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Rethinking welfare for Scotland: fair, personal and simple

martynevanscroppedLast year I was asked by the Scottish government to chair an independent expert group to consider the principles and policies of a benefits system for people of working age in Scotland should  there be a ‘Yes’ vote in September.  I agreed, but only once I could be sure the group would be allowed to be completely independent and membership included a range of critical interests from business, academia and the third sector.

It was a fascinating process and the learning curve was steep. We were overwhelmed with information. This included volumes of statistics, international comparisons and the testimony of those receiving benefits. We commissioned our own research and issued a call for evidence. We visited and spoke to many groups and individuals.

There was a clear and compelling narrative on what was wrong with the current system. The UK government’s change programme around Universal Credit had quite some support for its original principles but very little support in practice.

And although we encouraged radical thinking, we received few ‘whole system’ proposals for change, particularly proposals which would transform welfare. This is not surprising when many are struggling with the pace, scope and direction of the current welfare reform programme. Inevitably views are coloured strongly by that.

It was clear to us fairly early on that the key issue was trust: the trust of those who receive benefit payments in a system that supports them and also the trust of society as a whole in the fairness and effectiveness of the system. A lack of trust erodes society’s continued support for those in receipt of social security and also undermines the self-esteem and confidence of those who receive support from the benefits system. A recurring theme of our report is therefore how trust can be established and maintained.

We concluded that a future welfare system should be based on the principles of fairness, personalisation and simplicity. These principles, or policy objectives, are held in tension. Our view was that it is a real challenge to deliver all three in equal measure. Our report, published this week, has emphasised fairness and personalisation in the short term with a focus on simplicity in the longer term.

We were confident that it is possible to establish something which better meets the needs of a small independent country. We heard evidence of a widespread will to build a new system which is both fit for purpose and progressive. This endeavour will take an enormous shared effort if there was to be a ’Yes’ vote. It is clear there is no easy solution. It will require our political representatives, people from across civil society, the business community and others, to enter into a willing partnership with future Scottish governments to create a system of social security which we can trust and share in.

As well as the route map we have made almost 40 specific proposals. We have recommended that the real value of benefits is restored each year. We want significantly improved assistance for those struggling to find jobs. We were struck by the extent of in-work poverty and, given our remit invited us to provide views on other areas where these would have a positive impact on policy outcomes, made recommendations to improve pay. We have focused on the value of carers.

We also need to plan how we support those in our society who need the most support rather than react in an ad hoc fashion. We were impressed with the evidence that a serious and sustained focus on pensioner benefits over the past two decades had significantly addressed pensioner poverty. We recommend a similar long-term and sustained focus on benefits for people who are sick or disabled and who may be unlikely to find a route to wellbeing through work.

I know there will be some who react to our proposals with the criticism either that we ‘have not gone far enough’ or that we ‘have gone too far’. These are not unreasonable views, and reflect discussions we have had in the group. Our response would be to challenge critics to set out their proposals for a progressive benefits system and how they would build a consensus for those plans. The group has no monopoly on thinking in this area; but what we have proposed is the result of having invested a significant amount of time, energy and effort in attempting to understand the issues and the scope for what might happen over the short, medium and long-term. We believe our route map for establishing trust and driving a process of re-thinking welfare is credible and robust.

My hope is there is an application to our work regardless of the outcome of the September referendum.There is clearly a breakdown of trust in welfare and we all have an interest in restoring that trust and confidence.

  • Read the report, Rethinking Welfare, here.

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