It is six years this month since I became the Chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC). That “anniversary”, and the fact the months are rapidly passing to when I step down next July, prompts these reflections about the role and more generally about SSAC as an advisory body.
Above all it’s been a privilege as well as a pleasure to chair a body which (along with the broadly parallel Industrial Injuries Advisory Council) has - currently anyway – a unique role in advising Government and Parliament on the likely impact of proposals for detailed legislation in an important area of public policy. The authors of the 1980 legislation which first set up SSAC as an independent statutory body were, I’m sure, very deliberate in not giving SSAC a formal role in the scrutiny of primary legislation – the major Acts of Parliament that set out the broad principles of the policies of the Government of the day. But also that they were deliberate in giving an independent body the statutory right to scrutinise and comment on draft proposals for secondary legislation (regulations as they are called), which in the field of social security play a major role in defining the detail of policy and how it will be implemented. And while SSAC is primarily there to advise the Secretary of State of the day, the legislation also requires him or her to publish any formal advice from SSAC – alongside their response to our advice - at the point regulations are laid before Parliament for approval. So there was a clear intention for our advice to inform debate in Parliament and elsewhere from the outset.
That scrutiny role, which alongside our independent work programme accounts for the major part of SSAC’s work, calls for a wide range of different skills and experience on the Committee. So we need people who understand the detailed nuts and bolts of existing social security legislation and its history; people with analytical skills who are familiar with past and current research findings; people who bring expertise on the needs of claimant groups such as disabled people and members of ethnic minorities, and on the needs of both employers and workers; and people with good knowledge of issues specific to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Happily Ministerial appointments to the Committee in recent years have given us a quality membership with that rich diversity of expertise and experience which enables us to offer well-informed, balanced and apolitical advice - reinforced too by invaluable input and evidence from a diverse range of external stakeholders.
Having that diverse range of talent around the SSAC table often means the task of the Chair in distilling all that input has its challenges! But that adds to the rewarding nature of the role, and it speaks highly of my colleagues that we are invariably able to reach consensus. Being able to do so from a range of different perspectives does, I believe, add to the strength and value of our advice on detailed policy and operational issues.
As an advisory body our role is of course only to advise, and it is for politicians to reach decisions on these matters. I wish I could say our advice is always accepted! Unfortunately I can’t, but I think the trend has been for a growing proportion of our recommendations to be followed, even if that sometimes takes a while to come through as has recently been the case of abolishing waiting days for Universal Credit. I look forward to seeing my successor and the other SSAC members continuing to build on that degree of influence founded on the quality of the Committee’s evidence-gathering and debates. And who knows, maybe the successful model of SSAC might usefully be replicated in other areas of detailed Government policy-making, for example for those Departments where there will be huge task of creating new UK law post-Brexit?
[If you are interested in becoming the next SSAC Chair, you will find more information about how to apply here.]