Martin Sime: Welfare needs to be centre of debate

Politicians need to listen first before they embark on another version of devolution. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Politicians need to listen first before they embark on another version of devolution. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IN THE wake of the general election, Lord Smith’s proposals for further devolution are again centre-stage in Scotland’s devolution story. Do they go far enough? Should they give way to a UK constitutional commission? Should the new government just plough ahead regardless? Some political choices are imminent.

The UK government seems keen to press ahead with a bill in the UK parliament based on its interpretation of the Smith report. Whilst the Prime Minister claims he will listen carefully to any amendments, including SNP plans to go further and devolve more power, the exercise lacks the important perspective which would be gleaned from proper pre-legislative scrutiny by citizens and civil society.

At least some of what was agreed last year would actually make things worse, whilst the hurried consensus and fudged compromises that were inevitable on such a daft post-referendum timetable haven’t created much that is worth rescuing. In terms of welfare and support for the unemployed, Smith’s proposals simply won’t do.

Contrary to what we are led to believe, reforming welfare and designing a system fit for the 21st century is not all about money. It’s really about attitude and political will to ensure that people get the best support and the most coherent services that we can devise. The quantum of resources committed to welfare is an essentially political debate which will change over time. What is now glaringly apparent is that the Smith Commission was never likely to be able to measure up to the task of envisioning something built on values and principles.

There are at least five reasons why it would make sense to move on from Lord Smith’s plan.

1. The proposal for an even greater split in welfare responsibilities between the two governments is a recipe for confusion, duplication and disconnection. Crucially, it’s difficult to believe that such a fudge will serve so many people facing extreme pov-erty well. Only devolving all of welfare to the Scottish Parliament offers the prospect of coherence and a clear line of sight between politics, government and services on the ground.

2. Integrating full welfare responsibilities with other devolved public services will prevent cost-shunting between governments. Welfare is only one of the ways government can support people in need. Under Smith any cuts (and we know there are huge cuts in the pipeline) will save the UK Exchequer money but cause more demand on Scottish social services.

3. Alongside welfare, services to help unemployed people get back to work need to be unequivocally devolved and integrated into a new Scottish offer to the unemployed. Current plans put too many conditionalities and delays into the transfer of these powers to make them workable – even Lord Smith agrees. But they fail to incentivise Scottish Government investment in helping people find jobs, since positive Scottish outcomes simply reduce welfare costs and benefit the UK Treasury.

4. In the longer term, welfare payments will need to be aligned with the (already devolved) personal care regime in Scotland, including self-dir­ected support and carers allowances, in order to produce a fair and robust system which is better able to meet rising demand.

5. There is a widespread view that we need to see an end to sanctions, mandatory work, and the ritual hum­iliation of unemployed people in Scotland. Given the right settlement, we can construct a Scottish system which supports and enables people to move on with their lives; where everyone gets a chance to make their contribution and no one is just abandoned. In other words, a welfare system which reflects the ethos and values of Scotland.

Welfare should be at the very centre of Scottish political debate. How we support our most disadvantaged citizens, how we protect key public services from economic downturns and how we face the challenges of unemployment, demographic change and inequality ought to be the daily bread and butter of Scottish politics.

Our politicians need to listen first before they embark on another version of devolution which is designed to suit politicians, but ill-suited for the people on the receiving end.

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