The Smith Commission, which reported last week, secured an agreement backed by the five parties represented in the Scottish parliament: the SNP, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green party and the Conservatives.
The agreement will give powers over disability living allowance (DLA), personal independence payment (PIP) and some other disability benefits to the Scottish parliament.
But responsibility for the new universal credit (UC) will remain with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), although the Scottish parliament will have powers to vary the “bedroom tax” and housing benefit rates.
New arrangements for how the Motability car scheme will operate in Scotland for DLA and PIP claimants “will be agreed between the Scottish and UK governments”.
And the Scottish parliament will operate the much-criticised employment programmes currently carried out by various companies and charities on behalf of DWP through the Work Programme and Work Choice, once current contracts have expired.
John McArdle, co-founder of the Scottish-based campaign group Black Triangle, said the agreement “falls far short of what we had demanded”, although he welcomed the decision to devolve PIP and DLA.
He said the “elephant in the room” was the operation of the work capability assessment (WCA) – the controversial test which assesses eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the out-of-work disability benefit – and the role of private companies in delivering it.
McArdle said he was “outraged” that DWP would still have responsibility for the WCA and ESA, which reports suggest was a last-minute stance agreed by Labour and the Conservatives against the wishes of the Greens, SNP and Liberal Democrats, which had all argued for UC and ESA to be devolved.
He said: “The WCA regime still presents a catastrophe for disabled people in Scotland, which is leading to a humanitarian crisis.”
He was also unhappy that keeping universal credit under the control of Westminster would mean that the imposition of sanctions for failing to comply with strict conditions for ESA and jobseeker’s allowance would remain under DWP control.
He said there were increasing reports of disabled people found “fit for work” after a WCA who then find that their DLA or PIP is also denied or withdrawn.
Sharing of information between decision-makers for the two benefits was confirmed by disabled people’s minister Mark Harper last week when, in a Commons debate on PIP, he said that claimants who had already gone through a WCA were having that form handed to the PIP decision-maker.
So far, Labour has not commented on why it appears to have backed the Conservative refusal to devolve responsibility for ESA and UC to the Scottish parliament.
Bill Scott, director of policy for Inclusion Scotland, said his organisation was “disappointed that all welfare benefits including universal credit were not devolved to Scotland”.
He said: “We ran engagement events and an online survey and almost unanimously disabled people told us that they wanted control over all benefits devolved.
“That’s because without control over means-tested benefits, it will be difficult for the Scottish government to construct a disability benefits system which supports disabled people to participate in society rather than punishes them for having an impairment.”
But he said Inclusion Scotland was “delighted” that the Scottish parliament would have some control over housing benefit and “that it will use it to abolish the bedroom tax”.
He said: “In Scotland, 80 per cent of the households affected by the under-occupation charge contain a disabled person, so getting rid of this discriminatory penalty will be very popular with disabled people.”
And he said Inclusion Scotland hoped that the Scottish government would be able to secure an arrangement with Motability that would see fewer disabled people losing their vehicles under the transfer from DLA to PIP.
He said: “Scotland is much more rural than England, with less good public transport links. Therefore a car is not a luxury but an essential in areas like the Highlands.”
He welcomed the new powers over employment programmes but said that without control over either the WCA regime or jobseeker’s allowance and ESA sanctions “Scottish disabled people are still going be wrongly found fit for work and subjected to unfair and draconian sanctions when they are unable to comply with the conditions placed on them by Jobcentre Plus”.
He said: “We wanted and needed control over the whole regime to radically transform it into a vehicle which supports disabled people instead of failing them.”
Lord Smith, chair of the UK power company SSE, who headed the commission, said: “Taken together, these new powers will deliver a stronger [Scottish] parliament, a more accountable parliament and a more autonomous parliament.
“The recommendations, agreed between the parties, will result in the biggest transfer of powers to the parliament since its establishment.
“This agreement is, in itself, an unprecedented achievement. It demanded compromise from all of the parties.
“In some cases that meant moving to devolve greater powers than they had previously committed to, while for other parties it meant accepting the outcome would fall short of their ultimate ambitions.”
4 December 2014