The reports in the press (e.g. the Express or the Telegraph) told us that Gordon Brown was proposing a five-point plan for ‘welfare’, going further than the Smith Commission. However, the main power they reported – the power to top up reserved benefits – was already in the Smith Commission’s recommendations; it has been dropped from the subsequent White Paper.
The five points are laid out on a Labour Party website. They are
- The power to top up reserved benefits
- The power to introduce new benefits
- The integration of employment and welfare policy, particularly with reference to youth unemployment and long-term unemployment.
- The full devolution of Housing Benefit, and
- Further devolution to local communities.
The first power has been the only one to be reported in most newspapers, but it is probably the least important. It was part of the Smith Agreement (para 54), but it is not included in the White Paper. Topping up would be heavily constrained by the lack of administrative capacity to do it and the ‘no detriment’ principle, which means (among other things) that Scotland would have to bear the costs of converting the computer and adminsitrative systems. The power to introduce new benefits is much more important; it is also in Smith (in the same paragraph) but it has been reneged on.
The main innovations in the plan are in the last three points. The integration of employment and welfare is something that both Labour and Conservative governments have tried to do. It sounds plausible, but previous efforts at integration have gone in the wrong direction; most unemployment is short term, and treating everyone as if they had personal issues has been catastrophic for social protection. The devolution of Housing Benefit would mean that it must be taken out of Universal Credit – that would be difficult, but no bad thing. Devolution to local communities – presumably that means local authorities – is genuinely interesting, and worth investigating further. It has been happening with the development of the Scottish Welfare Fund and Council Tax Reduction. There is a good case for integrating some of the work done with disability and social care with the benefits system; the main obstacle to doing that lies in the limitations of powers relating to disability benefits in the White Paper.