Scotland sets out first changes to benefits under new powers

13 Jan 17

The Scottish Government has announced the first changes to its benefits regime under the welfare powers devolved by last year’s Scotland Act – but was criticised by its opponents for not making greater and faster use of its new powers.

Social security minister Jeane Freeman said that in both the public and private sector tenants could choose to have the housing element of their universal credit paid directly to their landlords.

She is also giving UC claimants the option of being paid fortnightly rather than monthly in areas where the UK Department of Work & Pensions has set up so-called full service digital payment systems, which will eventually be available throughout Scotland. UC itself is reserved to Westminster.

The changes were welcomed by anti-poverty campaigners, the Scottish Association of Landlords and all the main opposition parties. Scottish ministers will consult on the regulations for implementing them their over the next few weeks, though implementation remains the responsibility of the DWP.

“People claiming UC want to have a choice about how the housing element of the payment is paid,” Freeman said. “We have listened to that wish and are now taking action to make sure it happens as soon as possible.

“We want to ensure that people are treated with dignity and respect when in receipt of all our new social security payments and this is an important first step we can take.”

While there was broad agreement over that, the government’s reluctance to make swifter use of the full new welfare powers, which include the ability to top up benefits, is coming under increasing attack.  Ministers say it is likely to be 2020 before the powers can be fully put to use.

The need for such a long transition was challenged by the Conservatives’ Annie Wells, who accused ministers of being readier to complain than to govern, and by Labour’s Iain Gray, who said there was too much uncertainty around the pace of reform. The Greens’ Alison Johnstone said there were many problems surrounding UC in Scotland, which were unlikely to improve with the DWP in charge.

Responding to the criticisms in a BBC interview, Freeman said: “I completely understand and am sympathetic towards those claims, but I have to make the point that the UK government is cutting welfare spend by £2bn in Scotland by 2020.”

  • 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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