The Scottish Government has published an Outline Business Case for its new Social Security Agency. They are opting for
a central agency with enhanced phone and online support, which incorporates face-to-face pre-claims and support services locally in existing public sector locations and with assessments undertaken in a manner that is appropriate for policy choices that will be made as the final business case is progressed.
This is not a great surprise, because the Scottish Government has had a long-established preference for working through centralised agencies, and the case for doing this in a rights-based social security system is stronger than it is in fields which depend more heavily on professional judgment or local adaptation. The Business Case says something about the kind of system they want Scottish social security to be, but the document is still vague about many of the specifics: who the agency will be run by, what the new benefits will be, or how the rules will be decided.
In several pieces and presentations last year I pointed to the implications of the ‘no detriment’ principle agreed by the Smith Commission, which means that the Scottish Government will bear the costs of changing policies that otherwise would be suffered by the UK government. In January I gave an example of this: HMRC has charged the Scottish Government for the cost of not doing anything about stamp duty. Now I read this, in a report published by Audit Scotland today:
56. DWP has adjusted its systems and guidance to accommodate the introduction of the SRIT (Scottish Rate of Income Tax). It estimates this will cost £1.7 million. DWP charged the Scottish Government £870,000 for this work in 2015/16, and expects further costs in 2016/17.
Yes: that’s a bill for changing its guidance. Presumably based on average cost rather than marginal cost, because there’s no marginal cost in adding detail to routine updates of guidance. The principle is important, because when it comes to big changes – such as introducing new disability benefits – the DWP is going to follow through with billing for changes throughout the system, and the costs are likely to be prohibitive. How would the British government respond if they get a bundle of equivalent bills from the EU – the cost of removing references to 28 countries from leaflets, or changing address books? They really need to start rethinking their approach to transferring responsibilities.
Theresa May has described the request for a referendum on Scotland before a final decision about Brexit as a ‘game’. There’s rather more to it than that. If Scotland votes for independence before the exit agreement is concluded it will materially affect the terms on which Scotland could become a member of the European Union. It would make it possible for Scotland’s status to be negotiated as part of the exit agreement; the precedent is the division of Denmark from Greenland, where part of a country left and part continued within the EU. That would also mean, under the terms of Article 50, that Scotland’s status was subject to majority voting rather than unanimous agreement within the Council. (We’ve been hearing a lot about the need for the EU to get the consent of all member states to agreement on the UK’s departure; that’s not actually required by the Article 50 process.) Delaying the timing of the referendum would have the effect of closing down both of those options, and while the situation could be resolved in other ways, a delay now could obstruct Scotland’s consideration for membership for several years.
The date is however a matter of politics, and if May wanted to scuttle Scottish independence, she has another option: which is, to offer an immediate referendum within the next two months, rather than one in 18 months to two years. The precedent is the short period permitted for the Brexit referendum; the Government’s rationale would be that this would clear the ground before the exit negotiations, Brexit in 2019 and the 2020 General Election; but the political calculation would be that a short time span would make it very difficult for the Nationalists to build enough support to win. The longer the delay, the more likely it becomes that the vote will be for independence.
Nicola Sturgeon has announced that there will be a further referendum on Scottish independence. I thought the arguments were finely balanced in 2014, and I did not vote in favour. The main positive arguments for independence seemed to me to be about
- responsiveness to need
- self-determination, and
The main positive arguments for the union were
- social protection and security,
- the increased capacity to act with common resources and
The last of those arguments has been exploded by recent events: sticking with the UK while it prepares to jump off a cliff is hardly a pragmatic choice. The other arguments for the union are still valid, though the first has been undermined to some extent by the erosion of public services and social protection under the mantle of ‘austerity’; and all of the arguments for union are as much arguments for union with Europe as they are for union with the UK. The scales have tipped, and as they stand now I will vote in favour this time.
If Scotland is going to be serious about independence, however, some of the holes in the Scottish Government’s proposals have to be filled. Their initial attempts to outline a constitutional settlement were led astray by the inclusion of specific policies (such as policies on defence) rather than constitutional powers. I hope we won’t have a repetition of the disastrous White Paper, which presented a policy manifesto instead of an agenda for independence. We do need to embark on a constitutional debate.
The responses to the Scottish consultation on social security have been available online for about a month, but I’ve just got round to sifting through them. I’ve not looked at most, because there are 460 of them, but what I have read reflects a great deal of thoughtful engagement, from individuals, professional groups, local authorities and the third sector. (There are also some things to disagree with, but I’ll leave people to find those for themselves.)
Here are some links to get you started:
It’s difficult to make sense of the submissions by reading them one by one – which is all that was possible at first. The web page has been redesigned in a way that pretty much invites readers to enter a key term – “cold weather”, “funerals”, “maternity”, “hearings” and so on – to see what people are saying about the topic. However, that doesn’t work for every topic – there are 196 submissions with bits relating to assessments. It also doesn’t show material from entries that have referred to evidence in PDF documents. So, for example, the fullest discussion of Industrial Injuries benefits I’ve found so far is made by Thompsons Solicitors, but it doesn’t come up on a search.
On Thursday 17th, I was part of a group of academics giving verbal evidence to the Social Security Committee of the Scottish Parliament, concerning the future development of social security in Scotland. The verbal record of the proceedings is here, in the section headed ‘Work Programme Priorities’ (that’s about the future work of the Committee, not the Work Programme). There is also a full video of the committee (our discussion starts at 1:03). As I can be fairly sure that most of you won’t read or listen to that discussion, here’s a shortened version of my opening statement:
… there is often a tendency to respond to the current set and diet of benefits as a laid table. The terms on which benefits are delivered always determine what it is possible to think about for the future, and it becomes extremely difficult to adapt to change or to anticipate change because of the huge pressure to make up for what has gone before. We saw that in relation to the bedroom tax … [and] tax credit cuts … however, I am afraid that it will not be possible to deal with most of the cuts. Quite simply, there is too much water coming through the dyke and you do not have enough fingers. …
It is important to look to the future and future priorities for the ways in which benefits are to be delivered in Scotland. There are some very large issues of huge importance coming at Scotland at great speed. The Scottish Government will take responsibility for what is, admittedly, a minor part of the total social security system but one that, nevertheless, represents a huge administrative, practical and financial challenge. That must be the priority for future work over the next five years.
In some ways, it is a minefield. Whatever happens—no matter how well the system works—we all know that, with a large system with multiple iterations that deals with tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people, whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament will get the blame when it does. We have to accept that as being part of the enterprise that we are engaged in. It is clearly important to try, as far as possible, to promote the kind of agenda that the Scottish Parliament has previously adopted relating to respect, dignity and fairness to ensure that the system works properly.
I know that it is tempting to focus on specific policies… I would argue that, rather than trying to adapt specific policies on each and every thing, the focus should be on something that is fundamental to everything, and certainly to dignity and respect: developing the administration and mechanics of benefit delivery.
There’s lots more in the full verbal report.
The Times has reported the prospect of “all out war between the Sturgeon administration and Scotland’s local authorities.” (Councils to be stripped of powers in local government revolution, 11th November 2016, p 19). It may be a little difficult to think of any field where councils have many powers left to be stripped. Local authorities are a shadow of their former existence: after 1945 they have lost powers relating to social security, health, public utilities, and more recently they have lost most of their functions relating to housing or social work. Education has been boxed in by a national curriculum. Planning and licensing have been strangled by the imposition of a quasi-judicial framework, requiring councillors to behave as if they were judges rather than representatives. Residual powers relating to police and fire have been centralised. So current proposals to take out still more functions, or to shift responsibilities for bin collection to ‘towns’, would leave little more than a shell behind.
Some years ago, I asked a group of councillors for their views. Many were deeply resentful of the Scottish parliament, which in their view claimed a democratic legitimacy which they thought they had in equal measure. The current system of local government is already remarkably centralised by European standards – Highland Council, to take the most obvious example, is responsible for a geographical area the size of a small country. I don’t think there is any way to resolve the conflict within the current framework, but there is at least a way to put reform in a positive light. There’s a powerful case for real decentralisation – locating services at a level where communities can get much greater control of the affairs that matter to them. To do that, there needs to be a system of local government that is based on existing communities – towns, villages, and traditionally recognised areas – as a centre for schools, housing and public amenities. That would call for reform both at central and at local government levels.
The Scottish Welfare Fund, for those who hail from other pairts, is the national scheme that replaced the Social Fund when England moved to local welfare assistance. The headline figures for the Fund look, at first, as if the process of budgeting has been almost ideal. 26% of the budget for 2016-17 was spent in the three months April-June. That could give the impression either that the system is being controlled with a rod of iron, or that it’s being run by Scotland’s most proficient clairvoyants.
Looking at the figures in more detail, however, the neat precision disappears. There are 32 local authorities, each administering both Crisis Grants and Community Care Grants on the basis of national guidance. The total budget is an amalgam of all of those elements. That makes for a grand total of 65 moving parts. And while there are some general trends, not all of those parts behave predictably. The numbers of Crisis Grant claims have fallen off, but there is still a wide variation in acceptance rates – 49% in West Lothian, 94% in East Renfrewshire. While the general picture for Community Care Grants is more stable, A few local authorities have made substantial adjustments in the rate at which they distribute CCGs. An underspend has been carried forward which smooths out some of the aggregate differences. I don’t see any reason to question the figures as they’re presented, but by the same token I am far from convinced that there is any underlying pattern or consistency which will guarantee conformity with central budget limits in time to come.
I’ve drafted a response to the consultation: here is a link to the document. I’m aiming to submit the response in the next couple of weeks, but I’d be grateful for comments before I do that. The main points I’ve made are these:
- The aims of benefit systems are complex. Oversimplification threatens to compromise important principles. (paras 5-7)
- Terminology can be tested to see if it has unexpected implications. (para 11)
- Benefits are only one form of support; sometimes direct provision is preferable. (para 13)
- If benefits are to get to the right people, entitlement needs to be clearer and the terms on which benefits are delivered need to be less sensitive to personal differences. (para 22).
- It should not be assumed that citizens must register claims before they can receive benefits. (paras 3, 21)
- Aspects of administration can be delegated to third sector agencies (paras 14, 15)
- There have to be systems for independent scrutiny, rapid review and redress. (paras 17, 18, 23, 24)
- Interactions with other benefits should be avoided. (paras 7, 8, 25, 26)
- Transitional arrangements create complexities. They can be avoided by buying out rights. (paras 19, 20)
It’s not helpful to go on too long in a consultation response, and what I’ve sacrificed are comments on particular benefits – I’ve already been at sessions discussing disability benefits, maternity and funerals, and no doubt there’ll be others.
Further note: Responses to the consultation are all now online; this response is number 500312666 and available here.
I’ve blogged less this month, partly because there’s not been much news, but because I’ve had a load of other things on, including caring responsibilities, painting windows, this submission and book contracts. I’m also finishing off two short books to meet deadlines: Arguments for welfare will be published by Rowman and Littlefield, What’s wrong with social security benefits? by Policy Press. Both should be out in 2017.
The Scottish Government has released a consultation on the use of its new social security powers. I’ll be looking to respond in due course but it’s a lengthy document and I thought people would appreciate having the link before I started to work on it.
In the meantime, I have previously discussed the kinds of things that the Scottish Government might be doing in a paper for the Common Weal, What can the Scottish Parliament do with new social security powers?