“Scotland can, if it chooses to be bold, creative and ambitious, use the opportunity presented by independence to build a social security system for all of us.”
I’m proud to present my latest report for the Common Weal White Paper Project, Social Security For All Of Us – An Independent Scotland as a Modern Welfare State.
Scotland has an opportunity to end the callous and punitive treatment of our most vulnerable
There is perhaps no more important role for a modern government than its duty of care over its own citizens. We live in the age of the “Welfare State” and we rightly look upon achievements such as the NHS and the social security system with pride.
But modern Britain appears to be turning its back on these achievements and that duty of care. With its increasing reliance on caps, cuts and harmful sanctions, the UK is becoming ever more punitive and callous towards the most vulnerable in our society. People who receive social security payments are being increasingly marginalised as “scroungers” or worse. All this in the name of the “Austerity” we’re told that we need to endure in order pay for the mistakes of a financial industry which failed a decade ago.
Scotland needn’t accept this. Scotland should be able to build something better which works for all of us. Independence offers us an opportunity to do this.
Welfare is one of those subsets of powers which is largely reserved to UK Government level. Even as some new powers are due to come to the Scottish Government after the last round of expansion of devolution, much of the underlying infrastructure remains unified across the UK.
As such, even if an independent Scotland were to seek merely to replicate the UK welfare system it would still need to build a new IT and administration system to control it. As this work will need to be completed anyway, it would be a missed opportunity to do other than seek to improve the system at the same time.
Common Weal’s paper, Social Security for All of Us, opens this discussion by offering several potential principles and policies which Scotland could implement. In terms of principles, it examines the comparatively low level of social security spending in the UK especially compared to some Nordic countries and offers some benchmarks for improvement. The paper also calls for the social security system to be expanded to ensure that asylum seekers are adequately protected from hardship and discrimination (the right to work should also be extended to this group). The UK’s attempts to create a “hostile environment” for immigrants and asylum seekers has been particularly damaging and should be ended.
On policy, a Job Guarantee Scheme is discussed in which the government would become the “employer-of-last-resort” and would actively offer jobs to those seeking work rather than relying on the UK’s present system of sanctions and Workfare. This cannot be a complete replacement for the social security system – there are many who either do not want to work or are unable to – but may be a useful addition to the government’s economic policy framework.
More closely linked to welfare are policies such as a negative income tax. The negative income tax allows for an automatic tax credit to be paid to people whose income falls below a certain threshold – for example, the Living Wage. As this occurs via the tax system, it is more inclusive than a means-tested benefit and may have advantages such as smoothing out the earnings of people on irregular or seasonal incomes. The tax could be structured in such that the tax credit offered to people on zero income would be the equivalent to the current Carer’s Allowance or Jobseeker’s Allowance which may eliminate the need for these specific benefits and the need for people to spend time and effort ensuring that they are eligible for them instead of spending that time more valuably on providing care or seeking a job.
Finally, we present a policy which is being discussed at increasingly high levels such as at the United Nations. A Universal Basic Income (sometimes also called a Citizen’s Income) would give every resident of Scotland a regular payment regardless of circumstances or other income. This would eliminate the need for many current benefits (though some like disability payments would remain) and those who earned a sufficient income would see their income tax increased to recover the UBI but overall, some 4/5ths of households would be better off under this system. Previous trials have shown the benefit of UBI in terms of improvements in health, wellbeing and education and the knowledge that one has a guaranteed income may mean the freedom to explore other opportunities in life such as starting a new business, learning new skills or supporting art and cultural endeavours.
What is clear in all of this is that whatever path Scotland chooses, the mistakes and failings of the UK’s welfare system cannot be allowed to be replicated once it becomes an independent country.
Scotland can use the opportunity presented by independence to build a social security system which works for all of us.
This work is part of Common Weal’s White Paper Project which aims to reinvigorate and remake the case for independence. We are entirely reliant on the generosity of small donors, both one-off and regular, to be able to do this work. If you would like to contribute, please visit our website at: allofusfirst.org/donate/