The Scottish independence referendum was a historic opportunity which inspired and encouraged people to consider the sort of country they wanted to live in. It was a unique opportunity to think big, with one of the most significant public discussions around social justice and the future of welfare provision for the most disadvantaged people in Scotland. In the event, the majority of people voted to remain in the UK, with one of the most significant interventions in the closing stages, a pledge from the “No” camp to set in train a process by which further powers would be devolved to Scotland.
This has resulted in the Smith Commission which has been given a very ambitious timescale in which to come up with proposals which are capable of commanding political consensus and matching public expectations in this areas.
Shelter Scotland’s was one of 14,000 submissions to the Commission before its first deadline of 31 October. In our submission we took a cue from the scale and ambition of the pre-referendum debate but also from our starting principle that any recommendations for reform should be tested against the extent to which further devolved powers could be used to tackle and address poverty and inequality generally and poor housing and homelessness specifically.
That starting principle leads logically to some quite far-reaching conclusions.
Firstly, that the repeated refrain to devolve Housing Benefit cannot be seen in isolation from the wider welfare system in which housing benefit has evolved. At more than £1.7 billion a year in Scotland, Housing Benefit massively outstrips any other form of public housing expenditure and has significant impact on both social and private renting policy. There is a strong case for it being controlled in Scotland but as part of a bigger shift of welfare levers out of Whitehall.
Secondly, the drivers of welfare spending lie as much in the context for welfare as in welfare policy design itself: for example, being able to control policy on tax thresholds, credits and minimum wage. Without these and without the ability to adjust the funding base to support welfare policy, any such additional powers may be powers in name only.
And thirdly, the real prize in changing the housing landscape is in reducing the need for personal allowances by developing a more assertive approach to affordable housing subsidy. That is about developing a new housing finance system, not just a new housing benefit system.
These are big asks for big times and our submission urges the Smith Commission to seize the opportunity created by the referendum to be bold in making its recommendations.
You can read Shelter Scotland’s submission to the Smith Commission in full, here.