Leaders: Welfare dispute could cloud bigger picture

Interpretation of Smith Commission recommendations has led to three days of political debate. Picture: Alex Hewitt

Interpretation of Smith Commission recommendations has led to three days of political debate. Picture: Alex Hewitt

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FOR all the positive, collaborative discussions and negotiations that took place at the cross-party Smith Commission on further devolution of powers to Scotland, there was always one weakness in the process which threatened to return the debate to adversarial political wrangling.

The commission could produce a report and recommendations, but these would be at the mercy of interpretation.

After three days of debate on the Scotland Bill at Westminster, frustration is building among the opposition parties. All amendments have been rejected, and there is little evidence so far that the government has any appetite to take on board additional proposals. The government insist that the bill goes far enough, with employment minister Priti Patel stating that it meets both the substance and the spirit of the Smith Commission. It’s a moot point.

Yesterday, the battle ground was welfare, where the SNP backed a Labour amendment that would have seen Holyrood given the power to create new benefits and top up existing payments as a means of countering welfare cuts imposed by the UK government in other areas. Effectively, this would mean giving the Scottish Parliament the ability to design its own welfare system. The amendment was defeated, with Scottish Secretary David Mundell pointing to last year’s referendum result and stating that Scots opted to stay within the UK to continue benefiting from sharing risks and resources with other parts of the UK. If this turns out to be the hard, bottom line that will be applied to all debate over the Scotland Bill, this jars with Mr Mundell’s earlier calls for cross-party conciliation over devolved powers.

However, there are difficulties over devolving extensive welfare powers, not least over what this would mean for the rest of the UK and how changes to the welfare system – by then out-of-kilter north and south of the Border – could be successfully adopted in the future. A refusal to accept the amendment does not necessarily mean we are witnessing a blanket rejection of proposals.

The SNP’s MPs will regularly push for devolution of full powers and this should not be a criticism of them, even if it leads to disagreement and conflict. Transfer of powers is, after all, the party’s raison d’etre. Privately, some will acknowledge that further welfare powers were always going to be difficult to secure, or indeed implement.

It should not be forgotten that the Smith Commission stopped a long way short of transferring full welfare powers. Whether amendments are accepted or rejected, the bigger picture is that the bill is a significant step forward in tailoring the welfare system into a more relevant and appropriate means of meeting the specific needs of the country.

Calais strike is now a security hazard

As industrial disputes go, the impact of direct action doesn’t get much more effective than we have witnessed at Calais in recent days. Yesterday, striking ferry workers once again brought the port to a standstill – and created a serious security risk – causing Eurotunnel rail services to be suspended after setting fire to tyres on the train tracks at the tunnel entrance.

From lorry drivers to families heading off for a summer holiday, there was no option but to wait, or abandon plans. There is no end date for the industrial action, to give light at the end of the tunnel.

A meeting of the UK government’s emergency committee Cobra was held this week, but neither the British nor the French authorities appear able – or willing – to take control of this situation. No-one wants to take responsibility, although there is plenty of blame flying around.

And we should be in no doubt, this is now a matter of responsibility. We have seen already the dangers posed by desperate migrants who last week took advantage of slow-moving traffic to seek illicit passage to the UK as stowaways. Since then, international security concerns have heightened dramatically following events in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France itself.

An out-of-control situation at an international border over-run with thousands of migrants is a security risk that Europe could do without right now.

The striking Calais ferry workers – who are upset over the sale of vessels to a rival firm – made their point last week, gaining maximum publicity. Right now is not the time to pull this trick again.

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