Benefit top-up powers present chance for Scotland to chart a fairer course

Today, September 5th, marks an important phase in the development of devolution. Under powers devolved today, Holyrood will be able to create entirely new benefits and also to top-up the value of benefits that are reserved, such as Jobseeker's Allowance.

The Scottish Government has made a promising start, particularly in correcting some of the blindspots of the current system by pledging to create new benefits. Shortly after the election earlier this year, the First Minister pledged to consider the Scottish Green Party election pledge of a Young Carer Allowance, and I will be writing to the First Minister to enquire about the progress of its work in progressing this. The ongoing A New Future for Social Security in Scotland consultation is also asking about the possibility of a new Job Grant of £100 for young people returning to work after a period of unemployment, rising to £250 for those with children. This is a much smaller measure, but nonetheless good to see.

But it is important the Scottish Government continues to explore the possibilities of the new powers. Whilst these proposals for new benefits are very welcome, it is the benefit top-up powers that present one of the most exciting opportunities for Scotland to chart a different, fairer course in social security.

For years, both the Scottish Government and the Scottish Greens have criticised the UK government for cutting support for those most in need. Up until now, that's all that we've been able to do: criticise. But from today, we can do something about it.

Whether by out-and-out cuts like the shameful impending £30 reduction to Employment Support Allowance, or by secretive changes to the way rates are calculated, we no longer have to accept that Scots will be worse off.

I was delighted to see the Government pledging to reintroduce child poverty targets and one of the quickest ways to meet this targets would be to top-up Child Benefit.  By 2020, it is projected that child benefit will have lost 28% of its value when compared to 2010, and we can start to address this by adding an extra £5 to the benefit, as both the Child Poverty Action Group Scotland (CPAG) and the Scottish Greens have called for previously. CPAG have commissioned research that shows that such a move would cut child poverty by 14%, lifting 30,000 children out of poverty.

This will require the boldness from the Scottish Government that during the election Scottish Greens argued would be needed in this Parliamentary session. In particular, it would likely require some increase in taxes at the higher end of the income scale.

At an event with the Glasgow Disability Alliance last week, the Social Security Minister decried the limitations of the social security powers being devolved. I agree with her that the emerging system, split between Holyrood and Westminster, is likely to prove more complex to administer than social security in an independent Scotland. But this does not mean that the new powers don't offer huge potential to restore fairness to social security after years of heartless and mindless cuts by Westminster.

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