A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has received a lot of press attention, and it has some helpful facts and figures, but it actually does very little towards breaking new ground. It says that benefits in Scotland cost relatively more than England for some groups (notably, for people with disabilities), and relatively less for others. It says that most of the money goes on pensions, which is hardly news. And it says that if there is radical reform, there will be losers as well as gainers, and that it is only possible to mitigate the losses by spending more. So far, so obvious.
The remit of the IFS briefing note is limited; it’s concerned with expenditure rather than equity or methods of paying benefit. It doesn’t actually provide key data on the issue which most people want to know, which is what Scotland could afford. To work that out, it would be necessary to compare Scotland’s national income and government revenue on one hand with liabilities and expenditure on the other – we have a good idea of how much money is spent, but how much revenue there would be is another issue entirely. Without that, it’s not really possible to say anything about the affordability of benefits. There are no indications that Scotland’s liabilities exceed its income to such an extent that benefit payments would be impossible; but beyond that, it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusion. What a country can afford depends on what it’s willing to pay for.
There are more serious challenges to developing a devolved or independent benefit system, but they are as much about mechanism as about cost. One example which emerged earlier this week was the question of what happens to occupational pension schemes: a cross national scheme has to be funded, so any Scottish schemes would need to be separated out. That points to a general issue about such schemes, which is that the smaller the scheme is, the more difficult it can be to balance the contributory base with existing liabilities. The basic way to overcome that problem is through pooling of risks between pension schemes – which generally happens in France (it’s referred to as a form of ‘solidarity’), but not in the UK, and its absence is a major reason for the instability of current UK schemes. A larger problem is the question of what happens to the contributory National Insurance system when all the records are currently held in Newcastle. I’m doubtful that the system is susceptible to devolution. It’s hard to see on what basis records could be transferred; Scotland would need a new and different pensions scheme, like a Citizens Pension.
There are, too, problems of cost control generated by a range of benefits which pay people to buy specific services in the market – housing, social care and child care among them. This approach is inherently defective; in every case it has led to accelerating costs without providing adequate basic protection. Any government, whether it is for Scotland or the UK, would need to rethink.