Holyrood vows Scots benefits agency will be based on fairness and respect

2 Mar 16

Scotland is to have its own benefits agency to deliver the new welfare powers devolved under the 2016 Scotland Bill, and to ensure the creation of a distinctive Scottish benefits culture based on dignity, fairness and respect, social justice secretary Alex Neil told the Scottish Parliament yesterday.

Opening a debate marked by conspicuous cross-party consensus on the underlying principles that should drive the new system, Neil announced that ministers intended to introduce costed plans later this year for a reformed system and a first Scottish Security Bill by the end of the next Holyrood session, assuming the Scottish National Party was returned to office at May’s Holyrood election.

The Scotland Bill gives Scotland powers over 11 existing disability and care benefits, together with the right to top up UK-run benefits, create new Scotland-only benefits and exercise some flexibility in the way in which the UK Department of Work and Pensions administers Universal Credit.

Among the existing benefits that will pass to Holyrood are the Carers’ Allowance and the Disability Living Allowance. The total value of the new powers has been put at £2.7bn.

Neil confirmed plans to raise the Carers’ Allowance to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, scrap the so-called bedroom tax, end the “84-day rule” on income for families of disabled children and offer Universal Credit recipients more choice about how their benefit is paid. Several of these policies also feature in Labour’s plans, set out by Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale earlier this week.

He portrayed the transfer of powers as an opportunity for Holyrood to begin crafting a benefits culture based on “dignity, fairness and respect” – a phrase echoed approvingly by other parties in the debate – rather than the mitigation of UK cuts that had been the limit of its previous authority.  He promised to give top priority to ensuring a smooth transition with no disruption of payments.

Between 2010 and 2016, the benefits budget for Scotland had been cut by £6bn, Neil told MSPs.  Over the past three years, the Scottish Government had committed nearly £300m to mitigating the impact of UK policies, notably in respect of the bedroom tax.

“Our new Scottish social security agency will be the flagship organisation that oversees the delivery of benefits in Scotland,” Neil said.  “We want to take a fairer approach to social security that tackles inequalities.”

His Labour Shadow, Neil Findlay, said that the welfare state in Britain had commanded cross-party support until Thatcherism’s “negative culture of blame and division,” and that a similar high degree of common purpose between parties had been evident on Holyrood’s welfare reform committee.

“We want to see a system that is publicly run, accountable to this parliament, and not hived off to the private sector or some agency elsewhere that can be blamed if things go wrong,” he said. 

“We want a system that helps people to participate in our society and get back into work when and if they are able to do so.  We want a system with child poverty at its centre.” 

The Tories’ John Lamont said: “For too long debates about social security and welfare have been simple exercises in criticising the policies of the UK government, which has become something of a pastime for [Holyrood] ministers and Cabinet secretaries. The Scottish government now have an opportunity to offer their alternative plans for dealing with these complex matters.”

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, called it “a big day”. He said: “It is one of those historic events when we are for the first time debating how we are going to establish a new Scottish welfare system with 11 benefits. In these circumstances, it is right that we all do come together just as when the first welfare state was established.”

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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