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Committees unite to demand clarity over welfare powers transfer
Issues between the Scottish and UK Governments over the transfer of welfare powers must not be allowed to prejudice claimants, a joint message from committees of both Parliaments declared today.
Joint letters from Holyrood's Social Security Committee and Westminster's Scottish Affairs Committee, to Damian Green MP as Secretary of State for Work & Pensions and Angela Constance MSP as Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security & Equalities, say it is vital that both Governments have a clear plan for the transfer of powers, but also that the procedures for addressing any dispute between them have to be strengthened.
They follow two joint meetings in March 2017, one in Edinburgh and one in London, at which the committees heard from officials from the Scottish Government and the DWP about work to progress the transfer the social security powers, and from the two ministers.
The letters welcome the strong working relationships that have developed at official level, and the commitment from both ministers to work constructively to resolve differences in policy or approach, but request that the committees be provided with "a clear plan and key objectives for the successful transfer of the remaining social security powers between the Governments".
With a split competence approach being taken to the delivery of some benefits, they also ask for "further detail of what that will mean in practice regarding existing and new benefits in Scotland and at UK level".
Evidence to the committees suggests that it is unclear how disputes between the Governments (for example on the issue of no detriment, or regarding the operation and interaction of reserved and devolved welfare powers) will be resolved, and they call on the Governments to "clarify the current dispute resolution procedure and give thought to how it can be strengthened".
They add: "It is clear from our discussions with external stakeholders that there is room for greater transparency around meetings of ministers. This is essential, not only to allow proper scrutiny, but also to increase confidence among stakeholders... While we understand that at times ministers will need to have private discussions, the perception that decisions are being made 'behind closed doors' is potentially a damaging one. We would like to see a timely and fuller record of Joint Ministerial Group meetings."
Welcoming the review of the 2010 concordat between the Scottish Government and the DWP, the letters conclude: "The concordat should be explicit about the fundamental purpose of strong relationships between the Scottish and UK Governments – to ensure that claimants do not lose out through the transfer of welfare powers and that they benefit when new powers are exercised."
Sandra White MSP, convener of the Social Security Committee, commented: "Whilst there will always be political differences between the two Governments, these cannot be at the expense of claimants. This is why we have today asked both Governments to ensure they have a clear plan for how the transfer will done successfully."
Pete Wishart MP, chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, added: "It is clear that there have been sticking points, most notably the lack of communications over Jobcentre plus closures, housing benefit to 18-21 year olds and differences in opinion over the fundamental purpose of the benefits system. We have asked the ministers to be clearer about how they work together, in particular how they will solve further policy differences, and we look forward to their response."
Click here to access the letters.