The Scottish Parliament has refused legislative consent to the Welfare Reform Bill. There is considerable concern about the direction of welfare reform, especially relating to the treatment of disability, but it would be misleading to say that the concerns have gelled into a solid body of opposition. If people’s concerns have been diffuse and difficult to focus, it is because the Bill itself is so vague. It outlines principles for action, but it is still desperately thin on detail. The Coalition Government has taken the view that the Bill is only about broad outlines; the details will go into secondary legislation. More than a year after the White Paper, it is still far from clear how Universal Credit will work, what will be included, and what its implications will be.
The Legislative Consent Motion effectively asked the Scottish Parliament, then, to agree to the Bill without knowing what they were signing up to. The Health and Sport Committee (the Scottish Parliamentary committee that reviewed the motion) expressed concern that the effect of passing the motion would be to commit Scottish Ministers to come forward later with secondary legislation that would not be subject to scrutiny. Equally, the vagueness of the proposals makes it difficult for the Parliament to be sure what will happen after refusing legislative consent. The Parliament’s consent is needed mainly to ensure that UK legislation is compatible with Scots law, and refusing consent will not prevent the UK legislation from being passed. The most positive interpretation is that the UK government will have to bring forward primary legislation for the system to work in Scotland; but witnesses to the Committee raised concerns that the effect may be the suspension of benefits to Scottish recipients.
The Parliament’s action is more than a gesture. Benefits are a reserved matter – that is, they are governed exclusively from Westminster – but training for employment is a shared responsibility. When the Department for Work and Pensions has taken action in Scotland in the past, it has been done with the active cooperation of the Scottish government. The view of the government was that “they rely on our support”. Scotland will have to take responsibility, under the reformed system, for Council Tax Benefit, and it is likely that other responsibilities, including Housing Benefit and work formerly done by the Social Fund, will gravitate to the Scottish Government. It is difficult to see how Westminster’s programme can be implemented in Scotland without the Scottish Government’s co-operation.