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Benefit of the doubt

Benefit of the doubt

“Nothing concentrates the mind like an execution.”

So Mary Taylor, chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations describes the effect of the Smith Commission’s timeframe on those working in welfare in Scotland.

The words may be dramatic, but so were the days following the referendum. With charities, civic bodies and members of the public given just a few weeks to submit their views to the Smith Commission, it was always possible the outcome would be seen as rushed.

The welfare sector has reason to be concerned, because although the Smith Report has recommended a set of new welfare powers for Scotland, including control over the Work Programme, there are still no clear answers over whether the changes will help do what they are designed for. Experts are still concerned they will not alleviate poverty in Scotland. 
The worry is that although Holyrood has more responsibility, it does not have enough power to build a substantially different system.

As Linda Fabiani, SNP MSP and one of the party’s representatives on the Smith Commission put it, “We have about 15 per cent of the overall welfare budget and we have less than 30 powers over the taxation that applies to Scotland.”

Speaking at Holyrood’s breakfast briefing on the future of welfare, Martyn Evans, Carnegie UK Trust CEO, said: “Smith is a bit of a dog’s breakfast, we were given a choice between solidarity and self-determination and we got a bit less solidarity and a bit more self-determination. I think the Joseph Rowntree Foundation put it best when it asked, ‘will devolution itself create better conditions for tackling poverty?’ And the answer is no. The test must be, what is being devolved and how will that help? There are a whole range of things – childcare, for example – that are not mentioned by Smith but are critical. 

“If you hand over responsibility for the Work Programme but reserve sanctions then you are reserving one of the most contentious difficult issues to get over.”  
Taylor also has concerns over the balance of powers, pointing to Northern Ireland – which currently owes the Treasury £100m in sanctions – as an example of how welfare devolution can go wrong.

There is no point saying you want certain specific powers because unless you get other ones as well then it actually might be damaging

“Northern Ireland has a system where they appear to have responsibility for and power over the social security system in its entirety, but the more you look into it, it is impossible for them to do anything without adopting the GB system in its entirety, or the UK Treasury ends up penalising them. Now the reason that they haven’t adopted the GB scheme, with all the sanctions and the parts of the system, is because Sinn Féin are not willing to introduce austerity measures while fighting on an anti-austerity ticket in the Irish elections.
“This is not a new thing in Northern Ireland, it has been this way for a long time, but it is only now that taking a different approach has created financial difficulties and political ones too.” 

In this sense there is a concern that the complexity of the interactions between individuals in receipt of social security are too great to separate any particular bits of them out. Building a different system to the one currently in place, surely the driving force of devolution, means having control of all of it.

Taylor adds: “We said that the Smith Commission was a step in the right direction but it falls a long way short of what we think needs to happen, because there seems to be administrative power over some things and power over others. What the consequences are of using the powers in a different way to how the UK Treasury would like are still being explored and it is very difficult to tell.”

The speed with which the process was thrown together could explain any perceived asymmetry of powers, but there remains a concern that a disjointed package could do more harm than good.

Dr Gerry Mooney, senior lecturer in social policy and criminology at the Open University, is worried about what effect greater responsibility without a corresponding increase in power could have. And he is not yet convinced the changes will lead to a better system.

“My worry is that we end up with a system whereby more cuts are coming in, more austerity is required and higher levels of taxation are needed to pay for what we need in Scotland. There is an argument that that is exactly what the Conservative Government was hoping in the first place. 

“One of the great myths we tell ourselves in Scotland is that we are immune to the worst aspects of anti-welfarism that exists elsewhere in the UK. I don’t think we are at all and my concern is that with these new responsibilities, without the power to go with it, we could end up with as much of an anti-welfarist regime in Scotland as we have seen anywhere.”
To Fabiani, the biggest issue to arise from the Smith Commission is one of public expectation.

“From the SNP’s point of view, there is a recognition that there was a No vote and we went in with the view that any progress is good, but what we needed was a coherent set of powers. The SNP did not want to be there with a set of tick-boxes, we felt very strongly that you couldn’t look at any of it in isolation. Looking at taxation and welfare – you have to look at them together. Because there is no point saying you want certain specific powers because unless you get other ones as well then it actually might be damaging. 

“I would like to say that we got a couple of concessions, though I would not go further than a couple. But at the end of the day, we do not have a coherent set of powers, we do not have extensive powers and we have nothing near home rule. We do not yet have these powers, they still need to go through Westminster.”

This is another potential obstacle – there are no guarantees that the proposed package will be accepted by Westminster. Just the day before the Holyrood briefing, Lord Heseltine said of the report: “Let’s be frank about it: English MPs are not going to implement that unless they get a degree of equality for England.”

It is hard to imagine the consequences of Westminster blocking the report, but does that make it unthinkable?

Evans admits he has doubts that the report will go through Parliament as a package. Fabiani too is sceptical, saying: “I will reserve judgment, but I will give you an example – the Smith Commission says the Work Programme is to be devolved. Then we discover, after it has reported, that while it was going on the UK Government as signed an extension of a year to the private companies that run the Work Programme in the UK. So we are stuck with that, though it is not our policy, or the policy of the main opposition. So there is a fundamental lack of respect even at the very start as to what devolution is and that is about inter-governmental relations. And I have now heard that they are extending it for another two years to 2019 – though I can’t verify that.”

To Taylor, cooperation between the two governments will be critical.

She said: “None of us saw the importance of it during the referendum but it came shooting up the agenda in the aftermath. The Scotland Office has made much more effort in engaging in Scotland since September and I would like to see them go further than that in efforts to engage and cooperate. If we are going to tackle poverty they need to come out to play.

“I recognise their intentions are good but at the start of the process we had 37 days and I am still not sure about the process between now and the end of January.”
Meanwhile, despite the best intentions of politicians in either Westminster or Holyrood, the question of what can be done to help the most vulnerable in society remains unanswered.
To Mooney, constitutional change is not the defining factor.

 “We tend to view welfare as something over there, and the rest of society is over here. But we need to look at how work is understood within society, we need to challenge in-work poverty – because the idea of work being a solution to poverty is an absolute nonsense. We need to challenge vested interests. 

“We tend to think of welfare going to certain people in society, but the wealthy, and business in Scotland, receive corporate welfare. I would love to see an end to that and see real welfare. It is easy to look at the Smith Commission and see new powers but we need to ask, are we any closer to ending poverty in Scotland?”

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