Can the Scottish Government pursue ‘prevention policy’ without independence?

This appears on the ESRC website too

The Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence, Scotland’s Future, reignited arguments about the adequacy of the devolved settlement. While the Scottish Government argues that it could pursue a wide range of new policies under independence, its critics argue that many of the proposed changes – including an expansion of childcare and a devolved response to the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ – could be done by a devolved government.  The debate exposes uncertainty regarding the limits to devolved powers, particularly when the Scottish Government is addressing ‘cross-cutting’ policy issues which often have reserved and devolved elements.

‘Prevention’ policy is a key example. ‘Prevention’ and ‘preventative spending’ are very broad terms to describe ‘early interventions’ in people’s lives, to address potential social problems before they produce high demand for acute, responsive public services. Examples range from disease inoculation, to public health interventions to change unhealthy behaviour, investment in early years education and welfare, measures to reduce crime reoffending, and measures designed to reduce inequalities associated with deprivation and unemployment. Scotland’s Future also places particular emphasis on the production of prevention policies in local areas by a range of public bodies consulting with non-governmental organisations and the public:

‘Scotland has already adopted a distinctive approach in our public services, focused on improving outcomes and building the assets and resilience of people and communities, through prevention and early intervention. It values collaboration by those involved – by people and communities, Third Sector, public providers and businesses. Our approach crucially recognises the importance of designing services with, and for, the people they are there to serve, and of building on our strengths’ (p359).

In 2011, the Scottish Government’s response to the Christie Commission’s report on prevention demonstrated that a great deal can be done by a devolved government. It listed a range of (over 50) interventions and 2011-16 priorities, including a focus on early years (and poverty) investment, class sizes and curriculum reform, employment training, tobacco, drug and alcohol control, ‘inequalities-targeted health checks’, alternatives to short-term custodial sentences, affordable housing, energy assistance and community-based carbon emissions reduction projects. It also announced three new funds, representing £500m ‘investment in preventative spending’ in older people’s services, early years, and reducing reoffending.

In that context, why might the Scottish Government benefit from further devolution or independence? First, the UK Government decides the size of the Scottish Government’s budget and its borrowing capacity. A Scottish Government in control of its own budget could decide to shift resources from some areas to invest in prevention initiatives (some may have high start-up costs, to be recouped over the long term).

Second, the UK Government controls taxation and social security policy, and its reforms have the potential to disrupt ‘joined up’ public service activity in Scotland. For example, housing policy involves a combination of benefits and services and, for example, the Scottish Government has devoted much political energy to reject the ‘bedroom tax’. Previously, the most frequently discussed example was ‘free personal care’ for older people – one part of which involved the Scottish Government paying local authorities to provide personal care at home, which removed the recipients’ entitlement to a UK benefit, Attendance Allowance. The Scottish Government requested that the savings to HM Treasury be passed back to Scotland, but the request was denied by the Treasury and the matter was never resolved fully. In such cases, the Scottish Government may argue that it has less incentive to produce a ‘joined up’ approach, since its spending and delivery may be undermined by UK rules.

The Scottish Government also argues that some post-independence policies will become self-supporting through greater economic activity. For example, it wants to fund its major investment in childcare by borrowing to invest in facilities and training, then recouping the money in more taxes and fewer benefits as more people go to work.

In some cases, further devolution may be enough to make an impact. For example, the Christie Commission (pp p57-8) called for the devolution of ‘employability’ policy:

‘In the course of our meetings across Scotland it has become clear that the interface between reserved and devolved policies on employability (i.e. job search and support services) has compromised the achievement of positive outcomes. Particular concerns were expressed about a ‘one-size fits all’ approach on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Jobcentre Plus; about the ways in which programmes are contracted out from Whitehall; and about the extent to which DWP and Jobcentre Plus services are coordinated with devolved public services at the local level. We recommend the full devolution of competence for job search and support to the Scottish Parliament to achieve the integration of service provision in the area of employability’.

Scotland’s Future (p108) also talks about the use of ‘employment services … built on the principle of “early intervention” … to prevent individuals from becoming long-term unemployed with all of the associated problems for individuals and for society’.

In other cases, the Scottish Government argument may be that everything is connected; one cannot fully act in one area without the freedom to act in another. For example, to address health, ‘we also need responsibility for our society’s wellbeing and welfare. The solution to ill-health is not in the hands of the NHS alone – it depends on breaking the cycle of poverty, educational underattainment, worklessness, poor mental wellbeing, and, through these, preventable ill-health’ (p136). Similarly, it argues that it cannot ensure joined-up government without being responsible for all government, and so it seeks to ‘streamline the cluttered UK public sector landscape by incorporating the functions of a number of UK public bodies into existing Scottish bodies’ (p361).

The Scottish Government is clearly making a constitutional argument in relation to its policy aims and its policymaking responsibilities. Put simply, the argument is that it can make better policy in a more effective way than its UK counterpart. This is not just about policy choices, but also about how policy is made and delivered even when those choices are not terribly different. This is an argument that deserves debate, since it goes to the heart of all modern discussions of multi-level policymaking and the implications of policy coordination across many levels and types of government.


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics

5 responses to “Can the Scottish Government pursue ‘prevention policy’ without independence?

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