Johnstone’s View - Almost unique process

Last week in the Scottish Parliament, we completed the process of the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Bill.

Bringing this legislation to its completion was an interesting and almost unique process, in that the unexpected devolution of an area of welfare expenditure required the Scottish Government to bring together an interim Scottish welfare fund and put it in place a year before the legislation to formalise it could be formally introduced.

As a consequence, both Government, and Parliament, had to take the ‘suck-it-and-see’ approach. We saw what worked well, as well as what would need to be improved in order to avoid the problems which became apparent. We have made changes in the legislation in some places, when it has made good sense to do so.

The new bill formalises the system of Community Care Grants and Crisis Grants which replace the previous system of loans. While taking evidence on the Bill, we found few people who opposed the move away from loans to grants. One local authority argued that it might be appropriate to continue with loans; perhaps we can do something else with loans in the future, but it is right that this scheme should concentrate on grants. I see no problem with that approach.

The key issue that came to the fore, even during the interim scheme, was the need to incorporate a proper appeals procedure into the scheme. With the bill passing its final stage in Parliament, we can formally put that procedure in place.

Controversially, the new scheme will increase the maximum time taken for decisions to be made from 24 to 48 hours but reassurances were given that the average time taken would not increase. I am glad that we seem to have come to a conclusion on that and that the minister has put our minds at rest.

One person — a scheme user — who gave evidence to the committee, thought that their application had been completed in the initial phone call yet believed that they were left to wait for 48 hours until news of their successful application was passed back to them. If that happened, that was unacceptable. I hope that it did not happen and that it was merely an impression that was created in error. We have had a clear indication from the minister that this is not the intent, so such cases should not, and hopefully will not, happen.

We have seen from the interim scheme that local authorities are very good at doing this kind of thing. There has been a mix of success rates, and we were in a dangerous situation for a while, when we thought that the interim scheme would be under-spent because it took so long for people to understand what was available and for systems to be put in place to pass out that money.

The Scottish Government added money during the year, which resulted in more money being available. However, at the end of the process, we had a scheme that had largely run to budget, supplied support for those who needed it and given us examples of good practice in many local authorities across Scotland. I hope that the scheme is a successful model that we can perhaps adopt for the delivery of other support mechanisms that are yet to be devolved to us.

One area that I am disappointed about is the decision by the government to remove the right, contained within the original draft legislation, for Local Authorities to out-source the management of these schemes. I perfectly understand that most people in the Parliament, perhaps not including me, object to the private sector’s involvement in the provision of public service. However, such provision could have given us the opportunity to include skills and knowledge that are held in the third sector and to use them in the delivery of the scheme. I hope that we have not lost that opportunity completely by virtue of the fact that some have an aversion to private sector involvement.

For those interested in Parliamentary process, we discussed at length the fact that the Government has chosen to go down the road of the affirmative procedure for changes in the legislation once it is brought in. I believe that the negative procedure is underrated and under-used. In the bill’s case, the negative procedure would have allowed change to happen more quickly, if the need for change was identified.

In the long term, we should be concerned about the very high administration costs of the scheme. In the grand order of things, the scheme is relatively small, and too much of the money will be spent on administration. We have to drive down administration costs in the future, when we will have more responsibilities.

All in all, I was happy to see the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Bill pass unanimously at the end of the debate.