Eddie Barnes: Welfare reform a battleground for all the parties
PROCESS continues to dominate the pre-referendum contest, but one of the policy issues beginning to squeeze its way through the legalese and the constitutional wonkery is welfare reform.
Major changes are coming down the track at a rate of knots which will have a huge impact on the lives of lots of Scottish voters, including three claimants who yesterday went to the Scottish Parliament to say they feared a “witch-hunt” against them. The challenges it poses to the main parties in Scotland, keeping one eye on the constitutional implications, are revealing.
The changes are already well under way. People on sickness benefits are already being re-assessed. Soon disability benefit entitlement will follow. Then, the plan is to wrap up the dozens of different benefits into a single, universal credit which will be simpler and, crucially, will (goes the theory) make work pay. But the re-assessments have already proven to be bitterly controversial. The change to a universal credit plan is already mired in trouble over the predictable IT-related glitches. And, behind it all, the Treasury wants to lop off a further £10 billion in welfare cuts. All this at a time when the recession is going on longer than expected.
As the saying goes, there will be blood. And First Minister Alex Salmond smells it. As he wobbled under questioning over Scotland’s relationship with the EU last week, he scored a counter-punch by asking Labour why it was a backing a UK-wide system which allows Conservative policies to be enacted here. Instead, he argued, Holyrood should get control to sort it out itself. Labour figures acknowledge it puts them on a sticky wicket, as they find themselves attacking Tory policy, while simultaneously insisting its writ must stay. Consequently, this is a drum the SNP will beat a lot over the coming two years.
For the UK government, the challenge is now to iron out as many glitches as possible. Much of the welfare-to-work programme may still prove popular with voters who want to see less waste and more incentives in the system. But bureaucratic ineptitude will only help sell the SNP’s counter-message that it is a more competent and safer administration.
For Scottish Labour, the issue gets to the heart of exactly what constitutional position it wants to take. Both Johann Lamont and Ed Miliband have made clear they believe welfare is a UK-wide issue. But if this is the case, given their opposition to the coalition’s plans, the party needs to explain why, better. Over at the SNP, though Mr Salmond’s attacks have hit home, they would have had more strength if the party was able to provide some detail about the kind of welfare system it would like to manage if it ever gets the chance. That currently remains too vague. Welfare politics could be a key battleground over the coming months. All the parties will have plenty of questions to answer.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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