The White Paper on Independence was released at 10.00 this morning. I was in the BBC Studio to read it, so that I could comment on the welfare provisions. Benefits are identified as a large part of what independence offers. Among the questions reviewed is, “what will independence deliver for me?”, and three of the six bullet points given in response are about social security or tax credits.
The Scottish Government has taken a very cautious approach. Most of what they plan is a preservation of existing rights and benefits, and where there have been recent reforms going in the wrong direction – Universal Credit, PIP, the bedroom tax and slower uprating – they have said they’ll reverse them. Beyond that, they also promise to protect the position of pensioners, and to respect all accrued rights under the UK system.
That last point prompts some concern. Every promise to maintain benefits runs the risk of locking the Scottish Government into the existing system. Unless new money comes in, it’s never possible to make someone better off without making someone else worse off. The more commitments that are made to maintain the system, the less scope there is for independent action – and this document effectively commits itself to keeping pensions, housing benefit and disability benefits and tax credits, and uprating them with inflation. That’s the vast majority of benefits paid now. The commitment to protect accrued rights means that if someone aged 21 is contributing now, they may well be still entitled to benefits based on those contributions in seventy years’ time – and in 45 or 50 years’ time, the SG will still need access to records held in England to be able to do it. (What the government could have done instead was to pledge that people would not be left worse off as a result of changes, buying out rights where appropriate.) The commitment in this document means either that they keep elements of the UK system for the best part of a century, or that ultimately they will have to renege on their promises.
Beyond that, there are also elements in what the SG is proposing that identifying them strongly with the current programme of welfare reform. They want benefits to be “swift, streamlined and responsive” to individual circumstances. They will ‘review’ conditionality, but they’ll keep it. “Our overarching aim will be that benefits work hand in hand with programmes designed to help people find work.” Oh, dear. This has been the blight of the current UK system. Most benefits have nothing whatever to do with helping to find work, and everything being done in this direction impairs the benefits system and muddies the water further.