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Future-proofed against austerity: new Scottish social security system

Independent body will check that changes preserve human rights before Holyrood gets vote.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Future-proofed against austerity: new Scottish social security system” was written by Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Sunday 21st January 2018 06.01 UTC

Scotland’s new social security system will include an unprecedented degree of independent scrutiny – with the express intention of future-proofing the powers against the kinds of austerity measures that have devastated vulnerable groups in the rest of the UK.

Scotland’s social security minister, Jeane Freeman, announced on Sunday that there will be a Scottish Commission on Social Security, an independent body that will scrutinise any proposed changes to the new system – and give its view of their compliance with human rights protocols – before Holyrood can vote on them.

The new powers, part of the package promised to the Scottish parliament after the 2014 independence referendum, require Holyrood to shape the country’s first social security system.

Freeman has previously described the process, which accounts for 15% of Scotland’s total benefits bill and will affect 1.4 million people, as “the biggest transfer of powers since devolution began”.

Eleven benefits are being wholly transferred, including disability living allowance and personal independence payments, along with the opportunity to top up existing payments and create new ones.

The government has also pledged to establish a Scottish social security agency before the next Scottish parliament election in 2020 to work in parallel with the UK system.

The social security (Scotland) bill is now at stage two of its legislative journey, with the Scottish government and others bringing amendments to the initial framework.

The creation of the commission answers directly concerns raised by anti-poverty groups before the festive break.

Campaigners had expressed disquiet about the extent to which the detail of new benefits is being left to regulations, rather than included within primary legislation, which could make it easier for subsequent governments to cut payments or change eligibility criteria.

Freeman emphasised the importance of putting the commission on a statutory footing.

“By putting it on the statute books, we are making sure that its role is protected and enforced by law,” she said.

“People deserve to know that ministers are being held to account now and in the future and that the responsibilities given by the bill in providing social security as a human right are met.”

John Dickie, of Child Poverty Action Group Scotland, welcomed the amendment, saying: “This is an important safeguard given how much of the detail on devolved benefits is being left to secondary legislation.

“However, we still think the bill should go further to make sure that the extent it enables devolved benefits to be changed through regulation alone does not leave a door open to a reduction in rights to social security in the future.”

The Scottish government has also addressed concerns about the use of private contractors such as Atos through another amendment to the bill, which guarantees that the private sector will not deliver health assessments for the new welfare system.

Freeman said: “We want to ensure that legislatively this commitment is built in – no individual will be required by government to undergo health assessment by the private sector.”

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