Gordon Brown argued, before the referendum, that more welfare powers should be devolved to Scotland; he particularly identified Housing Benefit and the Work Programme as contenders for devolution. Yesterday he added that the Scottish Government should have the power to ‘top up’ benefits. It was possible to top up Housing Benefit to compensate for the ‘bedroom tax’ because the benefit is administered by local authorities, and the Scottish Government was able both to specify the rules, and to pay the local authorities to administer the benefit. Unfortunately, this won’t work more generally; the scope for topping up is very limited.
No benefit can be paid effectively by two agencies: the agencies would need equivalent access to information about names, addresses and household circumstances. Part of the problem is means-testing – people’s eligibility for JSA, ESA or Pension Credit depends on rapidly changing circumstances, which an outside agency can’t know about – but it would be still be difficult to top up more stable benefits such as Child Benefit or Industrial Injury Benefits, because the second funder would still need to be able to say who was eligible and how much for. It follows that topping up has to be done either by paying out an new benefit payment, or by paying over funds to an administering agency with the requirement to deliver benefits on newly specified criteria. Wherever delivery is the responsibility of a UK-wide agency it will be necessary for the operating service first to distinguish potential claimants with Scottish entitlements, and next to offer distinct rates or calculations for those claims. The mechanisms don’t exist to make this possible.