Professor Paul Spicker analyses the planned devolution of social security powers to the Scottish Parliament in the Scotland Bill and argues that whilst the reforms have been represented as giving Scotland “one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.” it is debatable that this is the case. In any federal system, powers lie by default with the states, not with central government. It is open to the states (and sometimes to local governments) to experiment and to innovate. Scotland will not be able to do this. Everything the Scottish Parliament does will have to be done with an eye to what is happening elsewhere in benefits, and they will be subject to continued direction, and control of resources, from central government. However, there will be things they can do, and those things will be worth doing.
― The powers transferred to the Scottish Government, whilst valued by those affected by them, are marginal in the overall context of social security in Scotland.
― The administrative infrastructure to delivery many of the devolved benefits is complex, not just in terms of transferring power from Westminster to Scotland but also in determining the relative roles of the Scottish Government and Local Councils in delivery.
― Significant problems may arise where devolved benefits interact with reserved benefits – an increase in the former may offset by a decrease in the latter.
― There is scope for Scotland to significantly improve current benefits using these powers such as by topping up benefits like Carers’ Allowance, Child Benefit or Housing Benefit.
― Some benefits may be improved not by increasing the level of benefit but by broadening provision. Making benefits such as school meals universal rather than means tested will increase uptake and reduce the stigma of claiming them.
― Consideration should be given to using these powers to “top up” or otherwise improve the State Pension.