Ken Macintosh MSP

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Meeting of the Parliament 18 December 2014 : Thursday, December 18, 2014
Ken Macintosh

I recognise that this is not an easy point. I think that I made the point on Tuesday as well as today that there can be an argument, but does the minister recognise that none of us gets paid in goods or in furniture and that, by paying people in that way, we are definitely making a choice on behalf of welfare recipients? I made the point that if people are denuded of choice, their resilience is not being built. Does she accept that argument?



Meeting of the Parliament 18 December 2014 : Thursday, December 18, 2014
Ken Macintosh

Will the member take an intervention?



Meeting of the Parliament 18 December 2014 : Thursday, December 18, 2014
Ken Macintosh (Eastwood) (Lab)

I offer my thanks to the Welfare Reform Committee, to members past and present and, in particular, to the committee clerks, who have been very helpful and supportive.

I am not entirely sure what will happen in the new year, but this may prove to be my last speech as a member of the committee, and I just want to say how grateful I am to all my colleagues and how much I have appreciated working with them on such an important subject. I had been going to give special thanks to the convener, but our partnership on the issue will continue on Labour’s front bench.

To continue the theme of collaborative working, it is fair to say that Labour and SNP members are united and frustrated in equal measure. I recognise that SNP members want to prevent the damage that the Tory reforms are wreaking on some of our most vulnerable citizens and that they believe that it is only by removing the relevant powers from Westminster that we can protect Scottish communities. Labour members are equally frustrated in that we, too, want to get rid of the Tories, but we believe that the election is the best place to do that and that in the meantime we should focus on using the powers that we have rather than excusing ourselves by pointing at those that we do not.

I recognise that those arguments will persist and that those frustrations will continue, but my hope is that we can now put the emphasis on what we have in common rather than on where we differ. The Welfare Reform Committee exists because a range of powers over welfare have already been devolved, and more are to follow—now that the vow has been delivered through the Smith agreement, we will potentially have the power to create new benefits. I believe that we can work together and that the people of Scotland expect us to do so.

There is no doubting the urgent need that exists. None of us can have been left unmoved by the witnesses who came before the committee or by the evidence that we heard from them. Just this morning, my colleague Jackie Baillie and I met the homeless charity the Pavement to discuss its word on the street project. One member of the group, Caroline, told us how illness had led to her being sanctioned and having her benefits stopped for 15 months, which left her on the brink of homelessness.

The British Medical Association and the Scottish Association for Mental Health have both reported that living in fear and stress is having a devastating effect on the mental health of those who rely on benefits, and the UK Government’s own review noted that people with mental health conditions or learning difficulties make up 40 per cent of the individuals who go through a work capability assessment.

On a different note, I still recall the young single mother whom Jamie Hepburn and I met at the citizens advice bureau in Parkhead, who had to explain why going into labour was probably a justifiable reason for missing an appointment without being sanctioned. The range of experiences varies from the deadly serious to the almost laughable, but what emerges from nearly all the witnesses who have testified is a sense of having to justify themselves and a double feeling of victimisation.

For those people, there is anxiety about their very real needs and how they will feed and look after themselves; in most cases, there is also anxiety about how they will feed and look after those who depend on them, such as their children. Alongside that, there is a different anxiety—a feeling of being judged, threatened or even punished because of the unfortunate circumstances in which some welfare recipients find themselves. There is a feeling of being punished twice over, not through exercising any choice of their own but for finding themselves in difficulty and then being blamed for it.

Our committee reports have pointed the finger directly at the Tory Government and concluded that benefit sanctions were one of the key factors that led to the huge increase in the need for food banks. They have demanded a sea change in sanctions policy. However, alongside that, we need to ask what more we can do here. What can the Scottish Parliament do?

I was very encouraged by some of the work of the Scottish Government’s expert working group on welfare in the run-up to the referendum. I recognise that ministers and all of us across the Parliament want a system that is based on the dignity and respect of individuals. However, earlier this week, Willie Rennie, among others, reminded us of the inherent complexity of the welfare system and of how difficult it can be to translate good intentions into actions.

Our welfare system is bitty, piecemeal and messy, just as our lives are. We go in and out of work at different stages in our lives and have times of dependency and self-sufficiency.

I will give one example of how difficult it is to practise what we preach. The debate on Tuesday on the Scottish Government’s Welfare Funds (Scotland) Bill, which is a very straightforward bill to replace the social fund, revealed that 80 per cent of crisis grants that have been given out under the interim scheme have been awarded in kind rather than in cash. In other words, we are making judgments almost immediately. We are no longer leaving decisions to the choice of the individual; we are denuding people of individual choice rather than building people’s resilience.

None of us in the chamber gets paid in furniture. Most Scots do not expect to pay their bills with vouchers or get told which shops to go to and which choices they have to make. We do not need to justify or explain our everyday actions, so why should we expect that of those on welfare?

On a broader point, our debate should be not just about benefits. We need to change the way in which we approach the growing numbers of those who are in work but are still in poverty—those who are simply not paid enough. One reason why costs are rising is that housing benefit is being paid to those in employment. Many new challenges face us, but many families are working harder than ever and finding themselves deeper in debt.

It is not just a matter of poverty; it is about rising inequality. The answer does not necessarily or solely lie in welfare reform; it lies in how we tackle wages and wealth at the top alongside how we reward those at the bottom. It is about what we are doing about the living wage, about wage differentials and about tax.

So far, the Scottish Government’s response to the welfare reforms and its exercise of the powers at its disposal have been quite conservative. It has replaced the social fund and council tax benefit, and it has effectively overruled the bedroom tax. I am not criticising the Government for any of those measures, as Labour has supported them—in fact, it called for them—but there has been no attempt so far to reform welfare or to take a different approach in Scotland.

I believe that there is agreement in Parliament that we do not want to keep people on benefits. We are not trying to create a welfare society; we are trying to create a system that supports each of us in our time of need in a non-judgmental way.

With more powers coming that will allow us to create entirely new benefits, we need to work together to use those powers to build a fairer society. I hope that we can do so.

15:13  

Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Ken Macintosh

Mr Doris, please calm down. I was just trying to tease former members of the committee and Mr Stewart, who is still a committee member. We were in agreement on the proposal, but Mr Stewart’s principles were clearly compromised by the minister’s instructions. The minister has now changed her mind, and the chamber should welcome that.

The second issue that I want to highlight, which came up a number of times, is that of making cash payments as opposed to providing support in kind. For community grants, which help to furnish a new flat in an emergency, for example, I have no doubt that good arguments were put for providing white goods, furniture packages and so on. However, the evidence in favour of that approach was much weaker when it came to crisis grants. Many witnesses talked openly about being judged and stigmatised by the welfare system, and many voluntary organisations such as Oxfam said that, if we are serious about wanting to maintain the dignity of and respect for individuals and families in the system, we could consider allowing clients to exercise choice. That theme was expanded on by Alex Rowley, Jackie Baillie and other members. In a particularly thoughtful speech, Willie Rennie talked about the difficulty of grappling with such issues and said that our fine words need to be reflected in our actions if we want to end stigma and build a system that is based on trust and respect.

The argument was put most succinctly by the Scottish campaign on welfare reform. In its evidence to the Scottish Government, it stated:

“There is a risk that by systematically ... allocating goods rather than cash payments local authorities will remove choice and undermine the dignity of the individual.”

For instance, handing out vouchers can not only limit the choice available to applicants but create stigma, undermine dignity and lead people to feel that they are receiving handouts rather than exercising a legitimate right to assistance during a crisis. I leave the minister with the thought that the Scottish Government’s own statistics show that, in the first year of the interim scheme, more than 80 per cent of the spend was in kind rather than by way of cash, cheque or bank transfer.

The final issue that I want to highlight is the decision by the Scottish Government to set a two-day deadline for turning round crisis payments, rather than the 24-hour target that the DWP laid down. I do not doubt the minister’s good intentions in wanting the process to be as speedy as possible, but when I asked her about the issue in committee, she said:

“The DWP’s 24-hour deadline for decisions applied only once all the information was there. Sometimes such a decision could take three weeks because the DWP said that it did not have all the information. I am simply saying that that is not happening now.”—[Official Report, Welfare Reform Committee, 4 November 2014; c 40.]

According to the Child Poverty Action Group,

“This is not entirely accurate.”

I should stress that that is a quote from written information that CPAG provided after we had taken evidence from it. It pointed out that the current SWF guidance and the draft regulations state that the deadline kicks in only after all the information has been gathered. In other words, there is no difference between what they say and what the DWP says in that respect.

CPAG went on to point out that any lengthy delays in the processing of crisis loans under the old DWP system were more likely to have related to the need to make a decision about whether the applicant was likely to be able to repay the loan rather than their eligibility for an award. It said that, as ability to repay was clearly not a concern in relation to the Scottish welfare fund, it should not slow down the process of decision making.

Crucially, CPAG highlighted the Scottish Government-produced crisis loan statistics that show that, in the last year of the DWP scheme’s operation, a decision was made within two days in 98.6 per cent of cases whereas, in the quarter to June 2014, the SWF achieved only 94 per cent against the same measure. CPAG concluded:

“There is no implicit reason that processing times should be longer in relation to crisis grants than they were for crisis loans.”

It also made the point that Alex Johnstone made earlier. It was concerned that the inclusion of a reference to a 48-hour time limit once all relevant information is received might lead some decision makers to request evidence when it is not needed.

That is not a minor or unimportant matter. Just in the last week, the “Feeding Britain” report on the use of food banks across the UK highlighted the impact of benefit delays and the number of people who are left with no income at all, forcing them to turn to food banks. The Scottish Government’s own review of the interim scheme, which was carried out by Heriot-Watt University, made a number of recommendations on that very point, including the recommendation that

“The maximum target processing time for Crisis Grants should be ‘by the end of the working day’.”

The Parliament will have the opportunity to return to the subject of welfare later this week. I hope that we will have a broader discussion on our approach to the powers that will be delivered under the Smith agreement. I recognise that there are differences to explore in that debate but, today at least, we have before us a relatively uncontentious bill, on the need for which we all agree. We all agree on the broad approach, and I hope that we can focus in a practical and collaborative manner to get the proposed legislation right.



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Ken Macintosh

The point is the caveated statement versus the minister’s actions. The minister has now removed the measure from the bill. [Interruption.] I was just trying to tease Mr Stewart.



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Ken Macintosh

Oh, he is!



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Ken Macintosh

That must be why Labour suggested removing the proposal from the bill but the SNP voted instead for this trenchant line:

“However, in light of the evidence received the Committee recommends that the Scottish Government consider the issue of outsourcing in light of EU procurement laws”.

That was a bold statement from Mr Stewart, who is not jumping to his feet this time.

Kevin Stewart rose—



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Ken Macintosh

The very person—Mr Stewart. I will give way to him.



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Ken Macintosh

Thank you, Mr Don—I was in fact being ironic. On that consensual note, it is worth noting that not only Labour, but every party in the chamber, supports the general principles of the bill and will vote for it at decision time.

Although there have been relatively heated discussions between SNP and Labour members on such matters in the Welfare Reform Committee, we are broadly aligned in opposing the Tory welfare reforms and on taking action to mitigate their effect in Scotland. Our position on this bill is no exception.

The bill is relatively straightforward. The UK Government has decided to abolish the old social fund and to devolve responsibility for emergency welfare payments, along with most—if not all—of the funding, to Scotland and to local authorities in England. The Labour Party supports the Scottish Government in passing on the administration of emergency welfare payments to our local authorities; in replacing the system of loans with a system of grants; and—crucially—in trying to make good at least some of the shortfall in funding.

In taking evidence, the committee found a broad consensus on that general approach from most stakeholders, including welfare recipients, local authorities and the voluntary sector. It is fair to say that a few misgivings were expressed about the bill’s other notable feature: namely, the appointment of the SPSO as the body responsible for adjudicating on second-tier appeals. However, as several members have highlighted, we also broadly agreed that, on balance, the SPSO is probably best placed to take on the task in the circumstances.

That said, a few issues have emerged in evidence in relation to which the Scottish Government could undoubtedly make improvements to the bill. The committee’s convener, Michael McMahon, listed a few, including the importance of reviewing eligibility criteria, notwithstanding Bob Doris’s comments in defence of not doing so. The convener also highlighted the need to reconsider the redistribution of funding among local authorities and the need for regulations to be subject to affirmative procedure. My colleague Jackie Baillie also made the important point that the current fund has been underspent. Although the Government has made funds available, if we do not advertise their availability to recipients, they will not help to satisfy the need that exists in Scotland.

I will focus on three issues in particular. The first and most notable is the minister’s odd insistence, initially, that she should take powers in the bill that would allow her to privatise the service at some future date. Witnesses from the third sector were unanimous in opposing that measure and were universally hostile to the prospect of allowing private companies to deliver state benefits for profit. Given the vocal comments of SNP back benchers on the issue both this afternoon and previously, I do not think that I was alone in being surprised when the SNP committee members at Westminster voted to keep the proposal in the bill at stage 1.



Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2014 : Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Ken Macintosh (Eastwood) (Lab)

I thank the minister for her foresight in instigating a debate on welfare reform within one hour of my promotion to the social justice brief, thereby elevating me to the job of closing the debate. I say to Jackie Baillie, my immediate predecessor in the role, that she should read absolutely nothing into the fact that the tone of today’s debate, on a subject that is normally very fractious and disputatious, has been very consensual. There is no link between my appointment and the consensual tone of the debate.

Vote DetailMSP VoteResult

S4M-11901.3 Neil Findlay: Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce—As an amendment to motion S4M-11901
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YesDefeated

S4M-11901.1 Mary Scanlon: Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce—As an amendment to motion S4M-11901
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11830.2 John Swinney: The Smith Commission—As an amendment to motion S4M-11830 in the name of Ru
>> Show more
Not VotedCarried

S4M-11830 Ruth Davidson: The Smith Commission—That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the Sm
>> Show more
Not VotedCarried

Amendment 6 moved by Dr Richard Simpson on motion S4M-11826 Maureen Watt: Food (Scotland) Bill—That
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11825.3 Claire Baker: End of Year Fish Negotiations—As an amendment to motion S4M-11825 in the n
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11825.2 Jamie McGrigor: End of Year Fish Negotiations—As an amendment to motion S4M-11825 in the
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11825.1 Tavish Scott: End of Year Fish Negotiations—As an amendment to motion S4M-11825 in the n
>> Show more
AbstainDefeated

S4M-11825 Richard Lochhead: End of Year Fish Negotiations—That the Parliament welcomes the successfu
>> Show more
AbstainCarried

S4M-11763.3 Margaret Burgess: Private Sector Rent Reform—As an amendment to motion S4M-11763 in the
>> Show more
NoCarried

Search for other Motions lodged by Ken Macintosh
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Motion S4M-11340: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 29/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11310: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 27/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11273: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 22/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-10819: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 15/08/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-10766: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 10/08/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-10023: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 12/05/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-09878: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 30/04/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-09633: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 04/04/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-08406: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 25/11/2013 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-07580: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 04/09/2013 Show Full Motion >>
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Question S4W-23406: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 24/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-23407: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 24/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-23382: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 21/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-23190: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 17/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-23186: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 17/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-23093: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 10/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-23092: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 10/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-23095: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 10/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-23094: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 10/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03690: Ken Macintosh, Eastwood, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 03/11/2014 Show Full Question >>