Annual Report and Accounts for year ended 2019-20
Annual report and accounts of the Scottish Commission on Social Security for the year ended 31 March 2020.
The Performance Report describes:
- SCoSS’s purpose: its main statutory roles and its membership
- SCoSS’s performance: how well it has performed these statutory roles
- SCoSS’s continuous improvement: the steps the SCoSS Board has taken to ensure its work can be as effective as possible
- the Risks that could affect SCoSS’s performance and the action taken to mitigate them
- SCoSS’s strategies and governance: the strategies SCoSS has agreed to ensure strong governance.
In some instances, the annual report covers the period beyond March 2020 in order to demonstrate how SCoSS’s work on governance, risk and performance has developed.
3.1 SCoSS’s purpose
SCoSS is an independent, advisory non-departmental public body established by the Social Security (Scotland) Act (‘the Act’). Since SCoSS opened for business in February 2019, it has been providing expert advice to Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament in relation to devolved social security matters.
The Act sets out SCoSS’s main roles, which can be summarised as follows—
1. SCoSS must be consulted by the Scottish Government on most regulations about social security assistance made under the Act. SCoSS scrutinises and reports on draft regulations. The Scottish Government may change its regulations after considering SCoSS’s recommendations. When it lays the regulations in the Scottish Parliament, it must publish its response to SCoSS’s report at the same time. The Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee scrutinises the regulations and may take evidence from SCoSS members when it does so.
2. SCoSS must report, from time to time, to Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament on whether the expectations in the Scottish social security charter (‘Our Charter’) are being met. Our Charter was published by the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland. It explains what the social security principles contained within the Act mean in practice and what people are entitled to expect from the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland. If SCoSS does not consider that the expectations are being met it will make recommendations for improvement. SCoSS must consider reporting if it receives evidence that the Charter expectations are frequently not being fulfilled.
3. The Scottish Parliament or the Scottish Government can ask SCoSS to report on any matter relevant to social security.
In undertaking its statutory duties SCoSS takes full account of the social security principles contained within the Act and of relevant human rights obligations. It also operates in line with its agreed vision:
- For Scottish social security: A robust, effective and efficient Scottish social security system that meets its full potential to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland
- For SCoSS: To help achieve the vision for Scottish social security by providing independent expert advice that adds demonstrable and significant value.
SCoSS board members, including the Chair, are non-executive appointments made by the Scottish Ministers in line with the Code of Practice for Ministerial Public Appointments in Scotland. The Chair is responsible for providing leadership to ensure that the Board delivers its functions efficiently and effectively. The Chair is accountable to the Scottish Ministers and may also be held to account by the Scottish Parliament. The role of board members is to provide direction, support
and guidance to ensure that SCoSS delivers its functions effectively and efficiently, in accordance with the Act.
SCoSS currently has four members, although the Act allows up to five commissioners to be appointed. The current members were appointed for periods of up to three or four years. Members may devote up to 36 days a year to perform their functions, apart from the Chair, who may devote up to 60 days. SCoSS is supported by a three person secretariat all of whom are employed by the Scottish Government. SCoSS held 11 board meetings between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020. SCoSS has no physical offices and its meetings were primarily held at Victoria Quay in Edinburgh, and also at venues in Dundee and Glasgow. To ensure that its decision-making and proceedings are transparent, the minutes of all SCoSS’s board meetings are published on its temporary webpage. SCoSS’s scrutiny reports and corporate documents are also publicly available. SCoSS intended to produce a business plan in 2020 that would set out its key priorities for the year ahead and its visions, values and objectives. However, the Scottish Government’s timetables for referring draft regulations were significantly disrupted by COVID. This meant that SCoSS had no certainty over when it would be scrutinising and reporting on draft regulations. The Board therefore took the decision to delay publication of the business plan until it had a clearer picture of the Scottish Government’s intentions. Members were concerned that, in doing so, there would be a lack of corporate and strategic information about SCoSS in the public domain. The Board has therefore published an interim plan that outlines SCoSS’s statutory functions in more detail; sets out SCoSS’s vision and aims; summarises SCoSS’s performance to date; and describes SCoSS’s ongoing priorities.
The interim plan is designed to complement this annual report; in particular, it provides more detailed information on SCoSS’s statutory functions and the wider social security system.
3.2 Analysis of SCoSS’s performance
The Board’s priorities for SCoSS’s first full year of operation were to:
- establish SCoSS as an authoritative, independent and credible organisation that produces high quality and influential reports;
- ensure that SCoSS discharged, as far as possible, its corporate and statutory responsibilities; and
- ensure that members established effective ways of working, including by undertaking required induction training.
In terms of the statutory duties set out above, by far the bulk of SCoSS’s time was devoted to scrutinising and reporting on draft regulations referred by Scottish Ministers. SCoSS aimed to produce reports that:
- added value by making informed, independent and evidence-based suggestions for how draft regulations could be improved.
- enriched parliamentary scrutiny by informing the Social Security Committee’s consideration of the final draft regulations.
- took full account of the social security principles, human rights principles and Charter commitments.
3.2.1 Statutory duties: Scrutiny reports
SCoSS has produced eight scrutiny reports, the first six of which were published within the reporting period of these accounts:
- The Carer’s Assistance (Young Carer Grants) (Scotland) Regulations 2019: scrutiny report on draft regulations
- Scottish Commission on Social Security: uprating report 2019
- The Scottish Child Payment Regulations 2020: scrutiny report on draft regulations
- The Social Security Assistance (Funeral Expense Assistance and Young Carer Grants) (Up-rating and Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Regulations: scrutiny report on draft regulations
- The Scottish Child Payment Regulations 2020: supplementary scrutiny report on draft regulations
- The Disability Assistance for Children and Young People (Scotland) Regulations 2020: scrutiny report on draft regulations The Winter heating assistance for children and young people
(Scotland) regulations 2020: scrutiny report on draft regulations
- Draft Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Qualifying Persons) and Young Carer Grant Amendment (Scotland) Regulations 2020.
SCoSS is pleased to report that around 80% of its recommendations in four of these scrutiny reports were accepted or partially accepted by the Scottish Government. This should result in tangible improvements to the Scottish social security system, and ultimately the lives of the people who receive devolved social security assistance, demonstrating that SCoSS is clearly adding value. Even where the Scottish Government did not accept SCoSS’s recommendations its detailed responses ensured that further information about its approach and rationale was placed in the public domain. This helped to provide greater transparency to people who receive social security assistance and to stakeholders, and also helped to inform the Social Security Committee’s scrutiny of the draft regulations.
Further, as noted below, there are several examples of where SCoSS’s expert scrutiny helped to inform and influence the ongoing development of draft regulations before scrutiny reports were published. The Cabinet Secretary has formally provided examples of where policy was amended before SCoSS’s scrutiny reports were published and regulations laid.
SCoSS published its first scrutiny report in May 2019, shortly after it was established, on the Scottish Government’s draft proposals for a Young Carer Grant. SCoSS members were pleased that the Scottish Government accepted most of the report’s recommendations and there is clear evidence that the draft regulations were improved as a result. For example, the Scottish Government changed the definition of ‘care’ in the regulations; clarified the qualifying period required to be eligible for assistance; and removed some obsolete terminology. The Social Security Committee also commented favourably on the usefulness of the report.
The first quarter of 2020 (the final quarter covered by this report) proved to be an exceptionally busy period for SCoSS, with board members producing four reports by March, two of which required an exceptional amount of time to complete due to the complexity of the regulations.
3.2.2 Scottish Child Payment
The first of these reports considered the Scottish Government’s proposals to introduce the Scottish Child Payment (SCP).
SCoSS held its first ever stakeholder event on the SCP. This was a priority for the Commission as the Scottish Government had not formally consulted on the draft regulations. The event allowed SCoSS members to hear the informed views of parents, advice providers and other key stakeholders. It included a one to one interview with a parent, to allow SCoSS to gain an in-depth understanding of parents’ views.
Many of the issues raised by participants helped to inform the drafting of SCoSS’s scrutiny report, ensuring that its recommendations took into account the expert views of practitioners and those with lived experience. Attendees found the discussion worthwhile: over 90% of respondents said both the event and SCoSS’s presentations were excellent or good.
As a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, the Scottish Government’s response to SCoSS’s SCP recommendations came after the period of this annual report. However, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People previously stated that she found members’ input during the scrutiny process to be very helpful. SCoSS’s scrutiny of the SCP involved consideration of both an early and a revised set of draft regulations from the Scottish Government. As a result of the feedback provided by SCoSS members on the first draft, the Cabinet Secretary made various improvements to the second draft in relation to such matters as eligibility and determinations without application.
Two board members appeared before the Social Security Committee to answer questions about the report, which received cross-party praise.
While SCoSS welcomed the iterative approach to scrutinising the SCP draft regulations, it made clear that its ability to report on the SCP was somewhat constrained by the limited amount of time made available by the Scottish Government.
3.2.3 Child Disability Payment
The issue of timescales also featured in SCoSS’s second major report of 2020, which provided recommendations on the Scottish Government’s proposed Child Disability Payment.
Child Disability Payment marks a significant new stage in the Scottish social security system as it will become the first of the devolved forms of assistance to replace current UK benefits for disabled people. The costs of disability assistance will be higher than for other devolved assistance, as payments will be worth more, made more regularly and to larger numbers of people. Moreover, there are significant complexities involved in developing some new approaches for Scotland while retaining some features of the much more established UK social security system.
Conscious of these points, SCoSS’s report recommended that the Scottish Government investigate the various interfaces between devolved and reserved benefits, and the implications of divergence for people receiving assistance. This specific issue is one on which SCoSS will focus as it considers further devolved forms of disability assistance. The report’s recommendation also demonstrated how SCoSS sought to add value by considering the key issues to have emerged from its overall scrutiny to date, not just undertaking scrutiny on a regulation-by-regulation basis.
Again, the disruption caused by COVID-19 meant the Scottish Government’s response to SCoSS’s Child Disability Payment recommendations came after the period for this annual report. However, the Scottish Government did make some policy changes as a result of SCoSS’s informed feedback on an earlier version of the draft regulations. For example, the Scottish Government ensured that the existing case law definition of various words and phrases was reflected in revised draft regulations.
Of the two other reports SCoSS produced in early 2020, one was a supplementary report on the Scottish Child Payment. In essence, this report provided views on limited provisions that the Scottish Government was unable to include in the earlier draft regulations referred to SCoSS.
The final report in question concerned uprating, a piece of work that SCoSS commenced in 2019. In simple terms, social security uprating concerns the measure that should be adopted by the Scottish Government to maintain the value of the assistance, accounting for the impact of inflation.
Initially, the Scottish Government invited SCoSS’s view on uprating policy. While there was no legislative requirement to do so, the Scottish Government considered that, since SCoSS would formally consider uprating draft regulations at a later point, it made sense to first seek SCoSS’s views on the wider policy consideration. This was the first occasion that the Scottish Government has made such a request, under the section of the Act that allows Scottish Ministers (and the Scottish Parliament) to invite SCoSS to report on any matter relevant to social security.
In reporting on both this wider uprating policy and then later on the actual uprating draft regulations, SCoSS took the opportunity proactively to explore ways in which improved approaches to uprating could potentially be developed over the longer-term. The Board welcomed the Scottish Government’s commitment to consider how stakeholders could be involved in future discussions around uprating, and to provide further information that may better inform scrutiny on uprating decisions.
In summary, SCoSS is proud to have produced a number of substantial reports in its first year of operation. These reports have been well received by the Cabinet Secretary and the Social Security Committee, and have led to demonstrable improvements being made to social security assistance. SCoSS has also been swift to raise with the Scottish Government issues that may affect its scrutiny, while members have also proactively identified broader trends that may influence the successful delivery of social security in Scotland.
3.2.4 Statutory duties: Social security charter
As is clear, scrutinising draft regulations took up a significant amount of SCoSS’s time in its first year. But members also made considerable efforts to develop SCoSS’s statutory role in relation to the social security Charter.
The Board sought to understand how the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland intended to monitor whether and how the expectations in the Charter were being met; as SCoSS is to report on the expectations it is essential to know first how this is being considered by the Scottish Government and the agency. Members also informally sought updates from relevant stakeholders on information they gathered that may be relevant to informing SCoSS’s Charter-related duty.
SCoSS provided extensive, and well-received, comment on the ‘Charter measurement framework’, in which the Scottish Government and Social Security Scotland explained how they were delivering the expectations set out in Charter commitments.
3.3 SCoSS’s continuous improvement
SCoSS has sought to evaluate the effectiveness of its scrutiny reports by analysing the extent to which recommendations were acted on by the Scottish Government, and how they were received by the Social Security Committee. SCoSS also requests informal feedback on its reports from the Social Security Committee, the Scottish Government and from stakeholders, to allow members to understand how SCoSS could improve, but without compromising its independence.
In addition, SCoSS has put wider processes in place that aim to ensure its scrutiny reports deliver more effective outcomes:
- One of SCoSS’s first actions was to produce a Scrutiny Framework, which clearly demonstrates to the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and other stakeholders how it will undertake its scrutiny of draft regulations. The Framework is rooted in the social security principles and human rights obligations, and is designed to encourage the Scottish Government to produce social security assistance that will be of the greatest benefit to its recipients.
- SCoSS created a Scrutiny Checklist, which is designed to ensure that the tasks and processes for carrying out scrutiny of draft regulations is consistent and comprehensive.
- SCoSS is developing a Protocol with the Scottish Government that sets out respective roles, information needs and timelines to enable effective scrutiny to be undertaken.
As an independent body, SCoSS is concerned that having insufficient time to undertake scrutiny of draft regulations could be significantly detrimental to its work and reputation. While the Act says SCoSS should have the time it needs, the reality is that its impact will unavoidably be lessened if scrutiny reports are not submitted in time for responses to be drafted and laid with the regulations. The Board trusts that the protocol will ensure that the timing difficulties highlighted above are resolved. The Chair has also raised these concerns with the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security. SCoSS members were pleased that the Cabinet Secretary was receptive to the suggestions put forward as to how processes could be strengthened to improve SCoSS’s scrutiny and, ultimately, the outcomes delivered for the social security system.
The Board has also been fully committed to establishing and developing members’ skills and knowledge. Members have received training and briefing on being an effective board and on key legislation, and have also agreed working practices that allow for the smooth running of board meetings. At the time of finalising this report, the Board was devising a strategic approach to ensuring members’ continuous improvement, by undertaking a skills audit of members and creating a tailored package of development sessions. The Board intends that this approach will complement the lessons learned from the Chair’s annual appraisals of individual board members.
This systematic approach to ensuring that SCoSS’s underlying processes and procedures are healthy has allowed the Board to concentrate its resources on the areas where SCoSS can make the greatest difference.
SCoSS’s business plan will provide a more detailed explanation of how SCoSS intends formally to evaluate and improve its future performance. The measures adopted will then be assessed in future annual reports.
Given the wider political context within which SCoSS was working, its first year of operation contained a number of inherent risks.
The Scottish Government’s proposed budget for social security in financial year 2020-21 was over £3.75 billion, making it one of the largest devolved budgets. The recent transfer of social security powers from the UK Parliament to the Scottish Parliament was one of the most significant since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Further, Social Security Scotland’s website notes that it delivers benefits to 1.4 million people.
In short, social security commits billions of pounds of public money, is very high profile and involves a significant proportion of Scotland’s population. In addition, SCoSS was a brand new body with new members, serviced by a new Secretariat. For all of these reasons, it was essential that SCoSS established its reputation as quickly as possible by producing informed and influential reports that clearly added value and established its credibility with key stakeholders. As described above, feedback suggests SCoSS has successfully risen to this challenge.
SCoSS has also established a risk register which allows us to consider specific risks in a systematic manner. Potential risks that SCoSS may face have been grouped into four main categories16 and members have taken steps to mitigate each of these risks, or indicated where further action is required. The Board has consistently sought to refine its approach to risk and recently agreed to strategically review the risk register, relevant actions and mitigations taken, to ensure that the number of risks was as low as possible.
As was the case for all public bodies, the most significant risk-related matter that arose for SCoSS during the period was the disruption caused by COVID. One of SCoSS’s key statutory duties is to scrutinise and report on draft regulations referred by the Cabinet Secretary. However, the Scottish Government’s timetable for referring draft regulations had to be adjusted as a result of COVID. The Board therefore moved swiftly to consider the general and specific risks posed by COVID, both in terms of its ongoing work plan and its working practices. Specifically, SCoSS wrote to the Cabinet Secretary and the Chief Executive of Social Security Scotland, to discuss the particular implications of COVID for the Social Security Charter, and to suggest how SCoSS could potentially add value through investigation and reporting. Members also discussed the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act and its potential implications for SCoSS, considering each work plan item to determine which should be prioritised and which could be postponed or done differently.
3.5 SCoSS’s strategies and governance
SCoSS complies with generally accepted best practice and relevant guidance related to governance matters. SCoSS has developed various strategies that have allowed it to discharge corporate functions effectively and efficiently, and to establish a robust governance framework.
SCoSS has agreed a Framework Document with the Scottish Government which sets out the broad framework within which SCoSS operates. The Framework Document sets out clear roles and responsibilities, delegated authority arrangements and decision-making processes which are transparent and supported by a clear evidence base.
SCoSS’s statutory responsibilities are defined in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. Section 21 of the Act established SCoSS as a body corporate; section 22 defines its functions; and Schedule 1 sets out the parameters of SCoSS’s legal status, powers, procedures, finance and membership.
Following the agreement of the Framework Document, the Board was able to agree the type and frequency of budgetary information it required to discharge its financial responsibilities. The agreed approach was proportionate to SCoSS’s responsibilities and its comparatively small budget, and cognisant of the breadth of financial controls employed by the Scottish Government to ensure that the SCoSS Secretariat discharges its financial responsibilities appropriately.
SCoSS is looking into the possibility of appointing an independent and external consultant to attend appropriate Board Meetings to test and advise the Board in the exercise of their audit functions. This appointment would not be a full board member of the SCoSS Board and would be, in effect, an adviser appointed by Scottish Ministers to carry out the specific requirements relating to the auditing functions of SCoSS.
The Act does not require SCoSS to undertake any consultation when carrying out its statutory roles. Nevertheless, the Board considers it essential to consult with stakeholders and those with lived experience of the social security system, where time and resources permit it to do so. Their input, quite simply, allows SCoSS to do its job more effectively.
An example is provided above of the consultation that SCoSS undertook on specific draft regulations. In addition, members have had detailed discussions with groups that work with people with lived experience in order to understand how their views can best inform SCoSS’s work. Further, SCoSS has developed a stakeholder engagement strategy that identifies those groups and individuals with whom it will engage on an ongoing basis, and which SCoSS members will lead on those relationships. Again, these initiatives should ensure that SCoSS’s recommendations are firmly rooted in first-hand knowledge and practical experience, and help to deliver better outcomes as a result.
The Social Security (Scotland) Act states that SCoSS may adopt processes to regulate its own procedures. However, the Board went further by proactively producing Standing Orders that provide clarity on a range of core operational issues, including how substantive decisions should be made by the Board. The decision to adopt Standing Orders allowed the Board to anticipate successfully various potential issues that could have disrupted performance in its first year.
SCoSS has agreed a number of other strategies that have helped it to establish strong foundations of governance. The SCoSS Board:
- Adopted a Publication Scheme under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.
- Agreed a Memorandum of Understanding on Freedom of Information with the Scottish Government that sets out how relevant freedom of information requests will be handled.
- Signed-off the SCoSS Code of Conduct, while providing suggestions to the Scottish Government as to how the Code’s provisions on equality and diversity could be strengthened. Member’s registers of interests have also been published.
- Produced a ‘whistleblowing’ policy, which allows members to raise with particular external parties any concerns they may have about serious malpractice within SCoSS.
In general, the Board has ensured proportionate compliance with best practice principles and relevant guidance around corporate governance, primarily as described in ‘On Board’. In response to requests from NDPBs such as SCoSS, the Scottish Government provided more specific corporate guidance for small advisory NDPBs in recognition of the fact that much of the guidance in On Board is more relevant for larger organisations that provide public services or have more substantial budgets.
3.6 Finance Report
SCoSS was delegated a budget of £0.34m by Ann McVie as the Accountable Officer, as per advice of the Act Implementation Team. This was based on SCoSS’s forecasted spending requirements that were projected and reviewed at the beginning of the year. At year end, SCoSS had spent £0.19m, a £0.15m underspend against budget. This underspend was due to:
- not requiring the majority of non-staff costs (approx.£0.09m) initially anticipated including costs for focus groups, communications and venue hire
- decision not to recruit a fourth member of staff (approx. £0.04m),
- delays in the development of the website (£0.02m)
This underspend was “re-absorbed” into the overall Scottish Government spend at year end. For a full breakdown of costs spent by SCoSS in 2019-20, please refer to Section 6. Financial Accounts.
Deputy Director, Social Security Policy (Accountable Officer)
09 December 2020