Immediately separating the administration of the welfare system in the event of Scotland opting to become an independent state “would present serious risks to the continuity of payments to people in both Scotland and England”, according to a new report.
The study by the Scottish government’s Expert Working Group on Welfare, established by ministers in January 2013, presents a number of warnings about the dependence both Scotland and England have on each other in delivering welfare benefits and warns against any rush to Scotland breaking away altogether from the UK system.
The report notes:
“In the course of our work…we have also discovered that Scotland provides a wide range of services to England. Some of these services are significant, such as working age benefit processing for London and services for pensioners in England, and involve a claimant count measured in millions rather than thousands.”
“…We believe that this common interest is underpinned by an obligation to ensure continuity of service to benefit claimants across the nations of the United Kingdom. We also believe that formalising the current arrangements into an agreed set of ‘shared services’ would safeguard delivery, as well as being the most efficient and cost effective arrangement for both governments in a period of transition.
“Given the important role that Scotland currently plays in delivering benefits to claimants in the rest of the UK, we believe it is the interests of both the Scottish and UK governments to introduce a programme of information sharing and begin discussions about how benefits would continue to be delivered for all claimants in the UK in the event of Scottish independence.”
Welcoming the report, deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon responded:
“Given that many people in Scotland are concerned about the welfare policies of the UK government, I am very clear that a transitional period of shared administration would only be in Scotland’s interests if it allows us from day one of independence, to address the inequities of the current system and work towards a system that better reflects Scotland’s needs and circumstances.
“The fact that Northern Ireland already has policy flexibility within a system of shared administration suggests that such an arrangement is perfectly possible. However, I welcome the report’s conclusion that all options for delivery are possible.”
Arguing that the report provides “the foundation we need to ensure the delivery of welfare from the point of independence”, Ms Sturgeon announced that ministers would shortly be providing details of the next stage of work looking at the medium to longer-term options for reform of the welfare system and the delivery models that will best support this.
In concluding, however, that the report further highlights the “impossible” task the Scottish government is set on achieving in seeking the best of both independence and UK membership, Scottish secretary Michael Moore said:
“It seems that time and again we wait for the Scottish government to unveil one of their main building blocks of an independent Scotland only for questions to emerge where answers should be.
“It is just not credible when the supporters of independence tell us that by leaving the UK we would retain everything we wanted – with specific requests granted by the rest of the United Kingdom.
“The Scottish government seem to have their heart set on the impossible. They want to leave the UK and keep the UK welfare system. But they only want to keep the UK welfare system if they can insist upon immediate policy changes. I think most people in Scotland will regard this as a self-defeating contortion.”
Writing on the Better Together blog meanwhile, the campaign’s chair, Alistair Darling, was equally critical, observing:
“Rather than making the case for breaking up Britain, it is clear that the more the nationalists look at the benefits to Scotland and the rest of the UK of keeping the Union the more they understand that separation makes no sense.
“It’s clear that most people in Scotland want the security and opportunity that being part of something bigger offers. The SNP want us to give this up.”
“The SNP have spent the last 80 years saying that the United Kingdom is the source of all our problems. Now they tell us that in fact pooling our resources with the rest of the UK makes sense. This is an argument for devolution, not separation.
“Slowly but surely the nationalists appear to be coming to the view that we are, in fact, better together.”