Shirley-Anne Somerville: Everybody in society is entitled to support
Interview: Shirley-Anne Somerville’s approach to delivering a new social security system is founded in her Fife heritage
Shirley-Anne Somerville - David Anderson/Holyrood
The phrase ‘it taks a lang spoon tae sup wi a Fifer’ suggests people from the Kingdom are hard to get to know and slow to trust others.
One Fifer, Scotland’s social security secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville, is a familiar character in Scottish politics but perhaps not as well-known as some of her more extrusive peers.
But having been put in charge of a whole raft of newly devolved powers in a new cabinet position, there is no doubt she is trusted as a safe pair of hands.
As a place devastated by the closing of coal mines and industry, historically, Fife has been one of those parts of Scotland where young people have been desperate to leave, such is the apparent dearth of opportunities.
When Somerville left the Kingdom to go to university, however, she knew she would return.
Somerville has taken a long road to cabinet. She was a backbench MSP for four years before losing her Lothians list seat in 2011. She remained influential in the SNP, becoming deputy chief executive of the party then director of communities at Yes Scotland.
Her return to parliament in 2016 coincided with a return to Fife, where she had first joined the party as a teenager.
She took the Dunfermline constituency from Cara Hilton, who had represented the party which dominated this part of Scotland in the 1980s and early 1990s of Somerville’s youth.
So entrenched was the Labour orthodoxy, Somerville remembers, that no one really questioned it, even her parents who had brought her up to challenge and ask questions.
“I suppose growing up in Cardenden, a small mining village in Fife, it was rock solid Labour territory. You really did weigh the vote in, at that point in particular,” she tells Holyrood.
“I just kind of grew up looking around thinking ‘there’s no opportunities’, like when I was leaving school. If you combine that with the determination my folks had, which was ‘dinnae just complain about it, what do you think should change?’”
Assumptions were made about Somerville and her family, she says, that they would always vote Labour, which led her to approach an SNP street stall in Kirkcaldy High Street at age 16 and demand a membership form.
“My automatic reaction is to say ‘why?’ I hated the way, and I still do hate the way we make assumptions about people because of their background, where they were born.”
At that time, it was her surroundings in Fife which led her to the SNP rather than any abstract notion of Scottish independence.
“I was going through school in the Thatcher era, and looking back on it, I was obviously questioning: ‘Why does everyone vote Labour and nothing changes?’ It was basically what took me to the SNP,” she remembers.
“Everyone around me had voted Labour for so long and yet the mines had shut in Cardenden, people still didn’t have jobs. Why did we just keep doing what we’d always done? It was clearly not working.”
Somerville got into the University of Strathclyde but admits some of her friends were not so lucky. “I moved about for jobs after that. But I always knew I’d move back to Fife. I just knew I’d want to go back. I’m in a different part of Fife, but I love what Fife can bring. I love the fact we have a strong identity.”
Somerville’s cabinet position is not just a revelation to her. It is the first time the social security portfolio has been distinctly represented by a minister at the cabinet table, with responsibilities that include recently devolved powers.
In total, 11 social security powers have been devolved, including disability living allowance, personal independence payments, carer’s allowance and winter fuel payments, and will be administered by a new agency, Social Security Scotland, based in Dundee.
Ministers have insisted the new agency will take a different approach than the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and Somerville recalls that friends and family had gone through “tremendously difficult times” in their interactions with the benefits system.
“Obviously, given where I was brought up, there were a lot of men in particular who had been in the mines or in heavy industry and had suffered health problems because of the work. They were struggling, particularly in later life.
“They were always questioned. Everyone I can remember always seemed to be very nervous around these interviews they were having to do, and feeling they had to prove what had gone wrong. Nobody felt supported.”
People who were clearly not well enough to work were engaging in a “combative” culture of fear, she remembers, and this formed part of her realisation that the status quo needed to change.
“That was very much how people spoke about it in my family,” she says.
“Particularly in heavy industrial areas like that, they are very proud people, you know. These are not people who have shirked a day’s work. It really did therefore lead me on to a great pride in people who worked.
“There’s never any shame in coming forward and saying, ‘I’m entitled to a bit of help just now,’ or ‘I’ve worked hard but I’m needing help’. There were people there who couldn’t work and therefore the state should be there to support people.
“It really did just bring home how there is so much that the state, society, should be able to provide for people. Because they are entitled to it. It’s not that they are asking for something they are not entitled to.”
Nevertheless, whatever your opinion of the welfare state, there has been some stigma attached to asking for help, a stigma which has grown in recent decades in line with a media narrative running alongside welfare reform at a UK level.
This is reflected in the sheer numbers of those who are entitled to benefits but do not claim them. Recent research has suggested some 480,000 young people in the UK are not claiming the support they deserve.
In creating the new system in Scotland, the Scottish Government worked with Citizens Advice Scotland and others to look at ways to increase uptake.
Somerville says she is determined to break down the stigma. “It can be very demeaning, coming forward, but it comes back to the fact that the vast majority of us are only one life circumstance away from having to be that person needing support.
“There are not different groups of people, the deserving and the undeserving. Everybody in society is absolutely entitled to support when they require it. It’s a safety net.”
It’s a safety net Somerville herself has never needed.
“I have been very fortunate in my life that I came through education and was lucky enough to get a job straight away. But I’ve had friends who were always in that difficulty, not knowing where the next job was coming from, or not having any choice about the jobs they had, because there were no jobs in my hometown for them.”
With that personal connection, does she then feel the weight of responsibility of creating a new system for Scotland?
“We’ve moved into a new phase where we are not just talking about building a framework, we are doing it now. So yes, there is an enormous responsibility from it, but what an enormous opportunity,” she says.
“I go back to the compare and contrast. Actually, things don’t need to be the same. Those challenging ways I started my politics are the very reasons why we are doing this new social security system.”
As explored by Somerville’s predecessor, Jeane Freeman, who led the legislation to create Social Security Scotland in her role as a junior minister, Scotland’s approach has been as much about changing the way people interact with services as it has been about systems of payments.
The UK DWP has had some bad press surrounding the way it deals with new claims, appeals and fit-for work assessments, culminating in a series of rulings at the High Court that the system “blatantly discriminates” against people with mental health problems.
The DWP decided not to challenge a High Court decision a year ago that conditions to receive Personal Independence Payments (PIP) were discriminatory.
PIP is one of the benefits now devolved to Scotland. Somerville describes meeting people who have been “dispirited” by a system designed to make things difficult for them.
“I was very struck by a gentleman I met on a recent visit and I said, ‘what do you want this system to look like?’,” she says. “He said: ‘I want to be treated like a human being.’ That’s the level that people are at. ‘I want to be treated like a human being.’ It really struck me.
“I said: ‘You can take that as a given. What else do you want, because that is the bare minimum you should ever expect from any service from any government or public agency.’”
But how different can Scotland be? Last month, an independent audit into the UK’s poverty and human rights record by UN rapporteur Philip Alston described the levels of child poverty in Britain as “a social calamity and an economic disaster”.
He described welfare reform by the UK Government as “radical social re-engineering” which has “plunged people into misery and despair”.
It was a spectacular rebuke to Conservative policy, leading UK ministers to brand the report a “misleading Marxist diatribe”.
While he said devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland were preoccupied with mitigating the worst impacts of austerity, Somerville acknowledges the report contains a wider challenge for all policymakers.
“It’s mostly on the UK Government, but I think everybody in public office should reflect on what he said.
“He made it very clear that these were political choices. They didn’t happen because of economics. This wasn’t austerity that brought many of these policies in and it didn’t happen by accident. People sat down and designed a system and then, in the face of all the evidence, continued to support the system as it currently stands.”
Given it is a political choice, isn’t there therefore more that the Scottish Government could be doing? Proposals to increase child benefit have been consistently rejected by ministers, and the Scottish Welfare Fund, tasked with mitigating UK welfare cuts, has not been increased for five years.
What’s more, Alston said local authority funding cuts, which is where the Scottish Government has passed on most of its savings, were “damaging the fabric of society”.
Somerville says policy is reviewed annually through the budget process. Last week’s budget saw a £435m promise of additional cash “over and above” DWP payments, but there will be no mitigation of the two-child limit on benefits or increase in child benefit.
“We all got into politics because we wanted to do the best for the people of Scotland, and that’s the responsibility we all hold in government,” says Somerville.
“We will make those choices that go through, but I think the scale of what has happened at Westminster really has to be taken into account. By 2021, there will be a cut of £3.7 billion out of welfare expenditure because of Tory cuts. That’s three times the annual Scottish police budget.
“Now, that’s not something where you can make changes to certain policies and be able to mitigate £3.7 billion-worth of cuts away. So it’s about the choices we make up here, absolutely, and myself and the other cabinet secretaries are absolutely aware of the choices we’ll make within that but I simply remind you about the scale coming down the track.”
Ambitions to create something unique in Scotland, a different way of doing things, formed a central part of arguments for an independent Scotland in 2014, but the new social security model for Scotland bears a much closer resemblance to the UK’s system than any Nordic system of welfare. Doesn’t a single central agency delivering nation-wide benefits feel far more Anglo-Saxon than it does Scandinavian?
Somerville says different models were explored when designing the system, but promises a local service when it comes to delivery.
“The key difference, though, about what we’ll be doing here in Scotland compared to what you’ll get with the DWP is they are closing job centres and we’re opening up local service delivery. You may have a headquarters in Dundee, but you will be able to have that face-to-face support if required,” she says.
The experience of people claiming the devolved benefits will be “very, very different” on a local level, she says, in places that are more welcoming than a “faceless centre” with a security guard on the door.
“I was sitting with some agency staff recently, Citizens Advice Bureau managers and so on, in a centre in Midlothian which had the leisure centre, library and has a primary school attached to it. That’s where we see local service being, somewhere where the community already is and people will be able to come to speak to agency staff and be supported through that process.”
The aim, she adds, is to encourage more people to take up the benefits they are entitled to. For those people with poor mental health who have already been refused PIP, Somerville urges them to appeal, pointing to the sheer level of successful appeals.
“We’ll move as quickly as we possibly can with it, to bring people onto the new system, and they can be assured that what they’re experiencing now under the current system is nothing like what they will go through. They will be supported during that process.”
One of the communities into which the new system will be going, of course, is Somerville’s own. She talks about the need for Dunfermline to get back a “feeling of community” after a period of rapid growth as a commuter town. Could the new system help in that, by providing a more supportive safety net than she saw when she was growing up?
“Yes. We have to be seen as part of the community rather than this thing that comes in and sits there alongside it.”
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