In the midst of a political offensive on devolution, the IPPR paper on devolution of welfare is well worth a read. Not least because it reflects trade union and Red Paper Collective arguments on this issue!
The big beasts of Westminster have been queuing up in recent weeks – to at least appear to urge Labour to be bold on devolution. All while the Devolution Commission haggles over the fine detail of their report to be presented to conference next week.
Douglas Alexander entreated his colleagues in the devolution commission to, “range widely and to act boldly. That means in considering taxation, employment and skills policy, the responsibilities of the Crown Estate, the running of elections.”
Then Jim Murphy, not known as an enthusiast for greater devolution, made a speech saying, “further meaningful devolution to Scotland is compulsory”. All the more surprising after his sidekick, Ken Macintosh MSP, condemned further tax raising powers, claiming an income tax deal could lead to ‘independence by default’.
Then the biggest political beast of them all, Gordon Brown, weighed in this week with six changes including tax powers, he said:
“I believe there are six constitutional changes we have got to make for a better relationship between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, to turn what I would call a unitary and centralised state of the past into a partnership of equals and one where there is power-sharing across the United Kingdom.”
I would also give an honourable mention to Menzies Campbell and the second report of the Lib Dem’s own devolution commission. I don’t agree with it all, but it is a positive contribution to the debate.
The IPPR report is interesting because welfare rarely gets much of a mention in the devolution debate. The key elements of their report include:
- There is no strong argument for devolving those benefits which are core to the UK’s social union, including job seeker’s allowance, employment support allowance and the state old age pension.
- Devolution of some aspects of welfare would not just supplement the powers of devolved governments, but would also improve social and economic outcomes in the devolved nations and enable the formulation of more joined- up public policy.
- Housing benefit should be devolved, given how closely it is linked to other aspects of social housing.
- The Work Programme should be devolved to enable a joined up approach to job creation.
- Devolution of the childcare element of the working tax-credit is an option that would also boost the expansion of childcare provision.
- Benefits that have a direct interface with devolved social services should also be devolved. This particularly applies to attendance allowance.
- Devolved governments should be given a general power to supplement UK levels of welfare, so that they can use cash payments as well as other policy levers to deliver social policy.
Of course all of this is fine and dandy, but powers have to be for a purpose. As I put it in my Scotsman article on procurement this week, “So far so good. However, the real question is what’s the point in spending two years debating which powers should lie where, when we are not even brave enough to use the ones we have to build the progressive country we all say we want?”