Smith Commission plans 'a welfare nightmare', says Scots charities boss

6 Feb 15

Plans by the London-based parties to give the Scottish Parliament limited new powers over shaping and setting benefits could make life worse for vulnerable people and carers, the leader of Scotland’s charities sector has told Public Finance.

In a forthright interview, Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, dismissed the draft Bill based on the cross-party Smith Commission’s proposals for increased devolution as an unstable and unsustainable political fudge, and said it sat poorly with Scotland’s post-devolution commitment to more participative and inclusive policy-making.

‘Smith was never a process that was going to deliver a good result for our people who use public services, or for the aspirations that people have for home rule,’ Sime said.

‘The process is not led by people and their experience and their engagement and their ambitions. It’s led by politicians and it’s a political fix of the old-fashioned sort.’

He voiced specific concern about proposals, that Labour has since promised to extend, to split benefits between Westminster and Edinburgh, with the former retaining control over most benefits including Universal Credit, while Holyrood gains some top-up powers plus responsibility for benefits to ill or disabled people and carers and Social Fund benefits such as cold weather and funeral payments.

‘What’s actually emerged on welfare is probably worse than what we had before, because it’s dragged goodness knows how many more people into having to deal with two different systems which have different ambitions, which don’t talk to each other, and which are ideologically poles apart,’ Sime argued.

‘If you’re an unemployed carer, you’re going to have to engage with the Scottish Government about how it supports carers, but you’re also going to have to engage with JobcentrePlus for your Jobseekers Allowance, who will send you off on mandatory activities or you’ll lose your benefit.

‘That’s going to be the future for a lot more people now, and for me it’s just not credible,’ Sime said. 

‘We’ve ended up with two systems, and I think that’s a nightmare. It’s going to be an ideological battleground, and it’s individuals who are going to get caught in this nightmare.’

He predicted further complications over the extent to which support provided by the Scottish Government for carers might weigh against their UK benefit entitlements, pointing to the precedent of unemployed charity volunteers having free lunches or bus fares counted against them.

‘There will be more jarring in this new arrangement than there was in the past because, at the moment, carers don’t get anything from the Scottish Government,’ Sime said.

‘The split on welfare is a political split and a political fix, but on the ground it is incoherent.’

All three pro-union parties are committed to enact the legislation soon after the general election and the Scottish National Party-led Scottish Government co-operated with the Smith process. But the fragile consensus has crumbled since the publication in late January of the draft legislation.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon claimed that the Smith plan had been extensively watered down in translation to draft law, while her deputy, John Swinney, identified 12 new Westminster ‘vetos’, a claim disputed by the unionist parties.  

Civic Scotland too stopped far short of enthusiasm, with the Scottish Trades Union Congress, which was neutral over independence, complaining that the plans would force Holyrood to seek Westminster approval for any new benefit entitlements and shackle Scotland to London’s economic austerity strategy. Citizens Advice Scotland declared itself ‘disappointed and bewildered’ by the limits on benefit powers.

Sime told PF that the plans ignored the political divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK since devolution. ‘Our politics are different, our health service is different, our public services are different, our expectations about how policy is made are different,’ he said.

‘We are on different trajectories as countries, and the idea that you throw a blanket of a devolution settlement over that relationship and say, “right that’s it, it’s fixed”: they’re kidding themselves.

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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