Devolution Commission reflections: More Questions than Answers

Published: 19 March 2014
Author: Nicola McEwen

The welfare dimension of Labour’s Devolution proposals

The future of the welfare state has been a key feature of the referendum campaign. Against the backdrop of the UK government’s controversial welfare reforms, the Scottish government and Yes Scotland have argued that an independent Scotland would oversee a more progressive, fairer welfare system. The Labour Party’s Devolution Commission proposals, published yesterday, are likely to reinforce the centrality of the welfare issue. But Labour’s welfare state is unmistakably British.

The spectrum of proposals - on tax as well as benefits - rests on a characterisation of the UK as a ‘sharing Union’, where solidarity, risks and rewards are spread across the UK’s nations and regions. The report affirms the Devolution Commission’s belief that the majority of cash benefits – “the core of the Welfare State” – should remain a responsibility of the UK parliament and government. But it proposes the devolution of two key areas of social security – Housing Benefit and Attendance Allowance.

The justification given is that these benefits are closely linked to devolved responsibilities in housing, health and social care. The same could be said for many more areas of social security, from child benefit to pensions, but these are considered central to the pooling of risks and resources within the UK ‘social union’. Housing Benefit and Attendance Allowance also carry symbolic significance for Scotland. Housing Benefit invokes the bedroom tax, which has been used by Labour, the SNP and the Greens to symbolise the iniquities of the UK government’s reforms. Attendance Allowance is closely linked to that most symbolic of policy milestones of the Scottish parliament, free personal care.

However, the report - or at least the Executive Summary which was published yesterday - is surprisingly lacking in detail about how these policy competences would be transferred, and with what implications.

  • Housing Benefit is one of six cash benefits being merged and replaced by the Universal Credit under the UK Government’s welfare reforms. Notwithstanding the problems which have beset the introduction of Universal Credit, the Commission’s ‘Executive Summary’ report makes no mention of it. How would Housing Benefit be disentangled from the other benefits and tax credits which make up Universal Credit? How would a separate Scottish housing benefit be delivered? On what basis would the revenues to be transferred to the Scottish government to cover one element of Universal Credit be calculated?
     
  • While most claims for social security benefits made by Scots are processed by DWP offices based in Scotland, Attendance Allowance is not one of these. DWP centres in Preston and Blackpool administer Attendance Allowance for the whole of the UK. Would these centres have separate service agreements with the Scottish government? What would be the impact on their capacity to deliver such a service were it to be designed in different ways in Scotland and the rest of the UK?
     
  • UK social security policy is implemented through a highly integrated system of processing and delivery, with a centralised, complex IT system which calculates entitlements based upon policies set by the UK government. There is no suggestion in the report of deviating from this system. Could such an integrated system cope with divergent policies from two governments? If so, how and at what cost?

Beyond these specific examples, the report concludes that social security is more properly a responsibility of the UK parliament, as a reflection of “the social solidarity that helps bind the UK together”. Running throughout the report is a vision of Union, and of Britishness, founded upon myths of the post-war welfare settlement. This nation-building rhetoric has been a feature of Labour discourse for many years, and was particularly evident in the speeches and statements of Scottish ministers within the 1997-2010 UK Labour government, especially those of Gordon Brown. It is quite clearly a statement of purpose for a British Union, not a vision of Scottish self-government within that union. In the context of the referendum campaign, and the austerity agenda and welfare retrenchment of the current UK government, it may be a difficult sell.

The debate over which level of government should deliver social security is in part about practical, financial and instrumental concerns, but it is also a debate about the boundaries of community, identity and belonging. Labour’s proposals are an appeal to Britishness and British solidarity. As Gordon Brown noted in his evidence to the Devolution Commission: “We choose to share these risks and the relevant resources with the people with whom we belong. Sharing and belonging go together.” At the heart of the debate, then, are competing visions of communities of belonging. For Labour, the boundaries of solidarity and community are British. For the SNP and the broader Yes Scotland movement, ‘sharing and belonging’ – solidarity and welfare – go together more easily within Scotland.

Dr Nicola McEwen is Associate Director of the ESRC Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change and ESRC Senior Scotland Fellow.

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