Time for radical thinking on the future of social security in Scotland?
CIH Scotland executive director Annie Mauger writes for the Herald on the future of social security in Scotland.
These are interesting times for Scotland’s housing sector. With a Scottish Government committed to delivering 50,000 new affordable homes by 2021 and the devolution of new powers over tax and social security, the policy landscape in which Scotland’s housing professionals work is changing rapidly.
For those working at the frontline of housing, the UK Government’s welfare reform agenda has also thrown up real challenges, the sheer scale of which is becoming increasingly apparent. In particular, the phased implementation of Universal Credit has resulted in delayed payments, exposing a growing number of tenants to real hardship and an increased risk of homelessness.
As housing service users seek additional support to cope with the transition, the unintended consequence is that the costs to the public purse of administering Universal Credit are rising. This is particularly ironic since one of the key reasons for its introduction was to replace a number of benefits (including housing benefit) with a single payment and, in so doing, to make the system simpler and more efficient to administer.
Too often, the ongoing debate around the future of social security policy seems to take place entirely divorced from considerations about the implications for housing policy and provision. In reality, these two policy areas are inextricably linked, as many of the more than 2,000 individual housing professionals who make up the membership of CIH Scotland are confronting every day.
Rightfully then, as CIH Scotland gears up to host its annual conference in Glasgow this week, the future of social security in Scotland will be high on the agenda. As the Scottish Government considers how best to exercise its new social security powers, it’s a good moment to take a step back and reflect on what we want to achieve with those powers in the years ahead.
Taking account of housing costs, around 940,000 people are estimated to be living in poverty in Scotland. Against that background, it is perhaps unsurprising that we should begin to question whether our entire approach to welfare and social security isn’t fundamentally flawed. As we ponder the alternatives, we should not be afraid to explore more radical policies and thinking.
One particularly radical idea that has been attracting growing interest recently is a Universal Basic Income, the idea being that existing welfare or social security payments should be replaced with a fixed payment to all citizens without means testing and irrespective of whether an individual citizen is in work or not. A number of political parties in Scotland are sympathetic to the idea and proposals have been floated to pilot a Universal Basic Income locally in Fife and Glasgow.
The concept has the attraction of appearing as simple as it is potentially revolutionary. But it also has many critics, including the current UK Government. As is so often the case with new ideas, putting it into practice could throw up many unforeseen consequences, both good and bad. Internationally, limited trials of a Universal Basic Income are already underway in Finland and Italy while Ontario in Canada has plans for a larger scale pilot to be launched this spring. Last year, a referendum in Switzerland proposing the introduction of an unconditional basic income for all citizens was heavily defeated.
Champions of a Universal Basic Income are won over by its relative simplicity compared to the huge complexity of the existing welfare state and argue that it would be far less costly to administer as a consequence. Set at an appropriate level, they also believe it will be far more successful than existing policies in eradicating poverty.
Depending on the level at which it is set, opponents fear that the cost of creating a Universal Basic Income could dwarf that of the current welfare state and would be simply unaffordable. By breaking the link between working and earning an income, they also view it as a dangerous disincentive to work – and to manage finances responsibly.
Whatever your view, debating alternative social security models including ideas as radical as the Universal Basic Income has to be healthy, forcing us as it does to approach the issue from a new and different perspective. Equally, based on a wealth of frontline experience, housing professionals have a great deal to offer this debate in terms of fresh thinking and an alternative view. I therefore look forward to his week’s Scottish Housing Festival generating some stimulating food for thought.
Annie Mauger is Executive Director of the Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland.