Evening News column: Start debate on disability benefits

Earlier this week I wrote for the Edinburgh Evening News on the need to start discussing how we use the new powers Scotland will receive following the referendum. You can access the article here but I’ve also reproduced it in full below.

Following last year’s referendum the Smith Commission proposed giving the Scottish Parliament new powers over issues like tax and welfare.

Two weeks ago a draft law was published that all three main UK parties have committed to passing after the election to make this a reality. Now we need to start talking about how we’ll use these powers to build the fairer and more equal society that we all want to see.

One of the areas of welfare set to be devolved is supporting folk with the additional costs of living and working with a disability or chronic illness.

Since the 1990s people have been able to claim Disability Living Allowance, which is paid regardless of income, and for many is the difference between holding down a job and not. But back in 2010 the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat coalition announced it would replace DLA with a new benefit – Personal Independence Payment – to cut spending by 20 per cent.

While existing DLA claimants are set to start being reassessed for PIP later this year, I believe this should be delayed until control of these benefits passes to Holyrood. At that point we Scots will have a choice: do we want to press ahead with the switch to PIP or go back to DLA? Both options have their challenges.

If we go with PIP, many new claimants have complained of long waits to both get an appointment and receive their first payment. How would we address these delays? Should there be fewer face-to-face assessments? Should we continue to contract out this work to private companies?

Alternatively if we stick with DLA, where will we find the extra £200 million per year to pay for it? Do we ask people to pay more tax or cut spending elsewhere? And what of those who say that, once the delays are overcome, PIP is a big improvement for people with mental health conditions? Should we re-work DLA to take lessons from PIP into account? Can we develop a system that works better with care packages provided by councils?

Naturally, the focus of charities and campaigners over the last four years has been on helping individuals navigate the changing social security system, and campaigning against “reforms” based on savings rather than the needs of those affected. But we now need to think positively about what is needed.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to these questions at present, but what I do know is that we need to start having this debate now so that we are ready to craft a benefit right for the needs of Scotland.

Scottish Labour has already proposed using new powers to freeze fracking in Scotland, bring Scotrail back into public ownership, and reintroduce a 50p tax on earnings over £150,000 – now we need to start talking about DLA and PIP.

After people were so engaged in discussing where power should lie during the referendum, it would be a tragedy if they weren’t involved in deciding how we use the new powers we will now have. For the sake of the people we all want to help, let’s have this debate now.

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After the referendum: further devolution and a fairer society

Last Thursday Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. To the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country’, 1,617,989 people – 45 per cent – voted Yes and 2,001,926 people – 55 per cent – voted No. There was a record turnout of 85 per cent.

Ultimately this was a decisive result. Some people voted No because they are proud to be British, while others did so because they feel a great deal of empathy for people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s fair to say that many were concerned about the consequences of separation with respect to things like their wages and savings, the price of goods, their state pension, and the provision of public services. I know that some Yes campaigners have suggested that these concerns were unfounded, but I feel that they were very much grounded in reality.

Further devolution
It’s important to be clear that the three main UK parties will deliver on our promises of further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Gordon Brown set out a timetable for this on 8 September:

  • 19 September: publish a motion of the House of Commons setting out this timetable and mandating the Government to lay a Command Paper setting out the parties proposals for further devolution. This will be voted on at the first opportunity.
  • 31 October: Command Paper will be published.
  • November: A month of consultation with Scottish civic society and the Scottish Parliament.
  • 30 November: Heads of Agreement on a new Scotland Bill published.
    December and January: Consultation continues.
  • 25 January 2015: Draft legislation published.
  • Immediately post-election: Second Reading of the new Scotland Act

The motion was published as promised on 19 September and can be found here.

I acknowledge that in his initial response to the referendum result, the Prime Minister indicated that decisions on whether Scottish MPs should be able to vote on English-only matters should be made ‘in tandem with, and at the same pace as’ the process for further devolution to Scotland. However, since then all three parties have restated their commitment to the proposed timetable and made it clear that the separate processes with respect to England and Scotland are not contingent on each other. Although a minority of Conservative backbenchers have indicated they will vote against further devolution to Scotland, these proposals will have sufficient support to progress.

A fairer and more equal society
I know that many people who voted Yes did so because they want to see a fairer and more equal society. I share this desire but, like many who voted No, I remain convinced that separation would have made this harder – not easier – to achieve. We should now move on from debating which set of constitutional arrangements might give us the best chance of this change, and focus on working within the constitution we have to actually deliver it.

For a start we should reflect on whether the Scottish Government are using their existing powers to best effect. Action could be taken now to build more affordable homes or to reinstate some of the 140,000 college places cut since 2011, both of which would benefit the poorest in our society.

Then we should think about the 2015 General Election. Just this week Labour has set out a series of policies that will sit at the heart of our manifesto:

  • Increase the minimum wage to over £8 an hour by 2020 and ban exploitative zero-hours contracts.
  • Spend an extra £2.5 billion on the NHS per year, which could pay for 3,600 extra doctors, nurses, midwifes and carers in Scotland.
  • Increase the top rate of tax from 45p to 50p and introduce a mansion tax on homes worth more than £2 million.
  • Introduce a jobs guarantee for those under 25 and out of work for a year.
  • Abolish the Bedroom Tax and reform the Work Capability Assessment.
  • Legislate so we always spend 0.7 per cent of our national income on international development.
  • Decarbonise our electricity supply by 2030.
  • Stay in the European Union.
  • Allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in all elections.

I know that some are suggesting that those who support independence should vote for one of the parties that campaigned for a Yes vote – the SNP, Greens or socialists – but if Labour MPs lose their seats as a result, this would not make another referendum or independence any more likely.

All it would achieve would be to reduce the total number of Labour MPs and boost the chances of the Conservatives being given the first option to form another Government. This would be a step backwards for all of us – Yes and No voters alike – who wish to see a fairer and more equal society in Scotland and across the UK.

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