Nicola Sturgeon: Halt benefit reform in Scotland

SNP's Nicola Sturgeon will be writing to David Cameron. Picture: John Devlin

SNP's Nicola Sturgeon will be writing to David Cameron. Picture: John Devlin

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SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE: Nicola Sturgeon has demanded that a controversial overhaul of the benefits system should be halted in Scotland until a deal has been thrashed out on new Holyrood powers.

The Deputy First Minister has written to Prime Minister David Cameron calling for the implementation of universal credit to be stopped north of the Border while Lord Smith’s Commission looks at new powers. The UK government intends to introduce universal credit, which will see claimants receiving one single payment instead of getting several different benefits.

The proposed system would mean abolition of housing benefit – which the Westminster parties have indicated should be devolved to Holyrood as part of the new constitutional settlement promised after a No vote.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith told the Conservative conference this week that the roll-out of universal credit is to be “accelerated”.

Ms Sturgeon - who looks certain to replace the departing Alex Salmond as First Minister next month - warned yesterday: “It is hard to see how this is in any way consistent with a good faith approach to the process of agreeing more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

“There is a widespread consensus that the Westminster parties’ proposals on the devolution of welfare powers are far too timid and that the Scottish Parliament needs substantial control of the welfare system.

“However, it is hard to see how even the limited welfare proposal of the main Westminster parties – to devolve control of housing benefit – can be delivered if the UK government presses ahead with universal credit. Universal credit effectively abolishes housing benefit.

“I have therefore written to the Prime Minister today asking that the roll-out of universal credit – which in any event is already significantly delayed and discredited – is halted in

Scotland.”

It follows growing concerns among Nationalists that the “vow” of all the main UK parties to devolve more powers to Holyrood is unravelling.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown even called on Scots to sign a petition this week demanding the Prime Minister honour his pledges to Scotland.

A Westminster spokesman said: “UK government business continues as planned and we will not pre-judge the outcome of the Smith Commission.

“Further devolution proposals will be set out by the end of November following an invitation for input by all five of Scotland’s political parties.”

Scottish Labour’s welfare spokeswoman Jackie Baillie MSP said: “The Smith Commission is rightly looking at devolving a number of powers to the Scottish Parliament, including housing benefit.”

“We are expecting a white paper or equivalent document by November and draft clauses published for legislation as the new Scotland Bill by January. By then we expect the UK government to take account of cross party agreement and devolve housing benefit to Scotland.”

Scottish Conservative welfare reform spokesman Alex Johnstone said: “Universal credit is a vital and long overdue improvement to the benefits system.

“Nicola Sturgeon’s unjustified and ill-motivated attack on universal credit is inexplicable. Her conservative attitude to change at all costs could be damaging, and instead she should be working with the UK government to get on board with these improvements.”

ANALYSIS

David Watt: Biggest obstacle to change is complexity of the system

As someone who sat on the Scottish Government’s group on welfare reform in an independent Scotland, I see the debate on the subject bears out its key finding: complexity.

It is interesting to listen to politicians vie with each other over costs and benefits, but they seem to be missing the point: any system has to deliver what it is designed to do for the client and the state. We should look at purpose first, then cost.

While no-one wants the cost to be too high, there needs to be a focus on effectiveness. In addition, there is a lot of uncertainty over costs, as the biggest benefit is pensions and no-one will mention, let alone touch, them. Also, if we focus on getting people into work, then a significant part of the budget will be saved.

As almost every individual has to be treated differently – again increasing costs – there is no doubt the biggest issue is complexity.

All of these are questions for not just the state and the benefit recipient but for third parties also, like employers.

What we need is a system which is cost-effective but also fair and as simple as possible. Sounds easy, but it is not – and politicians should not try to convince us that it is. Nonetheless this should be the aim.

Finally, one major step that can be achieved is a co-ordination of efforts: all agencies, UK or Scottish, must work together. Skills Development Scotland and the DWP, for example, must get closer; likewise Job Centre Plus and the Business Gateway.

Let’s dump the rhetoric and get on with practical solutions.

• David Watt is executive director of the Institute of Directors in Scotland.

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