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Society, Politics & Law

Contemporary Scotland: A changing welfare landscape?

Updated Wednesday, 1st May 2013

Article one of seven: Which key social policies are under the control of the Scottish Parliament?

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Devolved and reserved powers under the 1998 Devolution Settlement for Scotland

The following areas are decided in Scotland by the Scottish Government:

  • Health
  • Education
  • Housing
  • Sport and Arts
  • Agriculture, forestry and fishing
  • Emergency services
  • Planning
  • Social work
  • Heritage
  • Transport (some)
  • Tourism

Reserved powers

Decisions (mostly about matters with a UK or international impact) are reserved and dealt with at Westminster:

  • Defence
  • UK Foreign Policy
  • Social Security
  • Financial and economic matters
  • Employment
  • Constitutional matters
  • Immigration and nationality
  • Monetary system
  • Common markets
  • Transport (some)
  • Data protection
  • Energy
  • Gambling
  • Medical ethics
  • Equal opportunities

The Scottish Parliament is very much a social policy-making parliament. This means that the majority of powers devolved to that Parliament relate to matters of social policy. This encompasses areas such as education, health, social work, housing and urban regeneration but also involves important Scottish Government interventions around equalities, anti-poverty policies and a wide and diverse range of other powers that relate to and impact on social policy in some way. It is also important to appreciate that the majority of these areas were already under a considerable degree of ‘Scottish’ control prior to devolution, and were administered by the Scottish Office, which was established in 1885 as a department within the UK Government. That fact that Scotland-specific policies are developed and implemented, together with important differences in practice and governance between Scotland and other parts of the UK, has contributed to the idea that the arena of social policy making itself is very different in Scotland, and in turn this is related to what would appear to be a distinctive political arena around which such issues are debated.

However, key social policy areas such as taxation, social security, benefits and employment policy, remain under the control of the UK Government in Westminster. It is the further devolution of these areas, or their incorporation in a Scottish welfare state in the context of independence which is informing the debate around the creation of a ‘fairer’ Scotland. That such areas remain reserved to Westminster means also that there can be tensions around the delivery of social welfare between UK and Scottish Governments. There are divided responsibilities in some areas too, for instance, childcare provision and entitlement. Together with the impact of reserved powers, this means the idea of a changing welfare landscape in Scotland has to be treated with a degree of caution. The fact that the debate around social welfare in Scotland has embarked on an increasingly divergent path and is tied up with other issues relating to more powers and/or independence does point to a welfare landscape that is increasingly different to that in England in particular, at least in important respects.

There is a high degree of support for public services in Scotland and a considerable proportion of the working population are employed in the public sector. That fact that Scotland has historically enjoyed a higher level of public expenditure is in no small part due to the greater need for some public services such as in health and housing relative to the rest of the UK. In 2011-12, total public sector expenditure for Scotland was estimated to be £64.5 billion, this was equivalent to 9.3% of comparable total UK public sector expenditure in 2011-12. This was a higher proportion than Scotland’s share of UK population at around 8.38% at the time of the 2011 census. Social protection was the largest Scottish expenditure programme and together with health expenditure, it accounted for over half of the total public sector expenditure for Scotland, equating to around half of Scotland’s GDP. Welfare reforms and changes in the public sector are felt far and wide across Scotland and these also contribute to the on-going political controversies around the role of social welfare in both the devolved and an independent Scotland.

(Source: Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland 2011-2012, March 2013)

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