Further devolution of benefits to Scotland will be difficult, says auditor

2 May 19

The next stage of an ambitious programme to devolve social security benefits to Scotland will pose a “significant challenge” to the Scottish Government, the country’s national spending watchdog has warned.

A new report from the auditor general for Scotland has found that although the Scottish Government has succeeded in delivering its first set of devolved benefits, the increasing complexity of the programme meant the real challenge was still to come.

The devolution of benefits has so far seen £87m spent on delivering a range of allowances for carers and new parents and the establishment of a new national benefits agency employing 300 staff.

However, auditors said the introduction of these early benefits had been “harder than expected” and the government did not yet have a clear picture of what was required to deliver the remaining benefits – which include complex, high volume disability payments - in the way it intended.

“The high pace of delivery and the complexity of the social security system has been a significant challenge and meant that the Scottish Government found delivering on its initial commitments harder than expected,” it said.

“Delivering the second wave of benefits will be a significant challenge for the programme.

“The programme is doing the right things to try and address the challenges, but there is a risk that constant short-term delivery pressures do not allow the team the time and space to implement the required changes.”

Auditors were concerned to find “limited evidence” of whole life implementation costs for the programme being subjected to oversight and scrutiny.

Although it had been estimated that £308m would be spent on the programme by the end of 2022-23, factors such as heavier than expected reliance on contractors and the decision that the new benefits agency would carry out disability assessments had the potential to significantly change that figure.

The government’s commitment to work towards the introduction of an income supplement to combat child poverty could be a significant additional undertaking, they warned.

Staffing was also an issue, with around 30% of posts within the social security programme vacant at the time of the audit, and a high risk of a decline in morale within existing staff because of the increased pressure upon them.

Caroline Gardner, the auditor general for Scotland, said many decisions on future benefits were still to be made and it was critical that detailed plans were put in place.

“The government has done well to date, but has had to work flat out to reach this point, leaving little time to draw breath and plan for the challenges ahead,” she said.

“The social security team is doing the right things to address that issue, but it hasn't yet got a clear understanding of what's needed to deliver the more complex benefits to come, or how much it will cost.”

But social security secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said the government’s track record showed it was ready to meet the challenges ahead.

“In just a year and in the face of considerable complexity, this report recognises we have done well to launch a new benefits service for Scotland,” she said.

“It also highlights the challenge we face as we scale up to deliver the next round of payments.

“I have always been clear, just as my predecessors were, that we don’t underestimate the challenges and complexities ahead, but we have also always recognised the opportunity we have to change social security for the better for Scotland.”

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