by Caroline Gardner
A new phase in Scotland’s devolved powers began with last week’s passing of the Social Security Bill.
Major new responsibilities for delivering benefits worth around £3 billion a year now sit with the Scottish Government. Unsurprisingly, the stakes are high.
The Government is committed to delivering the first wave of devolved benefits by summer 2019, including the carer’s allowance supplement, the Best Start grant, and assistance with funeral expenses.These benefits are initially expected to cost around £60 million a year, and to reach around 84,000 people.
More devolved benefits will follow in the future, including Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payments, Attendance Allowance and the winter heating assistance.
The big difference is that these benefits are on a much larger scale than the first wave, affecting more than a million people and costing around £2.7 billion.
Our recent report found that the Government’s social security work has made good early progress, but it also noted that the rest of 2018 will be critical.
Timescales are tight. In the next 12 months the new agency, Social Security Scotland, needs to: establish its office accommodation in Glasgow and Dundee, recruit its first group of staff, and put the foundations in place for its all-important IT systems.
The agency will grow significantly – employing around 1900 people when fully operational – as it gears up to deliver all the devolved benefits. However, recruiting the right people with the right skills at the outset will be challenging.
About 110 staff have already transferred to the social security programme from elsewhere in the Government, creating pressures in other directorates.
Meanwhile, some of the skills required, such as digital skills, are in short supply, with the Government competing against the private sector to recruit and retain talent.
The Government will also need to refine its estimates for implementing the new social security system as decisions are made, and report this transparently to Parliament. Current estimates put the cost at £308 million, with more than half of that on IT.
Beyond that, the Government needs to be clearer about the total cost of putting all of the new Scotland Acts powers into practice. It hasn’t yet estimated the total cost involved, how much it will exceed the UK Government contribution of £200 million or how the excess will be funded.
All of this comes at a time when the Government is dealing with day-to-day pressures on public services, and planning for the implications of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
It’s clear that 2018 will be critical for the social security plan, and I’ll continue to report on progress and make recommendations to support these major changes.