We have just been given an illustration of how a devolved social security system might work. Northern Ireland has had the competence to alter social security benefits, on and off, for much of the last century. The Northern Ireland Assembly’s current offence is that it’s failed to pass a Welfare Reform Bill, intended to implement a series of measures imposed by the coalition government in London. The measures include
- introduction of Universal Credit
- introduction of Personal Independence Payment
- changes to Housing Benefit
- introduction of a Benefit Cap
- end of the current Social Fund scheme which will be replaced by a new service called Discretionary Support
- changes to Employment and Support Allowance
- introduction of new Fraud and Error powers
- introduction of further sanctions and hardship measures.
There’s actually rather more in the Bill, including a clause restricting the access to Jobcentres of the sex industry and a reduced fee for the dog licences which the rest of the UK doesn’t have, but leave that aside. Most of the bullet list has been implemented in Great Britain, but three have had very little main effect on finances to date. Universal Credit hasn’t really happened, and will cost money when it does; PIP is grinding out exceedingly slowly, and in any case the new rules do very little directly to affect the roots of increasing costs; and the benefit cap is a token measure which affects very few people nationally, and fewer still outside London. Of the others, the Social Fund is capped anyway, the bedroom tax has all but collapsed because of the need for exceptions, and new measures for fraud can’t be expected to do anything that thirty years of crackdowns haven’t done, so the bulk of the prospective savings come down to two measures – reassessment of ESA entitlement and sanctions.
At present the Northern Ireland government is accused of overspending on its total budget by over £100m. Given a budget of roughly £10bn, Northern Ireland’s deficit is hardly profligate – and it’s important to recognise that the province took a hammering in the financial crisis, and is still in the grip of a major slump. Nearly as much money again, however, will be added to to the deficit as the result of £90m fines being imposed on Northern Ireland for failing to comply with Westminster’s diktat. I’m not going to suggest that Nick Clegg’s comments are patronising, because patronising is such a long word and it will only confuse people. But when he explains that the Assembly has to accept “financial realities”, it seems that financial reality consists of the lesser orders doing what they’re told to do.