Q&A: Shirley-Anne Somerville, Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People
Apart from coronavirus, what is the most significant thing that has happened within your portfolio over the last year?
I am immensely proud of the progress we have made over the last year towards creating a fairer Scotland that promotes equality for all.
In its first year, Social Security Scotland supported over 91,000 people and delivered an essential public service based on fairness, dignity and respect. The Best Start Grants, Best Start Foods and Funeral Support Payments are all providing help to families and individuals that need it most.
As is Carer’s Allowance Supplement – and that’s why it was really important to me that we took forward legislation to ensure carers could receive the one-off coronavirus payment in recognition of their additional need during the pandemic.
We also passed significant legislation which means that for the first time, mixed sex couples will have the right to enter a civil partnership in Scotland. It means that – just like same sex couples – mixed sex couples will be able to choose between civil partnership or marriage, whichever they feel is best for them.
And in March, my ministerial colleague Christina McKelvie secured the passage of a new Act specifically designed to safeguard those who find themselves under pressure to undergo Female Genital Mutilation. Whilst the act of FGM – a deeply abhorrent practice and a fundamental violation of the human rights of women and girls – has been outlawed for some time, this Act provides for FGM Protection Orders to be granted.
After the crisis of the virus in care homes, what can be done to reassure people that their older loved ones are in safe hands, and what changes should be made to the care system to ensure that older people are better looked after?
The safety, protection and wellbeing of residents and staff in our care home sector has always been a priority. When someone lives in a care home, that is their home. We expect care homes not just to be safe, but to be enjoyable places to live.
The Scottish Government has always placed the upholding of human rights at the heart of its approach and since the start of this pandemic our priority has been to save people’s lives, wherever they live. We have taken firm action to protect care home staff and residents.
In May, we provided an initial £50m to help the social care sector deal with the implications of coronavirus (COVID-19). We have also significantly increased testing capacity and expanded our testing programme with all health boards now expected to offer weekly testing for all staff – regardless of whether they have symptoms.
Our global understanding of the disease continues to evolve and we know that all parts of the system will want to reflect and learn lessons from our response to the pandemic – from the Scottish Government, the NHS and integration authorities to the regulators and service providers in the social care sector.
I also recognise how hard it has been for care home residents and their families not to have regular face to face contact during the pandemic. This has had a massive impact on quality of life, so I welcome the gradual easing of restrictions that now allow people to see their loved ones again safely.
The pandemic saw further calls for a universal basic income to be introduced. How might a Scottish UBI system work?
The pandemic has made the case for a Citizen’s Basic Income stronger by exposing the shortcomings of the UK Government’s welfare system. We have seen people lose income and others fall through the net with no support at all.
In 2018 we funded an independent group to investigate the feasibility of conducting local pilots, to give a Citizens’ Basic Income consideration it deserves. The group published their final report in June.
I agree with its conclusion that while a pilot is worthwhile exploring further, it is not possible in a devolved settlement and therefore must be done with the full agreement, co-operation, and collaboration of all relevant parties, particularly the UK Government through the DWP and HMRC.
The Scottish Government does not have the full range of social security or tax powers to introduce a universal basic income on its own which is why we have written to the UK Government urging further constructive engagement on the issue and to see if there is a way that the pilot can be taken forward.
Lockdown saw a rise in Universal Credit applications. But is the system working?
Before the pandemic it was clear Universal Credit was not fit for purpose and that became even more stark during the last few months. Hundreds of thousands more people had to experience a system with an in-built five week delay for a first payment, debt inducing advance payments and the punitive benefit cap and two child limit.
These problems exacerbate the financial and emotional hardship faced by people in need across the UK. They are issues that we’ve raised with the UK Government for years, and they should be considered even more inexcusable during the social and economic crisis that COVID-19 has caused.
I am not convinced by the UK Government’s repeated claim that improvements to Universal Credit are not possible. We have seen that they have been capable of making positive changes at short notice, such as temporarily increasing the standard allowance for Universal Credit or suspending sanctions and third party deductions. Now is the time to make those permanent and go further.
It is vital that the UK Government reflects on the lessons learned during this crisis and takes the necessary steps to ensure the benefit system actually works for people who need it. I would like to see them take a leaf out of our book and put dignity and fairness at the heart of the system.
Coronavirus has seen a delay in the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment, as well as the Child Disability Payment and the replacement for PIP, at a time when those on the lowest incomes are really struggling. Can you commit to a new timetable for all these payments and shouldn’t an interim payment be considered for families in poverty to tide them over now?
We are prioritising the delivery of the Scottish Child Payment for children under six – a significant new benefit which will provide £10 per week for each eligible child – exactly because it will provide vital support to low income families and tackle child poverty head on.
Our aim is to now start taking applications for this by the end of 2020, with payments being made from 2021. We expect there to be more eligible children than before due to the increase in numbers applying for qualifying benefits, such as Universal Credit, as a result of COVID-19. That’s why this is such an important commitment to us.
We will also continue with the delivery of the benefits already available through Social Security Scotland. The three Best Start Grants - Pregnancy and Baby Payment, Early Learning Payment and School Age Payment and Best Start Foods are all open for applications now, as is the Funeral Support Payment.
We have swiftly taken significant measures to help those impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. As well as the additional Carer’s Allowance Supplement I mentioned, we have also more than doubled the Scottish Welfare Fund from £35.5m to £80.5m. And we have committed a further £5m for Discretionary Housing Payments to bring it up to £16m, in addition to fully mitigating the bedroom tax, as part of our wellbeing and community £350m package of support.
Since the start of the pandemic we have provided over £110m to tackle food insecurity, including the provision of free school meals and alternatives for 175,000 children and young people during the summer holidays. We are also taking action to support people into employment with a £100m package to help those looking for work or at risk of redundancy, including a job guarantee for young people and a new national retraining scheme.
Proposed changes to the GRA have been delayed but the furore between those that support the changes and those that don’t has not abated, will you be pushing ahead with the changes ahead of the 2021 election?
As we announced, due to the pandemic there are a number of Bills we can longer bring forward in this parliamentary year, including the planned Bill on gender recognition. However, the Scottish Government remains committed to reforming the Gender Recognition Act in a way that also ensures women’s rights are preserved and protected. Trans people continue to suffer poorer outcomes relative to the wider population, and this needs to change, which is why we are committed to improving the lives of trans and non-binary people more generally.
Other than seeing friends and family, what did you miss most during lockdown or what did you most look forward to doing after lockdown was lifted?
I missed the chance to go to my eldest daughter’s primary leavers’ assembly and see her take part in all the school traditions for leavers that she’d talked about with her friends for years. I’ve missed the family camping weekends which we all love and where we’ve made some special family memories in the past. We’re making up for lost time on that though and now planning our staycation holidays for the rest of the year.
If you had to spend lockdown with one other member of the cabinet, who would it be and why?
Aileen Campbell because I doubt we’d talk about work very much. She’s really positive and is just generally a great person to have a laugh and spend time with. Mind you, she’s still bringing that humour to our many text and WhatsApp messages so I haven’t been without entirely.