Nicola Sturgeon, for the SNP, has written to the Prime Minister to ask that the roll-out of Universal Credit in Scotland should be stopped, anticipating the likelihood that Housing Benefit will be devolved to Scotland in the not too distant future. The UK government has declined, saying that it’s business as usual and they don’t want to anticipate the Smith Commission’s decisions about devolution, due shortly.
The actual position in Scotland, according to the last statistical release, was that by the 14th August, only 590 claimants were receiving Universal Credit in Scotland. (They’re all in the Highlands, and I haven’t met any of them yet.) Even if the numbers multiply exponentially from next April, which is what the DWP says will happen, this will still be a tiny operation for some time to come. Ms Sturgeon can be pretty confident that Housing Benefit is going to be devolved regardless; it’s one of very few benefits which could be devolved without a substantial redesign of benefits in the rest of the UK. The UK government knows it, too, but it wants to claim that Universal Credit is rolling out at a rapid pace.
It won’t be difficult to unpick HB from the small number of cases where housing costs are met by UC, but it’s an unnecessary complication. I suspect that Ms Sturgeon is making hay by kicking up a fuss now, but she’s right in principle. If it’s ultimately decided not to devolve any of the elements of Universal Credit – Tax Credit, JSA, ESA and Housing Benefit – there won’t be much left. It’s going to be hard to identify which benefits can be devolved, and on what terms; Attendance Allowance and PIP won’t be enough to satisfy the pledge. If there was no real devolution of powers over benefits to Scotland, it would be a direct and immediate breach of the undertakings given by all parties prior to the referendum.