David Griffiths | Ecas | Why we need to be wary of politicians running the debate.
My title, taken from the Sound of Music, initially sounds like a classic statement of the obvious but, on reflection, in some circumstances it is difficult to tell where the “very beginning” is. Chicken or egg, for example. The devolution or devo-max or independence debate is also an example. Having given evidence to the Calman Commission and three Parliamentary Committees (some more than once) on this subject it is clear to me that many politicians think in terms of devolving “power”, and only a few think in terms of “product or output”. I think we need to be wary of allowing this debate to be run by politicians because they may have too narrow a debate. I think we need to widen the debate and we also need to define where the “very beginning” is. Hopefully this brief article will explain why.
I think the very beginning should be deciding what sort of community we want to live in. For example, what sort of Welfare State do we want and how do we, as a society, view areas such as equality and human rights. At one extreme do we want to go back in time to the poor houses and mental institutions or do we want to keep moving forward providing increasingly better support for the more vulnerable members of our society? Such a debate would also, of course, need to include how we would fund the chosen option and many other policy areas, and there will surely be a need for compromises. If we decide that what matters is providing a service for the vulnerable members of our society (the young, the old, disabled people and so on) then we will need to decide how to provide such a service – directly from the state, through cash benefits, through a state funded health service or through cash to obtain private health care; there are plenty of options. In providing this service, though, we may wish to reflect that to the recipient benefits, health and social care are all part of one package – the support package that is crucial to their lives.
Having thus decided what we want we then need to decide how that can best be achieved. This could be going back to where we were before devolution or complete independence or anything in between, but I am convinced that we should decide what powers, if any, the Scottish Parliament needs based purely on what it is we want that Parliament to do. The current system seems to decide what powers to devolve and then try and make the product fit and this simply does not make sense. Again, using welfare as an example having benefits reserved to Westminster (where the Department for Work and Pensions will understandably design them for the 90% of the UK population that does not live in Scotland) whilst devolving health and social care to Holyrood was never going to work unless the two governments followed broadly similar lines for health and social care. This is not happening, and there is a growing consensus that the direction of Scotland’s Self Directed Support Bill is very different to Westminster’s Welfare Reform Bill.
There is a big challenge here – design your own welfare state, and everything else, from scratch – and who is better placed to do that than the third sector? The big question now is whether or not the sector will rise to that challenge or allow politicians to go back to squabbling about powers instead of worrying about outcomes. This will take time and that is why I agree with those who say we cannot hold the referendum just yet – there are far too many unanswered questions. But if we do answer the questions before the referendum, then let us at least ask the right ones.
So, I say the “very beginning” is a blank sheet of paper. Where are you starting from?