I have been working, reading and dreaming about social security over the last two years, from the referendum to the Smith Commission and now, the Scotland Bill. The third sector is stretched to capacity trying to ensure that any further powers transferred to Scotland are used to markedly improve the lives of those we support.
Despite concerted calls from civil society this week, the UK Government has chosen to ignore concerns about the limitations of the Scotland Bill. We are disappointed thus far, but not surprised.
We are worried too. Unless the clauses of the Bill are widened, the Scottish Government will be limited in what it could potentially do to tackle some of the injustices experienced by people with disabilities, low income families and others who have been at the sharp end of welfare reform.
The promise of more austerity fills us with dread. Don’t be hoodwinked by UK Government spinning of the poverty figures – and try not to laugh too much when UK Ministers feebly argue that food bank usage has nothing to do with welfare reform.
The effects of cuts to a range of benefits and key services are having a drastic effect. Evidence from other devolved governments and from across the voluntary sector paints a telling and very dark picture.
It is against this backdrop that charities and Scottish Government officials are coming together for an event which will kick-start an unprecedented and extensive engagement exercise. People, communities and organisations will be asked what they think the planned devolution of social security and employment powers could achieve and, more widely, what we need to do to create a fairer Scotland.
The aim is to develop an action plan which will bring together all key players and the people of Scotland in an attempt to tackle long lasting and ingrained inequality. It’s an ambitious programme and one which is both timely and necessary.
It will also be challenging, and may place the Scottish Government in some awkward and difficult conversations about what it does with existing powers.
However, the opportunity to COLLECTIVELY identify the way forward is incredibly welcome. Together we can better understand and challenge pervasively negative attitudes towards people in poverty and benefit claimants; we can identify ways to reduce bureaucracy for families who struggle to navigate their way through complex and sometimes unresponsive public services.
And for me, crucially, those who are at the hard end of benefit reforms and austerity measures will have a voice and a chance to effect change.
This is just the start of a journey that will test Scotland’s “caring and compassionate nation” credentials. The third sector is completely up for this debate.