This article titled “Scottish government tries to exempt Scots from having benefits stopped” was written by Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 5th October 2016 19.11 UTC
The Scottish government is pressing Westminster to ensure that Scots taking part in voluntary work programmes in Scotland’s newly devolved social security system do not have to face stigmatising sanctions.
Addressing Holyrood on Wednesday afternoon, the employability minister, Jamie Hepburn, called on the UK government to urgently clarify its position after formally asking the UK secretary of state for work and pensions to confirm that Scots taking part in the programmes will be exempt from having their benefits stopped or reduced.
The newly devolved powers, which were agreed under the Scotland Act, allow Scottish ministers to design their own employment services for disabled people and those at risk of long-term unemployment for the first time from April 2017, and will account for around £2.7bn or 15% of the total Scottish benefits bill. These transitional arrangements will be made before a full Scottish programme of employment support begins in April 2018.
But sanctions will remain reserved to Westminster. According to research by the Scottish Greens, 80,000 sanctions have been issued to people on employment programmes in Scotland since 2010.
An initial response from the DWP to Hepburn’s request lodged last month was received the day before the debate. The employability minister deemed it “inconclusive” because, while it accepted that it was for Scottish ministers to decide how conditionality would apply to devolved employment programmes, it fell short of confirming that sanctions would not apply to people taking part in these programmes.
Meeting a group of single parents at the Edinburgh offices of One Parent Families Scotland earlier on Wednesday, Hepburn emphasised that his government “doesn’t want to facilitate the UK government’s sanctions regime”.
Instead, it was planning work programmes that were voluntary and took into account the complexity of individual circumstances, Hepburn explained, after hearing the parents describe sleepless nights under threat of sanction and the practical difficulties of finding even entry-level jobs that were possible in tandem with childcare.
Satwat Rehman, director at One Parent Families Scotland, welcomed the proposed voluntary regime, explaining: “The vast majority of single parents want to work but feel they are made to choose between being a parent or a worker, and forced into low-paid work with no career progression that isn’t going to get them out of poverty.
“We are fundamentally opposed to the use of forced destitution as a policy instrument. This offers the opportunity to develop a more effective approach to the UK government’s very damaging ‘work-first’ conditionality regime.”
Speaking later in the chamber debate, Hepburn told MSPs: “While we won’t have the powers to prevent people from being sanctioned, we want to do what we can to protect people from this unnecessary stress and harm, and to give people taking part in our new voluntary programmes the assurance that they will not be sanctioned.
“I will continue to urge [the DWP] to respect our desire that no JobCentre Plus client is forced to take part in our programmes and is under threat of sanction,” and that he would press UK ministers at a meeting in London next week.
Hepburn also referred to the drastic cut in funding from the DWP for the devolved employability programmes from £53m to £7m next year. The Scottish cabinet has since offered an additional £20m annually, up to the end of the current parliament.
Earlier on Wednesday, Scotland’s communities secretary, Angela Constance, announced a new socio-economic duty, legally obliging all public bodies across Scotland – including councils and Holyrood – to consider how policy and strategy decisions contribute to tackling poverty.
Part of the Fairer Scotland Action Plan, introducing the duty was a recommendation of the Scottish government’s poverty tsar, Naomi Eisenstadt. A similar duty in the UK government’s Equality Act 2010 was blocked by Theresa May when she was home secretary.
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