Scotland in welfare challenge, warns professor

Whether independent or devolved from the UK, Scotland is set to gain more control over welfare spending – including state pensions, unemployment and disability benefits.

But there “has not been much engagement with the really challenging issues that face welfare spending in the future”, warns Professor David Bell, a Future of the UK and Scotland Fellow.

David Bell”In a Scotland with powers to influence the welfare budget, there may be a collective agreement to provide more generous social welfare. But there will be some really difficult decisions to make about how to control access to benefits and what levels to set them at,” he writes today in The Scotsman.

Under the current 2012 Scotland Act, only a small proportion of social protection spending is delivered by Scottish local authorities, as support for vulnerable groups such as the disabled, the frail elderly, children and homeless people. The by far largest part of the budget (£15.6bn) is distributed as cash benefits by the UK Department for Work and Pensions. All the existing alternatives to the Scotland Act, to come into force in the autumn of 2014, argue that the Scottish Government should have more control over welfare spending.

According to figures from the Social Attitudes Survey, more than half of Scots agree that pensioners should be the main beneficiaries of any increase in welfare spending – followed by the disabled, children and the unemployed.

“Scots may agree increasing benefits to older people and to the disabled may be socially just, but there is no avoiding the conclusion that it is expensive,” comments Professor Bell.

“Opposition politicians at both the Scottish and UK levels have been noticeably reluctant to articulate a clearly-costed alternative future for the welfare state.”

He concludes that the challenge to all parties will be to explain how to deliver social justice within a budget “whose growth will be more tightly constrained than at any time since the establishment of the welfare state in 1948”.