Voluntary sector wants welfare system devolution

SCVO's Lucy McTernan was a seminar attendee. Picture: Gordon Fraser
SCVO's Lucy McTernan was a seminar attendee. Picture: Gordon Fraser
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THE voluntary sector in Scotland will call for the devolution of almost the entire welfare 
system from Westminster to Holyrood in its response to the Smith Commission, a seminar heard yesterday.

Lucy McTernan, deputy chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, said that with the exception of pensions, the SCVO would ask for “a coherent package of social security and benefits powers” to be devolved. She said the aim would be to encourage positive behaviour rather than taking a “punitive” approach.

“People should be the 
starting-point, not money,” Ms McTernan told the seminar on what the referendum result might mean for charities.

“Obviously there is a debate about how to finance the system, but if we look at people first, it is a different conversation.”

Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland, an umbrella group covering around 400 children’s charities, agreed – but warned that the approach had to be “powers with a purpose”.

“If we devolve the wrong set of powers or devolve incompletely, that could potentially make things worse,” she warned.

Ms McTernan picked up on a similar point, saying there had been a “fascinating” response from the voluntary sector to the call for feedback by the Smith Commission, which will map out a devolved future for Scotland by the end of November.

She agreed with chair Jane Ryder that events were “hurtling apace” but was delighted that the charitable sector was able to discuss “real detail, from very specific issues to big macro questions”.

She added: “The referendum debate was so engaging, and people were so engaged. Voices from communities that are 
traditionally excluded from such debates were heard – and need to continue being heard.

“Working at pace is important to ensure faith is not lost in the promises made – but our concern is that if it moves so fast, will it become an old-fashioned political stitch-up? Civic society must be part of the process.”

Ms McTernan said many in the third sector had remained quiet and neutral during the referendum campaign but had “lots to say” now.

“The process now feels a lot more like 1997 when there was a clear push for a Yes-Yes vote in the devolution referendum. This could be a watershed moment to shift the nature of policy development.”

This would mean devolving decision-making power down to communities, but that did not mean just handing more responsibility to local authorities, but a new way of doing things, she stressed.

It was crucial to devolve powers to get people back to work, Ms McTernan said. She insisted the UK Government Work Programme “wasn’t working” and SCVO had a far better track record because it started by looking at an individual’s needs rather than a standard contract.

Ms Brock said Children in Scotland had set itself the hugely ambitious target of making Scotland the “best place in the world to grow up for children and young people”.

This required a strong economy, a commitment to social justice and “powers with a purpose”, she explained.

Ms Brock said “Scotland’s shame” was its failure to improve things for the 20 per cent of children growing up in poverty. Levels of attainment at school, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and obesity had not moved for this group in 20 years, she said.

“We will be arguing that 
future Scottish governments need powers to transform the childcare system in Scotland,” Ms Brock added.

She said high-quality childcare had significant benefits in terms of cognitive development, language and speech, while poor childcare could have a negative impact.

“We spend as much as the Scandic countries on childcare (around £3.2 billion) but the system isn’t working in terms of cost, flexibility and outcomes. We need to be more efficient …as we think better childcare can deliver a better economy and better social justice.”

Ms Brock argued that the Smith Commisison could be a rather “sterile process” and couldn’t be “the only game in town” – a process of long-term change had to continue in 
parallel.