Social landlords are calling for the rollout of Universal Credit in Scotland to be halted immediately and for all welfare powers to be devolved to the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) and the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations (GWSF) have joined forces to demand that the Scottish parliament is given full control over welfare. The Associations are also calling “full fiscal and tax powers needed to fund the system.”
The call comes as the Smith Commission meets to discuss greater devolution of powers to Scotland, just weeks after Scots narrowly rejected independence by 55 to 45 percent. A new poll suggests that should the referendum be repeated 52% of voters would now back leaving the union.
Mary Taylor, Chief Executive of the SFHA, said: “In our submission to the Smith Commission, we argue that if it is serious about giving Scotland substantive new powers to tackle poverty and inequality, then it must devolve the welfare system, with the tax and fiscal powers to go with it.”
She added: “In their efforts to reach compromise between the political parties the commissioners may be tempted to cherry-pick elements of the welfare system – and of its financing. But there are too many complex interactions between the different welfare benefits, policies and tax allowances that pay for them.”
One of the most contentious Westminster welfare policies in Scotland is the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. The controversial policy forces social housing tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit to contribute toward their rent through a nominal deduction in their allowance.
Opponents argue there isn’t enough smaller properties for affected families to downsize into, in order to escape a cut in their benefit. Around 3 in 4 affected households include a disabled person. ‘Bedroom tax’ opponents say forcing a disabled person to move to a smaller property would mean councils could incur additional costs in adapting the smaller property, when a disabled persons current home may already be adapted to meet their needs.
GWSF director David Bookbinder said: “With the very strong opposition to the ‘bedroom tax’ in Scotland, there’s probably an assumption in some quarters that if there is no devolution of the wider social security system, Scotland would happily take receipt of powers over housing benefit alone.
“But the capacity to create a fairer system would be severely limited if housing benefit is all we had control over. Even if we did somehow manage to create a fairer housing benefit system, it could be seriously undermined by punitive aspects of the rest of the welfare system such as the current, cruel approach to sanctions.”
Both the SFHA and GWSF are calling on the coalition government in Westminster to hall the rollout of Universal Credit, which is replacing a number of existing benefits including Housing Benefit, while the Smith Commission decides which powers should be devolved to Scotland.
Ms Taylor from the SFHA said: “In the latter stages of the referendum, assurances were given by the leaders of the three main UK political parties that there would be devolution of further powers to Holyrood.
“While the Smith Commission deliberates, with a view to a draft Bill in January 2015, it is entirely possible that welfare will be among the powers to be considered for devolution. If some or all of these powers were to be devolved, there would need to be significant reverse adjustments to universal credit. The latest DWP proposal is to accelerate the roll-out of universal credit to all new single claimants from early next year.
“If universal credit was to be rolled-out in Scotland imminently, and aspects of welfare were then devolved to Scotland, many benefit recipients (including tenants of social landlords) would inevitably be caught up in a messy process of rolling back universal credit.
She added: “The SFHA has long supported in principle having a welfare system that is fair and simple. Any new system of welfare also has to be safe and secure. A rushed approach puts at risk the incomes of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, especially if it subsequently had to be unpicked. The legacy of the poll tax lives on to this day, let’s not repeat those errors.”
Scottish National Party (SNP) MSP Stewart Maxwell said:
“This submission from Scotland’s social landlords is an important and welcome contribution that sets out the clear case for Scotland gaining full responsibility for welfare powers.
“Scotland’s social landlords have seen first-hand just how devastating Westminster policies like the Bedroom Tax have been, so it is no surprise that they recognise the need for Scotland to be able to act.
“Responsibility for welfare powers in Scotland will allow us to create a welfare system that reflects the needs and priorities of people in Scotland – rather than the Treasury in Westminster.
“This latest submission sees the SFHA and GWSF add their voices to the similar calls that organisations like the SCVO, Children 1st, the Poverty Alliance and Engender have already made.
“There is a clear recognition in the charity sector that Scotland needs substantial powers over welfare and taxation if we are to address the major problems that affect too many people in Scotland.”