Devolution Play Your Cards Right

Play Your Cards Right, for those of you who don’t know, was a game show where contestants had to guess whether the next playing card turned over would be higher or lower than the one before.


To introduce the basics of devolution to Scotland, we’re going to play “Devolution Play Your Cards Right”. For each policy area below, have a guess whether the level of devolution is higher or lower than the previous policy issue, before you read on.


An issue here is how do you say whether the level of devolution is, in fact, higher or lower. As you’ll read, you’ll see I’m basing my judgements on two criteria:

How much is devolved, i.e. does the Scottish Parliament and

– Government have complete, or partial, control of the policy area, or are some issues still reserved;

– How long it’s been devolved, i.e. some areas of policy have been devolved, administratively, since the nineteenth century.


To start off we’ll go with an easy one:


Education – is probably one of the most devolved policy areas and it has been for centuries. The state got engaged in education much earlier in Scotland, and the “ancient” universities were created in greater number in Scotland. This has meant that, from the days of the Scottish Office, schooling, curriculum, further education, higher education, qualifications, quality-control, basically every education policy you can think of is devolved.


Because of this level of devolution, education policy also has a strong “policy community” or “policy network” around it of specific Scottish institutions that have a big influence and work closely together: the trade union the Educational Institute of Scotland; the regular the General Teaching Council for Scotland; and government agencies such as Education Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council.


There are only two issues that feasibly limit policy. First are cross-border issues in higher education, that are influenced by EU legislation. This means that EU citizens get free higher education in Scotland, but rest-of-UK (rUK) students have to pay very high tuition fees. The only other issue would emerge if the Scottish Government attempted to supplement someone’s income to support their education and this interacted with the welfare benefits system, although it is difficult to imagine this happening.


So, onwards with Play Your Cards Right – does welfare benefits have a higher of lower level of devolution?


This is an easy one – a lower level. When political devolution occurred in 1999 welfare benefits were not devolved for two reasons: to stop “welfare tourism” as people might move around the UK to seek a better deal; but also because at its root, the UK benefits system is still contributory, particularly pensions, so extracting out millions of people’s National Insurance records would be fiendishly difficult.


This hasn’t stopped the Scottish Government changing welfare policy, however. It “abolished” the Bedroom Tax – that is provided local authorities with sufficient funding to fund any reduction in Housing Benefit a household experienced from “the removal of the spare-room subsidy”. The Department for Work and Pensions acquiesced reasonably quickly to this after some negotiations.


Under the Scotland Act (2016), the Scottish Parliament is getting substantially greater powers over welfare benefits. However, the main ones (Universal Credit and the State Pension) will remain reserved to Westminster for the same reason they were reserved in 1999.


Next up – Social care – higher or lower?


The answer is a higher level of devolution. Indeed, since 1999, it has been one of the highest profile areas of policy divergence. In 1997 the Westminster government set up a Royal Commission on Social Care for Older People. Its report, published in 1999, recommended the introduction of free personal care – that is care that is non-medical – should be provided on the same free-at-the-point-of-use principle as the NHS.


The UK Government decided not to implement this recommendation, but the Scottish Executive did, through the Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act 2002. However, the policy was partially limited by the fact welfare benefits are not fully devolved – many people in England receive benefits to help them pay for their care, and this stopped in Scotland.


The next policy area is housing policy – higher or lower?


I’d say about the same. Housing, and urban policy more generally, had a high level of administrative devolution before 1999. For example, right back after the first world war, because of the tradition of tenements for working class housing in Scotland, rather than terraced housing, the council housing standards in Scotland were different – this led to swathes of “four-in-a-block” flatted accommodation being built between 1919 and 1939.


These differences with England, in particular, have grown since 1999. One of the most obvious of these is the ending of the Right-To-Buy (RTB) council houses in Scotland from April 2017. In England, the RTB policy is currently being expanded.


However, Housing Benefit remains largely a reserved issue to Westminster, except with the case of the “abolition of the bedroom tax”. Under the Scotland Act (2016) the Scottish Government will get powers over how the housing portion of Universal Credit is delivered. For example, they could change it so it is always, by default, paid to the landlord, not the tenants (as is currently the case with Housing Benefit). Because Housing Benefit is such a large part of how we support people in housing in the UK, this does matter.


Finally, what about health policy?


Now, arguably this is not social policy at all – it lies at the same intersection as education policy. What treatments are delivered would be health policy; but the distributive consequences of how we pay for and deliver medical care; how we deliver wider public health policy; or how we might tackle health inequalities, are more about social policy.


If we think of it in these terms, we might suggest the health policy has slightly less devolution than housing policy. Although health policy is fully devolved, the wider context – for example that we have an NHS free-at-the-point-of-delivery – does not have that much divergence. Also, some health policy in Scotland closely mirrors that in the rest of the UK due to political pressures, for example the focus on waiting time targets and waiting lists for treatments.


We have seen a lot of divergence in how health policy is delivered and in public health. On the former, the NHS in Scotland uses private providers a lot less, and the reforms in England that have led to widespread commissioning of health services, were in England only. The Scottish Government has been much more interventionist in public health as well. This was the justification for pioneering the smoking ban from March 2006 (a policy transferred from the Republic of Ireland) and also for the minimum pricing of alcohol, a policy that is currently caught up in legal disputes. These policies aim to deliver better outcomes for poorer people by changing behaviours that are linked to poorer health. There is a very strong correlation between poor health and lower socio-economic status, with incredibly complex causation.


And that’s actually about it for social policy that is devolved to Scotland. The Scottish Parliament, and thus the Scottish Government, do have power of many areas, but these are not necessarily directly relevant to social policy: justice policy, transport etc.


However, some of these policy areas have innovated since 1999 with knock-on, or indirect, effects for social policy areas: the free bus pass for older people has been shown to increase mobility and increase well-being among older people, for example.


The take-away message from this post, however, is that although we can consider constitutional issues to talk about policy development in Scotland since 1999, these do not explain all the variations. We might consider the policy networks around a specific policy area – education, for example – that mean there has been a lot of input into designing policies in a different way. We can also look more long-term and consider how path dependency explains how policy became more universalist in Scotland since 1999 (free personal care [2002]; removal of up-front tuition fees [2000]; free bus travel for older people [2006]) and it is now very difficult to change policy to make it less universal. And a lot of the issues that people criticise all policy-makers for are also issues in Scotland: critical authors highlight how little has been done in Scotland since 1999 to tackle poverty, even within the limited devolution settlement, for example.


So, this “fun” game of Play Your Cards Right should have taught you some of the basics of devolution, and also introduced you to the sorts of complexities you will be expected to explore in your coursework essays. If you want to know more, the best starting place is Paul Cairney’s book, on your reading list.

  1. "Under the Scotland Act (2016), the Scottish Parliament is getting substantially greater powers over welfare benefits. However, the main ones (Universal Credit and the State Pension) will remain reserved to Westminster for the same reason they were reserved in 1999." So why were Universal Credit and the State Pension reserved to Westminster in 1999?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments to this post are anonymous