Next week, MSPs will vote on a law that will create a new social security system in Scotland.
The devolution of welfare powers delivers on a promise made in the run-up to the independence referendum in 2014.
It will allow MSPs to build a welfare system with fairness at its heart, making different choices to the Tories.
At present, people with terminal illnesses who have six months to live are fast-tracked by the UK benefits system to ensure they can receive financial support. But charities, campaigners, medical professionals and health experts believe this should be increased to those who have less than two years to live. That would make the system fairer for those spending their final months with their loved ones.
Gordon Aikman, one of Kez’s closest friends, died at the age of 31 after battling Motor Neurone Disease (MND) last year. He was diagnosed in June 2014 and was told he was dying – fast. Gordon raised more than £600,000 for charity before he died and he changed lives across Scotland with his campaigning.
In a debate to mark his legacy in February 2017, watched by Gordon’s family and friends, SNP Health Secretary Shona Robison promised to introduce a fast-track benefits system.
She said: “On social security and the disability benefits to be devolved to Scotland, I confirm that, when the powers for disability benefits transfer to this Parliament, we will ensure that a fast-track system is in place for people who are terminally ill, so that payments can get to those people as soon as possible.”
When the new Social Security Bill was going through the parliamentary process, MSPs on the committee scrutinising the plans passed an amendment to do just that. They agreed to increase the definition of terminally ill from six months to two years.
But, out of the blue, SNP social security minister Jeane Freeman this week produced a counter-amendment to reverse that.
It’s called Amendment 111. It will be voted on by all MSPs in the final stage of the parliamentary process next Wednesday. Ms Freeman’s decision came just days after admitting in a magazine interview that ‘genuine concern’ had been raised about the six-month limit and promised to listen to medical professionals.
Well, today 50 medical professionals have sent her a clear message. In an open letter published in The Times, they wrote: “We are deeply concerned that the current Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) system being proposed requires people to prove that they have six months or less to live in order to receive benefits under the ‘special rules’ for terminal illness. This would limit the number of terminally ill people in Scotland able to access social security quickly and easily.”
The SNP government should listen to the experts.
So why has the SNP back-tracked? In a letter to Holyrood’s social security committee, Ms Freeman suggests that costs are one reason for her decision. She wrote: “Whilst prioritising the views of clinicians in my decision; to ensure that we create a system that is workable for the people of Scotland, I have also been mindful of the resources available…
“Scottish Government analysts estimated that the cost of this amendment could be in the region of an additional £300million per annum under a steady state, excluding any administrative costs.”
The reason for devolving social security is not so that the SNP can just parrot Tory lines about financial constraints. Can we really claim to have a fairer system if we fail to make this change for terminally-ill patients?
Kez raised the issue in First Minister’s Questions. Watch the footage below:
This is what Kez said:
“Just weeks after Gordon Aikman’s death, with his grieving family in the gallery, Shona Robison promised a fast-tracked benefits system.
“She said she would end the injustice of terminally ill people waiting months for their benefits – and I believed her.
“But the Scottish Government has now tabled an amendment to keep the failing system just as it is. The reason for devolving social security is not so that the SNP can just copy what the Tories do.
“I urge Nicola Sturgeon to intervene to ensure that people with less than two years to live get the benefits they so desperately need.”
Leading charities have also spoken out.
Craig Stockton, chief executive of MND Scotland, said:
“We believe that all people with MND should be fast-tracked for benefits. Scotland has the chance to remove a major source of worry and distress for those who should be concentrating on make the most of the time they have left.
“We have a chance to show that we are a caring society. By extending the definition of terminal illness to two years rather than six months this can happen.”
Richard Meade, head of policy and public affairs with Marie Curie Scotland, said:
“Currently, far too many people living with a terminal illness do not get the social security they need quickly or in a dignified way. Scotland has an opportunity to introduce a much fairer definition of terminal illness.
“We would urge all MSPs to vote to retain the new two-year definition for terminal illness on Wednesday, April 25, and ensure that Scotland’s new social security system works for more terminally ill people.”
There are only a few days left before the final vote on the Social Security Bill. Nicola Sturgeon must keep the SNP’s promise to fast-track benefits for terminally ill people.