Angela Constance, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, made a statement yesterday about the first changes to benefits reflecting the shift in powers in the Scotland Act. The new schemes for maternity (the “Best Start” scheme) and for funeral payments will come on line in 2019; although the application process will be “simplified”, they will continue to be one-off, means-tested payments.
Carers Allowance will be the first new benefit to come on line, starting in Summer 2018. The purpose of the benefit is to bring up the rate of Carers Allowance (currently £62.70 pw) to equal the rate of Jobseekers’ Allowance (£73.10 pw for those over 25). Rather than taking over Carers Allowance, the Scottish Government has opted to pay a supplement to the DWP-administered benefit. It will be done by making two payments a year, and while the payment will be made by the new Scottish Social Security Agency, it depends on information drawn from the systems and processes of the DWP.
Transferring responsibility from the DWP to the new agency would have been complex task; that has been avoided. Paying a supplement weekly or monthly would involve constantly passing information back and forth; that has been avoided, too. However, the decision will have some substantive implications. Currently Carers Allowance is not actually paid to many people who are nominally entitled; that will still be true. Claiming Carers Allowance may have negative effects on a disabled person’s entitlement to the severe disability premium; that will still be true. There had been talk of extending the benefit to younger people or those in full time education; it looks like that is not going to happen. So, for the while at least, the decision is going to lock the basis of payment a little more firmly to the status quo.
The SNP have published their manifesto today. They don’t pretend that they’re going to be the next government, but they do represent themselves as an active opposition – more, they suggest with some justice, than might be said for some other parties in Parliament. The principles are clear and strong: they’re opposed to austerity, they want to take action on poverty and inequality, they want to safeguard Britain’s position in the single market and they want to support public services. They’re unusual in treating social security as a major issue – sanctions, the rape clause, pensions, the bedroom tax and the benefits freeze. And, despite the hollow accusations from opposing parties in Scotland about the SNP’s supposed ‘obsession’, there’s nothing here about independence.
The main point of criticism is a matter of style rather than substance: there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been said within three days of the election announcement. Waiting so long to put out the manifesto tends to imply that it wasn’t seen as much of a priority, and that is a misjudgment. People need something positive to vote for, and this manifesto has something to offer.
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.