Professor Paul Spicker, a social policy expert at Robert Gordon University, provides a brief assessment of the Scottish Government's Programme for Government, looking in particular at policy challenges Nicola Sturgeon's government will face with the limited welfare powers it is set to receive through the Scotland Bill. First published on Common Space.
Common Space (02/09/2015) – The Programme for Government lays out a long, busy agenda, covering lots of proposed interventions, not just the legislative programme. Despite the limitations, this is still an attractive programme. There's nothing here that's a complete waste of time - something the Parliament's been accused of in the past - and it has to better for a government to think in terms of social justice than punishing the poor and barring the doors against migrants.
In Parliament, the Government has to manage the passage of 11 bills and to offer up 8 more before the election. Beyond that, the Programme identifies work relating to several administrative initiatives that are already in train.
“Our reform programme has already provided multiple benefits and will continue to do so for the long term. Some of our key achievements include:
• Integration of health and social care.
• Introduction of Curriculum for Excellence in our schools.
• Reshaping of our college sector to make it fit for the needs of a 21st century economy.
• Establishment of the single fire and police services.”
Those measures are still in progress, and the claim that they are delivering multiple benefits now might be contested. They have in common a strong centralising tendency, and the Government promises more in that vein: a National Improvement Framework for education, a National Clinical Strategy for Health, and more national strategy for policing to sharpen the ‘community focus’. It seems that the way to make a service more responsive and accountable locally is to ensure it conforms with national standards.
In relation to social security, the government promises: “We will take the first steps to delivery of a new social security system”. The Programme tells us the Scottish Government intends to mitigate the effects of ‘welfare reform’ and of the bedroom tax, which they are already doing with existing powers. The Scotland Bill currently going through Westminster does not create any new benefits - it only offers new competences for the Scottish Parliament. Nor does it transfer responsibility directly; the UK government is not limiting its own powers and will continue to operate the benefits that are supposed to be devolved until arrangements are agreed for transfer. Everything still has to be negotiated. The Scottish Government is not planning any primary legislation on the subject - that will not happen until after the election - but without that, nothing big can be done.
Taking direct responsibility for social security, without any plan to change the benefits, seems to commit the Scottish Government to preserve benefits as they are. Unfortunately, there are some startling anomalies in the system that they will be inheriting. One of them is the difference between disability benefits for people of working age and older people, because older people cannot receive mobility support unless they start to receive it before they reach retirement age. This is desperately unfair: whether people get the support depends when their illness started, not on how great their need is. The demand to extend mobility to support to older people will be irresistible - but that implies, in a time of limited budgets, that some other benefit will have to be cut to pay for it. If the Scottish Government takes responsibility and does not change this, it will find the position impossible to defend. If it does change it, it will have to find the money from somewhere.
This reflects a more general problem. Most of the benefits system is paid in recognition of established rights. If the resources are held constant, it is not possible to make anyone better off without making someone else worse off.