach will be based on the evidence of what makes the biggest impact on the day-to-day lives of people.”