Tom Peterkin: New Scottish benefits system could bring down government

Tricky deadlines have to be met if the government's new social security system is to be judged a success, writes Tom Peterkin.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, seen with Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones at a meeting in Downing Street, has hinted that she may be ready to make a deal over the Brexit power grab row, but she may have other problems to deal with (Picture: PA)
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, seen with Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones at a meeting in Downing Street, has hinted that she may be ready to make a deal over the Brexit power grab row, but she may have other problems to deal with (Picture: PA)

Often it feels that daily life is dominated by deadlines. The ringing of the alarm clock heralds the rush to get the kids fed, washed, dressed and off to school on time. There follows the slavish adherence to the bus timetable on the work commute. Throw in the myriad of deadlines that have to be met during a typical working day and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that modern life is played out to the sound of the ticking clock.

The same is true of politics, albeit on a grander and more dramatic scale than what Peter Cook once memorably described as the “minutiae of domestic trivia” which makes up so much of day-to-day existence.

As far as UK and Scottish politics is concerned, it would appear that the loudest, grandest and most dramatic ticking clock is the one which is counting down the days, hours and minutes to EU withdrawal.

With the end of March marking exactly one year until Brexit, it is this deadline and the intimidating “to do” list that still has to be waded through before the UK extricates itself from the EU which is the preoccupation of the moment.

As this deadline creeps ever closer, the list of imponderables seems as long as ever as deeply divided political classes clash over hard and soft Brexits, the problem of the Irish border and even the possibility of the process being reversed.

In Scotland, the imponderables include the implications for Scottish independence and the prospect of a second independence referendum.

Adding a further layer of complexity is the on-going row between the Scottish and UK governments over how returning EU powers are allocated between Holyrood and Westminster. With Nicola Sturgeon et al still complaining about a power grab, threats of a constitutional crisis still loom large as the SNP warn that, as things stand, Holyrood consent will be withheld from the EU Withdrawal Bill.

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Against this background of constitutional discord, there was an interesting speech given by Ms Sturgeon at the weekend which could be interpreted as a change of tone.

Speaking in Glasgow to the SNP national council, Ms Sturgeon made much of a “renewed mission” for her party.

Central to that was “to use Scotland’s new powers to show we can follow a new path – better than the old Westminster way of cuts and austerity, to meet the challenges of the future”.

Those who indulge in textual analysis of political speeches were intrigued by the reference to new powers. Could this willingness to embrace a stronger Holyrood be interpreted as the SNP leader preparing the faithful for a resolution to the powers grab row? Time will tell whether this was the prelude to a Brexit deal with the UK government.

Time will also tell – as will political circumstances – whether her preparedness to make full use of a strengthened Scottish Parliament signals indyref2 being stranded on the back-burner. What can be said with a little more certainty is that Ms Sturgeon is signalling her intention to use the raft of new powers that have come to Holyrood via the Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016.

Fundamental to Ms Sturgeon’s ambition to forge a path free from the “old Westminster way of cuts and austerity” will be tax powers and, in particular, the new Scottish social security system that is to take over responsibility for a range of benefits north of the Border. Ms Sturgeon has put one of her most able ministers, Jeane Freeman, in charge of the mammoth task of establishing a Scottish benefits system. So far she has proved proactive and energetic.

But a report published by Audit Scotland this week would have made tricky reading for her and Ms Sturgeon.

Much of the public spending watchdog’s investigation into the work being done to set up Scotland’s new benefits system happens to be focussed on deadlines. The Scottish Government’s aim is to have the new social security system in place by the end of this parliament.

Following on from that, the first benefits are due to be handed out in the summer of 2019. These are two very important deadlines which, for the Scottish Government, should be just as pressing as the one for Brexit.

Therefore it must have been concerning for ministers to take on board Audit Scotland’s verdict that it will be “challenging” for ministers to recruit enough staff to get the system up and running on time.

Of further concern was the report’s finding that the Scottish Government has so far failed to estimate properly how much implementing a new social security system will cost. The report, compiled by the Auditor General, Caroline Gardiner, warned the cost of setting up new social security and financial powers would exceed the £200 million contribution made by the UK government and extra cash would have to found from the Scottish budget. Recruiting staff, finding the money, setting up the horrendously complex IT systems to administer the new service are among the tasks ahead of the minister. It is easy to see why Ms Gardiner is warning much work needs to be done.

As Ms Sturgeon and Ms Freeman contemplate the challenges ahead, they should be under no illusions that the stakes are high. Just imagine if there was a problem or delay in dishing out social security benefits. The damage done to the Scottish Government’s reputation could prove terminal and the outcry would drown out all manner of ticking clocks.