Welfare and Social Issues

Reconciling social justice and local democracy in the new UK

One of the most interesting consequences of the Scottish independence referendum is likely to be revision of how the UK ensures the economic welfare of its most vulnerable citizens through its currently highly centralised social security system.

Independence has been rejected, but constitutional change is coming nonetheless.[1]

That much can be surmised from the pledges made by the main UK political parties in the panicked closing stages of Scotland’s referendum campaign, including the Prime Minister’s subsequent statements,[2] when for a moment it looked like voters just might opt for independence.

The cross-party commitment to devolve an unspecified measure of control of “welfare” (the term used to describe social security in recent legislation) to Holyrood leaves little doubt that the currently highly centralised system of social security will be on the negotiating table.

From the point of view of one of the founding principles of green politics – grassroots democracy, the taking of decisions at the lowest effective level – this is potentially a positive development. At its best, devolution allows regional needs and preferences to be taken into account in a way that centralised policymaking cannot.

The UK government’s increasingly punitive treatment of the most disadvantaged members of society has been an important driver of nationalist sentiment in Scotland. It therefore seems safe to assume that politicians and voters there – and in Wales and Northern Ireland – would welcome the opportunity to undo hugely unpopular changes introduced by a government led by a Conservative Party that has little support outside England.

These include housing benefit cuts that ghettoise those on low incomes in the very cheapest areas and penalise under-occupancy regardless of whether smaller houses are available, real-terms reduction of out-of-work benefits already below the minimum level endorsed by the European Parliament and human rights instruments and hugely disproportionate financial sanctions on those deemed not to have lived up to job-search obligation attached to their benefit.[3]

The state’s obligation to ensure its citizens have access to the income and services necessary to enjoy a standard of living recognisable as normal in their society – what TH Marshall refers to as the social pillar of citizenship – is being eroded by these measures. If control of social security passes to governments who will not shirk this responsibility, everyone will gain.

Such an outcome would also be in keeping with a second principle of green politics, social justice. But, even if claims that Scotland and Wales are politically to the left of England are true, can this be taken for granted?

Devolving welfare

Despite the importance successive government have placed on a unified approach,[4] and perhaps to the surprise of 97% of the population, the UK does not have a single social security system. One region, Northern Ireland, already has full devolved competence – although to date this has resulted in only the most minor of departures from policy in Great Britain. Why this has been the case is worth considering.

Unlike Scotland and Wales, devolved government in Northern Ireland dates not from 1998 but from 1920. With social security then in its infancy and the UK government desiring above all else to keep the politics of and events in Ireland at arm’s length, responsibility for almost all non-fiscal aspects of domestic policy was transferred to Stormont.

Early Unionist governments, eager to minimise differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, sought to imitate almost every aspect of policy in Great Britain. When the attempt to offer unemployment insurance on the same terms combined with the post-Great War collapse of traditional industries led to the near-bankruptcy of the region by 1925, central government agreed to subsidise social insurance funds so as to enable this practice to continue – a ‘temporary’ arrangement that persists to the present.

Although these cash transfers were originally intended to facilitate the maintenance of parity in social security, they quickly came to be portrayed as contingent on the operation of a parallel but essentially identical system. This practice was uncontroversial – indeed, could be portrayed as the “most important item” of policy for Northern Ireland[5] – until the 1980s.

Murmurs of discontent then have given way to acrimony today, as the main parties in the regional Executive argue on one hand that recent UK government reforms must be resisted (Sinn Féin), on the other that Northern Ireland simply cannot afford the extra costs a distinctive regional approach would incur (DUP).

A Green approach?

Although the Green Party argues that Northern Ireland could raise sufficient revenue in-region to avoid the most unpopular cuts to public services and benefits,[6] the region’s fiscal position – with the largest shortfall between revenues and public spending in the UK – raises the question, familiar to observers of devolution in Spain, of how to afford economically weaker regions meaningful policy autonomy without condemning their citizens to poorer services.

The current approach, where funds are transferred to enable or require (depending on one’s perspective) the implementation of a specific policy is too restrictive. Reliance on locally-raised revenues to fund social security might not be problematic for Scotland, where both spending and revenues are higher than average, but would be disastrous for Northern Ireland and Wales, nor would the extension of the ‘block grant’ system whereby other devolved services are funded to include social security be satisfactory as it grossly underfunds Wales.[7]

An outcome that forces devolved regions into dramatic cuts might suit the right-wing agenda of UKIP, which does not disguise the fact that its vision for federalisation is a means of reducing the extent to which it perceives England subsidises other parts of the UK, but should greatly worry anyone with a concern for social justice.

The examples of Germany and Spain show that interterritorial solidarity can be built into budgetary arrangements, but that such measures are not uncontroversial – and it should be borne in mind that most Members of Parliament, who will ultimately have to approve any new arrangements, represent English constituencies.

Greens have already played a full part in the Scottish constitutional debate, and must now enter the fray UK-wide to ensure that any new settlement does reconcile grassroots democracy, social justice and, crucially, territorial justice.

 

References

[1] For more on this subject, see Rupert Read’s piece for GEJ.

[2] The text of David Cameron’s speech on the future of the UK constitution can be found here.

[3] The European Parliament has called for a guaranteed minimum income in all member states at 60% of national median, but few recipients of means tested benefits in the UK receive an income at this level; for critiques of the UK’s sanctions regime, see here.

[4] See the Scottish Office report, ‘Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom: building on ten years of Scottish devolution’, published in 2009

[5] Basil Brooke, former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, addressing the Northern Ireland House of Commons in March 1949

[6] Party leader Steven Agnew outlines his views here.

[7] For an explanation of how allocations are calculated, see here.

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