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Thursday, 17 May 2012

Helping Scots who are to be stripped of benefits as a result of UK welfare reforms could mean cuts to other benefits, such as older people’s free bus passes, charities said this week.

They called on the Scottish Parliament to consider creative solutions to tackle the dramatic impact of UK welfare reforms which are set to strip £2.5 billion of benefits from Scotland.

MSPs this week said they had “grave concerns” about the changes in the new UK Welfare Reform Act, which will see an end to council tax benefit, income support, jobseeker’s allowance, child tax credit, working tax credit and housing benefit.

Instead of these benefits people will receive a new single universal credit.

Similarly, Disability Living Allowance is to be replaced by Personal Independence Payments.

Holyrood’s Welfare Reform Committee was set up to analyse the impact of the benefit changes in Scotland. It came after the Scottish Parliament refused to back all elements of the UK Act for the first time in the institution’s history.

The committee said nobody in Scotland should lose out on so-called passported benefits that are administered in Scotland.

These include concessionary travel, blue badge permits, free NHS dental treatment, optical vouchers, educational maintenance allowances, legal aid and individual learning accounts.

Speaking at the launch of the committee’s stage one report on the Welfare Reform (Further Provision) (Scotland) Bill, convener Michael McMahon said: “We heard from witnesses about the bleak picture for those on welfare and the scale of personal impact that is likely to follow the UK reforms.

“We have grave concerns for the future of Scotland’s most vulnerable people. This comes at a time when the Scottish welfare budget is being cut by £2.5 billion. Seeking to limit even some of the negative impacts of reforms is therefore no mean feat.”

Scottish charities, many of whom campaigned vigorously against elements of the UK Welfare Reform Act, however said that simply retaining passported benefits would be unaffordable and not go far enough to help Scots in need of support.

David Griffiths, chief executive of ECAS disability organisation in Edinburgh also said that the proposal would mean that newly disabled people may not get access to some benefits that those with similar conditions will retain.

“I believe we need to take this opportunity to be more innovative and to look at the wider picture of what we are spending money on and the effectiveness of that spend,” said Griffith.

“We could look at the benefit of the £180 million spent on the National Concessionary Card and the £142 million on legal aid, plus the cost of universal free prescriptions.

“Could we get more benefit by reducing these spends (perhaps change the age for the NCC from 60 to pension age or 65 or even 70, for example) and use the savings to enhance community transport whose current income in Scotland is just £10m?”

His concerns were backed by John Downie, director of public affairs at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

“We certainly agree we need to do something to mitigate the impact, but the big issue is how to pay for it,” said Downie.

“With a spending review coming up, we need to have a debate about whether we can afford such a wide range of universal benefits.

“The welfare system is about protecting the most vulnerable in society.”

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