The Scottish Government has done a good job of delivering its first set of devolved benefits but faces significant challenges ahead, Scotland’s national spending watchdog has found.
An Audit Scotland report found that carers and new parents successfully received payments in 2018 and the country’s new benefits agency, Social Security Scotland, was set up.
So far £35 million has been paid in Carers Allowance Supplement to 75,000 people and £2.7 million has been paid in Best Start Grant baby and pregnancy grants to 7,000 people.
However the report said that the high pace of delivery and the complexity of the social security system has been a “significant challenge” and meant that the Scottish Government found delivering on its initial commitments harder than expected.
It also warned that implementing the second wave of benefits will be more difficult and said that the government does not yet have a clear picture of what will be needed to make the next, much more complex, set of benefit payments.
The programme has not been regularly estimating and reporting the long-term implementation costs, the report said.
Caroline Gardner, the Auditor General for Scotland, said: “The government has done well to date but has had to work flat out to reach this point, leaving little time to draw breath and plan for the challenges ahead.
“The social security team is doing the right things to address that issue, but it hasn’t yet got a clear understanding of what’s needed to deliver the more complex benefits to come, or how much it will cost.
“Many decisions about future benefits are still to be made and it’s critical that detailed plans are now put in place.”
Audit Scotland said the Scottish Government has spent £90 million on delivering devolved benefits to date but is not clear on what it expects the overall programme to cost or the workforce required to deliver it.
Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP said: “In just a year and in the face of considerable complexity, this report recognises we have done well to launch a new benefits service for Scotland. It also highlights the challenge we face as we scale up to deliver the next round of payments.
“I have always been clear, just as my predecessors were, that we don’t underestimate the challenges and complexities ahead, but we have also always recognised the opportunity we have to change social security for the better for Scotland.
“We have delivered everything we promised. We have established a new public service with Social Security Scotland up and running with 400 staff working to deliver payments and using the infrastructure which is the foundation for our delivery of future benefits.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “On paper the SNP’s slow and steady approach to benefits makes a degree of sense.
“However it is starting to feel like a party who promised to set up the entire welfare state of an independent nation in 18 months is trapped in a holding pattern.”
Scottish Conservative social security spokesman Michelle Ballantyne said: “If the nationalists can’t even sort out how to administer some benefits, how on earth do they propose to run an independent country?”
Meanwhile Labour social security spokesman Mark Griffin said: “The Auditor General has now warned that the SNP still don’t have a clear understanding of what will be needed to deliver the next set of benefits – or what it will cost.
“Surely this makes a mockery of their 2014 referendum promises that a new separate state could be set up within 18 months when they still can’t say how they will deliver new benefits in 2020 for vulnerable people.”
Alison Johnstone MSP, Scottish Greens social security spokeswoman, said: “The report highlights significant challenges around staffing, payment error and a lack of clarity over the financial resources needed for full, successful implementation.
“It’s vital both for those who need to access support and those charged with delivering the system that these are addressed.”