What does the independence referendum mean for welfare rights and the future of social security?

What does the independence referendum mean for the future of social security? And for the rights workers and other frontline staff that advise and support low income families? These were the questions being fiercely debated at CPAG in Scotland’s annual welfare rights conference earlier this month.

At the very start of the day over 150 frontline advice workers attending the conference were asked for their views.

They were near unanimous that the referendum would make a difference to claimants in Scotland, but were evenly split on whether the benefits system would be fairer in the event of a Yes vote.

Whatever the outcome, over three quarters thought the referendum would have an effect on the funding available for welfare rights advice.

It was with these views and concerns in mind that delegates heard a range of perspectives on what opportunities and challenges the referendum throws up for the future of social security in Scotland. Carnegie UK Trust Chief Executive, Martyn Evans, outlined the final recommendations of the Scottish Government’s Expert Working Group on Welfare and Constitutional Reform (which you can read here). He described the group's ‘route map’ for social security in the event of independence, whilst highlighting that the principles underpinning it should also be of relevant in a UK context. He argued that social security should be ‘springboard as well as a safety net’ and stressed the need for it to have the trust both of those in and out of the system.

Jim Gallagher, former senior civil servant, current advisor to the Better Together campaign and author of ‘Poverty and the case for the union’ in CPAG’s Poverty in Scotland 2014 reminded delegates that the referendum question was not ‘should Scotland be fairer but should it be independent’ and made an authoritative argument for pooling resources across the UK as the best way to ensure social protection, whilst Willie Sullivan, Convener of Compass Scotland and co-author of Common Weal’s ‘In place of anxiety’ (which you can read here) made a powerful case for shifting power away from a ‘fear based’ British state to create a secure society with rent controls, meaningful, rewarding work and a citizen's income.

The arguments were then picked up in a lively debate with politicians from across the political parties – with many delegates audibly shocked by the lack of knowledge some politicians had of how the social security actually worked now, never mind how it should work in the future.

For us at CPAG in Scotland, what was clear from the conference is that alongside the constitutional question a space is opening up for a real debate on how best to create a more progressive, poverty preventing approach to social security. What is also clear is that whether key powers end up lying at Holyrood or Westminster, welfare rights expertise must be central to taking those discussions forward.

 You can view photos from the conference here.