Leaders: Salmond seizes the high ground on welfare reform
ALEX Salmond’s damning condemnation of the UK welfare system yesterday was part of a key SNP strategy for winning Scottish independence.
The First Minister clearly believes the UK coalition government’s “brutality” against those claiming benefits represents a major argument for Scotland going it alone. The debate on welfare, Mr Salmond believes, is one that points to Scotland having a fundamentally different attitude from the rest of the UK, and that this requires welfare to be controlled by an independent Scottish government.
Coincidentally, yesterday also saw the release of new numbers from the Department for Work and Pensions on the process of assessing those claiming incapacity benefits, which revealed that a third of those assessed had been judged to be fit for work.
Does this prove Mr Salmond’s point? That rather depends on the degree to which one believes – if at all – that a significant proportion of benefit claimants are more work-shy than incapacitated.
There is no doubt that our welfare state is in need of reform. In times of financial need, like the times we live in today, it would be foolish to think its multi- billion-pound budget could somehow escape scrutiny.
Society has a right to know that those awarded benefits are indeed deserving of those benefits, which, after all, are paid for by general taxation. And, of course, society also has a right to know that those in genuine need are getting the help they require.
What people want to know is that the process of assessing the deserving cases is fair and equitable, and there is the rub. Few of those deemed fit for work are likely to be happy with this judgment. Some of them will have genuine doubts that they are capable of taking up a job, after sometimes years out of the world of work. But they may be able to do so with the right support and encouragement, and it is right that they are asked to make that effort, if deemed capable of doing so.
This is, by definition, a difficult process. But it is a necessary one if society as a whole is to have confidence in the system.
The role welfare will eventually play in the independence referendum is still unclear. There may yet be moves within the anti- independence alliance to devolve some welfare powers from Westminster to Holyrood, allowing Scottish views on benefits to be reflected in the Scottish system, while remaining in the UK. Alternatively, this may be deemed by some within the Better Together camp as a step too far. All will no doubt become clear in good time.
But as benefit cuts bite deeper, and as the cap on benefit increases makes its presence felt, the SNP and the broader Yes Scotland campaign will be pushing their case hard.
If the UK government is going to be able to counter this argument, it will have to work harder to demonstrate that its reforms pass the test of fairness.
SNP must accept ruling and move on
IT IS always a good idea with politicians to read their statements twice, to make sure they are actually saying what they at first appear to be saying.
So, when Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday that “considerable weight” would be given to the views of the Electoral Commission on the wording of the independence referendum question, she fell some way short of a full endorsement.
The Deputy First Minister was allowing herself wriggle room, holding out the possibility that the SNP might – just might – reject the recommendation of this independent group of experts. Reports suggest that the commission’s wording will be: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” This is different from the Scottish Government’s own construct, as spelled out last year. But it is clear and it is simple.
No doubt the SNP administration would ideally like to have its own way in all things. Indeed, it has said that the final decision rests not with the commission, but with the Holyrood parliament, and in saying that, ministers are technically correct.
But what good would it serve for the SNP to use its Holyrood majority to bulldoze through a question in defiance of the independent experts? This would simply ignite public cynicism about the process under which the referendum is taking place.
Too much of the past 12 months has been spent in an often futile and artificial debate about the process of holding this vote. The signing of the “Edinburgh Agreement” was meant to bring that phase to a close.
What the public wants now is a debate on the issues. The quicker the Scottish Government agrees to the commission’s judgment, when it comes, the better.
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