Citizens Advice Scotland has called on the Smith Commission to continue its work beyond its current timetable, so it can come to more considered conclusions about the future shape of welfare policy in Scotland.
The Commission is currently focusing on the question of what powers should be devolved to Holyrood, with its recommendations due to be published by the end of this month.
CAS believes that the future of welfare policy requires much more detailed discussion, and so has called for the process to continue beyond the next General Election in May 2015. We also want it to involve a much wider public debate, so it is not decided ‘behind closed doors by politicians alone’.
In a letter to Lord Smith, CAS Chief Executive Margaret Lynch says,
“Massive social changes [should not be] carried out quickly or without major thought and detail. Alongside the major constitutional changes we may see over the coming months, we cannot forget that it is not speed that is of the essence but thought and discussion; time and perspective. It is robust and practical debate and consultation that is needed.
“As we have seen from the referendum debate in Scotland, the people have a voice they want to use, they have views they want aired, and they have policies they want to debate. There was time and consideration given to the referendum debate – something that is lacking in the speed of which strengthening the powers of the Scottish Parliament through the Smith Commission is being carried out.”
The letter points out that the Scottish CAB service deals with over a million issues every year, with welfare benefits the biggest area that people seek help with. Pointing out that 37% of Scottish CAB work deals with benefit-related issues (nearly 325,000 issues every year), Margaret Lynch continues,
“We know how changes in policy, legislation, and administration of benefits can hugely impact on the lives of people. We cannot let this area be left to discussion behind closed doors or by parliamentarians alone.
“There must be space for a genuine public debate on how social security should be delivered in Scotland. This is an area that must be done in the full transparent and considered view of a Commission such as yours – or its equal – which has the time to consider fully all the options available.
“The current range of options on offer from Scotland’s political parties is fairly narrow, and probably represents where the thinking on social security was a year or more ago. There is an appetite to open up this discussion and perhaps test a wider range of options than those currently on offer. We would hope that a Commission and time would allow for and encourage a broader range of voices to enter the discussion.
The letter concludes:
“The key thing is that people who are sick or disabled in Scotland get the social security they need to live a dignified life; that those who rely on out of work benefits are not faced with a punitive sanctions regime but are supported back into suitable employment; and that those who rely on in work benefits know that their government is working on economic and employment policies which will deliver a better deal for the working poor.
“I strongly urge all those I write to today, to discuss this option and consider what is best for Scotland. Ultimately we want to arrive at a national consensus on social security that the majority of Scots can support. That can only be done away from the glare of politics and with space and time to consider fully the options available.”
Margaret Lynch will meet with the Smith Commission at the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 13th November.