Reform Scotland

The tangled web of social security – Jeremy Balfour MSP

Social Security in Scotland is broken. There is no way to look at the outcomes that we are currently seeing without coming to this conclusion.

As an opposition politician, it would be easy for me to blame the Scottish Government entirely for this mess. They are certainly responsible for the poor execution. But if we step back and look at their ability to deviate from the DWP model, I think it is clear to see that they are limited.

What we currently have is a worst-of-both-worlds situation where some benefits are devolved in Scotland, running up a bill that is fast becoming unsustainable, while the bulk of them remain administered by Westminster. This means that if a Scottish administration wanted to make any kind of meaningful change or reform to the devolved payments, gaps would open up that they do not have the necessary levers to plug. For instance, if they decided to boost high-rate mobility assistance for disabled people, that would mean a cut to one of the other benefits that don’t necessarily serve the same group of people. This would lead to a gap that could only be made up by pulling money from another budget, such as education or health.

We also find ourselves in a tangled web of payments from one agency that are contingent on the claimant receiving benefits from the other. This entanglement would make it incredibly complicated to change benefits here in Scotland as it would impact on reserved matters. Any deviation from the DWP system must therefore be careful not to run foul of this problem.

The system is broken. The status quo will not cut it. If we continue down our current path no one wins. The Scottish Government continues to blame Westminster for all failings in Scotland on the basis that they are unable to create the system that they want, and we have to admit that there is a grain of truth in this.  

The project of devolution is itself an experiment. No one could clearly foresee what the outcome would be because we were creating a whole new system of government. It is a very live debate within the Conservative Party as to whether the Scottish Parliament itself produces better results for Scotland than direct governance from Westminster, especially on the issue of Social Security. At a philosophical level, we need to decide whether we believe in the idea of localism and that a Scottish system of benefits that deviates from the DWP model would better serve the people of Scotland. The alternative is to hand back all benefits powers to Westminster and allow them to continue with the UK-wide system.

And at the end of the day, that is what the whole argument around social security in Scotland comes down to. It is clear that we are in an untenable middle ground of a carbon copy of the Westminster system with the added complication of a very expensive extra agency doing the administration. We need change, and it is clear that we have two options. We go further or we go back.

If we are to accept that there is merit in the argument for a uniquely Scottish system of benefits, then we have to carry that through to its logical conclusion of all payments being made at a more local level. Why, then, wouldn’t we extend it to Universal Credit, which is the primary arrow that sits in the Social Security quiver.

On the other hand, based on the mess that has been made of devolved benefits, could it make more sense to cut our losses and admit that social security doesn’t work on a devolved level?

Whichever we choose, we must do so quickly and decisively. We are in a unique predicament in the world of politics were either choice we make will improve the situation. Both will make the system significantly more efficient as there will be less need for inter-agency cooperation.

The only unacceptable path is inaction.

Either will take time to implement, and those in need in Scotland cannot afford to continue in our current broken system. Therefore, both governments need to get around the table and have a grown-up discussion about which they will choose. Unfortunately, that might be the most difficult part of the process.

Jeremy Balfour is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Lothian Region and the party’s deputy social security, housing and equalities spokesperson.  Jeremy’s full report, ‘5 Years On, Social Security in Scotland’, can be read here.