THERE is much to like in the welfare reform recommendations of the Scottish Government's expert group.
It was commissioned to look at how welfare might be provided in Scotland in the event of independence and came forward with a series of proposals that, if implemented, would certainly bring more compassion and fairness to the system.
Who could argue with the common sense approach of increasing benefits in line with the Consumer Prices Index or raising carer's allowance to the same level as Jobseeker's Allowance?
Scrapping the so-called bedroom tax, a move also backed by Labour, would no doubt prove popular, since it is now clear this policy was ill-conceived from the start and has not only failed to save the substantial sums it was intended to, but has caused hardship, anxiety and a big surge in rent arrears.
There is also now an indisputable case for increasing the minimum wage; in fact, a rare consensus has broken out among all the main parties on the point. The argument is now over the level at which it should be set. It is due to rise to £6.50 from £6.31 in October and Chancellor George Osborne wants to see it rise further, to £7; Labour leader Ed Miliband believes it should be linked to average earnings and will consult business leaders before setting an exact figure; now this panel of experts suggests the Scottish Government should go much further and set it at the same level as the living wage, £7.65.
But is all this affordable? The group said their recommendations would not have a significant impact on spending on welfare, and suggest its minimum wage proposal would raise an extra £280million in tax, but any firm plans by the SNP arising from this will have to be carefully costed, since alarm bells will ring among those who already doubt the party's ability to afford all its promised post-independence goodies, a problem underlined yesterday when the Institute For Fiscal Studies warned the Government of an independent Scotland would likely have to raise taxes or cut services to pay for its promises. Ministers are vulnerable to attacks like that of Labour's Jackie Baillie, who accuses them of "promising everyone, everything".
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has backed several of the reforms, but the Scottish Government knows if its version of an independent Scotland starts to sound too much like Never Neverland, voter trust in its ability to deliver it will disintegrate.
Even so, these proposals are right in spirit and should help guide changes to welfare policy, whether by the future Government of an independent Scotland or by UK ministers and a devolved Scottish Government. The discussion over further devolution is now underway, and the Conservatives have already proposed housing benefit and attendance allowance should be devolved. Arguably, so should carer's allowance.
Whether independent or not, Scotland needs a welfare system that treats benefits claimants and those struggling to make ends meet with dignity and this report has some useful ideas for how that might be better achieved.
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