Rory Mair: Our over-heated political culture is making life worse

A political culture in which policy changes are condemned as 'U-turns' delayed much-needed reform of Universal Credit, writes Rory Mair, chair of Citizens Advice Scotland.

Over-heated political culture is making life worse. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Over-heated political culture is making life worse. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

A package of changes to Universal Credit – including cutting the waiting time between the claim and the first payment and helping people access additional support when they need it – was announced by the Chancellor in last week’s Budget.

These were specific changes that Citizens Advice Scotland had been calling for, so in our response we commended the government for being willing to listen. The positive tone of that response may have raised some eyebrows.

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After all, hadn’t we just spent the last year publishing data that showed how Universal Credit was riddled with flaws and causing people hardship? Well, yes. But the point about Tuesday was that the government listened to that data, and made the changes we asked for. Citizens’ lives will be better as a result, and the government should of course be credited for that.

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At the same time, it’s fair to observe that it would have been better if they had done so when we first asked them to, instead of spending four months telling us there was no problem. Throughout the summer and autumn, every time we published our evidence the government response was to batten down the hatches and insist all was well.

Since we first called for changes in July, over 2,000 Scots have been moved on to a system that the government now accepts was flawed. Those families are victims of our over-heated political environment, in which governments feel that any flexibility will be seen as weakness. And frankly they are right. The tone of political opponents, of some in the media, and often of charities too, makes it hard for governments today to make sensible alterations to policy, even when everyone agrees it would be the right thing to do.

One of the messages of this week is that there is a point to organisations like CAS. We really can influence public policy for the better, if we engage constructively.

But another lesson is that we all need to think about how we engage in these issues and build a more constructive political environment. This would ensure that good, evidence-based policy changes in the public interest become more common.

CAS has a unique position in terms of informing public policy. We are the only charity that engages with people every day, in all parts of Scotland and across the broad spectrum of issues. That means the data we collect is a constant and accurate mirror to the impact of public policy, and - in addition to helping them solve their problems - our clients expect us to use that data to advocate for change. So any recommendations we put forward to government are not just made up, but are based on this evidence: the real-life experience of real Scots.

In a sensible world, governments should welcome such a resource, not see it as a threat or a criticism to be instantly rebutted. When you are implementing legislation that affects people’s lives, surely it makes sense to test and adapt it where necessary, so you are doing good, not harm?

Meanwhile, what now for Universal Credit? Is it fixed? No, it isn’t. The changes we welcomed this week will make a real difference, but there are still other improvements that can be made. We will continue to push for these, but we will always do so constructively and with an eye to achieving results not headlines. We hope, in turn, that we find governments that are willing to listen to real evidence and respond as they did on Tuesday. But perhaps a bit faster.