Anger as Westminster ‘completely disregards’ housing benefit discussions with Scottish ministers
Social security and equalities secretary Angela Constance has expressed her anger at the UK government’s announcement that it is to impose new housing benefit regulations in Scotland, which came just days after ministers at Westminster were unable to provide a timetable for the plans.
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is pressing ahead with plans to remove the housing benefit entitlement for 18-21 year olds from April, something the Scottish Government has constantly opposed.
Ministers from Holyrood sought assurances from their Westminster counterparts last week that the UK government would not reduce the benefits of claimants in Scotland when the Scottish Government reinstates housing benefit younger people and also when it abolishes the ‘bedroom tax’.
The issue was specifically raised at the Joint Ministerial Working Group on Welfare on February 20 but UK government ministers were unable to provide an answer on when the regulations will be laid, only to confirm just two days later they would be laid on March 2.
In a letter to the secretary of state for work and pensions Damian Green, Ms Constance expressed her anger at the UK Government’s short timescale for change despite assurances that options for Scotland would be considered further.
According to Ms Constance, the current timetable makes it impossible for alternative arrangements to be put in place.
The full text of the letter is below.
You may already be aware that, further to the Joint Ministerial Working Group on Welfare (JMWGW) on Monday, I have written to David Mundell noting my disappointment that we left the meeting with several issues still unresolved.
I have repeatedly set out, both in writing and in meetings, the Scottish Government’s opposition to changes to Housing Benefit (HB) for 18-21 year olds and the interaction of the benefit cap with our plans to abolish the bedroom tax. I was reassured somewhat, most recently, following meetings with Damian Hinds on 19 January and David Mundell on 23 January, of the UK Government’s intention to work constructively with the Scottish Government to achieve a satisfactory solution to these issues. It was frustrating therefore, following the JMWGW, to be asked to set out in writing once again the key points of difference and my suggested solutions for the DWP to consider and respond to. I have, nevertheless, done so in my letter to David Mundell of 22 February.
It now appears that the DWP is completely disregarding the discussions at the JMWGW and any commitment to work collaboratively regarding HB for 18-21s. I was quite frankly amazed to learn yesterday from my officials that the UK Government is planning to lay regulations on 2 March with a view to them coming into effect on 1 April 2017. DWP is effectively pressing ahead with the changes just days since UK Ministers were unable to offer any answers to the points I raised on HB for 18-21s and, when asked specifically at the JMWGW when regulations and changes would be introduced, were told ‘we don’t know’. Worse still, UK ministers and officials gave the distinct impression that there was still time for other legislative options to be considered. I feel that it makes a mockery of having a meeting to discuss a way forward on 22 February when you plan to lay the regulations merely 6 working days later.
This is completely unacceptable. I should not have to stress that the devolution of social security powers – and indeed devolution arrangements more widely – requires both governments to work jointly, give advanced notice of plans and openly share information that has a bearing on each other’s decision making processes.
The Scottish Government’s position on HB 18-21s has been very clear and raised at a number of meetings with both governments making clear they did not wish to thwart the policies of each other. Less than a week ahead of the regulations being laid, we have only just received the draft regulations confirming the groups that will be exempt and now we find ourselves with just six weeks before the changes come into effect. This is not sufficient and I would appreciate your reassurance, as a matter of urgency, that the changes to HB for 18-21 years old will not be introduced until we have agreed a solution for Scotland.
I look forward to hearing from you.