THE Scottish Government’s decision to set up an expert working group on welfare in an independent Scotland was a positive and welcome move. Welfare is one of the touchstone issues in the constitutional debate, and the more analysis on how it would operate after a Yes vote the better.
What the working group came up with, however, was perhaps not exactly what SNP ministers wanted to hear. The key recommendation was an independent Scotland should stick with the UK welfare system for a period of some years while the Edinburgh government created the apparatus of a separate welfare state.
This is problematic for the Yes campaign because one of the most potent arguments for independence over the past year has been Westminster’s relentless and needlessly blunt “reforms” to the UK’s welfare system. The idea of a Scottish system not in the hands of Tory ministers and not implementing policies such as the bedroom tax is one that many voters find compelling. In addition, moves by the unionist parties towards an offer of more powers for Holyrood have – so far – little to say to voters on the further devolution of welfare powers. This may change, but at the moment the Yes campaign and the SNP have something of an open goal.
Unfortunate, then, that the Nationalists’ own working group suggests that for the foreseeable future – the timescale is hazy but perhaps the duration of one or two Westminster administrations – a newly-independent Scotland would essentially have to be content with the current British welfare state. Independence would, therefore, not mean the immediate scrapping of the bedroom tax. In fact, who is to say that tax would even exist by the time the Scottish Government was able to take on responsibility for welfare from Whitehall, at some indeterminate point in the future?
Such a transition period is perhaps inevitable, but this is becoming a familiar refrain in the constitutional debate. Take, as another example, the SNP position on currency. The party makes great play about wanting access to levers of economic power, but it is clear that if Scotland wants to stick with sterling, it will have to be constrained by macro-
economic policy set by the Bank of England. The fuller independence that would come with a separate Scottish currency is a far more distant prospect. On defence, too, the SNP says an independent Scotland would rid itself of nuclear weapons but, again, it appears after an appropriate and indeterminate transition period.
In the years immediately following a Yes vote, therefore, what the SNP is promising is some way short of its headline aim of independence. Real independence, in these circumstances, is a post-dated cheque the SNP intends to allow the nation to cash at some point in the future. The date on the cheque is by no means clear and – after yesterday’s working group report – is indeed less clear than before.
University access review still a priority
NEW help announced yesterday for those from the poorest backgrounds to get into Scottish universities will go some way to addressing concerns about flaws in the way Scotland deals with this issue.
In recent months, The Scotsman has highlighted research from former civil servants and academics suggesting Scotland’s eye-catching policy of free tuition fees had not had the expected effect of improving the proportion of undergraduates from the poorest homes. Concern had also been expressed about whether Scotland’s system of bursaries was as effective an enticement to the poorest teenagers as might have been hoped, with the system in England producing better results.
Yesterday’s announcement from Universities Scotland of an additional 700-plus places for students from the most deprived backgrounds is a positive step. So, too, is an expansion in the numbers of young people who will be able to transfer into Scottish universities from further education colleges. What remains to be seen, however, is how this will be implemented by individual institutions, some of whom have a poor record of undergraduate intake from the country’s most disadvantaged communities.
In broader terms, what is clear is that many of the assumptions Scottish policymakers have been making about the efficacy of government policy on access to higher education may have been mistaken.
Measures such as those announced yesterday are welcome, but what is needed is a root and branch review of policy in this highly contentious area. Only then will the response of government and the universities themselves be able to be judged accurately.