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Welfare powers must be used to create a humane new system

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TFN takes a look at what new welfare powers are coming to Scotland - and asks how charities want to see them used

New welfare powers coming to Scotland represent an important – if limited – opportunity to begin the creation of a more humane welfare system.

Charities dealing with people living at the sharp end of benefit cuts and punitive sanctions say the Scottish Parliament must use every opportunity to create a better system than that laid down by Westminster.

The wriggle-room will be tight: the majority of welfare and benefits powers will remain reserved to the UK parliament.

But an important tranche of these will become Holyrood’s responsibility this year as part of powers handed over as part of the post-referendum Smith agreement.

The Scottish Government cannot do everything about the poverty and inequality that scars Scottish society but doing nothing is not an option - Bill Scott, Inclusion Scotland

The formal process for this to happen took a leap forward last week when Westminster laid down regulations allowing the transfer.

This means the new powers will now be MSPs to use when they return from recess on 5 September.

But what are these powers, and what will they mean for Scotland, and most particularly the country’s poorest?

In terms of what’s coming, it’s not exactly the clearest picture.

Welfare is, basically, still reserved to Westminster meaning that the landscape won’t alter much after September.

Universal credit and child benefit will all still be administered and set by the London parliament.

Currently, the Scottish Government has little room for movement, though there have been examples where it has used its powers to curb – or mitigate - the worst excesses of Westminster, most notably by using discretionary housing payments to, effectively, “abolish” the bedroom tax.

Holyrood also controls the Scottish Welfare Fund, which includes crisis and community care payments. These allow ministers to make small payments to alleviate short-term needs - or to provide goods such as washing machines and cookers to people who need to establish themselves in a home because, for example, they are fleeing domestic abuse or leaving prison.

Post-devolution, Holyrood will control around £2.7 billion of social security spending which sounds a lot, but this amounts to just 15% of the total spend.

The biggest changes will come in the detail. Holyrood will be able to create new benefits in devolved areas such as health and education, paving the way for new early years and maternity allowances.

MSPs will also be able to top-up existing payments to the likes of universal credit, tax credits, child benefit and some forms of employment support.

The opportunities presented by child benefit have already led to the Child Poverty Action Groupcalling for it to be increased by £5a week – a move it says could make a drastic impact on child poverty.

The SNP-dominated Scottish Government, as it seeks to disentangle the London and Edinburgh legislatures, is keen to use these new powers as the basis of a new Scottish welfare agency, which will be legislated for during the coming parliamentary session.

Scottish charities have stressed that while the scope may be limited, even small reforms can transform the lives of the most vulnerable.

TFN asked four major campaigning groups how they would like to see our new welfare powers used.

Carla McCormack, Poverty Alliance

Following years of welfare reform and cuts through austerity measures, it is clear that our social security isnot the safety net is meant to be, and low benefit levels are trapping peoplein poverty.

Like many of our colleaguesacross the third sector, the Poverty Alliance supports calls to top up childbenefit by £5 per week. We also believe that there is a need to go beyond thisand we are calling on the Scottish Government to top up means tested benefitsfor working age adults.

We believe that these benefits should be increased with the aim of moving towards the minimum income standard.

To achieve this, the Scottish Government may have to use tax raising powers, but if we are serious about tackling poverty then we must be willing to pay for it, and make the arguments on this.

We must learn the lessons of the past, and ensure that any new measures to tackling poverty are part of a wider comprehensive anti-poverty strategy for Scotland.

Too often our approaches have been piecemeal, uncoordinated and lacking leadership. There has been a failure to connect actions taken at the local and national levels by policy makers, and lack of proper involvement of both the third and private sectors.

Eradicating poverty once and for all won’t be easy and it will require action from all departments and layers of government.

The Poverty Alliance is calling on the Scottish Government to introduce a poverty reduction bill which would require the production of a long term anti-poverty strategy, with proper review functions and the active engagement of people with direct experience of poverty and the organisations that represent them.

Bill Scott, Inclusion Scotland

Disabled people are among the hardest hit by welfare reforms/benefit cuts. Roughly £12 billion worth of benefit cuts have fallen on disabled people and their families.

The recent Citizen's Advice Scotland report, Livingat the Sharp End, shows that sanctions and mandatory reconsiderations are notjust reducing disabled people’s incomes they are leaving them with nothing.

Nothing with which to heat their homes, to buy food or pay their rent, resulting in people going cold and hungry and becoming homeless.

Thepowers that the Scottish Parliament is receiving are limited and the moneyavailable to mitigate the impact of the massive cuts imposed at a UK level isalso limited but that does not mean that they cannot do anything. If theScottish Government is looking for a few pointers it could:

·Give serious consideration totopping up child benefit as this could significantly reduce the number ofchildren (including disabled children) living in poverty.

·Reduce the length of time thatpeople have to wait between Universal Credit payments from one month to afortnight and to split payments within households so that those with the maincaring responsibilities get at least some of the benefits coming into the home.Unfortunately, given that the universal credit IT system is not fit forpurpose, the Scottish Government might still end up being charged a fortune bythe DWP for making these simple changes.

·Use new powers over employability support to reduce the disability employment gap. Only 44% ofScots disabled people are in work compared to 81% of non-disabled people ofworking age. The government could use the new powers to create an employability service that genuinely works with disabled people to help them overcome thebarriers that they experience in obtaining employment.

TheScottish Government cannot do everything but given the poverty and inequalitythat scars Scottish society doing nothing is not an option.

Keith Dryburgh, Citizen’s Advice Scotland (CAS)

CAS welcomes the devolution of welfare powers. Even though they represent only a small part of the social security system, this still presentsan opportunity to create a fair, equal and responsive system for Scotland.

It is essential that third sector groups work with the Scottish Government to shape that. And as we do this, we know what it should definitelynot look like. That is: the current system.

There are so many problems with the current welfare system and we havespent the last few years detailing these in detailed evidence reports based onfront-line CAB evidence.

Families are too often left without income as a result of administrativeproblems or unfair rules, while sick and disabled people have to undergo alengthy and stressful process just to claim the support they are en​titled to.

Meanwhile the system is plagued by incorrect decisions, payment delays,poor communication and people being treated in an undignified and disrespectfulway.

In terms of what we would like to see, it’s important to say that the ScottishGovernment’s approach so far has been very welcome – genuinely engaging withthe sector and emphasising principles of dignity, respect and a desire totackle the stigma around claiming benefits.

The assessment process for disability benefits should be greatlyimproved, including reducing the number of face-to-face assessments. We wouldalso like to see more frequent payments for universal credit, and a Scottish social security agency that supports, rather than punishes claimants and makessure that people get support to face gaps in income.

There are also a number of other improvements to more low-profilebenefits that have the potential to make a big difference – for instance makingimprovements to funeral payments to help tackle funeral poverty.

Marion Davis, One Parent Families Scotland

Families headed by a single parent make up a quarter of families in Scotland. A radical use of new and existing social security powers by Scottish Government could make a big difference to children living with one parent, who are twice more likely to live in poverty as children living with two parent families.

Single parents are proud of their families and what they have achieved bringing up their children alone in the face of the challenges and obstacles theyencounter. The facts show:

· Most single parents are in work (64%).

· Only 2% of single parent families are under age of 18.

· The majority of single parents are women (93%).

We believe theScottish Government should consider theimportant caring role that single parents have and the added challenges thatthey face in the workplacemanagingwork and home life.

Parents have told us these are the key areas they would like Scottish Governmentto prioritize:

· Social security: make ending child poverty a government priority by investing £5 a week in every child through child benefit.

· Attitudes and stigma: challenge the stereotypes and myths about single parents.

· Childcare: introduce affordable comprehensive, universally available, high quality early years, out-of-school and holiday childcare.

· Employability: replace the 'work first' approach of the Work Programme and end the benefits sanctions regime.

· Training and education: introduce tailored support for single parents enabling access to training and education.

· Employment:support the living wage and flexible, family-friendly working.

Single parents facespecific challenges - this is because most single-handedly juggle employmentwith child-rearing responsibilities. Additionally single parents are more at risk of having low qualifications, limited work experience, low self-confidence, debt,housing problems, faced domestic violence, ill health and disability.

So, if we have policies that succeed forparents who single-handedly care for children they are likely to work for allparents.