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INSIDE TRACK: Looking to a more equitable future for our welfare system

'We are destroying human motivation," Dr Jim McCormick told me yesterday, at a summit meeting of anti-poverty charities and workers.

Dr McCormick, Scotland adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, was talking about efforts to help people into work and off benefits. His comment was aimed at schemes such as the Work Programme, which assume a person is better off in work, any work, than on "welfare".

One of the speakers at the gathering hosted by Glasgow's eight Citizen's Advice Bureaux, Dr McCormick was looking to the future. This is amid concerns many organisations find given the increase in fire-fighting they are having to do.

The growth of food banks - seen by many in the field as necessary but essentially a sign of failure - is just one symptom of this. This crisis management was referred to by another speaker, Jackie Killeen, Scotland director of the Big Lottery Fund, who launched a new Support and Connect project at the event to help link the efforts of those dealing with immediate crisis in Glasgow.

Her organisation had not intended to be working in this area, she said, but was now responding to a strong increase in funding applications from those at the sharp end, helping people short of basics such as food and fuel.

It is fashionable to blame rising levels of poverty in the city and across Scotland on welfare reform. But some would have found Dr McCormick's views on this unpalatable. He defended the use of sanctions and the unpopular and troubled Universal Credit - in principle at least.

Warning against being trapped into defending the status quo, he pointed out that the existing system also trapped people in poverty and that some conditionality was involved in every benefits system operating in an OECD country. The problem is that in other countries, penalties for failing to comply with job seeking requirements tend to be a last resort, he argued. In Denmark, for example, the state steps in to support and retrain those who are sanctioned. People who lose their jobs are able to access retraining quickly. When Australia put more conditions on women to return to work, the government did a much better job of pairing this with childcare guarantees, he said.

Such "human capital" models take a little more time and investment to get people into jobs they are well matched to and have the skills for. Crucially, Dr McCormick added, the model can only work by involving employers and looking at training budgets. Unions also need take part. Government must make Universal Credit respond to the increasing use of zero-hours contracts.

Calling for an end to the narrow focus on welfare and a return to the old-fashioned concept of social security, Dr McCormick said the problem could be addressed in Scotland regardless of the outcome of this year's independence referendum, especially by a fresh look at training.

The summit meeting drew together more than 170 representatives of dozens of charities involved in immediate anti-poverty work. But if the message about motivating and investing in people is heard, it may also have offered a way to look beyond fighting fire, to prevention.

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