Cameron on Scotland

Thanks to the links on Alan Trench's blog, I read David Cameron's speech to the Tory Party in Scotland. There were a couple of things that particularly struck me about it, apart from the normal sort of stuff that we would expect from any speech of this sort.

Forced Cooperation

"And it's shameful that during one of the most emotionally-charged moments in our recent history, when the Lockerbie bomber was released from jail to return home to Libya where he still is today, the Scottish Government and British Government refused to cooperate.

"That would not happen on my watch."

The matter of compassionate release—whether one agrees with the decision in the Al Megrahi case or not—is a quasi-judicial decision exercised by a minister of government: in Scotland by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and in RUK by the Secretary of State for Justice. So how precisely are two different governments meant to "cooperate" if they disagree?

It might mean that the government that did not have the responsibility for making the decision simply made whatever representations it wished to make in private. In fact the Labour government in Westminster did do exactly this, constantly saying in public that it was a matter only for the Scottish government. I think that was entirely right. But Cameron has called it "shameful". Read the sentence again carefully, he did not say the decision to release was shameful (although he undoubtedly thinks it was) but that what happened was a refusal to cooperate, and that the refusal to cooperate was shameful.

So what are the alternatives? Well, one alternative would be that each government openly declared its disagreement with the other. At least that's an honest position. The American government certainly voiced its disagreement with the decision in no uncertain terms. And the Conservative Party both in Holyrood and Westminster were particularly vocal in their disagreement too. But how on earth can open disagreement be described as "cooperation"?

So what's left? If Cameron's statement has any meaning, it can only be that he intends Westminster to overrule any similar decision the Scottish government might make in future. I find that very sinister.

Privatization of Welfare and Benefits

"Just look at our plans for welfare. It's shocking today that some people talk about five million people living on out of work benefits as if it's just some un-alterable fact of life. We know that there are millions who could be working but aren't. So we're going to take that twisted logic that rewards idleness and punishes hard work and turn it on its head. If you really can't work, we'll look after you. If you want a job but can't find one, we'll help you.

"We're going to remove the mad restrictions that mean money can't be spent even if the end result is a saving for the taxpayer. And when we've freed up that money, we will then invite commercial specialists and the voluntary sector to come into our welfare system and give the unemployed the intensive, personal help they need, paying them by the results they achieve in getting people off benefits and into work."

I've heard these plans before, but perhaps not quite so clearly as they were expressed here. Essentially the Tories are looking to privatize a major part of the system. Now of course this is a matter of ideology: it is a central plank of right wing thinking that whatever can be privatized should be privatized ... because they believe that this will make everything work more efficiently.

Now I think we would all agree that we need to do more to help people into work. This is something that is not only right in itself, but needs to be done because of the large cost of maintaining the welfare and benefits system as it stands. The question is how to do it.

Only a few days ago in this post, I mentioned that the large majority of people in Wales, some 59.5%, think that the welfare and benefits system should be devolved to Wales. Only 22.7% think that decisions on this should be made at Westminster, and 16.8% think they should be made at Local Council level. So it shouldn't come as too big a surprise to find that opinion is much the same in Scotland.

The ongoing Scottish Social Attitudes survey published its headline results for last year a few weeks ago. 60% of Scots thought that welfare and benefits should be decided at Holyrood, 19% at Westminster and 16% at Local Council level.

So this is clearly an area where there opinion is different in both Wales and Scotland to that in England. Even back in the 2005 election, the Tories polled more votes in England than Labour (though thanks the unfair FPTP electoral system, Labour won 92 more English seats than the Tories) and this time round nobody doubts that the Tories will do much better. They will get a big majority in England, even if not in the UK as a whole.

England is a generally right-leaning country; Wales and Scotland aren't. So privatization of part of the welfare system is something that might well find a degree of acceptance among people in England. In many ways it's similar to the increasing privatization of aspects of the English National Health Service as part of an internal market structure that relies on competition. But this is very clearly not the way the majority of people want to do things in Wales or Scotland ... in fact in Wales we dismantled the internal market in our NHS only a few years after it had been implemented.

So I'm not going to be dogmatic and say that a similar sort of privatization of the welfare system is wrong. It's fine if that's the sort of system people want ... and if they vote for a party that will implement it. But it is definitely wrong for a party that will be lucky to get five seats in Scotland and ten in Wales to impose it on Scotland and Wales simply because the vast majority of seats in Westminster are English.


Cameron has constantly said that he wants to devolve power downwards from Westminster ... and I couldn't agree more. But power has to be devolved to the appropriate level, and the only way to determine what that level might be is to look at what people themselves say they want. In England, there is no intermediate level between Westminster and Local Councils, so the next step down is to devolve more decision making power to those Councils. But in Wales and Scotland things are different, and the large majority of us want things such as health, education and benefits decided at our respective national levels rather than at either a UK level or Local Council level.

It is not going to be easy to devolve welfare and benefits to Wales and Scotland, in the main because the system has become ever-more entangled with the tax system. But I think the system has become over-complicated as a result of Gordon Brown's changes as Chancellor and now Prime Minister, with the result that many people don't have a clue how it works and miss out on credits that they are entitled to. So disentangling the two would be a very good idea anyway.

My point is this: if the Tory party is determined to pull the welfare and benefits system radically in one direction, they must give Wales and Scotland the opportunity to do things differently. If they don't, their commitment to devolve decision making power downwards is meaningless ... especially when people in both countries want it by a majority of about three to one.

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EFComrade said...

Cameron is very dishonest,to suggest that the unemployed are idle when there are very few jobs around to suggest that this can be changed when he has pledged there will be massive public sector cuts which inevitably means massive job cuts will only increase unemployment can only be described as a very opportunist lie

Anonymous said...

As someone who was economically very successful for many years, but languished into the dark pit of depression, and was forced to depend on benefits, I have to say, that against my natural inclination, I have come to think that perhaps Cameron has a point. Too many people in the current benefit offices are cynical time-servers, either through inclination, or through demoralising experience, and have no empathy or understanding of the reality of being on benefits, and trying to return to work.

The people they are trying to deter from playing the system sail through with ease - they know how to play the game - but deserving cases who are largely honest and doing their best are knocked back, demoralised and demeaned.

A private company that was paid by results rather than by the hour MIGHT nuance things differently.

A difficult post for a left leaning Welshman to write, but I have to say that staff has to be by phone, (or at least agreed with Wrexham), a de-humanising and humiliating experience stands between anyone who has a conscience, and some sensitivity, and any progress back to work. Anyone suffering from depression, but feeling better and wanting to become a contributor again is knocked right back into the pit by contact with these faceless functionaries. I know, the have cost me 3 years.

I am better now, no thanks to them.

MH said...

Sorry it's taken me a day or so to reply, EFC and Siônnyn.

I don't think anyone is or should be claiming that the way the benefits system works well, or that the way the way we try to get people into work is perfect. There is room for improvement, and so the question is how best to improve things.

It's probably restating the obvious, but on this occasion I think I should do it: I'm sure the vast majority of people out of work and on benefits are not scroungers, and not deliberately milking the system. Some are, but not most. I think there are then a group of people who are long-term unemployed, or even generationally unemployed, for whom there is no obvious or easy way to become employable. Such people need a lot of long term, persistent help to get into work ... as you mentioned.

My question to Siônnyn is whether you really believe that the private sector would be willing to take such people on. To use a health service comparison: it is easy to set up a hospital that replaces say knee joints on an "production line" basis. They generally do a good job, with high productivity ... but the moment there is any complication the patent will be taken back into an NHS hospital. In other words it's easy to make a profit by cherrypicking the straightforward cases ... but you don't make a profit from the complicated cases. A private company that gets people back to work will trumpet their achievement and get paid money for doing it, but in all probability the people who they get back to work will be the ones that would have found work anyway.

One of the major reasons for devolving responsibility for this to Wales would be that getting the long-term unemployed into work depends very heavily on targeted education/training, and sometimes overlaps with the care system, and even in some cases health. These are devolved matters, so being able to coordinate the right mix of services in each case should be easier if the benefits/welfare system is devolved to Wales as well.

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