A bold new vision for welfare in Scotland?

A camel, so the saying goes, is a horse designed by a committee. This week’s publication of The Future Delivery of Social Security in Scotland, the report by the Scottish Welfare Reform Committee, would seem to support that idea. The committee took written evidence from 98 individuals and organisations, and listened to the views of 48 people directly.

The Scottish Government has always prided itself on having a more participatory and inclusive style of policy making than its Westminster counterpart, involving a wider range of civic voices in the process.

Those of us with a professional interest in Scottish social policy, social justice and welfare were cautiously optimistic this could be the Scottish equivalent of the Beveridge report: a bold new vision for welfare in Scotland, a blueprint for substantial and long-needed change.

The Smith Commission promised a bold new vision for further devolution based on the wishes of Scotland. Since its report, at every meeting I attend I always ask for a show of hands from those who submitted evidence to Lord Smith.

Nearly every hand in the room always goes up. But when I ask them to keep their hands in the air if they thought the Commission’s recommendations reflected their views or the evidence they submitted, we are lucky if we have one or two hands remaining.

Lord Smith would no doubt argue, justifiably, that he was working to a very tight timescale, with cross-party representation that had very different hopes and expectations for the outcome. So the Scotland Act devolves to Scotland the delivery of some parts of social security: disability, older people’s and carers benefits.

Control over roughly £2.6billion of welfare benefits, which when added to the £4.2bn it currently spends on social care, and the roughly £1.5bn of Scottish NHS funding that goes on long-term care for older and disabled people, makes the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved social policy making bodies in the world.

So what will it do with this power? Has the committee taken the opportunity to recognise both social care support and welfare benefits for disabled people are there to achieve social justice: to redress the extra costs borne largely by disabled people and carers themselves of illness, impairment, and a society and structures which does not meet their needs? Is it attempting to level the playing field? Has it recognised that we all, at some point in our lives, need or will need welfare, care and support, and we all need to share the cost of providing it? Has it taken the opportunity to end the postcode lottery of social care, the divisiveness of means tested, time limited and sanctionable benefits? The perverse incentives that make it difficult or impossible to combine work and care, or work flexibly?

No. The problem with listening to everyone and designing a horse by committee is that each person can only see their bit of the horse. So the social workers said you need local, responsive services, not a national system of rights. Carers said you need to pay family carers a level of income commensurate with out-of-work benefits. The care providers said you cannot destabilise the system and services in place. The academics said you have to improve the benefits I know about, and make sure you do it within budget. No-one saw the whole horse.

A radical new fair welfare system would have had the boldness of vision Beveridge and his colleagues did in 1942. It would have said: 32 different systems of social care is untenable and unfair, we need universal national self-directed support benefits. It would have said: Sanctions, tapered benefits, and means testing does not eradicate poverty or make it easier to work, it creates social division and inequality. It would have said: Universal benefits and a Citizens Basic Income for everyone, with additional allowances to meet the costs of disability.

Instead we have tinkering around the edges of a system of benefits that will only create further Scottish welfare . The ending of the spare room subsidy, and the possibility of local delivery of benefits which will not be underpinned by universal principles. A horse designed by a committee that no-one can ride in a system so complex only university-educated welfare professionals will be able to understand and implement it.

So I’ll be alright then.

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University of Stirling
5th January 2016
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