Comment: Devolving welfare is too complex to rush

Lord Smith will report on the consultations at the end of November and a command paper will be published at the end of January. Picture: Neil Hanna
Lord Smith will report on the consultations at the end of November and a command paper will be published at the end of January. Picture: Neil Hanna
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IT IS said that unreasonable haste is the direct road to error, and one can’t help but wonder if the timetable set for the Smith Commission is entirely sensible given the complexity of issues it has to consider and the avalanche of responses from civil society organisations around Scotland.

The independence referendum debate was conducted over a two-year period – and now we find ourselves considering constitutional change at a galloping pace. Lord Smith gave us just a few weeks to produce our proposals for further devolution in Scotland. He will report on the consultations at the end of November and a command paper will be published at the end of January.

In our submission, Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) argued for full devolution of the welfare system to Scotland. Our clients suffer as a consequence not just of the policy decisions but the manner in which they are implemented. No-one believes that if welfare were to be devolved to Scotland that a sanctions regime would leave people without any money for food or fuel. The severity of the current sanctions regime, which saw 90 people lose entitlement to all benefits for three years last month, is indefensible. We are also aware that Scotland’s different context in relation to the cost of housing benefit (lower than in England, and particularly the South of England) and the significantly larger numbers of long-term sick and disabled people in our population mean that we might make different decisions about how we allocate social security. We might, for example, choose to spend more on benefits for the disabled and less on housing benefit than in England.

The problem with the timetable set for the Smith Commission is that there is simply not enough time to properly examine the options available and submit them to the test of public debate and inquiry. Although CAS’s preferred position would be the devolution of all welfare spending to Scotland, we would readily concede that this also presents challenges which need to be addressed.

Would it lead to benefits tourism? Would it work as well if benefits for the long-term sick and disabled were devolved, as these are relatively predictable, but benefits which expand and contract with the economy, such as out-of-work benefits, remained at a UK level? This would enable us to pool and share the cost of the economic downturn.

Could we “do things differently” in Scotland and have a benefits regime based on a system akin to credit referencing, where claimants score high if they are normally in work during times when work is available, and out of work when the economy is in recession or demand for their skills is low? A system which was based on these kinds of algorithms would potentially enable the redirection of significant resources away from the pointless exercise of forcing people to apply for nonexistent jobs and focus instead on the relatively small number of long-term unemployed people who need help with employability, skills and confidence.

In the wake of a referendum debate which engaged all of Scotland, CAS thinks that to close down a discussion on what welfare should look like under devo-max is wrong. One of the great advantages about having this debate in Scotland is that it would take us away from the “strivers and shirkers” narrative into a robust and considered discourse on what kind of welfare provision equates with enabling people to live a dignified life, and is fair to taxpayers and claimants.

CAS will be asking the Smith Commission to go with devo-max – but to recommend that it returns to the issue of the devolution of social security benefits in the aftermath of the next general election. This would enable the political parties, civil society and citizens in Scotland to work through the issues and arrive at a national consensus around the provision of social security in 21st-century Scotland.

CAS hopes that if this proposal is taken up a wide range of voices will be heard. We need to hear from those on social security, from employers, carers, educators, from service providers and taxpayers – before we reach any firm conclusions on how best to provide social security to those who need it.

We invite others to raise their voice in support of our plea for more time, a more considered discussion and a wider range of options to choose from before any conclusions are reached. «

Margaret Lynch is chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland