The proposed law to set up a new Scottish social security to govern the benefits being devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Social Security (Scotland) Bill has been published. Whilst a number of the details of the new system are still to be decided, a number of important features are included in the Bill.
The Bill sets principles to underpin the new system, with the intention that these guide the system as it develops. The principles are:
Social security is an investment in the people of Scotland
Social security is itself a human rights and essential to the realisation of other human rights
Respect for the dignity of individuals is to be at the heart of the Scottish social security system
The Scottish Government has a role in ensuring that individuals are given what they are eligible to be given under the Scottish social security system
The Scottish social security system is to be designed with the people of Scotland on the basis of evidence
Opportunities are to be sought to continuously improve the Scottish social security system in ways which put the needs of those who require assistance first
The Scottish social security is to be efficient and deliver value for money
A new addition to the principles, which CAS has previously welcomed, is the commitment that the Scottish Government should have an active role in making sure people receive all the support they are entitled to. This commitment to income maximisation through the new system has the potential to complement the work of Scotland’s CAB network and other advice agencies in helping people take up all their benefit entitlements.
As has been previously announced the Bill will require the Scottish Government to create a ‘Social Security Charter’ setting out the rights of people who use the social security system, as well as duty to report on how the new system is matching up to these expectations. CAS has previously welcomed the Charter as a way to make sure that people can hold the new Agency to account for the service they provide.
Whilst the Bill does not set out precise details for how each of the new benefits will operate – important details such as who will be eligible, how much the payments will be, how people will apply for them, and how they are assessed will be made through regulations at a later date – the Bill describes the types of benefits and what is likely to be decided in regulations.
However, one new feature in the Bill is ‘Short Term Assistance’. The intention behind this power is to make sure people who are being re-assessed for a benefit they receive and are challenging the decision to reduce their award do not lose any benefit until the full appeals process has concluded. CAS called for this to be included in the new system to prevent situations where CAB clients have been deemed ineligible for benefit and faced hardship whilst successfully appealing against the decision, and we welcome the inclusion of this new provision.
The Bill also details how the reconsideration – now called ‘redetermination’ - and appeals process is intended to operate. This includes scope for a fixed timescale to be included for a redetermination to be carried out (although not specifying what the time limit might be). One of the key issues emerging from our consultation with CAB clients and advisers was that statutory timescales should be introduced to prevent the delays that have been a feature of the current Mandatory Reconsideration process. This is a welcome step in the right direction, and we’re working to make sure that the new process ends up being as straightforward and simple as possible.
It is intended that people will be able to make an appeal to the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland, as the administration of the current Social Security Tribunal is also being devolved to the Scottish Parliament’s jurisdiction.
Other important features of the new system are set out in the published Bill, including the process for recovery of overpayments and rules around fraud. A priority for CAB clients and advisers is that deductions from people’s benefit awards to cover any overpayments are not made at a high level. There are outline provisions for the new Agency to consider people’s circumstances, but further detail in guidance will be important here. CAS will also look to make sure that people who are overpaid as a result of an Agency error are not held liable to pay money back.
The Social Security (Scotland) Bill and its accompanying documents can be read in full here. Over the months ahead, CAS will work with the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to make sure the Bill and the new system are as good as they possibly can be, including ensuring a fair and streamlined appeals process, making improvements to the assessments system and ensuring appropriate scrutiny of all the different benefits rules.