FEWER Scots would have died if the UK government had not cut the value of benefits paid to low income households, damning research by a new public health body has concluded.

The study by Public Health Scotland suggests austerity measures including the Bedroom Tax and the two child limit for child benefit - which equate to around £50billion in cuts since 2010 - may be responsible for ‘around a third’ of a gap in life expectancy, which was observed even in the wealthiest areas.

Freezes to benefits and tax credits were singled out as having the worst effect, followed by Universal Credit and changes to taxes such as VAT.

Life expectancy improvements stalled in the UK from 2012–2014 with lost gains described, by the study’s authors, as “similar to the worst case scenario” of the Covid-19 pandemic.

READ MORE: An end to 'degrading' disability assessments for new Scottish benefit, ministers pledge 

By 2018 in Scotland life expectancy was 67 and 68 weeks lower than had been predicted for women and men based on trends from 1990. 

Reductions in public spending are already known to be associated within increased all-cause mortality and increased health inequalities and this new research looked at the impact of cuts in social security payments from 2010/2011 to 2021/ 2022.

The study estimates, using statistical modelling, that tax and welfare reforms could explain about one-third of the gap in life expectancy. 

Changes to household income were linked to an additional 1041 (+3.7%) female deaths and 1013 (+3.8%) male deaths and the squeeze on benefits shortened lives in the poorest areas by 31 weeks for women and 34 weeks for men.

The effects were much smaller in the wealthiest areas, though there was still a decline of ten weeks for females and 11 weeks for males.

The study states: “This paper suggests that fewer people would have died, life expectancy would have been substantially higher and health inequalities narrower, had the tax and benefit ‘reforms’ introduced since 2010/2011 (and planned until 2021/2022) not been implemented.”

READ MORE: Child poverty levels rising in nearly every Scottish local authority, according to new data 

Experts say the impact of austerity measures on mortality rates could be higher as the study did not take into account other factors including local authority cuts and reductions in social care as well as the pandemic.

In 2010, the UK government argued that changes to taxes to ‘make work pay’ would, by increasing employment rates and incomes from earnings directly and indirectly be beneficial for health.

However this new study found that any improvements in employability would not be enough to mitigate the adverse effects of benefit cuts on life expectancy.

Increases to the personal tax-free working allowance only ‘partially’ compensated for welfare changes, it found.

David Walsh, a researcher at Glasgow Centre for Population Health, said:  “The scale of cuts to social security in the UK has been absolutely staggering - totalling nearly £50 billion since the start of austerity in 2010, and represents for many the removal of a social ‘safety net’. 

“The result - increasing death rates among the poorest - is nothing less than shameful”.

READ MORE: Number of Scots living in extreme poverty will double due to Covid and Brexit 

Ian Blackford, SNP MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, said: "The SNP’s ultimate aim for Scotland is, of course, to secure full control of tax and social security policy for the Scottish Parliament.

“In the meantime, irrespective of any significant future constitutional changes we are seeking an end to austerity and increased investment in public services, including personal taxation and VAT measures."

He cited the new Scottish child payment which will give families an extra £10 a week.

A UK government spokeswoman said: “The UK government has taken significant steps to support the lowest paid families, including raising the living wage, ending the benefit freeze and increasing work incentives. 

“We remain committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society, which is why we currently spend over £95bn a year on the benefits system.

“We are also investing billions in those looking for work, including our £2bn Kickstart scheme for young people.

“Meanwhile, Scotland has significant welfare powers and can top-up existing benefits, pay discretionary payments and create entirely new benefits altogether.”