Devolution of welfare laws and equality legislation would be best way to enhance life quality for youngsters with complex needs, says Duncan Dunlop
On St Andrew’s Day, just 73 days after the result of the referendum vote, Lord Smith of Kelvin will deliver a Heads of Agreement, with recommendations for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament.
Across the country, individuals, groups and organisations have been feverishly preparing proposals and views on what further devolution and powers they feel will help to strengthen the Scottish Parliament within the UK. Indeed, more than 14,000 submissions have been received to date.
As a coalition whose members deliver specialist care and education services for children and young people with complex needs, we are no different, and chose to focus our submission on three particular key areas – welfare, employability and job support, and equality legislation.
We believe that in order for Scotland to be truly the “best place in the world to grow up for children and young people”, as desired by the Scottish Government, the devolution of certain aspects of the welfare system is essential. Only then will we be able to properly support the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.
We believe the devolution of all powers relating to welfare, excluding pensions, would enable Scotland to adopt a more coordinated approach to linking welfare to such interdependent areas as health and social care, housing, employment and skills.
We are aware that, collectively, the third sector has considered the case for devolving some individual benefits where they could bring an area of devolved policy – for example, housing – into alignment with the associated benefit. Others, such as Job Seeker’s Allowance, have been discussed because of concurrent debates about the devolution of employment support services, such as the Work Programme, in the Scottish Parliament.
However, we are of the opinion that a piecemeal benefits transfer will serve only to create more alignment difficulties, especially with the eventual introduction of Universal Credit. Moving on from the welfare debate, devolution of employability has been unanimously endorsed by the Christie Commission and enjoys broad support throughout Scotland.
Currently, the children and young people that we work with face considerable barriers when entering the labour market and we believe that the devolution of employment would allow Scotland to take a “whole government” approach aligning employment policy with other devolved areas such as education, skills, childcare, housing, health and social care.
The suggested devolved powers would cover: employment rights and duties, industrial relations, health and safety, and job search and support. There is a real opportunity here for the realignment and rethinking of services and support which help people to find, remain in, and progress in employment, as has been outlined by the Expert Working Group on Welfare.
Central to our submission is the devolution of equality law. Given the strong links and impact that equalities have on many areas of devolved policy, including housing, health, education and justice, it is something that the SCSC emphatically supports. At present, the reserved nature of equality law can be a hindrance to the development of policies by the Scottish Parliament, creating unnecessary dissonance and disconnect.
As an organisation we are specifically calling for the Scottish Parliament to be able to classify “Protected Characteristics”. Currently, “Care Experience” is not a Protected Characteristic and only Westminster legislation could make it one.
If Care Experience was classified as a Protected Characteristic then the disproportionately poor educational outcomes of care-experienced children would have to come under further scrutiny and be addressed. We believe that this would be a key step in enabling Scotland to transform the experience of school and of wider education for one of the most vulnerable groups in Scottish society.
It would also lead to more young people being able to reach positive destinations in increased training and employment, thus enabling those with care experience to participate more fully in our society, helping to narrow this particular inequality gap.
This is only one example. The same could be said for a number of other areas, including health, housing and employment.
Scotland’s referendum on independence went far beyond answering the big question it posed. It also stimulated and engaged the entire country, reigniting a passion and optimism that we can make a difference.
As we await the 30 November and the unveiling of Lord Smith’s recommendations, it is worth remembering this is still just the start of what will be an ongoing dialogue to put these recommendations in place.
With the Smith Commission we have a clear opportunity to help Scotland become the “best place in the world to grow up for children and young people”. Let’s make that ambition a reality.
• Duncan Dunlop is a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition and Chief Executive of Who Cares? Scotland