Scottish devolution needs cool heads — and social security reminds us why

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Politics can be a fickle business. It’s invariably more volatile moments which make the news at the top of the hour. A life in politics requires an apprenticeship in the school of hard knocks. It means having a thick skin. Credit is short-lived; blame can stick.

Less than a year ago, the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to support the Social Security (Scotland) Bill. It was an upbeat day. One where the Parliament wore its best garb. It wasn’t that the Bill hadn’t been thrashed out at length. There had been disagreements along the way.

But in the final analysis, there was collective agreement and shared pride in what had been achieved. As the then Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman, closed the debate, she spoke for the mood of the whole Parliament when she said:

‘We have achieved legislation to deliver a rights-based social security system for Scotland with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart, and a new public service that we can be proud of — one that will meet the needs and ambitions of the people of Scotland, and one that we will now go on to make a reality.’

What a difference 10 months makes. Yesterday’s announcement by the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security, Shirley-Anne Somerville, about the timetable for the second wave of benefits rollout, was met with derision from opposition parties and cries of ‘betrayal.’

Opposition parties have to oppose. I get that. I spent more than 30 years of my life in a political party. I know disagreement is as much a part of the game as consensus. But so is striking the right tone and understanding the complexity behind the sloganising that grabs headlines.

It matters, not least in the interests of getting decision making right — and giving those who depend on that decision making confidence — not false hope. You can call it managing expectations if you like. That comes with responsibility too.

Devolving benefits to Scotland is a fiendishly complicated business. Full disclosure: I’ve been a member of the Disability and Carers Benefits Expert Advisory Group for the last two years and since September 2018 I’ve been a non-executive member of Social Security Scotland’s Executive Advisory Body. I write this in a personal capacity.

It’s been a privilege to be part of the Expert Advisory Group through the passage of the legislation and the early stages of implementation. And to have a chance to help shape the culture and delivery of the new agency. Such opportunities don’t come about every day.

But it’s also been a salutary lesson about the challenges involved. It’s easy to bask in the warm glow of aspiration. Implementation can feel altogether cooler. The safe and secure transition of benefits on which people depend for their livelihoods is not a trivial matter.

Doing so while trying to give practical application to the values of dignity, fairness and respect at the heart of the legislation — and the Social Security Charter — adds weight to the mission and heft to the task. It is painstakingly detailed work at the level of policy — and delivery.

When the Scottish Government says it’s ‘striking a balance between moving at pace and ensuring that (it) take(s) over the devolved benefits safely, with minimal disruption to people who rely on them’ it is not smoke and mirrors. It’s a reflection of the scale of the job, which is only too obvious when you look at what’s involved. In part, it’s because the system being devolved is broken.

As Dr Sally Witcher, Chair of the new Social Security Commission tweeted yesterday:

‘Very helpful to know what’s happening when. The transfer of devolved benefits needs to happen as quickly as possible but it’s unavoidably complex and vital to get it right, or it’s people who rely on those benefits who will suffer. A difficult balance to be struck.’

Who’d be a politician?

So it’s more than a tad dismaying when that collective endeavour becomes a political football. When the delivery of something as important as social security benefits is tossed around as part of a five-year-old stooshie about promises made during the independence referendum, it just irks.

Full disclosure two: I voted for independence back in 2014 precisely because I wanted to see the devolution of all benefits to Scotland. I’ve spent the last six years working on behalf of people with learning disabilities who very often depend on them, and have to contend with the consequences of policy levers being pulled in different directions at Westminister and Holyrood.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that I cast my vote for independence despite grave misgivings about the White Paper — not least the conflation of the case for independence with a particular policy prospectus. And enormous scepticism about the suggestion that independence would be anything other than a long term project.

Rightly or wrongly I was prepared to take a leap of faith.

Being part of the effort to bring just some social security benefits to Scotland — not the now infamous Universal Credit — has only served to confirm my scepticism was well placed. (Witnessing the car crash that is Brexit hasn’t helped much either.) But I take no satisfaction in being right then. I’m much more concerned about playing a bit part in getting it right now.

And getting it right is more important than achieving an arbitrary deadline to ward off righteous anger. Getting it wrong would be the real failure. Those of us who know just a modicum of what’s involved away from the limelight understand that’s not an option.

The independence referendum was lost. There might or might not be another one. It might or might not be soon. In the meantime, it’s beholden on all of us — decision makers, policy advisors, and those responsible for delivery on the ground to make the devolution that IS happening work.

That’s what an efficacious parliamentary system does — it’s the day job. Shoulders to the wheel stuff. That doesn’t mean agreeing about everything. And disagreement sometimes needs to be forthright. But it needs to be about the conversation in the room. Not one in an empty house.

The day the legislation was cheered through the Parliament was a good day. A hopeful one. Yesterday wasn’t. That’s not an argument for unanimity. But it is a plea for maturity. Whether Scotland becomes independent or not, devolution depends on it.

Chair @SAMHtweets, Non Exec @socsecscot & runner @EdinburghAC, Views my own

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