Scottish voluntary sector calls for devolution of welfare system


by a Newsnet Reporter

Although constrained by legislation that restricts charities’ political campaiging, Scotland’s leading voluntary sector organisations are leading calls to devolve control of the welfare system to Scotland.

The Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform (SCoWR) is an umbrella organisation representing the Child Poverty Action Group, Citizens Advice Scotland, Poverty Alliance, One Parent Families Scotland and other organisations spearheading the campaign against poverty and deprivation in Scotland.

In a submission made this month to the House of Lords committee examining the UK government’s Welfare Reform Bill, the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform told the committee that welfare benefits in Scotland must be suitable for Scotland’s particular needs and conditions.  

SCoWR expressed the fear that Scottish families in poverty may be prejudiced by a ‘one size fits all’ welfare reform bill which does not take proper account of devolved matters.  SCoWR informed the committee that one of its key principles was that “welfare benefits in Scotland [must be] suitable for Scotland”.  SCoWR said: ” … all welfare reform should take account of the very different legislative framework in Scotland so that it is integrated with Scottish childcare, training and other key devolved areas of responsibility.”

The organisation highlighted the withdrawal of benefits to penalise parents who had refused offers of work, without taking into account the fact that childcare provision varies widely across the UK and is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  This means that there is no single UK-wide policy on childcare provision, yet the Westminster government was seeking to impose a UK-wide policy on the withdrawal of parental benefits.

The obvious solution to this problem is to devolve control of the benefits in question to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.  SCoWR declares itself in favour of the devolution of “certain aspects of welfare reform”.

SCoWR and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) made similar points in their submission to the Scotland Bill Committee in the Scottish Parliament, helping to develop the case for welfare devolution.  

SCoWR cited the needs of families and communities and pointed out that the UK Governments plans are ill-advised, stating:

“An unprecedented £18bn of cuts is being made to benefits and tax credits. Many aspects of these cuts and reforms will have significant and too often very negative impacts on individuals and communities across Scotland, and on devolved housing, childcare, health social care and anti-poverty policy.”

SCVO said: “… the increasing divergence between Holyrood’s policy for health & social care, and Westminster’s policy for benefits and welfare reform is an area of significant concern for SCVO.  There are also implications for Scotland’s employment and housing policies.”

The SCVO also cite housing as an area where the actions of the UK are having a negative impact in Scotland:  “The changes to Housing Benefit are likely to have an adverse effect on the Scottish Government’s homelessness commitment to remove the distinction between priority and non-priority need to give all applicants the same right to accommodation.”

SCVO’s main concern regarding the Scotland Bill was that it does not address the dysfunction created by assymetric devolution and how UK government policy has a negative impact on the policy of the Scottish government in devolved areas.  The SCVO submission concludes: “Unfortunately, we at SCVO keep ending up back to the same central point.

“The Scotland Bill does not address any of the issues which make a practical difference to Scotland and its third, private or public sector, especially in the current economic situation.

“Ideally, SCVO wanted the Scotland Bill to usher in more employability powers for Scotland.

“At present the UK and Scottish Government approaches are out of kilter, leading to dysfunction and duplication. No matter how hard everyone tries on the ground clunky institutional arrangements create barriers. The UK Government’s move towards a profit-driven Work Programme has further widened the gap between its approach and Scotland’s positive, inclusive approach.

“As a starting point we have continually called for the devolution of Department of Works and Pensions employability projects and Job Centre Plus to the Scottish Parliament, as a fore-runner to the creation of a Scottish Employability Service.”  

The submission was welcomed by John Mason, SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston a member of the Scotland Bill Committee, who said:

“Organisations on the frontline are well aware of the problems UK control of welfare causes in Scotland.

“In Scotland we want to combine our economic, health and social policy objectives with those of our welfare system.  Despite the best efforts of the Scottish Government and organisations across Scottish society the UK Government’s approach hampers our ability to address some of our most serious problems including unemployment and worklessness.

“Too often when it comes to tackling social problems  Scotland’s is operating with one hand tied behind our backs.

“If the UK Government hears the concerns of people and organisations working day in and day out on the front line then they will see that the benefit of devolving powers to the Scottish Parliament is greater than ever.”