Brian Wilson: SNP con can’t mask pensions reality

Dundee is currently the fourth biggest centre for pensions administration in the UK. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Dundee is currently the fourth biggest centre for pensions administration in the UK. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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We cannot hope to keep managing UK pensions and other services if we vote for independence, writes Brian Wilson

I switched on the radio yesterday morning to one of those headlines that had me wondering if I had heard properly. But, of course, I had, for this is Scotland 2013.

An “expert working group” set up by the Scottish Government had “recommended that Scotland should continue to share the administration of pensions and benefits with the rest of the UK in the event of independence”. And the Scottish Government, not surprisingly, had agreed.

Two questions cried out to be asked. What did “the rest of the UK” think about this exciting conclusion? And what kind of independence is being offered when everything is (supposedly) going to remain the same except the colour of the pillar boxes? And if changing that is suggested, the SNP will probably deny it.

Another question which should be pursued with greater persistence is why the scarce resources of the Scottish Government, at a time when it is cutting so many useful public services, are being devoted to this kind of hypothetical exercise. For, of course, the SNP does not pay for its own propaganda – the taxpayer has that privilege.

This “expert working group”, which has been meeting for six months and received only 25 responses to its “call for evidence”, has reached the imaginative conclusion that, in the event of Scotland voting for independence, everything should remain the same. It’s a hard job being an expert.

However, the report is worth looking at if only to appreciate the ferocious complexity of what would have to be unravelled in the event of Scotland becoming a separate state – unless, as it presumes, the benign “rest of the UK” from which we had just departed took pity and agreed that things should continue as before. But why should they?

Take, for example, the administration of state pensions and pension credits. Dundee and Motherwell are, respectively, the fourth and fifth biggest centres in the UK for this purpose. Many hundreds of jobs are involved. But they do not just deal with Scottish pensions – 25 per cent of all UK state pensions are administered from the two Scottish centres.

The statistics for work-age benefits are even more striking. Northgate in Glasgow is the biggest benefits centre in the UK, employing more than 1,000 people. All benefits paid to Scottish recipients are administered from within Scotland – but more than 40 per cent of the Scottish workload involves claims by “millions” of people living in England.

And so it goes on. Nine hundred jobs in Falkirk depend on administering child maintenance payments not only in Scotland but also for the north of England. Out of all the benefits that exist, there are only two – carers allowance and attendance allowance – that do not involve cross-border administration, with the jobs located in Scotland.

It is not difficult then to see why Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s “expert working group” should think it a great idea to maintain the status quo. But it is very difficult to imagine why the state we had just walked out of would allow its benefit system to be run from a foreign country. Will they not need jobs in Newcastle and Corby, rather than in Dundee and Motherwell?

One of the reminders that comes out of this is how much has been done by successive UK governments to decentralise civil service jobs – not that they ever got any thanks for that from the SNP. The idea that these jobs would remain here in the event of us turning ourselves into a separate state is a fantasy that no number of “expert working groups” can wish away.

And what of the benefits themselves? At present, £15 billion is disbursed in Scotland by the Department for Work and Pensions, representing 9 per cent of the UK total. Finance secretary John Swinney, in his famous leaked document, has already warned that current levels of pensions and benefits might not be sustainable in an independent Scotland if oil revenues fall.

On the other hand, we hear endlessly about how much more caring an independent Scotland would be, dispensing instantly with all these wicked benefit cuts and tests for fitness to work. So, for better or worse, depending on which Nationalist you listen to, it seems unlikely that the benefits system in Scotland would continue to be the same as in the “rest of the UK”. Are both to be run from the same offices?

The conclusion of the “expert working group” that the best idea would be to keep running a large part of the English benefits system from Scotland seems to be based on two arguments – “the costs [of doing anything else] are likely to be high” and “the picture painted is complex”. Sensible people might also see these as arguments for not breaking up the country – or its pensions and benefits system – in the first place.

Yet, on every front, the Nationalist case seems to be based on extraordinary assumptions about the generosity of spirit the English would display after we had ended the Union. At one end of Whitehall, we would be demanding 90 per cent of the oil revenues, while at the other we would be insisting that every aspect of the Union that suits us must be left in place. It is an improbably scenario on which to build a case for independence.

There was an almost farcical exchange in the House of Commons this week when the very fundamentalist Nationalist MP Peter Wishart pleaded: “After an independent Scotland, it will be possible to keep a UK passport.” When the Home Secretary, Theresa May, challenged this on the pretty obvious grounds that Scotland would by then have chosen to become “a separate state”, Mr Wishart responded: “I think we all expect dual nationality to be available.” Why does he expect that?

Piquancy is added to these exchanges by Mr Wishart’s previous boast that “as Scotland moves forward to become a normal independent nation, all vestiges of Britishness will go”. A slightly scary choice of words there. But then Alex Salmond ordered a change of script and, hey presto, “all vestiges of Britishness” are to stay – at least until the referendum vote is out the way.

I think we should take Mr Wishart’s previous position as a better guide to the true gospel than the current con trick.

Dual passport independence will not be on the ballot paper. And the Nationalist strategy is built on the knowledge that it only has to win once before the new reality kicks in.