Welfare Reform and Devolution

by Ken Gibb

 

I was part of a panel at the Social Security Committee of the Scottish Parliament today talking about their work programme priorities for the next five years. It was particularly attractive as a session because Steve Fothergill from Sheffield Hallam was first presenting new evidence  on the impacts of the post Coalition Government welfare reforms on Scotland. However, train problems on the way to Edinburgh meant I only heard his discussion session with the MSPs. In this  post I am going to go over his and Christina Beatty’s findings and then move on to the discussion we had about the committee future priorities.

Beatty and Fothergill’s analysis is a model of clarity, it builds on an established body of work, it makes clear where the data and evidence shortcomings are and it implies where new research is needed. Fothergill was refreshingly straightforward and more than willing to point to the political dimensions of welfare reform. The main findings suggest that, first, there will be big financial losses to households as a result of the additional post-2015 election welfare cuts in Scotland. These will be of the order of £1 billion a year as a result primarily of – the four year freeze on many working-age benefits and reductions in the work allowances within Universal credit (i.e. the point where benefit withdrawal tapers kick in). Cuts arising from the move to PIPs from DLA will also be important, as will planned reductions in tax credits.

Second, there are significant variations across Scotland with older ex-industrial and more deprived areas tending to fare more badly on a per capita basis (although the Scottish average is close to the GB average as a whole). Third, the expected figure of an annual additional financial loss of a £1b per annum for the post 2015 period needs to be added to the 2010-15 welfare changes which themselves imposed a financial loss of £1.1b (admittedly a lower figure than was anticipated because of the challenge in bringing down spending on ESA).

The report is thought-provoking stuff and it is great to see this analysis done at a Scottish level. I was struck by some of the housing-related evidence implied by their research.  Some of the housing information included:

  • The lower benefit cap (£20,000 p.a.) will impact on 11,000 Scottish households and cost £25m a year compared to just 900 under the previous regime.
  • Mortgage interest support, converted into a repayable loan (on entering work or on sale), affects 17,000 Scottish households and costs £25m a year.
  • 1,500 people are set to lose out because of the exemption of Housing Benefit for those aged 18-21 (and not deemed vulnerable – existing an estimated £4m a year.
  • The LHA cap extension to the social sector is estimated to affect 55,000 Scottish households and to cost £40m a year (not clear how this disaggregates between general needs and supported housing, the latter of which is expected to be particularly problematic though it will not be initially affected). Also it was not clear from the report whether this 55,000 sum explicitly includes the under 35 single person households who are treated as if they are sharing housing (ie receive benefit up to the shared accommodation rate).

While the report is about welfare cuts post 2015 in Scotland, it does allude to possible offsetting effects – higher personal tax allowance, enhanced child care, and the minimum wage. But more could have been done to bottom these figures out and and quantify the balance between winners and losers in net terms. In the discussion with the MSPs Fothergill argued strongly that there was no evidence that employment growth follows from sharper benefit incentives as experience din recent economic cycles. He also argued that the long term growth, for instance, in levels of ESA are about lack of jobs. The demand-side explanation is strengthened by the evidence that in high demand labour markets in southern regions people with disability or illness are more likely to get work and can find jobs – but this is more difficult in low demand areas. Supply does not create its own demand.

Turning to the priorities for the committee in the coming Parliament, I recognise that the housing end of social security does not always come top of the bill and today we focused much more on disability, employment support allowance, work assessments and broader system level questions associated with the devolution of social security powers. Consequently, my contributions were modest.

It was not long when despite the conclusion from Beatty and Fothergill that we should not overstate the Importance of devolution of social security powers to the Scottish Parliament, we nonetheless agreed that this was in fact the priority, but also a huge challenge and an opportunity wrapped up in one.  Despite the fact that the Scottish Government does not intend to fully take on the powers till 2020 as one MSP said, the time is now to start planning, and also to ensure the infrastructure and systems are established, and to build the necessary policy and delivery capacity.

My view was that the 15% figure (the proportion of social security spending to be devolved) is a bit of a red herring (though Kirstein Rummery made the good point that it us like being given a block of cash that, now devolved, the Scottish Parliament can design it and use it as it thinks best – there are therefore many opportunities). This is because it is the additional powers to top up, create new benefits and change the rules applying to things like Universal Credit and its housing cost elements that create open-ended flexibilities and choices for Government. However, they all have to be paid for out of the Block and this means Scotland has to consider both its revenue-raising capacity and economic growth (including its new tax powers) to fund expansion and also whether there are choices between spending headings that could change to meet the social objectives of new and better social security benefits. There are opportunity costs from constrained political choice but there are also genuine opportunities.

Much of the discussion was about work assessment, disability benefits and also of course conditionality and sanctions. I was struck by the fact my colleagues around the table had so much relevant evidence to bring especially on their own direct projects and in relation to reviews of international studies. There does seem to be, as was true also in the last parliament, that committees do genuinely want to work from a proper evidence base. This has to be a positive sign in these otherwise concerning times.

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