Scotland politics

Smith Commission: DWP accused of U-turn over work programme

Lord Smith delivers his report Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lord Smith published his 28-page report last week

The UK government is extending its work programme contracts despite a cross-party deal that it was due to come under Holyrood control.

The Scottish government said it was a "flagrant and wilful breach" of the Smith Commission process to devolve more power to Scotland.

But Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael said the decision was made before the commission was set up.

The work programme helps jobseekers find and keep employment.

The Smith Commission, set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of the referendum vote against Scottish independence, recommended it should be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood control "on expiry of the current commercial arrangements".

The Scottish government thought that meant the end of March 2016 and was furious to learn on Tuesday the contract was to be extended by a year.

'Breathtaking arrogance'

Scottish Skills Secretary Roseanna Cunningham accused the Westminster government of "breathtaking arrogance", and has written to UK Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to complain.

Ms Cunningham said: "The ink is barely dry on the Smith recommendations and already the Tories are breaking both its word and its spirit.

"Smith is explicit. Devolution of the work programme should happen as soon as the current contracts expire.

"Instead of honouring that, within just a couple of days of Smith, they are extending the contracts. That is breathtaking arrogance."

But, appearing before a special Scottish Parliament committee on the future of devolution, Mr Carmichael said of the move: "This was a decision that was taken in August, so some of the breathless commentary about this being a dreadful decision that was designed to thwart the will of the Smith commission is not justified because, frankly, this decision was taken long before the Smith commission was even set up.

"Although these contracts have been extended from 2016 to 17, this again is an area where the two governments should be sitting down and the Scottish government should be saying to the UK government, 'we have done some thinking on this. This is what we want to do with our new welfare system, now how can that be represented with the contractual arrangements that you're putting in place'.

"With political will there's no reason why that can't actually be done".

Early devolution

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the UK Department for Work and Pensions said it was important to maintain "continuity of support".

The spokesman added that unemployment in Scotland had fallen by 38,000 over the last year and the priority was to fulfil a commitment to the Smith process, while helping as many people into work as possible.

The issue is expected to be raised by Nicola Sturgeon when she later meets Mr Carmichael for the first time since she became Scottish first minister.

Ms Sturgeon is also expected to press for early devolution of air passenger duty, disability living allowance and control over Holyrood elections in time to extend voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds for the 2016 poll.

Earlier this week, Mr Carmichael told the BBC he was considering the fast-track devolution of control over Scottish Parliament elections to make sure the franchise could be extended to younger voters.

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