Blog: What now for the welfare of Scotland?

David Bookbinder
David Bookbinder

David Bookbinder on the tricky issue of welfare in Scotland and the UK following last week’s general election result.

“Our manifesto is a manifesto for working people. Unless you’re under 25 and in low paid work, in which we’re gonna get you.”

​Heads are still spinning in Scotland, not so much from the performance of the SNP, which had been predicted for some time to be very good (albeit swings of nearly 40 per cent were not imagined), but from the implications of the Westminster administration being a majority one.

Over the weekend the first minister has already signalled that Mr Cameron must go further than the limited powers recommended by the Smith Commission. My initial thoughts aren’t so much around the broader question of whether full (or fuller) fiscal autonomy will be sought, but about how Scotland and the UK will now deal with current and future welfare reforms.

Whilst the Smith Commission means limited new powers to vary/abolish the ‘bedroom tax’, vary the housing costs element of Universal Credit, and enable UC to be paid directly to landlords, beyond that Scotland thus far has had to live with everything else imposed on us. So the rollout of Universal Credit continues as we speak, and we’re forced to accept the particular cruelties of ‘reforms’ such as sanctions.

As we consider whether the election result gives Scotland any chance of doing something about these existing welfare changes, what of the next £12 billion worth of cuts? Under the new political landscape is it really likely the withdrawal of Housing Benefit from everyone under 25 will be imposed across the whole of the UK?

If we dare to think that such cuts could be resisted in Scotland, is this through legislation which makes clear distinctions between Scotland and the rest of the UK, or is it through revisiting the transfer of powers and - for example - giving Scotland full control over housing benefit?

And if it’s the latter, questions have long been asked about the uneasy fit between Scotland controlling help with housing costs within a UK-wide welfare system. Does this point to the need to reopen the debate about the potential transfer of wider social security powers?

Westminster clearly has to play Scotland carefully. If Scots feel they’re on receiving end of unfair treatment Mr Cameron surely risks generating a push towards a further referendum. But let’s not fool ourselves that the Scottish people will rise up against every welfare cut. The bedroom tax was a one-off, and whilst the housing sector will demonstrate its opposition to further benefit cuts I’m not sure the masses will.

Naïve and uninformed though it may sound, my gut instinct as a housing professional is that Scotland must surely now be able to resist some of the worst excesses of the current and future reforms. Exactly how this can be done may remain unclear for some time yet.

David Bookbinder is director of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations

@DavidGWSF @GWSForum

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