Toni Giugliano: We can’t leave vulnerable out in cold

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This week I was accused on Twitter of “obsessing over the constitution” for arguing for more powers for Holyrood.

But “the constitution” isn’t some abstract, flag-waving sentimental notion or object – it’s real policies, real jobs, food on the table, dignity and support for thousands of Scots who have been left behind by an unfair system.

Let me give you a concrete example.

Access to Work is a UK government welfare programme that offers practical assistance to disabled people, helping them to stay in employment. A mere 860 applicants were granted funding through the scheme over the past year in Scotland, yet 50 per cent of disabled adults north of the Border are out of work.

Scottish control over this support fund would allow us to learn from the mistakes of the status quo, redesign services differently and ensure that the needs of Scots with mental health problems are no longer sidelined but put front and centre. But the UK government doesn’t see it this way.

Surely the benefits of secure employment for both economic security and peace of mind should be something that any government should support without hesitation or ambiguity?

A multitude of sources document the ways in which an array of cuts, invasive Employment Support Allowance (ESA) assessments – often conducted by assessors with a flawed understanding of mental health issues – benefit caps and restrictions on tax credits are steadily making the lives of affected Scots more difficult.

The cuts of £30 a week to ESA for new claimants placed in the Work Related Activity Group announced in the Budget last month only darken this picture further and show where the new government’s priorities lie.

Heartbreaking testimonials on how these ideologically driven measures are affecting the lives of ordinary people have been set out by the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) and its Fit for Purpose report, showing the ways in which mental health conditions are exacerbated by the fear and uncertainty that have followed welfare reform.

Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that GPs are reporting increasing mental health issues among patients in very deprived areas in Scotland. With Institute for Fiscal Studies research showing that a growing proportion of disability benefit claimants are claiming on the basis of mental or behavioural health reasons – up to almost 50 per cent in some age groups – and that by 2017 most benefit rates will be lower than in 2008, the outlook is grim.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

Key welfare programmes – like Work Choice, for instance – are in the course of being devolved to the Scottish Government, which will therefore have an opportunity to streamline them. The welfare system can be amazingly and perversely complex. In untangling lines of responsibility and funding of byzantine intricacy, Holyrood will have its work cut out when it assumes responsibility for the programme in 2017 – but the need is pressing, and addressing it could have a profound impact on the lives of tens of thousands across Scotland.

But more can be done. It makes perfect sense for the UK government to devolve Access to Work to Holyrood. If the Exchequer wants fewer people on benefits and more in work, then investing in a programme that empowers people with disabilities and supports them to move into sustained, secure employment is the right thing to do.

Everyone recognises the urgency of pushing up employment rates among the disabled with mental health issues, only 21 per cent of whom are in work. And the demand for work is palpable: dozens of SAMH reports feature legions of mentally ill men and women crying out for the sense of agency and economic security that a full-time job can provide.

The cuts to ESA only make achieving this more difficult. For a government supposedly focused on getting people into work, a myopic obsession with saving money in the short term will only make it harder to get the disabled working in the long term.

Moreover, the government has done little meaningful to address the enduring stigma attached to the employment of those with mental health problems – according to recent UK statistics only 30 per cent of employers would employ someone with a mental health problem. In fact, the changes to ESA are stigmatising in suggesting that people who claim this benefit do so for financial reasons, rather than needing extra funding to pay for additional costs caused by their illness.

With the Scotland Bill grinding its way through the Westminster sausage machine, by the end of the decade Holyrood will have powers over social policy and spending beyond anything in modern Scottish history. There’s still time for Scottish MPs to press for the Bill to be more ambitious but, ultimately, the ball is in the UK government’s court. It has the power to enact a strengthened Scotland Bill that doesn’t leave people with disabilities out in the cold.

Dismissing the devolution of powers as “obsessing over the constitution” is a kick in the teeth to the thousands of Scots humiliated by Westminster each day. The Budget shows that welfare powers cannot be too broad, or come soon enough.

• Toni Giugliano has been selected as SNP candidate for Edinburgh Western at next year’s Scottish Parliament elections