Brian Monteith: Welfare report shines harsh spotlight on Holyrood

Donald Dewar and Jim Wallace launched the campaign for a Scottish Parliament in 1997. Picture: Colin Mearns

Donald Dewar and Jim Wallace launched the campaign for a Scottish Parliament in 1997. Picture: Colin Mearns

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The credibility of the Scottish Parliament’s achievements since 1999 does not bear close scrutiny, writes Brian Monteith

When devolution to the new Scottish Parliament was delivered in 1997 we were told it could lead to a new politics. For the next two years, from the time of the referendum that confirmed it would become a reality to the elections of the first Parliament in 1999 there was indeed much excitement generated about how Holyrood would become so much better than Westminster, how the difference would be there to see.

Unfortunately Holyrood has never quite lived up to its promise, taking a decade to descend into the same sectarian battles and petty point-scoring that Westminster took centuries to perfect.

Puffed up by the self-regard and hubris of its members, the anticipated accountability through Holyrood committees was vastly overrated and is now practically non-existent but for a few honourable exceptions. The joint working across parties that would follow naturally from the proportional voting system that was expected to require coalitions to be formed was already turning sour before the SNP’s outright majority was achieved in 2011. From that moment on the dominance of party whips, especially those of the uber-disciplined SNP simply echoed the Westminster model. Yah-Boo! was back, but with a kilt on.

With the SNP expected to continue in power with another overall majority following May’s elections there is no reason to expect this Stalinist trend to change. Given that context it is all the more commendable that a new report is published today that draws on the work of people involved in the Green and Liberal Democrat parties and former Conservatives. This was just the type of outcome that was once promoted by Holyrood’s most vocal adherents, maybe it could become a template for the future?

The report, The BIG idea – Basic Income Guarantee, published by Reform Scotland, tackles head-on the difficult problem of the welfare trap, whereby the current welfare system provides a punishing financial disincentive to anyone wishing to take up work and wean themselves of welfare.

The basis for the report is the current Green Party policy of creating a guaranteed income for all citizens that is never withdrawn, so that the disincentive is removed. Those that do take up work start to pay income tax when they cross the relevant thresholds. It is a simple enough idea but one that politicians of most parties have run away from as even the most obvious solutions will always create winners and losers. When significant changes come up against a relatively short election cycle good ideas are often the first casualties due to the opposition they might provoke.

The past coalition and current current government should be commended for recognising that our welfare system requires significant reform and that this cannot be delayed for the demographic and social changes we are experiencing will have put our welfare state on course to collapse under its own weight. Our unfunded pension commitments and the plethora of other benefits that can grow topsy beyond the original expected costs means that welfare cannot just be set up and then left alone, it has to be constantly reviewed to see that it is fit for current purposes and offers value for money to the taxpayers that are working to fund it.

It goes with the territory of trying to rein in spending on welfare that there will be missteps and misjudgements with the desperate circumstances of real people always likely to surface that will expose the weakness of legislative change. It should be no surprise then that in preserving or developing political reputations welfare reform is a subject normally to be avoided. There had been great hope across the parties that Tony Blair might be able to pull it off through the work of Frank Field but even Labour’s great communicator eventually baulked at the potential for trouble and Frank Field was shuffled out of the post.

Since 2010 Ian Duncan Smith has been leading the government welfare reforms and the opprobrium that he has faced explains why so few wish to touch the subject. Much of the good that he has done – such as the rolling-out of the new Universal Benefit system that is recognised by most observers as a good idea in principle – has simply been ignored as the most controversial aspects of policies such as the spare room subsidy (for, despite the clever soundbite it is not a tax but an additional benefit payment) are what attracts the attention of the media looking for human stories and political controversy. The same problem for the Conservatives arose with George Osborne’s plans for reform of the in-work benefits that had, in general terms, been ruled out in the General Election campaign.

Once the Chancellor devised his proposals the reaction was immense and he beat a hasty retreat. I’ll leave it to readers to consider which of the two Tory politicians has displayed the most spleen and guile in finding the balance between administering help while ensuring affordability and fairness between those that contribute and those that receive.

What the work of Reform Scotland does, in bringing in party-thinkers together, shows a way forward for the future. The solution must be to have parties agreeing about reform in advance of elections so that when the results of the ballot box are known and coalitions are established the vital need of reform is not the first casualty because the changes are too hard.

Imagine if this approach were to be taken in regard to the problems that Holyrood faces over education, healthcare delivery or housing. I am not suggesting for a moment that political parties should all end up saying the same, quite the reverse actually, what I am arguing for is that parties seek to find their common ground on outcomes and then – use third parties such as Reform Scotland – to work their way back to establish what, if anything they share in delivering these outcomes.

It is all very well railing against the machine but elected politicians are paid by the taxpayer and do have a duty to try and deliver results while getting their points across.

The BIG Idea of providing everyone with a basic income guarantee could be a policy whose time has come. It could work solely in Scotland or across the UK – that it is being pushed here first should be applauded by everyone.

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